NGC Ancients: The Coins of Mars

Posted on 3/12/2024

The god of war appears on many coins of the ancient world, the fate of which was often determined by armies.

The name of the month of March in English (and most of the other major European languages) derives from Mars, the Roman god of war. The month itself often marks a resumption of military campaigning, along with other activities, following the winter. In fact, the date for Caesar’s assassination (the Ides of March) was chosen because he was expected to leave days later for a military campaign in the east.

Mars is the equivalent of Ares, the god of war in Greek mythology. Let’s take a look at how Ares and Mars were portrayed on ancient Greek and Roman coins.

Ares is shown on the obverse of this electrum hecte (ca. 412-378 B.C.) from Lesbos, a Greek island off the western coast of modern-day Turkey. The reverse features an Amazon, a female warrior of ancient Greek mythology. Greek coinage honoring Ares is not abundant, as Ares was viewed by many as a destructive and destabilizing force.

Greek power was at its zenith in the ancient world around the time this silver stater of Corinth was struck in the late 4th or early third century B.C. A flying Pegasus appears on one side of the coin, while the other side is dominated by Athena, the goddess of war who was viewed as a protective force. A small figure of Ares is shown standing behind her, with a spear and shield. Through military strength, Alexander III “the Great” built one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, but his death at age 32 in 323 B.C. left various successor states vying for power.

To the west of Greece, two regional powers were growing: the Romans and the Carthaginians. And the Greek settlement of Messina on the island of Sicily would play a major role in determining the future of the ancient world. A group of Italian mercenaries had been living as guests in Messina in 288 B.C. when they decide to betray their hosts. After killing most of the population, they named themselves the Mamertines — after Mamers, the Oscan war god who is the equivalent of Mars and Ares. This bronze coin showing the god of war was struck by the Mamertines around 264-241 B.C. Aware that their treachery had made them vulnerable, the Mamertines forged an alliance with Rome, which sparked the First Punic War, in which Rome defeated the Carthaginians and annexed Sicily.

Rome and Carthage were soon at war again, sparked by the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s historic invasion of Italy in 218 B.C. The Brettii people of southern Italy took advantage of the situation to try to shake off Roman domination of their affairs by allying with Hannibal’s forces. This bronze didrachm struck around 211 to 208 B.C. shows the helmeted head of Ares, with Athena advancing on the reverse.

The god of war was honored by both sides in the Second Punic War, as Rome struck coins like this gold 60 asses, which shows a bearded Mars on the obverse and an eagle (representing Jupiter) above the word ROMA on the reverse. By 201 B.C., Rome prevailed in the war and then proceeded to Romanize the Bruttium region, which lies just northeast of Sicily.

Roman power continued to grow in the 2nd century B.C. as the Third Punic War ended in Carthage’s destruction. Rome did face a serious threat from the north, including from the Cimbri and Teutons, Celts who dealt a devastating blow at the Battle of Arausio in 105 B.C. in what today is southern France. This silver denarius of Q. Minucius Thermus M.F. was issued around 103 B.C.; its obverse shows Mars while the reverse depicts a Roman protecting a fellow soldier as he battles a Celtic warrior. Rome was able to prevent a full-scale invasion by winning the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 B.C.

As Rome transitioned from a Republic to an Empire, Mars continued to be held in high esteem. This silver denarius was issued by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14), while the reverse shows the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). Its construction fulfilled a vow Augustus made at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C., in which he and his allies triumphed over Cassius and Brutus, assassins of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. The temple served as the centerpiece of the magnificent Forum of Augustus.

A striding Mars is shown on this silver denarius struck amid Roman civil war in AD 68-69. Emperor Nero’s death in A.D. 68 threw the Roman Empire into chaos, with three successors (Galba, Otho and Vitellius) dying violently in rapid succession in A.D. 69. Vespasian was able to re-establish control, ruling as emperor for a decade.

It was under Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) that the Roman Empire reached its maximum extent. The reverse of this silver denarius of Trajan shows Mars advancing, holding the goddess Victory and a trophy. Trajan wasn’t born with imperial blood, but his successes as a military leader were so popular that they led the childless Emperor Nerva to adopt him. Trajan’s Column, which was built late in his reign and depicts the wars between the Romans and Dacians, is still standing in Rome today.

This Faustina the Younger bronze coin (called an “as”) shows on its reverse Mars with Venus, the goddess of love. In Roman mythology, Mars and Venus are divine consorts. Oftentimes, members of ruling families used coins like these to portray themselves in the guise of divine figures. As the wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Faustina was empress from A.D. 161 to 175 as well as the mother of the nefarious Emperor Commodus. She was so popular that, after her death, she was deified, and her statue was placed in the temple of Venus.

The reverse of this bronze sestertius of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) shows Mars advancing as he holds a spear and trophy. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors,” and two monuments dedicated to him survive today in Rome: the Column of Marcus Aurelius (celebrating his battles against barbarians) and the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius.

This aureus of Emperor Caracalla (A.D. 198-217) shows a helmeted Mars holding a spear and a branch. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus preferred to go by his nickname of Caracalla, a type of cloak worn by northern Europeans that he liked to wear. Caracalla’s life was not a peaceful one: He had his brother and co-emperor Geta murdered in A.D. 211, and he himself was slain six years later by a disgruntled soldier while on a military campaign in the east.

This rare billon denarius of Emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) shows Mars advancing toward Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin who became the mother of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus. Mars’ rape of Rhea Silvia is a key element of Roman mythology, establishing that the founding of Rome itself was linked to the divine. Emperor Gallienus is portrayed on the coin’s obverse in a Corinthian helmet. Gallienus ruled during the Crisis of the Third Century, during which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed. He battled several usurpers and was ultimately slain by one of his own soldiers.

This billon nummus of Emperor Constantine I (A.D. 307-337) shows the familiar image of Mars advancing with a spear and shield. It is dated to early in his reign, before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, which was fought by the armies of Constantine and Maxentius, a rival claimant to the title of emperor. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber during the battle, and Constantine went on to consolidate power and convert to Christianity.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group and Heritage Auctions.

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