Statue of slain Roman emperor dressed as Hercules found near sewer in Rome

This statue appears to depict Emperor Decius as Hercules. The statue wears the skin of the Nemean lion, a beast that Hercules killed as part of his 12 labors. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Parco Archeologico dell'Appia Antic)

A newly found statue in Rome appears to depict a slain Roman emperor dressed as Hercules. 

It may offer insight to the viewpoint of a Roman emperor who embraced traditional Greco-Roman gods at a time when Christianity was spreading throughout the empire. 

Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius, also known as Emperor Decius, ruled for only two years, between A.D. 249 and 251, before he and his son were killed by the Goths during the Battle of Abritus in A.D. 251 in what is now Bulgaria. 

The statue was found near the Via Appia ("Appian Way"), a major road that connected Rome to Brundisium (Brindisi) in southern Italy. It was discovered in a trench near a sewer duct in Parco Scott, a park in Rome, archaeologists from the Parco Archeologico dell' Appia Antica said in a statement posted on Facebook. The statue had probably been placed in the trench sometime in the past 100 years, the team said in the statement. 

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Decius ruled for only two years before he was killed in a battle against the Goths. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Parco Archeologico dell'Appia Antic)

The statue shows a figure wearing the skin of the Nemean lion, a beast killed by Hercules as part of 12 labors he had to carry out. The face of the statue, however, is not that of Hercules. Archaeologists compared it to surviving images of Emperor Decius, such as those shown on coins, and found that it resembles him. The wrinkles on the faces appear similar, as do the eyes, nose, lips and beard, the team said in the statement. 

Several scholars who were not involved in the research agree that the face resembles Decius. 

"The short cropped hair and beard are also features that are similar to known representations of Decius," Sam Heijnen, a researcher at Vrije University Amsterdam who wrote his doctoral thesis on Roman imperial portraits, told Live Science in an email. "We do not have a lot of statues of the so-called 'soldier emperors', who ruled the Roman Empire between ca. 235 and 284 AD," Heijnen said, noting that "this time period witnessed the rapid succession of more than twenty emperors in less than half a century, during which the Empire's borders were under constant pressure."

Other scholars agreed that the statue likely depicts Decius. "Certainly the iconography is the normal one for Hercules, and the face resembles other portraits of Decius," James Rives, the Kenan eminent professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Live Science in an email.

Given Decius' emphasis on Rome's traditional religious beliefs, it makes sense that he would want to be shown dressed as Hercules. At this time Christianity was becoming increasingly popular in the Roman Empire, but historical records indicate that Decius wanted to emphasize the worship of traditional Greco-Roman gods. "Certainly the face [of the statue] does not look like standard depictions of Hercules, and it would make some sense for Decius to be interested in this sort of representation because of his religious policy, stressing the importance of Rome's relationship with the traditional worship of the gods," David Potter, the Francis W. Kelsey collegiate professor of Greek and Roman history at the University of Michigan, told Live Science. 

Rives noted that "it's probably impossible to determine whether the emperor himself was behind it, or whether someone else commissioned the statue." 

The discovery of the statue shows that despite all the archaeological discoveries made in Rome, there is much more that remains to be found. "To find such a well-preserved ancient statue really shows that so much is still hidden underneath the surface," Heijnen said.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.