If the development of the myth of Heracles/Hercules were to be represented with the graph of a function it would show an ever growing curve which starts in ca 1400 BC and reaches its apex in 287 AD when co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian defined their roles in the Tetrarchy system by assuming the titles of Iovius (the former) and Herculius (the latter); in this way Hercules, the hero known for his strength and who was not a member of the original Olympian pantheon was almost made equal to Jupiter, the Father of Gods and men.
Collezione Ludovisi: sarcophagus relief depicting nine Labours of Hercules, beginning with the first one, the slaying of the Nemean Lion in Argolis
The Twelve Labours of Hercules are a series of popular tales which shed light on the early development of civilization in continental Greece and its spreading to other Mediterranean countries. The first six labours take place in the Peloponnese, the next five occur outside Greece in locations which span from Colchis in the Black Sea to Spain, the twelfth and last is set in the Underworld. Of the first six labours, three take place in Argolis, a region of northern Peloponnese which is named after the ancient town of Argos.
The earliest developments of civilization in Greece occurred on Crete (Minoan civilization) and on the islands surrounding Delos (Cycladic civilization); they were followed by the Mycenaean civilization, which was not limited to Argolis, but had three of its most important centres there: Argos, Mycenae and Tiryns.
View of the baths and of the theatre from the agora; at the top of the hill: Larissa, the ancient acropolis which became a Byzantine/Venetian/Ottoman fortress
We approached Argos, and crossed the bed of the Inachus.
Antient Argos stood chiefly on a flat. The springs were
near the surface, and it abounded in wells. (..)
Argos retains its original name and situation, standing near
the mountains which are the boundary of the plain, with Napoli
and the sea in view before it. (..) Behind the town is
a lofty hill, brown and naked, of a conical form, the summit
crowned with a neglected castle. The devastations of time and
war have effaced the old city. We enquired in vain for vestiges
of its numerous edifices, the Theatre, the Gymnasium, the
temples, and monuments, which it once boasted, contending
even with Athens in antiquity and in favours conferred by the
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
(1804/1805) The public buildings in the city of Argos were very numerous, Pausanias says. (..) Argos had walls of the same species with those of Mycenae and Tiryns; the poets characterize them by the same epithets. (..) The theatre at the south eastern extremity of the hill of Larissa, yet remains tolerably entire, the seats being hewn out of the rock.
William Gell - An Itinerary of Greece With a Commentary on Pausanias and Strabo - 1810
Argos was an important centre of the Mycenaean civilization which flourished in Argolis between 1600 and 1100 BC; unlike Mycenae and Tiryns, Argos did not fade from history when the region was invaded by tribes coming from the north; it continued to be an important town which often sided with Athens against Sparta; it was conquered by the Macedonians and eventually by the Romans. The most ancient buildings were replaced by new ones and the ruins which currently can be seen in the archaeological area date from 600 BC to 200 AD; only on the acropolis there are sections of very ancient walls.
Deiras: site of the Sanctuary of Apollo Deiradiotes opposite the main acropolis
On the ascent was a temple of
Apollo on the ridge, which in the second century contained the
seat of an Oracle. The woman, who prophesied, was debarred
from commerce with the male sex. A lamb was sacrificed in
the night, monthly; when, on tasting of the blood, she became
possessed with the divinity. Chandler
A lofty rock (on the north eastern side of the hill) is upon the site of the temple of Apollo Deiras, (Ridge) its name alluding to its situation. Gell
The importance of Argos is proved by the fact that the town had its own small treasury at Delphi (it was decorated with kouroi); Argos built a temple/oracle to Apollo on the hill of Deiras.
At an angle of the fortress (of Mycenae) is a great quantity of broken pottery, both in black varnish and white, with spiral lines of a brown
colour, which seem to have been the favourite ornament at Mycenae. Gell
Archaeologists found several graves in the proximity of the Sanctuary of Apollo Deiradiotes. They contained vases for offers which corresponded with the description of the broken pottery found by Gell at Mycenae.
A terrace above the theatre of Argos is thought to have been the criterion of the town, i.e. the open air site where justice was administered; several barely visible reliefs on the rocks indicate that the location was dedicated to underground deities to which offers were made. Of particular interest is a relief showing a vase, a snake and a horseman; the meaning archaeologists give to it is that the snake is sent by the underground deities to thank the horseman for his offerings (in the vase). This theme became popular because of funerary reliefs known as the Thracian/Macedonian Horseman and eventually it influenced St. George's iconography.
Theatre: view from the top with a large wall of the baths and Nauplia (Napoli di Romania) in the background
May 3rd, 1806. This morning I walked to see a ruin, which has been fancifully called the Palace of Agamemnon, of which there is only one wall remaining entire. It stands at the south part of the town near a Greek church, and from the bricks with which it is built, it is evident that it is a Roman ruin. Close to it, at the bottom of the mountain, are the foundations of an ancient theatre. Such a site was generally chosen for the ancient theatres, as it afforded the advantage of a natural elevation, and the stage was built on the plain below. But the most interesting object here, and the only one which time has spared, is the promontory on the other side of the gulf, on which, it is said, Clytemnestra stationed a slave to give notice by lighting a beacon when the Grecian fleet should be in sight, on its return from Troy. On this interesting spot is now erected a fort, which commands Napoli di Romania.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
In Homer's Iliad, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks at the Trojan War, is indicated as the King of Mycenae (and Diomedes as the King of Argos), but for Aeschylus who wrote a trilogy on the events which followed Agamemnon's return from the war, he was the King of Argos, this perhaps because he wrote in the Vth century BC, when Argos was an important town and Mycenae had been abandoned.
Theatre: view from the stage
The theatre was modified by the Romans who built a proscaenium, a decorated wall behind the stage (you may wish to see that at Bosra in Syria); at a later time they also made changes required by the introduction of gladiatorial and animal fights. As far as size is concerned the theatre is comparable to that of the Asklepion of Epidaurus, the best known Greek theatre, but it does not enjoy the symmetry and acoustics of the latter; its steepness is similar to that of Pergamum.
The very large size of the theatre is due to the relocation of the Nemean Games to Argos; this occurred in the IVth century BC. The games were initially held at Nemea, the small town near which Hercules slayed a lion, his first labour. The Nemean Games were held every two years, they did not coincide with the Olympics Games and the Isthmian (Corinthian) Games and they included musical and poetry contests.
(above) A section of the agora (forum/market); (below) square nymphaeum
The present town of Argos consists of a very large collection of cottages, built in right lines, and generally only one story high. Gell
(December 1821) Argos is at the foot of the mountain looking over the plain and is said to contain from eight to ten thousand inhabitants. The town was almost in ruins, having been set fire to when the Turks retreated from it, and nothing now remained in many parts but bare walls.
John Madox - Excursions in the Holy land, Egypt, etc. - 1834
Argos was almost entirely rebuilt after having been set on fire by the Ottomans during the Greek Independence War, but its importance declined in favour of Nauplia. It was thus simpler to carry out archaeological excavations, mainly at the initiative of the French Archaeological School of Athens.
Excavations in the agora of ancient Argos led to the identification of buildings of different periods; Argos was described by Homer as being a "thirsty" town; in 125 AD Emperor Hadrian visited it and soon after a long aqueduct was built to provide the town with an ample supply of water (also for the functioning of its new baths). A square fountain was built in the agora; in origin its brickwork structure was covered with marble slabs; archaeologists found out that it had been turned into a small house.
(above) Tholos/Nymphaeum in the agora; (below) detail of the inscription making reference to Antoninus Pius
large church at the southern extremity of the town contains the fragments of Ionic columns, and some inscriptions. Near it are two mutilated statues, and in a wall is the trunk of a colossal figure of white
marble, in a costume which appears to be Roman. (..) Some inscriptions might possibly be found. Gell
After the construction of the aqueduct a circular temple built upon a sacred well was turned into a monumental fountain, which was depicted in coins issued by Emperor Antoninus Pius.
Hadrian and the emperors who came after him wanted to be associated with these life-sustaining facilities; at Olympia, almost at the same time, Herodes Atticus, an adviser to Hadrian and Antoninus Pius built a large nymphaeum which was decorated with statues of members of the imperial family.
Nymphaeum near the theatre
The most monumental fountain of Argos was built at the site where the aqueduct reached the town near the upper end of the theatre;
a colossal statue of Emperor Hadrian stood at the centre of the fountain; the Emperor was portrayed as Diomedes holding the Palladion, the image of Athena which protected the City of Troy and which Diomedes stole together with Ulysses, thus paving the way to the fall of the city. The Romans claimed that Aeneas had brought the statue with him to Italy and they entrusted it to the Vestals.
Hadrian is associated also with the construction of a very large nymphaeum at the beginning of the aqueduct of Carthage.
Archaeologists were helped in their work by the description of the town made by Pausanias, a geographer who lived at the time of Antoninus Pius; from a literary viewpoint his Description of Greece is regarded as a poor text, but his detailed accounts of sites he personally visited have been found to be very accurate.
The excessive size and unsatisfactory acoustics of the theatre led to the construction of an odeon, a covered auditorium for musical and theatrical performances; it was built on the site of a previous small open air theatre or most likely a bouleterion, a place for public meetings. The odeon in its final aspect (early IIIrd century AD) could seat an audience of 1,800.
The baths are the most imposing monument of Roman Argos and they show the level of wealth of the town; their large halls are one of the most impressive examples of Roman construction techniques based on brickwork on Greek soil (you may wish to see the Temple to Serapis in the Lower City of Pergamum).
The baths were decorated with coloured marbles including "cipollino" columns which came from Karistos.
Other views of the baths showing capitals and columns, the greenish one being of "cipollino"
The image in the background of this page is based on a funerary relief showing Hercules at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.