Heracles and Geras

A red-figure vase in the British Museum shows a two-figure scene. On the right, Heracles is depicted in his customary attire: his head and shoulders are covered with the skin of the Nemean lion, his club is in his left hand. The painter wanted to emphasize the strength of the hero: in addition to the muscular arms and legs, the abdominal and pectoral muscles are also marked in great detail. The beard and hair are both lush, dark and neat.

Attic red-figure amphora, 480–460 BC. British Museum, 1772,0320.423 © The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Heracles chases another man, who is almost in reach of his outstretched arms. The pursued man is obviously much weaker than he is. His shoulders are slumped; he turns back: his two arms, stretched backwards, are together as thick as Hercules’ right arm alone. His chest and abdominal muscles are unmarked. His legs and thighs are thin, the pelvic bones protrude. His genitals are hairless, his hair and beard, marked with white paint, are sparse and tufted. This muscle-wasted old man with grey, thinning hair is Geras, Old Age.

The famous struggles of Heracles are preserved by a plethora of ancient sources. During his twelve labours, he defeated many of mankind’s enemies: the dreadful Nemean lion, the mighty wild boar of Erymanthos that ravaged the land, the man-eating birds of Lake Stymphalos, facing Death itself on almost every occasion. But the story that once he also pursued Old Age, the other great enemy of men, is known only from Athenian vases, there is no trace of it in ancient texts.

Attic red-figure pelike, 480–470 BC. Musée du Louvre, MNC 193 © 1999 RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

Another vase, preserved in Paris, seems to depict a later moment in the sequence of events: the hero grabs the head of the bent old man, leaning on a stick, with his left hand, while threateningly raising his club in his right. The images only give an outline to the story: Greek vase painters knew Heracles to have confronted Geras.

In the end, the hero indeed triumphed over Old Age and Death: it was told that his final hour found him in full strength, and that after his death his body did not perish on the funeral pyre like that of mortals, but ascended to the sky. The gods accepted him into their midst, and he lived on as the husband of Hera’s daughter Hebe among the immortal celestials.

We, mortals, on the other hand, have continued to run ever since, but the pursuer and the pursued have swapped places: Geras is always behind us on his trembling legs.


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