Spring has finally sprung here in Madrid. The sidewalk cafes are full, and those who can’t find a seat have set off to the countryside to go hiking. It’s a good time to leave the museums and galleries behind and take a look at what the surrounding area has to offer.
This past weekend my family and I visited Alcalá de Henares, a small city 40 minutes on the suburban train outside of Madrid. Its main claim to fame is being the birthplace of Cervantes, who has been in the news recently because Spanish archaeologists discovered his tomb.
Like many Spanish cities, it has its roots in prehistory and came to prominence in Roman times, when it was called Complutum. After the fall of the empire it was a Visigothic settlement and was later taken over by the Moors, who built a citadel (“al-qal’a” in Arabic, a common place name in Spain). During the Moorish period it was a thriving town with large Christian and Jewish quarters.
Last week, I shared some of the Celtiberian artifacts at the newly remodeled Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. The museum also has a strong collection of Roman artifacts, reflecting Spain’s longtime importance in the Roman Empire. Most gripping are the mosaics. Spain had numerous wealthy villas both in the cities and countryside, and thankfully many of these have been discovered and preserved.
When the Romans marched into the Iberian Peninsula 218 BC, they found it to be a patchwork of small Celtic kingdoms and tribes, each with its distinct local traditions, but sharing the same overall culture.
Like with the other Celtic peoples they faced, the Romans met fierce resistance, and didn’t fully conquer the peninsula for 200 years. The last holdouts were the mountain tribes of northern Spain–the Cantabri, the Astures, and the Gallaeci. They have left their names as three of Spain’s northern provinces–Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. In a bitter war from 29 to 19 BC, the Emperor Augustus brought these tribes to heel and took their land for the empire.
“Cantabri” means “mountain people.” They were an isolated and independent-minded culture living a mostly pastoral lifestyle. Several of their villages and cemeteries have been excavated and the regional government has also built a reconstructed Cantabrian village. The Poblado Cántabro at Cabezón de la Sal, an hour’s train ride from the regional capital Santander, gives the visitor an insight into the lives of these ancient people.
The United Kingdom has dozens of great long-distance hiking routes. From easy country strolls to rugged treks across the Scottish Highlands, they offer it all. One of the best things about hiking in the UK for the history lover is the number of historic and archaeological sites you can see along the way. Perhaps the best route for this is the Hadrian’s Wall Path, which runs 84 miles along the entire length of the wall.
When I hiked the path, I decided to start at Newcastle upon Tyne and walk the entire way west to Bowness-on-Solway, on Solway Firth, thus crossing the country and seeing every bit of the wall. One advantage to starting in Newcastle is that you get to see the Roman fort of Segedunum to give you a taste of what’s to come. Once you get out of the urban sprawl, you have nothing but nature until Carlisle.
Joe Gill modified Denny O’Neil’s take on the Labors of Hercules when he succeeded him as scriptwriter on Charlton Comics’ Adventures of the Man-God, Hercules in 1968. Gill took the character of Eurystheus that O’Neil referred to as a judiciary member of the pantheon of gods on Mount Olympus and developed the character as a mortal king who is Hercules’ cousin on his mother’s side (Gill actually referred to him as Hercules’ uncle in his first appearance). By Issue #8, it was established that Hercules turns to King Eurystheus to receive each assignment in the remaining five labors he must complete before he is accepted among the gods of Olympus. Eurystheus is portrayed as a mortal puppet of Hercules’ vindictive stepmother Hera, the queen of the gods.
Issue #8, “The Boar” sees Eurystheus set Hercules the seemingly impossible task of capturing the Great Boar of Eurymanthus without injuring the beast. Upon scaling Mount Eurymanthus, Hercules is set upon by yet another pteranodon (a favorite of artist Sam Glanzman, apparently). Perhaps cognizant of the winged reptile’s repetition, Joe Gill provides the explanation that the pteranodons are conjured up from Earth’s prehistoric past by Hera. Zeus berates his wife for this unnecessary persecution of his son. Hercules is warned off his quest by the nearby villagers, but ignores their caution and scales to the top of the mountain and encounters the great boar itself. The man-god tames the beast with relative ease and rides it down the mountain (admittedly, a great visual) to present it to King Eurystheus. The storyline is very slight compared to the previous labors (clocking in at only 12 pages).
The rest of the issue is taken up with a supporting feature, “The Legend of Hercules,” which depicts the man-god’s childhood in the home of his mortal mother, Alcmena. The story opens on the domestic life of the infant Hercules and his mortal half-brother, Iphicles. The child Hercules first shows his incredible strength when he slays a pair of serpents that crawl into the toddlers’ crib one night. The script reveals that the serpents were sent by Hera in her jealousy. While closer to the mythological depiction of Hercules’ origin, the incident contradicts the code-approved storyline from previous issues that Alcmena and Zeus were married before Zeus and Hera wed. This was not, of course, Denny O’Neil’s original intent, but Dick Giordano enforced the Charlton Comics editorial policy which prevented dealing with out of wedlock pregnancy as much as it limited any sexual suggestion. This certainly made the faithful depiction of a series inspired by Greek mythology capitalizing on the booming sword & sorcery market challenging to say the least.
Charlton Comics’ Adventures of the Man-God, Hercules is unique in actually making a credible stab at being faithful to Greek mythology. The Twelve Labors of Hercules form the backbone of the thirteen issues published between October 1967 and September 1969. Denny O’Neil scripted the first five issues under the unlikely pseudonym of Sergius O’Shaugnessy with Dick Giordano editing the first four issues. When Giordano left Charlton Comics for DC, he took O’Neil with him. Giordano’s successor Sal Gentile soon replaced O’Neil with Joe Gill, who scripted the final eight issues of the series. The entire run was illustrated by Sam Glanzman, a house regular at Charlton. I first discovered the series via Charlton’s short-lived reprint series of the early 1980s. Sadly, the entire run was never reprinted and all thirteen issues can be rather difficult to track down.
The self-titled first issue features an amusing error in which the gods of Mount Olympus set Hercules with nine, rather than twelve labors to prove his worth so that he may take his rightful place among them. This mistake was quickly corrected with the second issue. As the series begins, Hercules’ mortal mother Alcmene has died and her son is frustrated he cannot join his divine father on Mount Olympus. Eurystheus decrees the man-god must perform nine labors before he will be recognized by his fellow gods. The first labor he is assigned is to slay the Nemean Lion. There is a nice twist where his fellow Spartans do not believe Hercules’ claims of being the son of Zeus. King Philip of Sparta puts a price on the man-god’s head for deserting the Olympics to go off on his quest.
When Hercules arrives in Nemea, he rescues Princess Helen from Argive invaders who sought to hold her hostage to force Alexander the Great to abdicate. Princess Helen falls for Hercules. Despite their rivalry for Helen’s love, Hercules and her betrothed Alexander fight side-by-side during the dual invasion of the Argive and Corinthian armies and force the invaders to retreat. Helen is prepared to leave Alexander for Hercules until she learns the secret of his divine heritage when she witnesses a conversation between him and Zeus. Hercules sends her back to Alexander, choosing eternity over mortal love. He battles and defeats the Nemean Lion barehanded and claims its skin as his prize. Hercules forms a strong bond with Alexander the Great, but takes his leave to return home to Sparta.