This painting, by the French artist Eugène Delacroix (c. 1798 – 1863), was inspired by the story of the ancient Greek hero, Heracles (known to the Romans as Hercules), obtaining the belt of Hippolyte. This event was one of the great Twelve Labors that Heracles carried out for King Eurystheus of Tiryns. According to Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) and Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century)—the two most complete ancient sources of the Heracles legends—this quest for the Amazon queen’s girdle was the 9th labor that Heracles embarked on for King Eurystheus. In the accounts of both sources, Heracles encountered Queen Hippolyte and her army of the Amazons at a place called Themiscyra. After that point, however, the narratives no longer are in agreement. In the account of Diodorus Siculus, Heracles was belligerent from the beginning, demanding that Queen Hippolyte’s girdle be handed over or he would take it by force. When there was no response, Heracles went on a rampage, battling his way through a host of Amazon champions until Queen Hippolyte and her army was annihilated. As Diodorus Siculus put it, “Heracles, after thus killing the most renowned of the Amazons and forcing the remaining multitude to turn to flight, cut down the greater number of them, so that the race of them was utterly exterminated” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.16). In the alternative account presented by Pseudo-Apollodorus, Heracles was actually able to receive a peaceful meeting with Queen Hippolyte and he was on the verge of talking the queen into willingly handing over her belt. Nevertheless, in this version of the tale, Heracles’ frequent foe, the goddess Hera, sabotaged the meeting by compelling Hippolyte’s nearby army to attack Heracles’ entourage, which, in turn, caused Heracles to lash out against Hippolyte. Apollodorus wrote, “Hera assumed the likeness of an Amazon and wandered around in the crowd saying that strangers who had just arrived were abducting the queen. Seizing their arms, the Amazons hastened to the ships on horseback; and when Heracles saw them there fully armed, he thought that this must be the result of a plot, and he killed Hippolyte and robbed her of the belt. And then, after fighting the rest of the Amazons, he sailed away, and called in at Troy” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.5.9). It is likely that Apollodorus’ version of the myth is the one that Eugène Delacroix re-created in his painting, for Heracles and Queen Hippolyte seem to be alone. Perhaps Hera had just whipped the Amazons into a fury, causing Heracles to attack Hippolyte.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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).