A centaur is a mythological creature with the head, arms, and torso of a human and the body and legs of a horse.

The Centaur's Burden

By Jim Phelps

What is this centaur carrying?

The "APOLLINI CONS AVG" coins from officina "H" of the Gallienus Zoo series show a centaur on the reverse, facing left with (usually) one foreleg raised. In his outstretched right hand he holds a globe, and he cradles an object in his left arm. What is this object?

Almost every reference catalogue calls this a "trophy", a rather vague term which probably meant that they weren't quite sure what it was. This is unsurprising - due to the high inflation rate at the time, the mints were pumping out huge quantities of coins. As a result, the coins are often on poor-quality flans, plus the dies (particularly the reverse) had a wide range of quality and were often used even after they had become heavily worn.

So what IS the object that the centaur is holding? Since a "trophy" makes no sense, we need to look closer at the item. There's a central line, plus two inwardly-curved lines which either taper down or else flare back out, plus sometimes a line at the lower portion which extends at a right angle from the rest of the piece. The matches nicely with portrayals of a rudder from other coins of this period.

Another bit of evidence is the other item the centaur holds - a globe. The globe and the rudder are commonly shown together on coins of Fortuna, the Roman personification of luck. Fortuna may have had her origins in Nortia, the Roman goddess of fertility and chance, but by this period the personification seems to have been limited to luck or good fortune. While we aren't clear on why the centaur would have been associated with luck, a very common reverse inscription on other coins of Gallienus is "Fortuna Redux" - "To the fortunate return" (of the emperor). This attribute of Fortuna watches over travelers, being quite well suited to Gallienus since he was almost constantly crisscrossing his empire, fighting revolts and barbaric incursions.


This particular coin might provide evidence that the rudder and it's purpose were in the engraver's mind as he was preparing this die. The wavy lines to the right of the rudder look like waves - though the rudder is in an upside-down position, it still appears to be shown as if in use, passing through the water.

Coins of Gallienus' Zoo
last modified: 7 Mar 2006


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The Centaurs were inhabitants of Thessaly, famous for their great courage and address, in taming and training horses. The figment of the ancient poets ascribed to them a monstrous origin; and Greek artists sculpted them as combining in their form, the upper part of a human figure with the body and lower extremities of a horse.

On some coins, the centaur is standing alone, armed with a bow and arrow, or with a staff, or with a rudder and globe, on others drawing the chariot of some pagan divinity. On a denarius of the Aurelia gens (see p. 111), Hercules standing in a car is drawn at full speed by two centaurs, each of whom raises a branch in his right hand.

The above is engraved from a fine brass medallion of Antoninus Pius, in the Cabinet de France. The subject is one of the combats of Hercules, and represents him in the act of avenging the centaurs rape of Halcyone, sister of Eurystheus to whom the centaur Homadus had offered violence, and was in consequence killed by Hercules. In this classic design, the great Hercules has already slain one centaur, who is stretched on the ground. He presses his knee on a second whom he is about to crush with his club, although another centaur comes to his assistance, armed like his companion with the branch of a tree. Meanwhile, Homadus is seen carrying away Halcyone, whom Hercules later rescued. It was the sequel of the Bacchanalian festival, that these horse-men, under the excitement of intoxication, to which they were addicted, outraged hospitality and ravished the women. Diodorus Siculus describes the centaurs as having employed the trunks of trees as their weapons in the fight; and speaks of the contest as "worthy of the early renown of this hero."
The temple in the back-ground is that of Hercules Victor, built at Rome, as is indicated by the eagle in the pediment, which Antonine caused to be represented, as though Hercules, for this exploit alone, had deserved worship in a temple.

There is a splendid Sestertius of Marcus Aurelius, with Hercules standing in a chariot drawn by four centaurs.

Several coins of Gallienus exhibit a centaur holding a bow and arrow: some as the mark of a legion, as LEG II PARThicae.

On other coins of Gallienus the same device appears in connection with the name of Apollo. APOLLINI CONServatori AVGusti. Erastosthenes states, that the centaur Chiron was numbered amongst the stars, as the constellation Sagittarius, the archer; and according to Hyginus and Pliny, he was the first to introduce the are of healing by the use of herbs. Such are the reasons assigned for selecting the centaur, as in this instance to personate Apollo, whether the god was regarded as presiding over the muses, or as the tutelary of the medical art.

Why the centaur is made to hold a globe and rudder in his hand, remains unexplained.

We find the bow-bearing centaur also on a coin of Tetricus the younger with the legend SOLI CONSERvatori; for Chiron, the Sagittarius, was the tutor of Apollo and Diana.

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