The Temple of Heracles (Italian: Tempio di Ercole) is a greek temple in the ancient city of Akragas, located in the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento.
The building, in the archaic Doric style, is found on the hill of the temples, on a rocky spur near the Villa Aurea. The name Temple of Heracles is an attribution of modern scholarship, based on Cicero’s mention of a temple dedicated to the hero non longe a foro “not far from the agora” (Verrine II 4.94), containing a famous statue of Heracles. That the agora of Akragas was in this area has not yet been demonstrated, but the identification is generally accepted.
The traditionally accepted chronology of the temple identifies it as the most archaic of the Agrigento temples, dating back to the last years of the 6th century BC. This dating is based on the stylistic features and above all on proportions, number of columns, profile of the column and capital. However, some refer the temple to Terone’s activity, since it would present innovations with respect to the architectural practice of the 6th century BC.
In this case it could be the temple of Athena mentioned by Polyenus (Stratagemmi, VI 51) in relation to the building activity of Terone, in correspondence with his seizure of power.
The remains of the entablature constitute a problem for dating, because there are two types of Cymatium with gutters and lion heads: the first, less well-preserved than the other, datable to the 460s BC and the second datable to around the middle of the fifth century. Probably the first cymatium is the original and was replaced by the second a few decades later (for reasons unknown), and therefore the temple’s foundation is to be dated to the years before the Battle of Himera (480 BC); its completion would have taken a decade or maybe a little more.
The building was restored in the Roman period with some modifications, particularly the division of the naos into three, which could indicate a dedication to multiple divinities. If still in use by the 4th-and 5th century, it would have been closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire.
In 1787 Goethe visiting the ruins of the temple left this description in The trip to Italy:
«The temple of Hercules, however, still leaves traces of the ancient symmetry. The two rows of columns that flanked the temple on both sides lie on the ground in the same north-south direction, as if they had all capsized together, one up and the other down a hill that would be said to be been produced by the collapse of the cell. Probably held together only by the entablature, the columns suddenly fell, perhaps as a consequence of a violent hurricane, and now they are stretched out aligned, divided into the blocks that made them up. ”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Journey to Italy)
In the 20th century, the intervention of the restorers has been able to reconstruct nine of the columns on the southeastern side through anastylosis as well as part of the entablature and some of the capitals.
The building, sitting on a crepidoma of three steps, itself on top of a substructure on the northern and western sides (due to the roughness of the terrain). It is a peripteros temple of unusually elongated proportions (67 metres long and 25.34 meters wide), with six columns along the front (Hexastyle) and fifteen columns on the sides. Inside the peristasis is a long naos, bounded by a pronaos at the front and an opisthodomos at the back, both in antis, the remains of which seem to indicate that the destruction of the building was caused by an earthquake.
In the building’s remains the presence of internal stairs for the inspection of the roof can be seen in the walls between the pronaos and the naos, which became a typical feature of Akragantine temples. The tall columns are topped by wide capitals, with a deep gulf between the stem and the echinus, which might indicate the comparative antiquity of the building (predating the other peripteros temples at Akragas by at least thirty years), along with the elongation of the naos and the wide separation of the columns from the naos. On the eastern side of the temple are the remains of the large altar of the temple.
The Temple of Heracles is the oldest Doric temple in Agrigento and was built in the late sixth century BC. Its attribution to the Greek hero is thought to derive from a passage by Cicero which notes the existence of a temple devoted to Heracles in Agorà, the area immediately north of Agrigento. The building, constructed in the Doric order, features a base with three steps upon which stand six columns on the short sides and fifteen on the long sides. The temple’s long and narrow interior is divided into the portico at the entrance, the naos and the opisthodomos, the rear room, with the portico and opisthodomos framed by two columns.
The door to the naos is flanked by two pillars containing a service ladder leading to the roof; this is the earliest example of what would become a typical characteristic of Akragantine temple architecture. The roof was adorned with two types of rainwater gutters shaped like lions’ heads dating to different periods, one in the late sixth century BC and the other in the first half of the fifth century BC.
To the east of the temple are the remains of a monumental altar and, further east, the terracotta ruins of a small archaic temple.
During the Roman era, the naos was divided into three chambers in order to construct a small religious building: this conversion is thought to relate to the transfer of the Cult of Asclepius to the temple, where a statue of the god dating to the Roman era was found during the excavations of 1835.
Several restoration works were carried out between 1922 and 1924 when, on the initiative of the British Naval Captain Alexander Hardcastle, eight columns on the south side were raised, while more recently conservation work has been conducted by the Archaeological Park of the Valley of the Temples.
Valley of the Temples
The Valley of the Temples is an archaeological park in Sicily characterized by the exceptional state of conservation and by a series of important Doric temples from the Hellenic period. It corresponds to the ancient Akragas, monumental original nucleus of the city of Agrigento. Today it is a regional archaeological park.
The Valley includes remains of seven temples, all in Doric style. The ascription of the names, apart from that of the Olympeion, are a mere tradition established in Renaissance times. The temples are:
Temple of Concordia, whose name comes from a Latin inscription found nearby, and which was built in the 5th century BC. Turned into a church in the 6th century AD, it is now one of the best preserved in the Valley.
Temple of Juno, also built in the 5th century BC. It was burnt in 406 BC by the Carthaginians.
Temple of Heracles, who was one of the most venerated deities in the ancient Akragas. It is the most ancient in the Valley: destroyed by an earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.
Temple of Olympian Zeus, built in 480 BC to celebrate the city-state’s victory over Carthage. It is characterized by the use of large scale atlases.
Temple of Castor and Pollux. Despite its remains including only four columns, it is now the symbol of modern Agrigento.
Temple of Hephaestus (Vulcan), also dating from the 5th century BC. It is thought to have been one of the most imposing constructions in the valley; it is now however one of the most eroded.
Temple of Asclepius, located far from the ancient town’s walls; it was the goal of pilgrims seeking cures for illness.
The Valley is also home to the so-called Tomb of Theron, a large tuff monument of pyramidal shape; scholars suppose it was built to commemorate the Romans killed in the Second Punic War.
Since 1997 the whole area has been included in the list of world heritage sites drawn up by UNESCO. It is considered a popular tourist destination, as well as being the symbol of the city and one of the main ones on the whole island. The archaeological and landscape park of the Valley of the Temples, with its 1300 hectares, is the largest archaeological site in the world.