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Herculis Labores

Please add updates or make corrections to the NumisWiki text version as appropriate.


M. De. Witte, an eminent numismatist, resident at Cologue, in an elaborate and ably written paper, addressed to the Editor of the Revue Numismatique (vol vii. P. 330 to 369), respecting the veneration which Postumus manifested towards Hercules, gives a description of a set of coins, struck under that prince, the reverses of which present a complete set of the labours of Hercules.  It is from the engravings (plat vii.) which illustrate the dissertation in question, that the subjoined cuts have been copied; whilst advantage has also been taken of M. De. Witte 's commentary on the different types, to throw fresh light on the numismatic as well as mythological bearing on the subject.

No.1 – HERCVLI NEMAEO.  Hercules suffocating a lion, that tremendous beast, which ravaged the country near the Nemeaen fores, in the neighbourhood of Cleonas, and which he had in vain endeavoured to kill, with the sword, the club, and the stone; and the skin of which he afterwards wore as a trophy of his victory.

Mythographers speak of two or three lions slain by Hercules.  That of Mount Cithera or rather that of Mount Helicon, that of Lesbos and that of Nemaea.  His combats with the "king of beasts" have often been represented by ancient artists; this group offering favourable combinations, as well for sculpture as for painting, numberless and very varied repetitions are also found of it, especially on Greek coins.  It is the lion of Nemaea, the slaying of which was the first of the hero 's twelve labours, that is shown by the inscription on the denarius of Postumus, No. 1.

Mionnet has described an aureus similar to the above, with the legend HERCVLI INVICTO; which accompanies the group of Alcides and the lion on the reverse of Postumus which bears on its reverse the legend VIRTVS POSTVMI AVG. S. C. with the same type

No. 2 – Rev. – HERCVLI ARGIVO.  Hercules armed with the club, the skin of the lion wrapped round the left arm attacking the hydra, or many-headed serpent of Lerna.

Obv. – POSTVMS PIVS FELIX AVG. Jugated heads of Postumus and Hercules, both crowned with laurel to the right.  (see obverse of a silver medallion of Postumus, p. 382).

From an unpublished denarius of billon, belonging to the collection of M. Dupre.  This piece (says M. De Witte) formed part of a depot of medals found in the environs of Cologne. – Compare with Banduri, Num. Imp. Rom. Vol. i. p. 286

Hercules and the Hydra are represented on a tolerably large number of monuments in marble and on painted vases.  With regard to coins, this type is found on Greek money, and upon imperial Latin coins of Maximanus Hercules, bearing the legends HERCVLE DEBELLATORI (brass medallion and gold and silver) – HERCVLI VICTORI (gold) and HERCVLI INVICTO – and on those of Constantius Chlorus, VIRTVI AVGG. (also gold).  It has been conjectured that the extermination of th Hydra, which is often repeated on coins of Maximianus Hercules, bear reference to the persecution exercised against the Christians.

The marches of Lerna were situated in Argolis, whence came the epithet Argivus, which Hercules bears on the denarius of Postumus, engraved on the preceding page.  "Of all the reverses of the labours of Hercules, says M. Dupre, that with the legend HERCVLI ARGIVO is the most rare.  Published solely by Goltzins, and not being found in the greatest collections, its existence has been doubted.  But we are acquainted with an indubitable specimen of it discovered amongst a deposit found near Treves.


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No. 3.  – POSTVMVS P.F. AVG. COS. Radiated head of Postumus to the left.

Rev. VIRTV POSTVMI AVG. – Hercules seizing by the antlers, the hind or stag Ceryquita. – Middle brass, in the Cabinet de France. – Mionnet Rarete des Med. ii. 68.

The hind with the golden horns and brazen hoofs, furnished to Hercules his third labour.  This is a rare subject on ancient monuments, except on the bas-reliefs dedicated to this series of representations.  A few paintings on vases refer to the capture of this wild stag so famous for its swiftness.  Sometimes also Hercules and Apollo are seen contending for this fleet animal; a struggle figures on a magnificent helmet of bronze, in the collection of M. le Duc de Luynes and on two painted vases.  The type of the hind tamed by Hercules, although not of frequent occurrence, is not unknown in Greek numismatics; and it is found on the gold and small brass of Diocletian, and of Maximian Hercules; VIRTVS AVGG. or VIRTVTI AVGG.  The brass coin of Postumus (engraved above) is unique. – De Witte, Revue Num. Vol. vii.

No 4. HERCVLI ERYMANTINO (sic) – Hercules carrying on his shoulders the wild boar of Erymanthus.  The lion 's skin is hung from his left arm.  At his feet is a pithos or wine-jar.  Denarius of billon in the Cabinet de France. – Mionnet ii. 61.  Banduri i. 285 and 291, in whose work it is engraved.

Hercules carrying the huge wild boar alive on his shoulders is often depictured on painted vases as well as on marbles, on one of which Eurystheus is seen hiding himself in the pithos.  The king of Mycenae, afrightened at the sight of the enormous victim to heroic strength and courage, lifts up both his arms and seem to conjure Hercules to take himself away with his dreadful burthen.  On coin No. 4 neither the head nor the arms of Eurystheus are visible.-  On other coins the pithos is seen, and Eurystheus concealing himself therein, in the same manner as on the painted urns – as for example on a brass coin struck at Alexandria, in Egypt, under Antoninus Pius; on another brass coin, struck at Hadrianopolis of Thrace under Caracalla; and lastly on three brass medallions of Periuthus, struck under Caracalla, Geta and Gordianus Pius.

No 5. – HERC….PISAEO.  Hercules naked carrying on his right shoulder what M. De Witte calls a kind of hoyay pioche (but what in the engraving looks more like a club), proceeding to the task of cleaning the Augean stables. – A denarius of Postumus in billon, unpublished, from the Treves Museum.

The myth of the stable of Augias is represented only on a small number of ancient monuments; for instance on the celebrated cup Albani; on the Borgia marble; and on the altar of the Giustiniani gallery.  The representation which corresponds most closely with the type of this rare denarius (No. 5), is the bas-relief on the altar last named, and on which Hercules is seen walking to the left armed with a hoe or mattock by means of which he prepares to split rocks and open a passage for the waters of the Alpheus and the Peneus.  The club is placed against the rock

The coin (No. 5) is unfortunately defective in point of preservation. "In the type of the reverse (remarks M. De. Witte) may without hesitation be recognised the fifth labour of Hercules – that in which the hero cleansed the Eide.  But there remain difficulties attached to the task of reading the legend, in which it might have been supposed that more than one surname would have been found connected with the operation – such as those of Herculi Alpheo, Eleo or Peneo.  The first letter especially is of an uncertain form – M Chassot de Florencourt, to whom I had communicated my doubts, showed in the most convincing manner, that it was a P and that it ought to read HERCVLI PISAEO".

Piaeus is a new surname for Hercules.  This epigraph alludes to the territory of Elis, within the confines of which once stood the city of Pisa, of which no vestiges are now discovererable, although known to have been situated near the plain of Olympis, where the Olympic games in honour of Jupiter were celebrated.

"Pisa was regarded as the residence of king Augias and the capital of the country called Pisatis.  Some authors seem to make a distinction between Olympia and Pisa; others say that it was the same city. Semeca the tragedian gives the epithet of Pisaus to Jupiter (Agamemnon 930).-

"Et ista donum palma Pisaei Jovis".

No. 6 Rev. – HERCVLI AV(G). Hercules standing, the lions skin on his shoulders, shoots with his arrows two of the Stymphalides. On an aureus of Postumus in the Cabinet de France.  –Tanini Num, Imp Rom TAB. Ii.

Hercules killing with shafts discharged from his unerring bow the birds of Stymphalus is a subject found on ancient monuments of every kind and on many Greek coins.  This arueus which bears on its obverse the jugated heads of Postumus and Hercules, both crowned with laurel, is a fine on, and may be considered to have been unpublished until engraved in the Revue Numismatique to illustrate with others M. De Witte 's dissertation.  Minnet has not described it.  Tanini has given a very bad copy of it, the only one heretofore known.  Nor are the birds of Stymphalus represented on any other Latin coin.

[These birds were so called from the lake Stymphalus, in Arcadia, the neighbourhood of which they infested.  They are said to have been of prodigious size, of insatiable voracity and to have fed on human flesh.  With the assistance of Minerva, they were partly destroyed by the arrows of Hercules, and the rest driven away by the sound of brass timbrels.  A specimen of these winged monsters (which differed from the Syren and the Harpy), is supposed by certain numismatists of the elder school to be exhibited on a well-known denarius of the Valeria gens.  That type, however, does not agree with Pausanias 's description of the Stymphales Aves, which the Greek writer compares to a crane in size and with a head and beak somewhat like an ibis.  It were, however, worse than trifling to criticise the form and dimentions of creatures about which even fable contradicts itself, and the existence of which probably had no place but in the imagination of the ancient poets]

No. 7 – HERCVLI CRETENSI. – Hercules naked (turned to the right) seizes a bull by the horns. –Obv. – POSTVMVS PIVS FILIX AVG.  Jugated heads of Postumus and Hercules (as in p. 382) On gold, in the museum of Berlin. – Mionnet Rarete des Med, v. ii. 61 – Banduri Num Impp. i. 287.  – For a cast of this unique aureus M. Th Panofka and to M. Pinder, keepers of the Berlin Cabinet.

The type of Hercules, struggling with a bull, also appears on a middle brass of Postumus, with the leged HERCVLI INVICTO. – Engraved in Patin, Imp. Num. Rom. P. 335, edit 1696.  On other monuments, Hercules is sometime seen endeavouring to bind a bull with cords:- viz on an amphora with black figures in the Musee Gregorien at Rome; and on another (unpublished) amphora, also with black figures in the collection Pauckoucke.

[Diodorus designates Hercules by the surname Cretensis.  And the reverse of this coin typifies a great success which the hero achieved in taming a wild bull.  The scene of the exploit is assigned to Crete; and it is enumerated as the seventh of the labours awarded by this tyrant brother to this never-daunted, ever-victorious, undertaker of apparently impracticable enterprises.]

No.8 = POSTVMS AVG. Bust of Postumus, with face to the front, and head encircled with a radiated crown.

Rev. – HERCVLI THRACIO. Hercules taming a horse.  On gold, in the Cabinet de France, Lenormant, Iconographie des Empereurs Romains, pl. iii. No. 14. – Mionnet, Rarete, etc. ii. 62. – On a denarius of billon the same reverse occurs.

[Hercules Thracius was the conqueror of Diomede, king of Thrace, son of Mars and Cyrene, who fed his horses with human flesh.  It was one of the formidable tasks imposed on Hercules to destroy Diomede.  And accordingly the hero, accompanied by some of his friends, attacked the cruel monarch, forcibly took possession of his horses, and gave them up to be devoured by the same savage animals which he had employed to destroy the unfortunate dupes of his barbarous treachery.]

The subject of Hercules taking the horses of Diomede is rarely represented on monuments of antiquity.  Independently on a group in marble preserved in the Vatican, it is recognised on a painted cup in the second collection of Sir Wm. Hamilton.  Several Greek medals bear the type of the horses taken away by Hercules. – Eckhel quotes after Tanini, a billon of Postumus, which on the reverse of a galeated head of that emperor, exhibits Hercules accomplishing his 8th labour.

No. 9 –Rev - HERCVLI INVICTO. – Hercules standing, presses with his right foot on the body of a draped female, stretched on the ground beneath him, and from whose waist he is preparing to detach a girdle.  The club is in his left hand and the lions spoils are wrapped round his left arm. – Obv. POSTVMVS PIVS FELIX AVG. Tetes accolces de Postume et d 'Hercule. – "This denarius of billon unpublished, from the collection of M. Dupre, was found near Rennes, in Britanny."

[The type alludes to the combat of Hercules with Hyppolita, whom having overcome (in scarcely to him very creditable fight) he forthwith disposed of the baldrick or sword-belt of Mars, which this queen of the Amazons carried at her girdle, as the mark of her royalty; and which Admeta, daughter of Eurstheus, and a priestess of Juno at Argos, had ordered the Theban hero to bring to her. – In Millin, Galerie Mythologique, ii. Pl. cxxii. No. 443, the subject copied from a Greek vase, is artistically dealt with, at an earlier stage of the encounter; when the beautiful equestrian is about to hurl her ineffectual lance at the man of the ponderous club.]

"Hercules fighting with the Amazons (says M. De Witte), a frequent subject on painted vases, is of very rare occurrence on Monetry types.  Hercules is seen pursuing an Amazon on horseback, on brass money of Heraclea, in Bithynia.  There is also a specimen of the same type in the Cabinet de France, of mediocre preservation; but there is in the imperial and royal cabinet at Vienna a third example, as well preserved as that in M. Dupre 's collection."

No. 10 – HERCVLI GADITNO – Hercules standing, with the lion 's skin suspended on the left arm, and the right arm raised as in the attitude of fighting against armed men.  On a denarius of billon, from the collection of M. Dupre, unpublished, till engraved, in the Revue Numismatique for the dissertation of M. De. Witte, who says, "this unique piece was found in the neighbourhood of Cologne, at the same time a denarius No. 2.

[In type No. 10 is to be recognised the fabled conflict between Hercules and the triple Geryon, represented in this instance by three heavy armed soldiers], in the garb of Roman warriors. – The passage in question, like several others connected with the labours of Hercules, is very confused and contradictory.  Geryon is described, by the poets, as a giant with three bodies , three heads, six arms and six legs. – This monster, who lived in the island of Gadira of Gades, kept numerous heds of oxen; Eurystheus, the hard and malignant task-master of Hercules, believing that it was impossible to take away these cattle, charged Hercules with the consummation of this exploit.  The hero nevertheless went to Gades, destroyed Geryon,


"The combat of Hercules with Geryon (observes M. De. Witte) is figured on only one brass coin of oriental fabric, and of which there are but two specimens extant.  The following is a description of the piece: - Obv. Hercules armed with the club, and wearing the lions spoils, in a fighting attitude. – Rev. Geyron with three heads, each covered with a Phrygian cap, and armed with a round buckler, in the act of combating  AE3.

"The above was not long ago the only medal known, as offering the type of Hercules fighting with the triple king of Iberia.  But Mr Samuel Birtch has recently published a rare brass medallion of Caracalla, struck at Blandos, in Lydia.  This medallion is preserved in the British Museum.  Its reverse type exhibits Hercules armed with the club, seizing the heads of Geryon, figured under the form of a little man, entirely naked, having three heads.  On the left arm the triple giant carries a buckler, which resembles a wheel.  In the field of the coin are two oxen. AE1, 2."

M. De Witte contends for the Asiatic origin of the myth of Geryon, remarking that "a tradition, preserved by Pausanias, places the tomb of Geryon in Lydia."  The coin of Blandos alludes to that local myth – a circumstance which he regards a corroborative of his own views on the subject.

The legend HERC. GADIT. Appears on an aureus of Hadrian; but the type of that coin does not represent Hercules fighting with Geryon; but the unconquered hero holds the apples of the Hesperides, whilst at his feet is the recumbent figure of Oceanus.

No, 11 – HERCVLI LIBYCO. – Hercules wrestling with Antaeus, suffocates him in his arms. – Gold of Postumus, formerly of the Cabinet de France, disappeared at the time of the robbery in 1831.  Mionnet, T. ii. P. 61. – This piece which well be found in Banduri 's work (T. i. 287), was engraved after a cast preserved at the French Institute.

[Fable tells us that when, in the course of his peregrinations, Hercules arrived in Lybia, his progress was opposed by a mighty giant named Antaeus, son of Neptunus and Terra, whose strength as a wrestler was invincible, so long as he remained in contact with his mother earth.  Boasting that he would raise a temple to his father 's honour with the skulls of those whom he conquered in certain luctationis, he compelled the strangers who came to the country of Irasa, of which he was king, to engage in athletic combat with him, and slew his antagonists, when he had exhausted them with fatigue

Having challenged Hercules, the cruel savage was three times prostrated by the intrepid hero, but in vain.  Hercules perceiving at length the source of the giant 's force and security, lifted him up from the ground, and caused him to expire by violently compressing him in his arms].


In the series of twelve labours (observes M. De. Witte), the wrestling of Antaeus is substituted on the reverse of Postumus, for the taking away of the apples of the Hesperides. – Sometimes in the succession of labours the order is changed.  At other times some subjects are omitted or one of the twelve great labours is replaced by one of the other exploits of Hercules.  It is thus that Pausanias, in describing the pediment of the Temple of Hercules Promachos at Thebes, makes a remark that Praxiteles, instead of the combat against the birds of Stymphalus, and the cleansing of the Augean stables, in other words the draining of the country of Elis, had introduced the contest with Antaeus.  Moreover, the scene of this wrestling with the giant, as well as the garden of Hesperides, was placed in Libya; thence the epithet Lybiecus, which Hercules bears on the aureus of Postumus; and Servius gives it to be understood that it was in pursuing his course towards the abode of the ~Hesperides, that Hercules vanquished Antaeus. – "Item ad Hesperides perrexit, et Anthaeum, filium Terrae victum luctatione necavit."

Some painted vases and several Greek coins exhibit the conflict of Hercules and the Libyan athlete.  This group is also found on a small brass of Maximianus Hercules, with the legend VIRTVTI AVGG."


No. 12. –HERCVLI INMORTALI .(sic) Hercules, with the club and lion 's skin on his shoulder, drags Cerberus enchained.  Billon of Postumus, in the imperial and royal cabinet of Vienna.  Spanheim, i. 265; Mionnet, ii. 61; Banduri, i. 291.

[The twelfth and last labour of Hercules was that in which conducted by Minerva and by Mercury, he descended into the kingdom of Pluto, whence he delivered Thesueus; and dragged forth into the light of day the watch-dog of the infernal regions.  Eurystheus, however after having seen that triple headed monster ordered Hercules to lead him back again.  Of this crowning and closing trial Ausonius sings

Cerberus extremi suprema est meta laboris.

The myth of Cerberus describes him as born of Typhin and Echidna; huge in size, extremely cruel, with a terrible voice, and of extraordinary strength.  Guard of the gates of hell and of the dismal palace of its sovereign, this fearful dog was not less cunning than ferocious; he fawned upon and gave deceitful welcome to those who entered; but he never permitted them to go out again, and devoured those who attempted to escape from the dark realms of "gloomy Dis." – See Millin, Dictionnaire de la Fable, for an article on Cerberus, full of well condensed mythological information]

The subject is typified on a great many painted vases, engraved stones and Greek coins; -also on an aureus of Maximianus Hercules, in which the dragging forth of Cerberus is accompanied by the legend HERCVLI INMORTALI, exactly the same as is read on the denarius of billon engraved in No. 12.

All the labours of Hercules being then accomplished, his submission to Eurstheus no longer continued, and the hero reposed.  This repose like his labours, was a favourite and a noble subject of composition for artists; a fine example of which through prostituted to the flattery of an execrable prince, will for its monetary excellence be given another page. - SEE HERCVLI ROMANO.

Then commenced a series of exploits, performed, so to speak , from his own will and on his account.  Amongst other desperate enterprises, he decended again into the regions below, and rescued therefrom Alceste, who had devoted  herself to death for her husband. -"These decents into the subterranean world of paganism (says Millin, Gal, Mythol. ii, 181) are allegories of the mysteries of Eleusis, into which he gained initiation."  Unable after suffering horrible tortures, longer to endure the effects of wearing a tunic tainted with the empoisoned blood Nessus, which that centaur had deceitfully persuaded Dejanira to send her husband, he to terminate his miseries, caused an immense funeral pile to be raised on Mount Oeta; and Philoctetes lighted the fire in which the hero was consumed.  The idle of the great Alcides descended to the infernal regions, but he was himself conducted by Iris and by Mercury into the presence of the celestial deities; Jupiter reconciled him to Juno; he received the honours of the apotheosis, and obtained the hand of  Hebe.

And here in direct reference to the tradition of his deification, this coin presents the type of his concluding work, and conformably to pagan assumptions, the legend records the title of his immortality.  Tacitus says - "Hercules and Bacchus among the Greeks, and Quirinus (Romulus) amongst the Romans, are placed in theranks of the gods".  And thus by comparing the reign of Postumus with the career of Hercules, the people of Gaul sought to honour an emperor who had long prosperously governed and against all opponents gloriously defended them.

Hercules Alexiacus. - Among other attributes this apotheosised hero had a medicinal influence assigned to him, and for that reason was surnamed Alexiacus (one who drives away illness). He was likewise regarded as the presiding divinity over baths of health supplied from hot springs.  This serves to explain the meaning of one of two medals struck during the last years of Caracalla 's reign and which bear reference to the precarious state of the health of that emperor, which the remembrance of his crime as the murderer of his brother, was secretly undermining.  The silver coin in question has for the legend of its reverse P.M. TR. P XVIII COS. IIII. P.P. (Sovereign Pontiff, invested with the Tribunal dignity for the eighteenth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country).  The type represents Hercules holding a branch in his right hand and in his left his club and the spoils of the Nemaean lion. - See AESCILAPIUS, p. 21.

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