NGC Ancients: The Twelve Labors of Hercules ‒ Part One

Posted on 1/11/2022

The Greco-Roman hero Hercules is often portrayed on coins, many of which tell of his adventures.

Hercules is one of the world’s best-known mythological figures. He was revered and worshiped in ancient Greek and Roman society, with even Roman emperors associating themselves with this great figure.

As such, Hercules was frequently depicted on Roman coins, including the denarius below. In most cases, he was depicted as a statue or standing figure. However, he sometimes is shown engaged in great adventures. Below we’ll share some of the coins that portray his stories.

The serrate denarius above, made in 80 B.C. by C. Poblicius Q.f.,
shows Hercules strangling the Nemean lion.

Though Hercules had many adventures, the twelve most important ones were performed in service to the Greek king Eurystheus. These were canonized as the ‘labors of Hercules’. In this tale, Hercules had to do penance for killing his own wife and children while in a maddened rage induced by the goddess Hera. Overseeing this penance was King Eurystheus, who made Hercules fulfill twelve tasks to earn forgiveness and, in some versions of the story, earn immortality.

In this month’s column we’ll cover the first six labors our hero had to perform, and follow up with the remaining six next month.

First Labor: Slaying the Nemean Lion

Hercules’ first labor was to slay a great lion that had been wreaking havoc near the city of Nemea in the northeast of Greek Peloponnesus. Our hero learned that the lion’s hide was impenetrable when he tried to kill it with arrows. Seeing the futility of this mode of attack, he followed the lion back to its den where he fought it. Eventually, he killed the animal by strangling it.

After defeating the lion, he used the lion’s own claws to skin the beast, and wore its pelt as armor. This is the reason he’s often shown wearing or holding a lion skin.

Despite its rough surface, this 39mm bronze still has good detail. Issued at Perinthus in Thrace during the reign of the emperor Geta (A.D. 209-211), Hercules is shown in the act of strangling the Neaman lion. In this depiction, the lion almost seems to be on its last gasp during the epic struggle.

The billion reduced nummus shown above also shows Hercules strangling the lion. It was made for Constantine I during his brief reign as Caesar (A.D. 306-307). Due to Constantine’s eventual conversion to Christianity, this was one of the last times this scene was portrayed on Roman coins.

Second Labor: Slaying the Lernaean Hydra

Hercules’ second task was to defeat a terrifying creature — a multi-headed hydra. Hera had created the hydra for the sole purpose of killing Hercules. As he fought the hydra, he discovered that when he cut one of its heads off, two would grow in its place. Thus, Hercules called upon his nephew Iolaus for aid, and they worked together to defeat the monster. As Hercules cut off a head, his nephew would cauterize the stump with a firebrand, thus preventing new heads from growing back. After returning to King Eurystheus, Hercules was told this labor didn’t count because he’d had the aid of his nephew.

This 37mm bronze from the city of Amorium in Phrygia, made under Caracalla (A.D. 198-217), has a detailed Hercules on the reverse. His face and muscles are well rendered as he raises his club to strike. However, the hydra he is fighting looks more like a tree than a fearsome monster, and instead of severing its heads, he’s clubbing it!

On this 18mm bronze we get a double dose of Hercules. Minted during the 3rd century A.D. in the city of Hadrianapolis located in Thrace, the obverse shows the bust of Hercules with a full beard. The reverse shows him – as on the previous coin – attacking the hydra with his club. The bow and quiver to the side refer to the flaming arrows Hercules shot into the hydra’s lair to frighten it out.

The above bronze drachm, minted in Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161), shows a distinctive, anthropomorphized version of the hydra. Hercules is shown wearing his traditional lion pelt and raising his club to smite the creature.

Third Labor: Capturing the Ceryneian Hind

With Hercules having accomplished his first tasks with relative ease, Eurystheus gave him one of a different type. Our hero needed to capture the Ceryneian hind and bring it back to the king so he could put it in his menagerie. However, this particular hind was important to the goddess Artemis, which created a problem.

After spotting the animal, Hercules was led on a great chase across Greece that lasted for a year until he was able to catch it. Due to a promise he’d made to Artemis, he allowed the animal to escape after bringing it back to the king.

The emperor Geta is shown with a mature portrait on this 41mm bronze of Perinthus. Hercules is shown kneeling on the rump of the Ceryneian hind while holding its antlers in both hands. It’s interesting that the hind is shown with antlers, despite being female.

Minted in the Thracian city of Anchialus, this 37mm bronze features the emperor Gordian III (A.D. 238-244) in military attire with a spear and shield. Like on the previous coin, Hercules kneels on the hind while grasping its antlers to stop it from fleeing.

Fourth Labor: Capturing the Erymanthian Boar

Upset that Hercules had accomplished all the tasks so far, Eurystheus gave him another difficult job — to capture the Erymanthian boar and bring it back alive. In order to do this, Hercules sought advice from his centaur friend (and mentor) Chiron. Chiron told him to drive the boar into deep snow, where he could be more easily captured.

Hercules followed the advice and was able to capture the animal. When Hercules returned with the boar, the king was so frightened of the beast, he begged the hero to release it.

The bronze drachm above was made in Alexandria in A.D. 146/7, during the reign of Antonius Pius. The reverse shows Hercules carrying the Erymanthian boar as Eurystheus cowers inside a large pot. In many versions of this tale, Eurystheus was said to have made a large pot so he could hide from Hercules whenever he returned from one of his labors.

This highly detailed 41mm bronze from Perinthus is truly spectacular. On the obverse the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211) is portrayed in wonderful style. The reverse shows Hercules wearing his traditional lion skin and carrying the boar above his head. Like the previous coin, Eurystheus hides from the hero in his large pot.

Fifth Labor: Cleaning the Augean Stables

The stables of King Augeas were home to more than 1,000 animals, and they hadn't been cleaned in over 30 years. It was Hercules’ job to clean them. Sensing the impossibility of the task, our hero rerouted two nearby rivers through the stables, rinsing them clean. Eurystheus once again didn’t count this task because Hercules had “help” from the rivers and didn’t accomplish it himself.

Made in Alexandria under Antoninus Pius in A.D. 146/7, the bronze drachm above illustrates our hero's tale. On the reverse Hercules reaches to shift rocks from which river water flows.

Minted by Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) in Perinthus, this 29mm bronze shows Hercules, draped in his lion pelt, about to strike a pile of stones with a muck rake.

Sixth Labor: Killing the Stymphalian Birds

The next labor Hercules had to preform was to kill the Stymphalian birds — fearsome meat-eating, bronze-beaked birds of Ares. The birds lived in a swamp that Hercules couldn’t enter due to the softness of the ground. So, he scared the birds into flight by using a rattle that the goddess Athena had given him. Once they were in the air, Hercules shot many of the birds with arrows, causing the rest to fly away, never to return.

The bronze drachm above was made under Antoninus Pius in the city of Alexandria in A.D. 142/3. On the reverse, Hercules draws his bowstring while, in the background, some of the already-shot birds tumble around him.

The final coin for this first half of our discussion is a 27mm bronze made in Perinthus during the rule of Gallienus. On this rare coin, Hercules holds a bow while fighting off a group of attacking Stymphalian birds.

Tune in next month, when we’ll cover the last six of Hercules’ twelve labors.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here.

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