The hero Theseus escaped the labyrinth of Crete with the help of Ariadne, who he promised marriage to, but he abandoned her on Naxos. Theseus is the father of Hippolytus, whom he had from an Amazon, by some calle Antiope or Hippolyta or Melanippe or just the Amazon. Then Theseus married Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne. Many centuries after the mythical time, there was another Hippolytus, a Christian martyr.

Hyppolitus eventually became a beautiful and chaste young man whose only occupation was hunting wild animals in the company of virgin huntress goddess Artemis or Diana. As a follower of the virgin goddess, he also remains chaste and disdains the feminine love. This spurned love offended Aphrodite, who inspired his stepmother Phaedra a passionate and unrestrained love for her stepson. Hippolytus resisted the requirements of Phaedra, who falsely accused him to Theseus, his father, of to try  to rape her. Theseus, naive, believed Phaedra and prayed to Poseidon to help him to avenge his son's offense.

So when one day  Hippolytus walked in his chariot along to the sea, a fighting bull came from the waters and scared the horses, which bolted, dismembered and dragged Hippolytus. Then Diana  persuaded Asclepius  to give him back the life and this angered Jupiter. Diana changed the figure of Hippolytus making him old and hid him in Italy, in the woods of Nemi or of Aricia, where he lived under the name Virbius.

Note: the name itself "Hippolytus" is the synthesis of the myth, since it comes to mean  "the runaway horses" or "stampede of horses"; it comes from Ιππός, horse and, lithos λυτος, from verb λύω ,  meaning "to loose, untie"

This is, as seen, another version of the famous theme of Potiphar, a myth that is found in various Eastern cultures.

Well, the Italian forest Nemi or Aricia, was sacred to Diana and Virbius, later identified on mythology with Hippolitus, as we have seen. The horses could not entry in this forest of Aricia because the had been the cause of death of Hippolytus. The feast of Diana and Hippolytus held on August 13. Virbius and Diana were worshiped in many places in Italy, as in Campania.

Centuries later there was another Hippolytus, the martyr.

News of Hippolytus are very confusing and they have continued to generate controversy among scholars since antiquity itself. We do not know the date of his birth and  we know about his death that he died about the year 236. He is  presented as a Roman officer who arrested kept Saint Lawrence, an episode that led to his conversion to Christianity. It seems he  followed  the Novatianist heresy when he was as a priest, but later he reconciled himself with the Church. He opposed  Calixtus, Urban and Pontian popes and he was  considered the first "antipope". It is said that he was  "bishop", but we do not know of what diocese. He is one of the most prolific writers of ancient patristic, but only there were preserved a few fragments.

There were other several Hippolitus, who  often have been confused, as Hippolytus of Porto, whose feast is celebrated on August 22.

He was buried on the Via Tiburcina. His feast day is August 13. Your death and martyrdom must have taken place about the year 236.

Prudentius (348 AD -.. C 410), the famous Christian poet of Calahorra or less likely of Saragossa , in Spain, (he self  generates this confusion), sang the heroic death of some martyrs, among others that of Hippolytus in his work Hymn XI of Liber Peristephanon — ("Crowns of Martyrdom"). It is a long poem of 246 verses, of which I will quote some particularly significant verses.

Prudentius reveals in his work the relationship of Christian worship with pagan mythology and he, as a connoisseur of the pagan world, had the bright idea of applying to the martyr Hippolytus the brutal dismemberment by horses of the mythical Hippolytus, son of Theseus . In this connection, it is considered the patron saint of horses.

Prudentius says he is based on a fresco mural painting of the tomb of Hippolytus, which logically describes  the death of legendary Hippolitus. The tomb seems to have been found, but without trace of the fresco.

So the holy Prudentius is a mixture of mythical Greek hero and Christian martyr. Moreover, the poem raises numerous historical problems using various sources, it seems to refer, mixing, to several Hippolitus.

Prudentius take  inspiration for his poem on the tragedy of Seneca, Phaedra. Actually he is not only inspired, but he goes further: at times it is almost a transcript of the text of Seneca.


"Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus" (1468, Museum of Sint Salvator Kathedral, Bruges), originally made to decorate the altar of the Cathedral of Bruges.

Liber Peristephanon — ("Crowns of Martyrdom"

In verses 83-122 he describes the conviction and punishment of Hippolytus. In verses 123-132 he describes the fresco in which he is inspired. I will bring these two long pieces:

They called for some unusual kind of
death, some newly devised penalty to make an
example for the terror of others. The judge, sitting
with head thrown back, asked : " What is he called ? "
and they stated that he was called Hippolytus.
" Hippolytus let him be, then. Let him get a team
frightened and agitated and be torn to death by
wild horses." His words were hardly spoken when
they forced two animals that had never known the
bridle to submit their necks to the strange yoke. They
were not brought from the stable nor ever had been
stroked by a caressing trainer's hand and broken in
to suffer a rider's government, but were beasts of the
field lately caught out of a wandering herd, their
untamed spirits excited by a wild creature's nervous-
ness. Already the struggling pair were harnessed
together, their heads joined in discordant partner-
ship. Instead of a pole there was a rope separating
the bodies of the two, running between them and
touching the flanks of both ; and from the yoke it
stretched out a long way back, trailing behind their
tracks, reaching beyond their hooves. To the end
of it, where the rut it made on the surface of the
dusty ground followed the changing course of the
runaway horses, a noose fastened Hippolytus' legs,
binding his feet tight with a gripping knot and tying
them to the rope.

Now that all was got ready and the needful whips
and harness and wild horses provided for the martyr's
suffering, they set them on with sudden shouts and
lashes, and violently dug the pricks into their sides.
These were the last words heard from the venerable
old man : " Let these ravish my body, but do Thou,
O Christ, ravish my soul." Off go the horses head-
long, rushing about blindly wherever the din and
their quivering nerves and frantic excitement drive
them, spurred by their wild spirit, carried on by their
dash, impelled by the noise, and in their swift career
unconscious of the burden that goes with them.
Through woods and over rocks they rush, no river-
bank keeps them back, no torrent in their way checks
them. They lay fences low and break through every
obstacle ; down slopes and over broken ground
they go, and bound over the steep places. The body
is shattered, the thorny shrubs which bristle on the
ground cut and tear it to little bits. Some of it
hangs from the top of rocks, some sticks to bushes,
with some the branches are reddened, with some the
earth is wet. 

Note: See below the Latin text.

And speaking of cool in which he is inspired, he says, abusing the most baroque and bloody description in verses 132-152:

There is a picture of the outrage painted on a wall,
showing in many colours the wicked deed in all its
details ; above the tomb is depicted a lively likeness,
portraying in clear semblance Hippolytus' bleeding
body as he was dragged along. I saw the tips of
rocks dripping, most excellent Father, and scarlet
stains imprinted on the briers, where a hand that
was skilled in portraying green bushes had also
figured the red blood in vermilion. One could see
the parts torn asunder and lying scattered in dis-
order up and down at random. The artist had
painted too his loving people walking after him in
tears wherever the inconstant track showed his zig-
zag course. Stunned with grief, they were searching
with their eyes as they went, and gathering the
mangled flesh in their bosoms. One clasps the snowy
head, cherishing the venerable white hair on his
loving breast, while another picks up the shoulders,
the severed hands, arms, elbows, knees, bare frag-
ments of legs. With their garments also they wipe
dry the soaking sand, so that no drop shall remain to
dye the dust; and wherever blood adheres to the
spikes on which its warm spray fell, they press a
sponge on it and carry it all away.

Now the thick wood held no longer any part of
the sacred body, nor cheated it of a full burial. The
parts were reviewed and found to make the number
belonging to the unmutilated body ; the pathless
ground being cleared, and the boughs and rocks
wiped dry, had nothing of the whole man still to
give up ; and now a site was chosen on which to set a
tomb. They left the river-mouth," for Rome found
favour with them as the place to keep the holy

Note: See below the Latin text

About the feast day of the saint he also says in 231-234

If I remember aright, beauteous Rome honours
this martyr on the Ides * of August, as she herself
names the day in the old fashion, and I should like
you too, holy teacher, to count it among your yearly

Note: See below the Latin text

Prudentius  is directly inspired by the tragedy of Seneca's "Phaedra" as a comparative study should demonstrate it . For fragment exposed I offer  the corresponding text of lines 1050-1114. But what this text shows is that not only Prudentius applies  the torture of myth to the martyr,  but he ascribes to him  all the details of the torture that Seneca applied to the mythical hero.

We can think that if Prudentius is describing a fresh and his description agrees almost went really  with the text of Seneca, what he sees in his ekphrasis was the representation of the execution of the mythical Hippolytus and not this of the martyr.

Seneca, Phaedra, 1050-1114

The lands quaked with fear; herds fled in frenzy in all directions through the fields, and the herdsman forgot to follow his cattle. All beasts fled from their wooded haunts; all hunters stood trembling, pale with chilling fear. Hippolytus alone, quite unafraid, with tight reins holds fast his horses and, terror-stricken though they are, urges them on with the encouragement of his familiar voice.

[1057] There is a deep passage towards the fields through the broken hills, hard by the neighbouring stretches of the sea below. Here that huge creature sharpens his anger and prepares his wrath. When he has gained his spirit, and with full trail rehearsed his wrath, he darts forth, running swiftly, scarce touching the surface of the ground with flying feet, and stands, in grim menace, before the trembling steeds. Thy son, rising up, confronts him with fierce, threatening look, nor does he change countenance, but loudly thunders: “This empty terror cannot break my spirit, for ‘twas my father’s task to conquer bulls.” But straightway his horses, disobedient to the reins, seized the chariot and, roaming from the road, wherever frenzied terror carried them in their mad flight, there they plunged along and dashed amid the rocks.

[1072] But he, as a helmsman holds his ship steady on the boisterous sea, lest it give its side to the waves, and skilfully cheats the floods, in like manner guides his swift-moving steeds. Now he drags on their mouths checked by the tight-drawn reins, and now, oft plying the twisted lash, he forces them to his will. His companion holds doggedly in pursuit, now racing alongside the horses, now making detour to face them, form every side filling them with fear.

[1080] But now they could flee no further; for he charged full front upon them, that bristling, horned monster of the deep. Then, truly, the plunging horses, driven by mad fear, broke form control, struggled to wrench their necks from the yoke, and, rearing up, hurled their burden to the ground. Headlong on his face he plunged and, as he fell, entangled his body in the clinging reins; and the more he struggled, the tighter he drew those firm-holding coils. The horses felt their deed, and now, with the light chariot, since none controlled, wherever fear bade on they dashed. Just so, not recognizing their wonted burden, and indignant that the day had been entrusted to a pretended Sun, the horses  flung Phaëthon far from his heavenly track. Far and wide the fields are stained with blood, and his head, dashed on the rocks, bounds back from them. The brambles pluck away his hair; the hard stones ravage that lovely face, and his ill-fated beauty is ruined by many a wound. The swift wheels drag his dying limbs; and at last, as he is whirled along, a tree, its trunk charred into a stake, stays him with its stock driven right through the groin and holds him fast, and for a little while the car stands still, held by its impaled master. Awhile that wound stays the team – then equally delay and their master, too, they break.  Thereafter the thickets slash his half-dead body, the rough brambles with their sharp thorns tear him and every tree-trunk has taken its toll of him.

[1105] Now bands of his mourning servants are scouring the fields through the places where Hippolytus was dragged, marked in a long trail by bloody traces, and his whimpering dogs are tracking their master’s limbs. But not yet has the painstaking toil of his grieving friends availed to fill out his body. Has his glorious beauty come to this? He who but now as the illustrious partner of his father’s throne, who but now, his acknowledged heir, shone like the stars, he is being gathered from every hand for his last burning, and collected for his funeral pyre. (TRANSLATED BY FRANK JUSTUS MILLER)

Note: see below the Latin text.

Moreover, his description of the fresco that Prudentius  said he saw at the tomb of Hippolytus is a clear example of ekphrasis  (from the Greek  ἔκφρασις Greek, 'to explain to the end"). An ekphrasis, as rhetoric and classical tradition, is a verbal description , in words, of a work of visual art, of a painting or sculpture, for example.

Another example of ekphrasis is offered by the same Prudentius  in poem IX.

A hypotyposis (Greek: úποτúπωσις), would be an especially emotional and animated description to excite the imagination of the listening public. The ekphrasis might be a kind of hypotyposis.

In this issue of the two Hippolitus, such a mixture and confusion of data, such coincidence in such important aspects as the way to die, the millimeter match with the text of Seneca and the date of its celebration, the August 13, are still worry and wonder about relationships and syncretism in the early centuries occurred between the traditional pagan religion and Christianity and that often endures to this day.

This allowed  to Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) to state in the opening pages of his famous and important work "The Golden Bough"

Here it is worth observing that in his long and chequered career this mythical personage has displayed a rema rkable tenacity of life. For we can hardly doubt that the Saint Hippolytus of
the Roman calendar, who was dragged by horses to death on the thirteenth of August, Diana’s own day, is no other than the Greek hero of the same name, who, after dying twice over as a heathen sinner, has been happily resuscitated as a Christian saint”. 

Hymn XI of Liber Peristephanon — ("Crowns of Martyrdom") v. 83-132:

Insolitum leti poscunt genus et noua poenæ
inuenta, exemplo quo trepident alii.
Ille supinata residens ceruice : " Quis ", inquit,
" dicitur ? " adfirmant dicier Hippolytum.
" Ergo sit Hippolytus, quatiat turbetque iugales
intereatque feris dilaceratus equis. "
Vix hæc ille, duo cogunt animalia freni
ignara insueto subdere colla iugo,
non stabulis blandiue manu palpata magistri
imperiumque equitis ante subacta pati,
sed campestre uago nuper pecus e grege captum,
quod pauor indomito corde ferinus agit.
Iamque reluctantes sociarant uincula bigas
oraque discordi foedere nexuerant :
temonis uice funis inest, qui terga duorum
diuidit et medius tangit utrumque latus,
deque iugo in longum se post uestigia retro
protendens trahitur transit et ima pedum.
Huius ad extremum, sequitur qua puluere summo
cornipedum refugas orbita trita uias,
crura uiri innectit laqueus nodoque tenaci
adstringit plantas cumque rudente ligat.
Postquam composito satis instruxere paratu
martyris ad poenam uerbera, uincla, feras,
instigant subitis clamoribus atque flagellis
iliaque infestis perfodiunt stimulis.
Vltima uox audita senis uenerabilis hæc est :
" Hi rapiant artus, tu rape, Christe, animam ! "
Prorumpunt alacres cæcoque errore feruntur,
qua sonus atque tremor, qua furor exagitant.
Incendit feritas, rapit impetus et fragor urget,
nec cursus uolucer mobile sentit onus.

Per siluas, per saxa ruunt, non ripa retardat
fluminis aut torrens oppositus cohibet ;
prosternunt sæpes et cuncta obstacula rumpunt,
prona fragosa petunt, ardua transiliunt.
Scissa minutatim labefacto corpore frusta
carpit spinigeris stirpibus hirtus ager.
Pars summis pendet scopulis, pars sentibus hæret,
parte rubent frondes, parte madescit humus.

v. 132-152

Exemplar sceleris paries habet illitus, in quo
multicolor fucus digerit omne nefas ;
picta super tumulum species liquidis uiget umbris,
effigians tracti membra cruenta uiri.
Rorantes saxorum apices uidi, optime papa,
purpureasque notas uepribus impositas.
Docta manus uirides imitando effingere dumos
luserat et minio russeolam saniem.
Cernere erat, ruptis compagibus, ordine nullo,
membra per incertos sparsa iacere situs.
Addiderat caros gressu lacrimisque sequentes,
deuia quo fractum semita monstrat iter.
Mærore adtoniti atque oculis rimantibus ibant
implebantque sinus uisceribus laceris.
Ille caput niueum complectitur ac reuerendam
canitiem molli confouet in gremio ;
hic humeros truncasque manus et brachia et ulnas
et genua et crurum fragmina nuda legit.
Palliolis etiam bibulæ siccantur harenæ,
ne quis in infecto puluere ros maneat.
Si quis et in sudibus recalenti aspergine sanguis
insidet, hunc omnem spongia pressa rapit.
Nec iam densa sacro quidquam de corpore silua
obtinet aut plenis fraudat ab exsequiis.
Cumque recensitis constaret partibus ille
corporis integri qui fuerat numerus,
nec purgata aliquid deberent auia, toto
ex homine extersis frondibus et scopulis,
metando eligitur tumulo locus, ostia linquunt,
Roma placet, sanctos quæ teneat cineres.

v. 231-234

Si bene commemini, colit hunc pulcherrima Roma
Idibus Augusti mensis, ut ipsa uocat
prisco more diem, quem te quoque, sancte magister,
annua festa inter dinumerare uelim. 

Seneca, Phaedra, 1050-1114

tremuere terrae, fugit attonitum pecus
passim per agros nec suos pastor sequi
meminit iuvencos; omnis e saltu fera
diffugit, omnis frigido exsanguis metu
venator horret, solus immunis metu
Hippolytus artis continet frenis equos
pavidosque notae vocis hortatu ciet.
est alta ad agros collibus ruptis via,
vicina tangens spatia suppositi maris;
hic se illa moles acuit atque iras parat.
ut cepit animos seque praetemptans satis
prolusit irae, praepeti cursu evolat,
summam citato vix gradu tangens humum,
et torva currus ante trepidantes stetit.
contra feroci gustus insurgens minax
vultu nec ora mutat et magnum intonat:
'haud frangit animum vanus hic terror meum:
nam mihi paternus vincere est tauros labor.'
inobsequentes protinus frenis equi
rapuere currum iamque derrantes via,
quacumque rabidos pavidus evexit furor,
hac ire pergunt seque per scopulos agunt.
at ille, qualis turbido rector mari
ratem retentat, ne det obliquum latus,
et arte fluctum fallit, haud aliter citos
currus gubernat: ora nunc pressis trahit
constricti frenis, terga nunc torto frequens
verbere cohercet. sequitur adsiduus comes,
nunc aequa carpens spatia, nunc contra obvius
oberrat, omni parte terrorem movens.
non-licuit ultra fugere: nam toto obvius
incurrit ore corniger ponti horridus.
tum vero pavida sonipedes mente exciti
imperia solvunt seque luctantur iugo
eripere rectique in pedes iactant onus.
praeceps in ora fusus implicuit cadens
laqueo tenaci corpus et quanto magis
pugnat, sequaces hoc magis nodos ligat.
sensere pecudes facinus— et curru levi,
dominante nullo, qua timor iussit ruunt.
talis per auras non suum agnoscens onus
Solique falso creditum indignans diem
Phaethonta currus devio excussit polo.
late cruentat arva et inrisum caput
scopulis resultat; auferant dumi comas,
et ora duras pulchra populatur lapis
peritque multo vulnere infelix decor.
moribunda celeres membra pervolvunt rotae:
tandemque raptum truncus ambusta sude
medium per inguen stipite ingesto tenet,
paulumque domino currus affixo stetit.
haesere biiuges vulnere— et pariter moram
dominumque rumpunt, inde semanimem secant
virgulta, acutis asperi vepres rubis
omnisque truncus corporis partem tulit.
errant per agros funebris famuli manus,
per illa qua distinctus Hippolytus loca
longum cruenta tramitem signat nota,
maestaeque domini membra vestigant canes.
necdum dolentum sedulus potuit labor
explere corpus, hocine est formae decus?
qui modo paterni clarus imperii comes
et certus heres siderum fulsit modo,
passim ad supremos ille colligitur rogos
et funeri confertur.


Mythical Hippolytus and martyr Hippolytus: disturbing coincidences

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