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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Cyclopean, colossal, Herculean, gigantic, titanic, pharaonic, monstrous, huge, great work, work of Roman

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The man before "sapiens" was "faber", "man doing (at first crude stone tools), who builds, who produces, who manufactures ...". So we took on earth many thousands of years doing construction generally of adequate proportions to forces and limited capacity of man.

But occasionally the man executes  works that are out of the ordinary, out of normal, out of usual. To qualify them we have some little expressive adjectives, usually expressing a negative concept, denying one positive (extraordinary,  enormous, ...) and other few with more qualifying and semantic force (cyclopean, colossal, Herculean, titanic ...).

Interestingly the latter are derived from the name of some ancient mythological beings from them they take precisely its expressive richness. So once we can conclude that it is much, in all respects, what we owe to the Greeks and to their cultural creations. If we say "extraordinary", we say that it is out of the ordinary; but if we say "cyclopean", we are saying  much more.

Thus we say  "Cyclopean work" to refer, for example, to walls of some ancient cities or towns such as Mycenae and Tiryns or Tarragona in Spain, built by huge stone blocks that seem impossible to be handled by normal men. The name derives from "Cyclops", from the Greek Κύκλωπες Kýklopes, from  κύκλος kyklos, 'wheel', 'circle' and ὤψ ops, 'eye'. The Cyclopes are huge and gross mythological creatures with one eye on the forehead. The first generation were the children of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth).

The best known is one of the second generation called Polyphemus, Πολύφημος Polyphemos, of many words, son of Poseidon and of the nymph Toosa. It is well known episode narrated in the Odyssey in which the Greeks, who had entered his cave, must to make  a ruse to escape from the man eating  voracity of the monster ; Cyclops Polyphemus was able to lift and throw huge stones at the Greeks fleeing on his boat, but with little knack because he lost  the sight in his one eye. Homer tells us on Odyssey IX. Over many lines; in the number 536 et seq. he says:

Homer, Odyssey IX, 536 et seq.

Thus did he speak and pray, and the dark-haired god gave ear. Again lifting  a stone much larger than before, he swung and sent it, and he put forth stupendous power. Down fell the stone behind the dark-bowed ship a little space, but failed to reach the rudder’s tip. The sea surged underneath the stone as it came down, but the wave swept us forward and helped us to our shore. (Translated by George Herbert Palmer, 1895).

The  old  used also the word cyclopean with this meaning. For example Virgil Aeneid I, v.201

Ye sailed a course hard by
infuriate Scylla's howling cliffs and caves.
Ye knew the Cyclops' crags. Lift up your hearts!
No more complaint and fear! It well may be
some happier hour will find this memory fair
. (Vergil. Aeneid. Theodore C. Williams. trans. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.)

Vos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopea saxa
experti: revocate animos, maestumque timorem
mittite: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Not surprisingly the geographer Strabo and Pausanias, author of the first travel guide which we have information, include the widespread opinion that walls of large stones were the work of the Cyclopes.

Estrabon, VIII, 6,11:

Now it seems that Tiryns was used as a base of operations by Proetus, and was walled by him through the aid of the Cyclopes,  (H. L. Jones, The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press)

Also Pliny says us in Naturalis Historia, VII, 56 (195:

Cinyra, the son of Agriopas, invented tiles and discovered copper-mines, both of them in the island of Cyprus; he also invented the tongs, the hammer, the lever, and the anvil. Wells were invented by Danaus, who came from Egypt into that part of Greece which had been previously known as Argos Dipsion.

The first stone-quarries were opened by Cadmus at Thebes, or else, according to Theophrastus, in Phœnicia. Walls were first built by Thrason; according to Aristotle, towers were first erected by the Cyclopes, but according to Theophrastus, by the Tirynthii.  (The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.)

Pausanias, in several places, including Description of Greece  II 25.8

(Tyrinht) The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.  (English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1918).

Colossal is another synonym to describe these extraordinary works from the Greek noun κολοσσός (Kolossos), with which the Greeks designated the large statues. The Colossus par excellence is the Colossus of Rhodes, dedicated to Helios, the Sun, built in 292 BC and destroyed in 226 B.C. by an earthquake. It was so famous in Antiquity than it was considered one of the Seven Wonders and appears in numerous ancient texts. Pliny gives us information about it in Natural History, lib. 34, 18, (41)

But that which is by far the most worthy of our admiration, is the colossal statue of the Sun, which stood formerly at Rhodes, and was the work of Chares the Lindian, a pupil of the above-named Lysippus; no less than seventy cubits in height. This statue fifty-six years after it was erected, was thrown down by an earthquake; but even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it. It is said that it was twelve years before this statue was completed, and that three hundred talents were expended upon it; a sum raised from the engines of warfare which had been abandoned by King Demetrius, when tired of the long-protracted siege of Rhodes. (The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.)

Nota: It remained on the spot where it was thrown down for nearly nine hundred years, until the year 653 A.D., when Moavia, khalif of the Saracens, after the capture of Rhodes, sold the materials; it is said that it required nine hundred camels to remove the remains.

Pliny, Natural History, lib. 34, 18, (41)

Ante omnes autem in admiratione fuit Solis colossus Rhodi, quem fecerat Chares Lindius, Lysippi supra dicti discipulus. LXX cubitorum altitudinis fuit hoc simulacrum, post LXVI annum terrae motu prostratum, sed iacens quoque miraculo est. pauci pollicem eius amplectuntur, maiores sunt digiti quam pleraeque statuae. Vasti specus hiant defractis membris; spectantur intus magnae molis saxa, quorum pondere stabiliverat eum constituens. Duodecim annis tradunt effectum CCC talentis, quae contigerant ex apparatu regis Demetrii relicto morae taedio obsessa Rhodo.

There were numerous gigantic statues and therefore many "Colossus". One of these colossal statues was which represented Nero, located in the Domus Aurea, gold house, near the amphitheater Flavius, which  was called for that  Amphiteatrum Colosseum or Colossei, the Amphitheater of Colosseum. Hence Colosseum came to refer to the amphitheater itself and as you know the building was dedicated to celebrate gladiator fights with other gladiators and wild animals. Even today the standing skeleton of this colossal building amazes the tourists who visit Rome. He could well be called “colosseum” by its enormous dimensions for 40.000 spectators, who also can be evicted in few minutes with the numeous, strategic and well designed “vomitoria”  or hits to the stands.

The statue of Nero became statue of the Sun after the destruction of the Domus Aurea and it was finally withdrawn under Emperor Hadrian to build the Temple of Venus and Roma; for this work they will require 24 elephants, as it is told by Spartianus in Historia Augusta: .

Historia Augusta: The Life of Hadrian XIX, 12 et seq.

With the aid of the architect Decrianus he raised the Colossus and, keeping it in an upright position, moved it away from the place in which the Temple of Rome is now, though its weight was so vast that he had to furnish for the work as many as twenty-four elephants.  This statue he then consecrated to the Sun, after removing the features of Nero, to whom it had previously been dedicated, and he also planned, with the assistance of the architect Apollodorus, to make a similar one for the Moon. (English translation  by David Magie,1921).

Transtulit et colossum stantem atque suspensum per Decrianum architectum de eo loco, in quo nunc templum Urbis est, ingenti molimine, ita ut operi etiam elephantos viginti quattuor exhiberet. 13 Et cum hoc simulacrum post Neronis vultum, cui antea dicatum fuerat, Soli consecrasset, aliud tale Apollodoro architecto auctore facere Lunae molitus est.

Interestingly from coliseum derives the Spanish word “coso”, which in Spain and countries influenced by its culture refers to the circular bullfighting arenas in them the bullfight are held, certainly modern heritage of ancient fights of men with wild animals held in the Colosseum amphitheater.

Herculean is another word appropriated to the size and grandeur of these works. Hercules, in Greek Ἡρακλῆς, Herakles,  son of Zeus and of the mortal Alcmene, is the most famous of the Greek heroes, of extraordinary strength. He must  to perform twelve difficult tasks. On childhood he proved his strength: shortly after birth Hera sent two serpents to kill him in his sleep, but he strangled them by his own hands. Later, when adult, he would be very strong, able to separate Europe from Africa and put the famous columns. The tenth labor was to steal the oxen or cows of shepherd Gerión, three bodies monster living in the West, in the current Cádiz, and to transport them alive to Mycenae. At the end of the Mediterranean Sea he found closed the road of the sea, and he opened the Strait of Gibraltar to connect the two seas and placed the columns, one in Gibraltar and the other on Mount Hacho in Ceuta (other versions propose another location in Africa).

Beyond these columns Phoenician, Greeks and Romans navigators did not dare to go through the "mare ignotum" or "mare tenebrosum". For this reason the columns are accompanied by the words "non plus ultra", "no later than" as serious warning, surpassed words when  Columbus and the Spanish discovered America on end of fifteenth century. Charles V eliminated the "non" of legend and made the slogan  "plus ultra", "beyond".

The geographer Pomponius Mela, who was born curiously in Tingentera, town identified as  Iulia Traducta, the modern Algeciras or Tarifa, and therefore from the Strait, wrote about it in his Chorographia, I, 23:

Beyond there is a very high mountain, and facing it, on Hispania there is another that reaches its height:  the one they call Abila, the other one Calpe,  and the two together they call Pillars of Hercules. Tradition tells us the story of the name: Hercules himself separated the two mountains which once had been joined in a continuous range, and thus the Ocean, closed earlier by the mass of the mountains had entry into those lands that it now inundates. Here now the sea spreads in over more broadly and falls with its great force across the width on the lands which have regressed. Otherwise the region, poor and unlucky to have something important, is populated by small towns; it produces small rivers, and it is of better value by its soil than by its men; and it is obscure by the low value of its people.

Deinde est mons praealtus, ei quem ex adverso Hispania adtollit obiectus: hunc Abilam, illum Calpen vocant, Columnas Herculis utrumque. Addit fama nominis fabulam, Herculem ipsum iunctos olim perpetuo iugo diremisse colles, atque ita exclusum antea mole montium oceanum ad quae nunc inundat admissum. Hic iam mare latius funditur, submotasque vastius terras magno impetu inflectit. ceterum regio ignobilis et vix quicquam inlustre sortita parvis oppidis habitatur, parva flumina emittit, solo quam viris melior et segnitia gentis obscura.

Among many other texts, such Estrabo, 3,5,2, Pliny in his Naturalis Historia 3.1 (4), and Seneca, in his tragedy Hercules the Furious reviews  his labors including the episode of cows of Geryon; I  reproduce Hercules furens 232-238:

Among his herds in the distant land of Spain the three-shaped shepherd of the Tartesian shore was killed and his cattle driven as spoil from the farthest west; Cithaeron has fed the herd once to Ocean known.

When bidden to enter the regions of the summer sun, those scorched realms which midday burns, he clove the mountains on either hand and, rending the barrier, made a wide path20 for Ocean’s rushing stream. (Translated by Miller, Frank Justus. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1917) .

inter remotos gentis Hesperiae greges
pastor triformis litoris Tartesii
peremptus, acta est praeda ab occasu ultimo;
notum Cithaeron pavit Oceano pecus.
penetrare iussus solis aestivi plagas
et adusta medius regna quae torret dies
utrimque montes solvit ac rupto obice
latam ruenti fecit Oceano viam.

Titanic also adequately describes these exceptional works, so uncommon.

The Titans are primitive gods of Greek mythology, children of Uranus and Gaea, prior to the Olympian gods. In Titanomachy or war of the Titans were defeated by Zeus and the Olympians and locked in Tartarus. Hesiodus tells us the terrible battle in his Theogony, from which I reproduce a small fragment.
Hesiod, Theogony, 674 et ss.

These, then, stood against the Titans in grim strife, holding huge rocks in their strong hands. And on the other part the Titans eagerly strengthened their ranks, and both sides at one time showed the work of their hands and their might. The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly: wide Heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached dim Tartarus and the deep sound of their feet in the fearful onset and of their hard missiles.  So, then, they launched their grievous shafts upon one another,  and the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven; and they met together with a great battle-cry. (English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.)

Gigantic perfectly reflects a great work. The Γίγαντες (gigantes, giants) are large creatures such as the Cyclops, born from Gaia, the Earth and the blood of Uranus, the Sky, as Hesiod tells in his Theogony, 183 et seq .

(When Kronos mutilated his father Uranus) And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. (English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.)

The Giants also fought with the gods. Apollodorus, among many others, tells us in his Library (Bibliotheca)1,6,1:

Such is the legend of Demeter. But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet. They were born, as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene. And they darted rocks and burning oaks at the sky. Surpassing all the rest were Porphyrion and Alcyoneus, who was even immortal so long as he fought in the land of his birth. He also drove away the cows of the Sun from Erythia.
Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, and by means of Athena summoned Hercules to his help.
(Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.)

We could include Pharaonic in this series of adjectives, also meaning huge or massive work, derived naturally from the great pyramids and other huge sculptures and temples built by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

Mammoth, which adds to the corresponding noun the very magnitude  of the great ancient elephants, of which occasionally appear striking remains.

And of course and rightly the expression "work of Romans" because some bridges, roads and walls especially of Roman times amaze us by its size or difficulty.

Faced with these adjectives, which accumulate in meaning the details of its myth or history, we have a very large number of less significant terms; perhaps as numerous series for general and abstract meaning and limited semantic value they contain. Many of them express a mere negative concept.

extraordinary: Out of order or natural or common rule.

enormous: outside the norm

Excessive: outside measurement

Descomunal. uncommon

Immense: not measured

Some other adjectives have more content; for example:

Magna opera: magnus, -a means large; opera work; therefore "large, great work"


Ingente: Latin word which means "big", related perhaps with the same Greek root "gigas" giant. In Latin "ingens" fell into disuse and interestingly we have recovered it as cultism.

Monumental: what is characteristic of a monument and therefore worthy of being remembered.

Monstrous: related to monstro, and monumentum, meaning that alerts, warns of something because its uniqueness.

Phenomenal of similar meaning as previous; it comes from the Greek φαινομένον, phainomenon phenomenon of φαινεῖν, fainein = shine, shine, appear; show, to show, which literally means' what is  shown ' 'and phenomenal what by their characteristics has high visibility.

Marvelous expresses something similar. Maravilla, derives  from Latin mirabilia, admirable or worthy of admiration or surprising, from verb mirari, to admire things. From the same root is "miracle" miraculum on Latin.

Formidable: from Latin formido, fear; which has some relation to the above: it produces fear, although now  it  has quite lost its negative connotations

impressive and imposing: related to the previous: that puts  awe or fear

Excellent and sublime: they  mean "outstanding"; made from es- and celsus, high, higher; from  an Indo-European root, cel, meaning summit, height.

Anyway, we have not exhausted the list but these terms may be sufficient. Somehow, as never perfect synonyms, everyone agrees the superhuman nature of the actions that qualify. Certainly the mythological characters from which they derive are not men, are gods or heroes at least (half man -half gods).
Finally, the Greek myths and everything about them is absolutely integrated into our cultural heritage and therefore linguistic, although we are not aware when use them.


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