Saturday, May 13, 2006


Hercules and Lichas Playing at Dice

Eric at Campus Mawrtius wonders if there are any classical parallels to Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice 2.1.32-38:
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his rage,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.

rage: page Pope
I love a puzzle like this, but I can't find any passages in classical literature where Hercules and Lichas play at dice. Hercules seems to have become fond of dice only after his death and apotheosis. Plutarch, Life of Romulus 5 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin), writes:
They pay honours also to another Larentia, for the following reason. The keeper of the temple of Hercules, being at a loss for something to do, as it seems, proposed to the god a game of dice, with the understanding that if he won it himself, he should get some valuable present from the god; but if he lost, he would furnish the god with a bounteous repast and a lovely woman to keep him company for the night.

On these terms the dice were thrown, first for the god, then for himself, when it appeared that he had lost. Wishing to keep faith, and thinking it right to abide by the contract, he prepared a banquet for the god, and engaging Larentia, who was then in the bloom of her beauty, but not yet famous, he feasted her in the temple, where he had spread a couch, and after the supper locked her in, assured of course that the god would take possession of her.

And verily it is said that the god did visit the woman, and bade her go early in the morning to the forum, salute the first man who met her, and make him her friend. She was met, accordingly, by one of the citizens who was well on in years and possessed of a considerable property, but childless, and unmarried all his life, by name Tarrutius.

This man took Larentia to his bed and loved her well, and at his death left her heir to many and fair possessions, most of which she bequeathed to the people. And it is said that when she was now famous and regarded as the beloved of a god, she disappeared at the spot where the former Larentia also lies buried.

This spot is now called Velabrum, because when the river overflowed, as it often did, they used to cross it at about this point in ferry-boats, to go to the forum, and their word for ferry is "velatura." But some say that it is so called because from that point on, the street leading to the Hippodrome from the forum is covered over with sails by the givers of a public spectacle, and the Roman word for sail is "velum." It is for these reasons that honours are paid to this second Larentia amongst the Romans.
The same story is told by Plutarch, Roman Questions 35; Tertullian, Ad Nationes 2.10; and Augustine, City of God 6.7.

But this can have nothing to do with Shakespeare. The keeper of Hercules' temple cannot be Lichas, because before his own death Hercules killed Lichas. Also, Hercules wins at dice in Plutarch, but loses in Shakespeare. Finally, the contest in Shakespeare is over "which is the better man," and Hercules is god, not man, in Plutarch.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?