Hyllus was one of Heracles’ most prominent sons who inherited and expanded his father’s rivalry with the Mycenaean realm of King Eurystheus. To better understand the complicated feud between Heracles’ clan and the family of King Eurystheus, it would be well-served to do a quick recap of Heracles’ birth and life. Zeus, when he fathered his famous son Heracles, intended for the hero to become a king of the Mycenaeans. Yet, Heracles’ mother was the Mycenaean princess, Alcmene, instead of Zeus’ wife, Hera. Understandably, the goddess queen Hera—not supportive at all of Zeus’ intentions for the latest fruit of his unfaithfulness—decided to spite her husband by hatching her own plot to place someone else on the throne of the Mycenaeans. Her scheme succeeded, and instead of Heracles becoming king of the Mycenaeans, it was Hera’s nominee, King Eurystheus, who ascended to the throne. Adding insult to injury, Heracles eventually had to fulfill ten near-impossible tasks for King Eurystheus. These ten tasks were soon extended to twelve, as Eurystheus was able to use opinion and technicalities to declare that Heracles failed two of the original ten quests, and therefore two replacement missions were added to Heracles’ hellish to-do list. Although this series of quests brought the hero great fame and renown, Heracles nevertheless did not show King Eurystheus any gratitude for selecting these difficult tasks. Quite the opposite, Heracles was annoyed and started acting in a threatening manner, causing Eurystheus to start hiding and communicating through intermediaries whenever the hero arrived to announce the completion of a task. Eurystheus’ choice to avoid direct contact with the hero may have been wise, for Heracles was known to have killed people for far less severe annoyances than King Eurystheus’ Twelve Tasks. Whatever the case, the two rivals—king and hero—found a way to coexist and Eurystheus ended up outliving Heracles. After Heracles’ death, King Eurystheus began to act more boldly in the world and started harassing and persecuting the many sons that Heracles had left behind. This brings us back to Heracles’ son, Hyllus, who emerged as a promising leader capable of rallying his Heraclid (or Heracleidae) clan to war against King Eurystheus.
According to myth, Hyllus and the Heraclids pulled together an army that was formidable enough to face King Eurystheus in a full-scale battle. Ancient recorders of myth, such as Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) and Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century), agreed that Hyllus personally slew King Eurystheus on the battlefield. After the victorious battle, Hyllus and the Heraclid army invaded the Peloponnese to wage war against slain King Eurystheus’ weakened kingdom. The tales of what exactly happened during that campaign varied from storyteller to storyteller, but, whatever the case, the Heraclid invasion of the Peloponnese turned out to be a complicated endeavor. Pseudo-Apollodorus, in his account, claimed that Hyllus and the Heraclids were massively successful in their initial invasion of the Peloponnese, but that they were forced to retreat because of an outbreak of plague. He wrote, “After the death of Eurystheus, the Heraclids attacked the Peloponnese and captured all its cities. But when a year had elapsed since their return, the entire Peloponnese was gripped by a plague…Accordingly, they left the Peloponnese and withdrew to Marathon, where they settled” (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library, II.8.2). Hyllus, according to Apollodorus’ storyline, later rallied the Heraclids for another invasion of the Peloponnese after the plague had subsided. Apollodorus’ text, unfortunately, was damaged and his account of Hyllus’ fate cuts off as soon as the Heraclid army marched against the Peloponnese. Apollodorus’ account, however, picks back up with stories about other Heraclid heroes, and the context clues from those later stories strongly hint that Apollodorus’ missing section would have stated that Hyllus was defeated and killed in his second invasion of the Peloponnese.
Although Apollodorus’ account of Hyllus’ death was damaged beyond saving, Apollodorus’ predecessor, Diodorus Siculus, wrote down details about Hyllus’ demise that are still existent. The storylines, however, differ significantly. In Diodorus’ account, Hyllus’ first invasion of the Peloponnese was not very glorious—in fact, unlike in Apollodorus’ account, Diodorus claimed that Hyllus’ first invasion of the Peloponnese was his only invasion of the Peloponnese. This single invasion went abysmally, culminating in a lackluster, anticlimactic ending. On Hyllus’ triumphant rise and sudden fall from grace, Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“After these events all the Heracleidae, now that they had conquered Eurystheus in a battle whose fame was noised abroad and were well supplied with allies because of their success, embarked upon a campaign against Peloponnesus with Hyllus as their commander…When the two armies were assembled at the Isthmus, Hyllus, Heracles’ son, challenged to single combat any one of the enemy who would face him, on the agreement that, if Hyllus should conquer his opponent, the Heracleidae should receive the kingdom of Eurystheus, but that, if Hyllus were defeated, the Heracleidae would not return to Peloponnesus for a period of fifty years. Echemus, the king of the Tegeatans, came out to meet the challenge and in the single combat which followed Hyllus was slain and the Heracleiade gave up, as they had promised” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.58).
Such was the peculiar fate of Hyllus. He had a promising ascendance as the early champion of the sons of Heracles, and he led his clan to an early victory over King Eurystheus in battle, gaining great renown by slaying the monarch on the battlefield. Emboldened by this victory, Hyllus led his army against the Mycenaeans in the Peloponnesus. As told by Apollodorus, Hyllus launched two invasions, and evidently died during the second incursion. Diodorus Siculus, meanwhile, claimed that Hyllus only invaded the Peloponnesus once, and that he unexpectedly died dueling King Echemus of Tegea at the start of the campaign. Whatever the case, Hyllus’ ambitions for the Peloponnesus went unrealized, and it took several more generations for the Heraclids to begin asserting their influence in the Peloponnese.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta amphora (jar), c. 530 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).