Tracing inspiration – commemorative coins for the Persian Wars

Twenty-five centuries ago, the Greek city-states faced their first great threat, not only against their independence, but against their very existence. The threat was the great expeditionary force of the Persian Empire whose aim was to take over the entire Greek peninsula.

In August and September of 480 BCE, two great battles were fought between the great Persian army led by king Xerxes himself, on one side, and on the other, the alliance of the Greek city-states.

Thermopylae – the defeat

A force of approximately 7,000 Greeks managed to hold the narrow passage of Thermopylae for several days, until the Persians, led by the traitor Ephialtes, surrounded the Greeks by means of a mountain path. King Leonidas of Sparta chose to hold the spot with his small force of 300 Spartans and a few hundred Helots (slaves) for as long as possible, in order to give time to the rest of the Greek army to fall back. Seven hundred fighters from the small city of Thespiae chose to fight with them. There never was any doubt as to what the outcome of the battle would be, as the Greeks were outnumbered several times over. However, the defeat was a morale success, boosting the legend of the Spartan warriors and demonstrating to the invader the willingness of the locals to fight for their independence to the end.

Salamis – the victory

Having overrun Thermopylae, the Persians quickly marched south, taking control of most of mainland Greece. The situation for the Greek city-states was critical. Yet only a month later, the allied Greek navy managed to strike a decisive blow against the Persian fleet. Their reduced numbers not allowing them to control Greek seas, the Persian ships withdrew; without naval support the Persian land forces were now unable to continue into the Peloponnese and subdue the rest of Greece. The war was far from over and the threat remained, but the Greeks could fight on.

Both battles were important; the land one on a moral level whereas the naval one decided the war. Recognizing their importance for the history of Greece (and the rest of the western world) the Greek state plans various commemorative events, among which is the issue of a series of collectible coins.

Coins as bearers of messages

Since antiquity coins had symbolic value, besides their monetary one.

The images stamped on them would transmit messages about the history, traditions and/or ambitions of the monarchs or states that minted them. Ancient coins bear motifs based mostly on religion and mythology.

Commemorative coins

The circulation of a two-euro coin is planned; the obverse (heads) will have the image of a Corinthian helmet and the inscription “2,500 years since the battle of Thermopylae”. The reverse (tails), bearing the coin’s value, is common to all euro coins.

Another such commemorative two-euro coin had been issued on the occasion of 2,500 years since the battle of Marathon.

Other special mints planned are two silver 10-euro coins and a golden 200-euro one.

Pictorial sources

But where did the designers of these modern coins draw their inspiration from? Let us attempt to trace their origins.

The two-euro coin

The Corinthian helmet on the 2-euro coin is quite well-known; it was and still is an iconic part of the ancient Greek panoply. It was used throughout the Greek world from the 7th until the mid-5th century BCE and hundreds of them have been found in excavations, both in Greece and abroad. It is estimated that about 100,000 helmets of this type had been offered to the great sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia.

The ten-euro coin

Of the two silver coins that will be minted, one will commemorate the naval battle of Salamis. The obverse will bear the head of Themistocles, the commander of the allied Greek fleet, while the reverse will have a motif of stylized triremes (the era’s fighting ships).

The face of the Athenian commander was probably based on a Roman portrait of his, today in the museum of Ostia, Italy. As for the triremes, there are several representations of ships in ancient Greek art.

The other silver coin will bear the image of a Greek hoplite (fighter) on the obverse. He will be shown as a hero, naked, with only a helmet and shield. The shield will bear the name Leonidas while the background will be full of spears. The reverse will show Greek and Persian warriors.


Leonidas and the sculptures of Aphaia

The image of Leonidas bears a striking resemblance to the sculptures of the temple of Aphaia, on the island of Aegina, Greece, especially those from the eastern pediment of the temple, which shows the first siege of Troy, by Hercules, son of Zeus. The sculptures, which date from the early 5th century BCE, were discovered in Ottoman-occupied Aegina in 1811 and were sold to a young art-loving German prince, who would later become king Ludwig of Bavaria. Before being exhibited in Munich, the sculptures were sent to Rome, where they underwent extensive restoration by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. An ardent classicist, the artist made many additions to the sculptures, which were not supported by later research and were reversed in the 1960s. Casts of Thorvaldsen’s restorations are now exhibited next to the originals, in Munich’s Glyptothek, and it seems that the coin’s depiction of Leonidas is based on one of those, namely figure II, rather than its newer, more accurate, restoration.

Figure II, pediment of Aphaia, Munich, Glyptotek

Let me add here that the subject of the artwork is a mythical battle, which is why the figures are shown idealized, which in ancient Greece meant naked. They only bear their helmet and weapons (spear and shield) just as in the modern coin. In reality, Greeks went to battle clothed and bearing all the protective gear they could afford.

The reverse

For a more realistic depiction of Greek hoplites, one has to look at the other side of the coin. Around the central coat of arms, two lines of fighters converge: Greeks on the left and Persians on the right.  Let us now look for the artwork these depictions are based on.

Greek hoplites

Hoplites were the heavy infantry of ancient Greece. They were armed with spear and carried a heavy round shield called aspis. Images of hoplites abound in Greek art, both in pottery and miniature art. The designer of the modern coin seems to have based his own version on artwork from the archaic era.

Let me show you just two examples of such artwork, the so-called Chigi vase and a bronze statuette from the oracle of Zeus in Dodona. Both show ancient Greek hoplites in bronze cuirasses.

Persian warriors

The Persian fighters seem to have been taken right off a relief from the Persian palace of Sousa, which bears depictions of “Immortals”, i.e. elite troops of the Persian court. It is quite probable that the Immortals are shown in parade outfits and not the ones they actually wore in combat.

Persian fighters, frieze, Sousa

The 200-euro coin

The most expensive coin of the series will bear a scene copied from a kylix (a wine cup) made in Attica in the beginning of the 5th century BCE, by an artist known to archaeologists simply as “the Triptolemus painter”. The scene shows a Greek hoplite ready to strike a fallen Persian opponent, who tries to defend himself by raising his own sword. The artist was surely inspired by the battle of Marathon, fought near Athens a mere few years before the cup was made.

The coin’s other side bears the Greek coat of arms and the coin’s value, surrounded by a series of shields and spears, indicating a phalanx, i.e. a line of Greek fighters. To me, this motif bears a striking resemblance to the depiction of a phalanx found in Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300”.

Tracing the origins of inspiration

It is quite interesting that the modern images, although depicting Spartans, are mostly based on artworks from Athens and Aegina. It is also interesting that the modern artist opted for the 19th-century, idealized classicist restorations rather than the more accurate modern ones.

The main reason for this is certainly the fact that the Spartans themselves left few great sculptural works, such as those found in Athens or Aegina. Few exceptions survive, such as the bust of a hoplite, initially thought to depict king Leonidas, unearthed in the sanctuary of Athena Chalkeoikos on the Spartan Acropolis.

No matter what images the coins’ artist based his designs on, they commemorate two great battles which determined the turn of history.

I will certainly be on the lookout for these coins. What about you?



Image credits:

Aristotle Koskinas: helmet, bronze statuette, fragment of the “Archers’ frieze” and Chigi Vessel (both pictures from an exhibition in Zappeion, Athens, 2010), kylix, statue of “Leonidas”, lead offerings.

Two-euro coin, Themistoclesbust of Themistocles: History of the Greek Nation, vol. II, TriremesLeonidasGreeks and Persians, figure from the pediment of Aphaia: C. McNab, Greek Hoplite vs Persian Warrior, 2008, reinactor: Y. Kadoglou, reinactors: the Plataeans & UK Hoplite Association200-euro coin.



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