The Greek hero Heracles — known to the Romans as Hercules — looms
large in ancient mythology.
As a son of the supreme Greek god Zeus, he was destined for
greatness, but faced many trials in his adventurous life. He is a
frequent subject in Greek art and makes innumerable appearances on
The chief opponent of Heracles was Hera, the most powerful of the
Greek goddesses. As the wife of Zeus, she bore a grudge against
Heracles for having been born to a mortal woman in one of Zeus’ many
affairs. Though Heracles held a place in the Greek pantheon, he is
considered a demi-god because of his mother’s mortality.
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Hera tried to kill Heracles as an infant by sending two serpents
into the crib he shared with his mortal half-brother Iphicles. But the
effort failed when Heracles strangled both invaders and played with
them as toys.
Later, after he married a mortal woman and fathered her children,
Heracles was driven mad by Hera to such a degree that he murdered his
children. The penance Heracles then endured comprised his celebrated
“Twelve Labors,” which he performed on behalf of his archenemy Eurystheus.
Heracles’ many adventures
Though these “Twelve Labors” were Heracles’ most famous deeds, he
had many other adventures. Among them were his search for the Golden
Fleece with the Argonauts, his slavery (and subsequent marriage) to
the Lydian Queen Omphale, the liberation of the Titan Prometheus, and
the sacking of Troy prior to its destruction in Homer’s Trojan War.
When Heracles finally died, he did so in a heroic fashion — even to
the point of uprooting the trees needed to build the pyre upon which
his body was burned. In dying, the immortal element of Heracles’ being
was released and rose to Mount Olympus.
With such a long and rich life, filled with some of the most
memorable exploits in Greek mythology, Heracles was destined for portrayal on many coins
in the Greek world. Indeed, he appears on coins struck in places as
far-flung as Spain, Britain, North Africa, and Afghanistan. A book of
considerable size would be required to document and illustrate every
His appearances occur as both portraits and figural images. The
latter type is extremely varied, ranging from a standing figure
holding his most familiar symbols, a club, bow, arrow-filled quiver,
and lion’s skin, to active scenes showing him engaged in a labor or
some aspect of one of his many adventures.
The Greeks used his portrait on a great many coins issued from the
sixth century B.C. through the third century A.D. The most familiar
type shows him youthful and clean-shaven, wearing as a headdress the
scalp of one of his victims, the Nemean lion. The forepaws of the
unfortunate lion are tied around his neck. This image was reproduced
on a very large scale by the Argead kings of Macedon, who considered
themselves to be descendants of the hero.
Alexander the Great’s coins
The first Argead king to use the youthful portrait of Heracles on a
large scale was Alexander III ‘the Great’ (336 to 323 B.C.). It graces
the obverse of almost all of his silver coins and appears on a large
percentage of his bronzes, which also were struck in immense quantities.
On a much smaller scale, the portrait of Heracles had appeared on
coins of several of Alexander’s predecessors, the kings Archelaus (314
to 400 or 399 B.C.) through Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.). These kings
used a mix of young, clean-shaven portraits and mature, bearded
portraits of the hero.
The debate endures as to whether or not facial features of Alexander
III are incorporated into the youthful Heracles portraits on his
coins. That discussion is not yet resolved, though if any of
Alexander’s Heracles portraits are meant to portray the famous king,
the best candidates would be the ones struck at Babylon near the end
of his life.
Alexander’s coin types were adopted by his immediate successors and
by many independent Greek city-states. In fact, some cities used his
coin types down through the first century B.C., as they found economic
benefit in striking their own versions of Alexander’s familiar coin type.
Many independent mints in the Greek world used the youthful Heracles
head on their coinage. Rather large issues of silver tetradrachms
portraying Heracles were struck in Sicily by the Carthaginians to fund
their war with the Greeks early in the third century B.C. Also, silver
drachms and hemidrachms with a Heracles head modeled after Alexander’s
were struck in the third and second centuries B.C. at Callatis, on the
western coast of the Black Sea.
Copies of Alexander’s youthful Heracles also appear on independent
coinages struck in Asia Minor in the fourth and third centuries B.C.
These include silver tetradrachms and didrachms of the island of Cos,
silver diobols of Pergamum in Mysia, and silver and bronze coins of
Erythrai in Ionia of the fourth through the second centuries B.C.
Mature images of Heracles
The mature bearded portrait of Heracles also appears frequently on
Greek coinage. In fact, it had been used on some of the earliest Greek
coins to bear artistic designs, including electrum coins of circa 550
to 500 B.C. attributed to the cities of Erythrae and Cyzicus in
western Asia Minor.
From the mid-fourth through the third centuries B.C. the bearded
head of Heracles occurs on coins from Sicily, as well as from issues
of Carystus on the island of Euboea, the island of Cos, and the city
of Heraclea in Pontus. Some especially artful bearded Heracles heads
appear on bronzes issued by Ptolemaic kings of Egypt during the second
The popularity of Heracles as a subject of coin designs — especially
as reverse type remained strong even after the Greeks lost their
autonomy to the Romans. Portraits of Heracles rarely are used on Roman
Provincial (or Greek Imperial) coins because a Roman portrait almost
invariably occupies the obverse. However, on some issues Heracles’
head appears on the obverse, or, on some rare occasions local leaders
were able to depict Heracles in lieu of their Roman overlord.