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Gender transgressions: the mosaic of the labours of Hercules

Floor 1, Room 22. Mosaic with the Labours of Hercules
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This 3rd-century mosaic comes from the excavations of a rural Roman villa in the municipality of Liria, where it occupied an important place in a reception room directly visible from the entrance or atrium. The scenes we see on the outer frame of the mosaic represent the twelve labours of Hercules, where the hero is characterised by his club and the lion's skin. The most striking aspect of this piece is its central scene, where Hercules is shown dressed in women's clothing and with feminine attributes related to weaving, next to a woman carrying his lion’s skin and club. This image depicts the myth of Hercules and Omphale, the queen of Lydia, whom the hero served as a slave for three years. Hercules' submission to the queen, which according to some classical authors was one of the most humiliating episodes in the hero's life, is represented by the exchange of clothing and attributes.

It is striking that, in a place where the authority of the villa’s dominus (the male head of the household) was to be represented, the central theme chosen is one that subordinates the male hero to a woman. The combination of the labours of Hercules with a central motif of Omphale is in fact unique in Roman mosaics. Various theories attempt to explain this choice. One possibility is that this image was intended to make the dominus and his guests identify with the figure of the hero enjoying the pleasures of otium (leisure), and to invitee them to enjoy the banquet. Another theory suggests that the mosaic was in fact commissioned by a domina, a powerful matron who, through widowhood, orphanhood or a process of emancipatio, had acquired the status of villa owner and sought to represent her power through Omphale's dominion over Hercules. In any case, the dominus or domina of this villa considered that the representation of a cross-dressed hero would have been a perfectly appropriate image for a place of honour in their house.

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