Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates


A very special group of reverse types appeared during the reign of Antonius Pius, that differed markedly from the rather static representations of divinities heretofore noted. Often described as "pictorial types," these reverses depict subjects from Greek mythology and from astrology.

This special group arose early in the reign of Pius, and seemed to coincide with the employment of at least one, and possibly two, imported mint engravers of unusual talents. The stimulus seems to have come from Hadrian's antiquarian interests and "one world" policies. As a matter of fact, the bronze drachmas of Hadrian's seventeenth to nineteenth years reflect the developing concepts that culminated in these exceptional themes.

The large bronze drachmas were the exclusive denomination carrying these types. Indeed, no smaller planchet would have permitted the detail and dynamic qualities which are so characteristic of the mythological group. Unfortunately, the innovation did not meet with favor, and these pictorial coins did not survive the end of Pius's reign. All mythological types are very rare, as are the majority of the zodiacal types.

The first group which we will consider are the "Labors of Herakles." Ancient writers usually listed 12 labors (a zodiacal implication ?), although there was considerable variance in those included among the 12. Among the two dozen or more such tasks found in various lists, some eight or nine occur regularly. The author has arbitrarily chosen a group of 12 from the known Alexandrian types, in deference to classical precedent.

The background of the mythological exploits of Herakles is too well known to discuss at any length. In general, the hero was required to carry out these labors, deemed virtually impossible, as a means of attaining immortality ( or alternately, as a means of expiating a "blood debt") . Having done so, he eventually reached a tragic end but did achieve divinity. He was hindered at all times by the goddess Hera, but received clandestine aid from other gods and goddesses.

On Plate XXV we find illustrations of six labors. These will be discussed in order.

Herakles and the Amazon: In this adventure, Herakles is charged with obtaining the magic girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. He does so by defeating the female army, and taking the girdle from the fallen body of the queen. The coin type shows Herakles in the act of seizing the girdle of the prostrate Hippolyte.

Herakles and the Augean stables: This was one of the most popular adventures, and provides a certain amount of amusement to the modern reader. Herakles's task was to clean the vast stables of King Augeas, in which the accumulated filth of many years lay undisturbed. Our hero neatly diverted the waters of a nearby river through them, effectively cleaning them in a single day. The coin reverse symbolically portrays Herakles advancing toward a pile of rocks, from which a lionhead spout pours water into a shallow vase. A rake leans against the rocks.

Herakles and the Centaur Pholos: While embarked on a boar hunt, Herakles was entertained by Pholos, a centaur. When Pholos served wine which was community property, the other centaurs objected and attacked Herakles. He vanquished the objectors and put them to flight. Pholos, unfortunately, died from a wound inflicted by a poisoned arrow which he dropped on his own foot after the fight. The coin type shows Herakles, holding a lyre, clasping the arm of Pholos as the two apparently converse. To the right, an attendant is drawing wine. A club leans against the rocks on which Herakles sits.

Herakles and the Cretan bull: Herakles was given the task of capturing alive the bull on which Europa arrived in Crete. He did so after minor adventures, showed it to Eurystheus (his taskmaster), and then released it. The coin motif depicts the actual capture, as the hero grasps the bull by the head.

Herakles and Diomedes: In this rather weird saga, Herakles is required to secure the flesh eating horses of Diomedes, son of the war god Ares. He does so, after a terrible battle, by killing Diomedes and feeding his body to his own horses. This act tamed the steeds and enabled them to be brought safely to Argos. The coin shows Herakles about to smite Diomedes with a club. The foreparts of two horses may be seen in the background.

Herakles and Echidna: In this tale, the popular hero overcomes the giantess Echidna and her reptilian offspring. The variations are so many, for this adventure, that it is difflcult to give an effective summary. The coin type shows Herakles smiting Echidna, who raises her' serpent son Hydra against him, in defense. This seems to refer to the earliest form of the tale, before later writers had embellished Hydra with a multitude of heads, each of which could be replaced when cut off. Echidna is depicted as half woman, half serpent.

Plate XXVI continues with the remaining six labors of Herakles. They will be considered in order.

Herakles and the Erymanthian boar: In this relatively dull adventure, Herakles is set the task of capturing alive a fierce boar. He frightens it from its lair, chases it into deep snow, and there nets it. Some humor is provided by the behavior of Eurystheus, who cowered in terror in a bronze jar, when he saw Herakles approaching with the struggling beast about his shoulders. The coin reverse shows Herakles with the boar about his shoulders, while the frightened Eurystheus, at the lower right, is somewhat obscured by wear.

Herakles in the Garden of Hesperides: Often considered the final labor, this tale concerns Herakles's efforts to secure the holy golden apples of the Hesperides. After difficulties in locating the garden, Herakles could not pick the apples. He got Atlas to do this for him by holding the sky on his own shoulders. Atlas, however, was so delighted to be free of his heavy burden that he did not wish to return to the task. Herakles finally tricked him into handing him the apples and resuming the sky upon his shoulders. The attractive design of the reverse of the bronze drachma depicts Herakles reaching for an apple, while the serpent Ladon, who had opposed him, hangs dead from the branches of the tree, an arrow through his neck.

Herakles and Kerberos: This, the most terrible of the tasks, required Herakles to invade Hades itself. He was to bring back the watchdog of Hell, Kerberos (another of Echidna's delightful offspring). After some lively adventures, and with the help of Athene and Hermes, the task was accomplished. The unpublished coin variety seen on the plate gives an unusually vigorous representation of Herakles emerging from the portal of Hades, dragging by a rope the reluctant Kerberos.

Herakles and the Nemean lion: Once again we encounter Echidna's progeny, in the Nemean lion. This invulnerable beast was introduced into the scene by the angry Hera. Unable to pierce its skin, Herakles battered it with his club and then choked it in his mighty arms. Despite its invulnerability, he managed to skin it with its own claws. Thereafter, the lion skin became his standard raiment. The plate depicts an unpublished variety of Pius's Year Four, with an unusually dynamic representation of Herakles choking the lion, which he has dragged off its feet.

Herakles and the oxen of Geryones: In this labor, Herakles was unable to journey to the, "Farthest West," the land of the monster Geryones (brother of Echidna), without first forcing Helios himself to yield the golden cup of the sun for the journey. Having reached the Farthest West, he had to contend with the formidable watchdog Orthros and with the Herdsman Eurytion, both of whom he slew, before finally coming to grips with Geryones. Having killed Geryones, he loaded the slain monster's vast herd of cattle on board the golden cup and returned. Later embellishments added a multitude of adventures to the return voyage. The depicted coin reverse shows Herakles holding two charging oxen of the dead Geryones, whose body lies below.

Herakles shooting the Stymphalian birds: A thickly wooded lake shore in Stymphalos (Arkadia) provided a natural refuge for birds, who became so numerous that Herakles was given the task of eliminating them. Some accounts state that the birds had razor-edged feathers, others that they were man-eaters. At any rate, the indomitable hero secured a bronze rattle made by the god Hephaistos, with which he frightened them out into the open. He then quickly dispatched them with arrows. The coin type depicts Herakles, with lion skin over head and shoulders, drawing his bow for a shot, while two birds tumble down before him.

The first three illustrations on Plate XXVII are of mythological reverses not connected with the Heraklean series. All are extremely rare, and the- first two represent unpublished varieties.

Apollo's triumph over Marsyas: This tale concerns the conceit and consequent ill fate of the satyr Marsyas. Having found the discarded flutes of Athene, he appropriated them. He gradually became so proficient in their use that he challenged the mighty Apollo himself to a music contest. The terms which Apollo imposed were that the victor could do as he pleased with the other. Having then vanquished Marsyas, Apollo took his revenge by flaying him alive. The coin reverse depicts the flaying scene. We see Apollo seated at the left, casually playing his lyre. Marsyas hangs from a tree, suspended by the wrists. A Scythian slave advances upon him with a knife, ready to commence the bloody task. (The only other three known examples of this coin type, all of inferior state of preservation, depict the slave kneeling with his back to Marsyas, as he sharpens the knife.)

Chiron and Achilles: The wise and benevolent centaur Chiron, as tutor and guide, was given the custody of the sons of many ancient princes. One such pupil was Achilles (of Trojan war fame), who spent his formative years with the centaur. The drachma reverse type shows Chiron leading the young Achilles, who carries a sword and shield.

The judgment of Paris: This is perhaps the most fascinating of the mythological subjects depicted on the Alexandrian coins, since it involves the event that later precipitated the Trojan war. The tale also provides an interesting glimpse into the personalities of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. In brief a banquet of the gods was interrupted by Eris (strife), who threw on the table a golden apple inscribed "to the fairest." Hera, Athene and Aphrodite all immediately claimed it. Zeus wisely avoided responsibility by referring the decision to Paris, mortal son of the king of Troy. Aphrodite won the golden apple, through her offer to Paris of the world's loveliest mortal as a wife. Paris's subsequent claiming of his reward (Helen) led to the great war. Our coin reverse depicts Paris seated in judgment, with Hermes standing behind him. Facing Paris are the standing figures of the fair goddesses. Aphrodite, who is nearest to him, appears to be reaching forth for the golden prize. Athene, farthest from Paris, holds spear and shield.

Various zodiacal types are shown by the last four figures on Plate XXVII, and by the whole of Plate XXVIII. The first illustration is of particular interest. Dated for Pius's eighth year, the coin reverse shows the bust of Sarapis surrounded by two circles. The innermost circle contains busts of gods of the days of the week, while the outermost consists of the twelve signs of the zodiac. This, as well as the following types, seem to have been inspired by the completion of a 1460 year Sothic cycle in 139 A.D.

"Venus in Taurus," the next type, is represented by a charging bull, above which is the bust of Aphrodite facing a star.

"Mars in Scorpio" depicts a large scorpion above which is the bust of Ares facing a star.

The final type of Plate XXVII,

"Mars in Aries," reveals a leaping ram, above which the bust of Ares faces a star.

The first two types face to the left, while the other faces in the opposite direction.

On Plate XXVIII we find in order, the following reverses:

"Sun in Leo," showing the bust of Helios over a charging lion, above whose head is a star;

"Mercury in Virgo," for which the unpublished variety depicts a well draped virgin, with a star as a crown, facing the bust of Hermes;

"Mercury in Gemini," represented by the bust of Hermes (facing a star) above and between the standing figures of Apollo and Herakles;

"Saturn in Aquarius," showing the veiled bust of Kronos, facing a star, above a swimming figure holding an amphora;

"Moon in Cancer," represented by the bust of Selene, set in a lunar crescent and facing a star, with the figure of a large crab below;

"Jupiter in Sagittarius," depicting the bust of Zeus above a running centaur, who draws a bow, and above whose head is a star; and

"Jupiter in Pisces," showing two fishes facing in opposite directions, above which appears the bust of Zeus facing a star.

The type "Mercury in Gemini," noted above, was unknown at the time the British Museum catalog (Alexandria and the Nomes) was prepared, and remains very rare to this day. The two zodiacal signs not shown in the present article are "Venus in Libra" and "Saturn in Capricorn."



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