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Ancient Coins showing Athena's Aegis

You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.

What was the ægis?

Statuette of Minerva in York, by John Wolstenholme, 1801 The legend goes (in one of many versions) that Zeus, chief god of the Greek pantheon, was a child of Cronus and Rhea. Cronus was in the habit of swallowing his sons as they were born, to prevent them from growing up to overthrow him. But when Zeus was born, his mother substituted a stone, and Cronus swallowed that instead. Zeus was concealed from Cronus and was raised by a goat, Amalthea. When Amalthea died, a shield or breastplate was made of her hide; because she suckled and protected Zeus as a baby, the shield had great protective properties. This shield was the ægis. This word is still used to mean protective guidance or tutelage in modern English, though it is usually written as "aegis", and the use of the ligate diphthong æ is regarded as obsolete. As this is a site about ancient coins, I will continue to use it ...

Link to a page with Medusa's story on acnient coins Zeus gave this shield or breastplate to his daughter Athena. By an interesting sequence of events which is illustrated in my Story of Medusa page (which also shows some of these coins as part of the story), the head of the Gorgon Medusa was mounted on the shield. This gruesome addition is known as a gorgoneion and was widely used to ward off evil, apparently by scaring it away; not just on the ægis, but separately on coins, appliques, and plaques. The ægis and its gorgoneion in one form or another have accompanied depictions of Athena and her Roman equivalent Minerva ever since. A gorgoneion-on-shield is shown to the right of Minerva on the Georgian statuette shown here, set high above the streets of York. This interpretation is by John Wolstenholme in 1801. It's interesting to see that this small statue is painted in lifelike colours, just as the statues of the Romans and Greeks were in their time.

There are other versions of the myth, and you can get a good overview by reading this Wikipedia page.

Reid Goldsborough had a good set of pages specifically about Medusa coins which I can recommend. There is also a page on ægis coins by Ed Snible that I will not duplicate here; it gives some nice examples. I aim to take a different view, to show some additional ancient coins and types of coins depicting the ægis, and to arrange them according to the type of ægis shown.

Obverse of a bronze AE21 from Sinope showing an aegis and gorgoneion The obverse of a bronze coin from Sinope.
21mm, 6.4 grammes.
Obverse of a Republican denarius showing an aegis and gorgoneion The obverse of a Republican silver denarius of Mn Cordius Rufus.
17 mm, 3.8 grammes.

The ægis as a leather disk

I wrote earlier that Amalthea's hide was made into a shield or breastplate. I said that not because I don't know which it was, but because ancient coins depict several different forms for the ægis. The simplest form shown on coins is this, a circle of overlapping leather scales with the gorgoneion at the centre.

The far right coin comes from the town of Sinope in Paphlagonia, during the reign of Mithradates, 120-63 BCE. The near right coin is a silver Roman Republican denarius dating from 46 BCE. They both show exactly the same thing, and you can see that there are cords and loops around the edge of the circle, which would allow it to be bound to something. If this device were fixed to a circle of wood, it would make a fine shield.

The ægis as a shield

Reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria showing Athena Alkidemos The reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria.
17mm, 2.4 grammes.
Reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria showing Athena Alkidemos The reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria.
15mm, 2.4 grammes.
Reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria showing Athena Alkidemos The reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria.
16mm, 2.4 grammes.

If this were done, the result might easily be a shield like that shown in the middle on the right, with its large gorgoneion and scaled appearance. The shield on the left-hand coin is similar, though the scales are less obvious.

These three coins are all of the Bactrian king Menander, who ruled from 155 BCE to 130 BCE. They all show Athena Alkidemos, Protector of the People, wielding her father Zeus' thunderbolt. This pose is thought to have been based on a statue in Pella.

Reverse of a silver drachm of Menander of Bactria showing Athena Alkidemos Athena's aegis from the drachm above on the right

Although on the left the shield is held as we would expect, in the middle it is facing upwards and not towards an enemy. This does not seem to make much sense. And without knowing the background, the coin on the far right is even odder, with its soft leather disk draped over Athena's arm, her hand protruding in front of it.

A drawing of a statue of Athena in Naples. A drawing of a statue of Athena in Naples.

But actually, this is just the type of ægis shown on the coins in the previous section; the gorgon's face is quite visible, and it has tassels too, which curl in a rather sinuous way but do not seem to be snake's heads.

It is now interesting to look at versions of Athena that show the ægis as a cloak with Athena's arm raised under it, so that the cloak drapes heavily over the arm.

This stance might have originated as the use of an animal hide to suspend a shield from the shoulder, so that raising an arm like this would also have raised an attached shield.

There is such a statue on the east pediment of the Parthenon, and the drawing on the left is of another in the museum at Naples. The outflung arm shows off the ægis and its snakey tassels very clearly, both on coins and statues, and both engravers and sculptors must have been drawn towards using it.

On the middle coin, you can also clearly see a scaled leather breastplate, which itself looks very like another version of the ægis; which leads me on to ...

Reverse of a coin of Thyateira showing Roma wearing the aegis The obverse of a bronze coin from Thyateira.
20mm, 2.2 grammes.
Obverse of a bronze coin from Elaea showing a bust of Athena The obverse of a bronze coin from Elaea.
14mm, 2.8 grammes.
Reverse of a bronze AE21 of Trajan from Heracleia Pontica showing a bust of Athena The reverse of a bronze coin of Trajan from Heracleia Pontica.
21mm, 5.9 grammes.

The ægis as a breastplate

This. On the right are three coins with an almost identical depiction, with the ægis as a scaled leather breastplate lobed to shield the wearer's's breasts, and a blob of a gorgoneion on the centre.

Several other similar coins exist, all semi-autonomous coinages (coins that did not show the current emperor) from different provincial cities.

Although this looks so much like Athena, is is more likely in the context of these coins to be Roma, the personification of the city, wearing the helmet and aegis, and sometimes carrying the spear, that befitted a fighting female deity.

Although the ægis was often shown fringed, as on the coins at the top of the page, many depictions converted the tassels into snakes.

Obverse of a replica Republican denarius showing a bust of Minerva wearing the aegis The obverse of a replica denarius of P. Servilius M.f. Rullus.
20mm, 3.14 grammes.
Detail of a statuette of Athena-Isis-Tyche Detail of a statuette of
from the British Museum.

On these coins you can see two or sometimes three snakes rising from the far side of the aegis.

They are clearest on the left, on a coin of Trajan from Heracleia Pontica, 98-117 CE; and the right, a coin from Thyateira in Lydia, on the 3rd century BCE; but you can also make them out on the coin of Elaea in Aeolis in the centre, from the 2nd century CE.

On the left is a cheap cast copy of a republican denarius of P. Servilius M.f. Rullus, from 100 BCE. It's poor stuff, but the type shows up clearly enough.

This is Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, and she too is wearing a scaled breastplate. You can't see the gorgoneion on this coin, so we don't know whether it was intended to be there.

The same lobed breastplate and gorgoneion, but without snakes or tassels, is on the statuette shown next to it, from the British Museum; a small multiple deity from Rome which combines the characteristics of Minerva, Isis and Fortuna. It is dated from about 200 CE.

Reverse of an as of Domitian showing Minerva wearing the aegis The reverse of a copper as of Domitian.
26mm, 11.0 grammes.
Reverse of a denarius of Domitian showing Minerva wearing the aegis The reverse of a silver denarius of Domitian.
19mm, 3.3 grammes.

The ægis draped down the back

These are two coins of Domitian, a silver denarius on the near right from 92-93 CE, and a copper as on the far right from 82 CE. Both show Minerva holding a shield in her left hand and wielding a spear. On the denarius, she is standing on a rostral column, and her owl stands in front of her.

The owl is also visible in the statuette shown at the top of the page. It is associated with her aspect as goddess of wisdom. Domitian took Minerva as his patron deity, and issued many coins dedicated to her, trying by this means to associate her powers and wisdom with his own person.

On these coins, the aegis is not Minerva's shield, which in any case is turned away from us. It is hanging down her back, and on both coins you can see the snakey tassels, easily seen on the as where they appear to be raising their heads in a lively fashion. They are harder to see on the denarius, just three faint outlines.

These coins also show the structure of Minerva's typical round shield, held in one arm by placing the arm through a loop an holding onto a handgrip.

Obverse of a denarius of Trajan showing the emperor wearing the aegis The obverse of a silver denarius of Trajan.
18mm, 3.1 grammes.
Obverse of a denarius of Hadrian showing the emperor wearing the aegis The obverse of a silver denarius of Hadrian.
19mm, 2.8 grammes.

The ægis as an imperial adjunct

Several of the earlier Roman emperors were often shown with a gorgoneion on their breastplate. And, more directly relevant, Trajan was shown in a statue wearing the ægis as a small, almost ornamental miniature cloak over his left breast, with a gorgoneion in its centre.

This sort of ægis was depicted on coins of several emperors, for example, Domitian, Hadrian and Trajan.

At first glance it may not be obvious that an ægis with a gorgoneion was intended, but the amount of ruffled substance under the far shoulder makes this extremely likely, as shown on the denarius of Trajan from 116-117 CE on the far right.

A normal cloak would have smooth folds, as shown on many coins, so something else must be happening on this one.

Obverse of a bronze AE26 of Macrinus from Nikopolis ad Istrum The obverse of a bronze coin of Macrinus from Nikopolis ad Istrum.
26mm, 10.4 grammes.
Obverse of an antoninianus of Probus showing the emperor wearing the aegis The obverse of a billon antoninianus of Probus.
23mm, 4.1 grammes.

There is no doubt on the denarius of Hadrian on the near right above. Snakes' heads are clearly visible twining upwards in front of the bust.

And, 100 years later, a similar snake can be seen on the provincial bronze coin of Macrinus on the far left, from Nikopolis ad Istrum in 217-218 CE.

The ægis as a breastplate, complete with a small gorgoneion, was still seen in later years, on coins such as the antoninianus of Probus on the near left, which dates from 281 CE.

The gorgoneion continued to be a popular decoration, appearing on coins on the shields and breastplates of emperors, but ægis of Athena was no longer a glorious and flamboyant snakey display.

The content of this page was last updated on 1 December 2009

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