Shields were an essential tool of war in the ancient world. They came in many sizes, ranging from small bucklers strapped to a soldier’s arm to heavy, oblong shields the height of an infantryman’s body.
They were made in many shapes and were decorated with a wide variety of designs. Shields were depicted frequently enough on ancient coins that they now constitute a collecting theme all their own.
The standard shield for the Macedonian army of Alexander III, “the Great” (336 to 323 B.C.), was light and round. It usually is represented on coins as having a central tondo (circular work of art) with a design element surrounded by a concentric pattern of what appear to have been smaller shield devices, usually numbering five to seven, each with a star or a pellet in its center. Because these design elements in the periphery fade with the curvature of the shield, they often resemble crescents rather than circular decorations.
The small version of this shield, used by pikemen, was usually about 24 inches in diameter, whereas hoplites (spearmen) carried larger shields that typically measured about 34 inches across.
Macedonian shields common
Macedonian shields were depicted on coins of various kingdoms and cities. Not surprisingly, they most often occur on issues of the Kingdom of Macedon. Though the design of the periphery of the shield is fairly consistent, what appears on the tondo in the center is open to much variety.
Four major issues of Macedonian silver tetradrachms use the shield as an obverse type. The earliest is attributed to King Antigonus II Gonatas (277 to 239 B.C.), who placed the head of the god Pan in the center of the shield. Pan wears goat horns and a goat skin, and has his hunting stick, a lagobolon, at his shoulder.
The later Macedonian king Philip V (221 to 179 B.C.) decorated the center of his shield with the head of the hero Perseus, who has at his shoulder a distinctively shaped knife called a harpa. Some of these portraits represent only the hero, whereas others are vivid and lifelike enough to suggest that they are portraits of the king.
Finally, on some silver tetradrachms struck after Macedon had succumbed to Roman rule, the shields have in their center the draped bust of the goddess Artemis with a bow and quiver at her shoulder.
The first of these, attributed to the period circa 167 to 148 B.C., was struck in very large quantities, whereas the second, apparently struck circa 148 to 147 B.C., is quite rare and may have been issued when a Roman embassy arrived in the wake of a rebellion.
The Macedonian shield was also used as the obverse type for Macedonian silver tetrobols thought to have been struck from the 180s to the 160s B.C. by the Macedonian kings Philip V and Persus (179 to 168 B.C.).
One tetrobol has on its tondo a knotted club, sometimes alone, but usually bisecting the national inscription MAKE (abbreviating MAKEΔONΩN). The other has a “whirl” design comprising a pellet from which four or six curved rays emanate.
The “whirl” was also used on silver coins of the Macedonian city Bottiaei and on small bronzes of the kings Alexander III and Philip V. It seemingly is an adaptation of the star or sunburst design that appeared so commonly on shields carried by Macedonian soldiers.
Shield on bronze coins
The greatest variety of Macedonian shields, however, appears on bronze coins of the Macedonian kings. Most are of the “half-unit” denomination struck for Alexander III or his immediate successors, though some are quarter-units. They almost always show on their reverse a crested helmet of an equally distinctive Macedonian type.