CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
Muse, sing in honor of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, lord of Kyllene, lord of Arcadia with all its sheep, bringer of luck, messenger of the gods. His mother was Maia with the wonderful hair, a shy and shamefaced nymph who stayed in her shady cave, avoiding the company of the blessed gods.
—Homeric Hymn to Hermes (c. 520 BCE)
TO THE GREEKS, HE WAS HERMES. To the Etruscans, he was Turms. To the Romans he was Mercurius. He played many different roles in the myths and beliefs of these ancient peoples, but as a god of profit and commerce, he was often represented on money.
Collectors of classic American coins will be familiar with the “Mercury” dime, issued from 1916 to 1945. The name is based on a misunderstanding. The winged cap worn by the figure on the obverse is one of the distinctive attributes of the ancient god, but the sculptor, Adolph Weinman (1870-1952), modeled the female head of “Liberty” on his neighbor, Elsie Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens.
Kaunos, a seaport at the southwest corner of Anatolia, was the capital of the Carians, a non-Greek people who were strongly influenced by trade with their Greek neighbors. Possibly the earliest coin to depict Hermes is a silver stater of Kaunos dated to c. 490 BCE. A muscular figure of the god is shown running, with wings on his back.
The little town of Pheneos (or Feneos) in the Greek region of Arcadia lies at the foot of Mount Kyllene, the legendary birthplace of Hermes. Some of the earliest Greek coins depicting Hermes were issued here. On a rare silver half-stater attributed to Pheneos, Hermes appears with a pointed beard, and his signature flat traveler’s hat, the petasos.
Mantineia, another city of Arcadia, pictured the head of a youthful Hermes on a small silver obol (c. 470 – 460 BCE). The beardless Hermes became the standard representation in Greek art:
In early archaic art, Hermes is a bearded, muscular and rather comical figure … In the sixth century, Hermes begins to lose his beard and becomes, as Apollo had been before him, the image of the perfect young gentleman … the flower of physical and mental culture refined by the leisure arts of music and gymnastic… (Brown, 100)
Ainos (or Aenus, now Enez in the European part of Turkey) was a thriving seaport at the northern end of the Aegean Sea. For centuries, Hermes was featured on the coinage, wearing a distinctive round cap with a beaded rim. A rare late archaic tetradrachm shows the young god in profile. As a god of herds and flocks, his sacred animal, the goat appears on the reverse.
The Etruscans were an enigmatic people who lived in Northern Italy. Although they spoke their own language, they were deeply influenced by Greek culture. Populonia, an important center of iron production, was one of the few Etruscan cities that issued silver coinage in the fourth century BCE. A magnificent didrachm – one of only three known examples – depicts the god Turms (the Etruscan version of Hermes) wearing his winged petasos. Like most Etruscan silver coins, this remarkable piece is single-sided, with a blank reverse. In a 2015 European auction it brought over $72,000 USD.
During the classical era (c. 500 – 323 BCE), engravers developed the ability to realistically model human features – including the challenging facing portrait, which directly confronts the viewer. A startling example is a tetradrachm of Ainos with the facing head of Hermes, dated to c. 402-399 BCE when the town regained its monetary independence following the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. The wide-eyed face of Hermes is turned slightly to one side, with wild curls spilling from under his broad hat.
Not to be outdone, Pheneos produced handsome new coin depictions of Hermes. On a small silver obol c. 370-340 BCE, the inevitable hat is thrown back off the head, hanging by a cord. The reverse shows a walking ram below a kerykeion, the herald’s staff that was another emblem of the god.
Perhaps the finest image of Hermes on any ancient coin appears on the reverse of a silver stater of Pheneos, c. 360-350 BCE. The naked god stands, twisting in a dynamic pose, holding his nephew, the infant Arkas on his left arm. Arkas (or Arcas), the namesake of Arcadia, was the son of Zeus and Callisto. The quality of the overall design and the details of the engraving are superb. A cataloguer writes:
“These coins were surely designed to pay mercenaries: the years around 360 were dangerous ones in Greece and there was a considerable amount of fighting going on. The fact that such beautiful coins were made for such a reason may seem surprising, after all soldiers could be paid just in bullion, but it once again shows that civic pride was a major factor in the way coins were conceived and designed.”
Rome derived much of its religion from the Etruscans. The first Roman temple to Mercury was dedicated in 495 BCE between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, in the area of the Circus Maximus. Romans depicted the head of the god Mercury on some of their earliest coins; the enormous (up to 300 grams) cast bronze pieces called aes grave (“heavy bronze”). On the common bronze semuncia denomination of about seven grams, struck c. 217-215 BCE, Mercury appears on the obverse with the prow of a warship on the reverse.
Roman officials who commissioned coin designs during the Republic often commemorated the antiquity of their real or imagined ancestors to promote their political careers. C. Mamilius Limetanus, who issued a series of silver denarii in 82 BCE, claimed descent from the hero Odysseus (known as Ulysses to the Romans). Ulysses, in turn, was a great-grandson of the god Hermes (Mercury). The head of Mercury, with his staff over one shoulder, appears on the obverse of the coin, while Ulysses and his faithful dog Argos are on the reverse.
Many Greek cities under Roman rule issued their own local bronze coinage, often featuring local cults or myths. For over a century, on its small change the town of Bizya in Thrace paired the head of Hermes with a reverse showing his staff with wings. Seleucia ad Calycadnum (now Silifke on the southern coast of Turkey; there were many different cities named Seleucia in the empire) issued a large bronze under Gordian III (238-244) with a dramatic scene of Hermes, identified by his staff, pursuing a woman (perhaps Eurydice).
About the year 172, the Roman army of Emperor Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by warriors of the Quadi, a fierce Germanic tribe, while fighting on the Danube frontier. Cut off from water sources, the legions were perishing of thirst when a sudden rainstorm saved them. This “rain miracle” was credited to the intercession of Mercury, as god of the air. A version of the story promoted by later Christian sources attributed the miracle to the prayers of Christian converts among the troops. On coins of the period, a standing cloaked figure of Mercury, with his signature winged hat and staff, appears on the reverse, with the abbreviated inscription RELIG AUG (“religion of the emperor”) asserting Marcus’s commitment to the old gods, the only time this phrase appears on any Roman coin.
One of the last appearances of Mercury on Roman coinage came during the brief reign of the emperor Trajan Decius (249-251), who was slain in battle against the Goths along with his 24-year-old son Herennius. The reverse of a magnificent gold aureus of Herennius as Caesar (the term meant “junior co-emperor” in this era) shows the god holding a purse, in his role as the patron of commerce and prosperity.
Assembling set of all 12 Olympian gods, in their Greek or Roman incarnations would be an interesting challenge for a collector. The most common Greek list is: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, and Hermes. The Roman equivalents are: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Vesta, Minerva, Diana, Apollo, Venus, Vulcan, Mars and Mercury.
For what it’s worth, the Etruscan names are Tinia, Uni, Nethuns, Aita, [no equivalent], Menrva, Artums, Aplu, Turan, Sethlans, Maris and Turms, but only a few of these appear on coins.
Hephaestus (Vulcan to the Romans), god of fire and metalworking, is probably the most difficult to collect, since he appears on very few coins.
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 Hyde, 371
 Noble Numismatics Auction 102, 9 April 2013, Lot 4221. Realized $210 USD.
 LHS Numismatik Auction 96, 8 May 2006, Lot 1596. Realized $13,843 USD.
 Ira & Larry Goldberg Auction 96, 14 February 2017, Lot 1612. Realized $4,500 USD.
 Roma Numismatics, Auction 10, 27 September 2015, Lot 23. Realized $72,838 USD.
 Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 96, 6 October 2016, Lot 1056. Realized $71,436 USD.
 The astrological sign for the planet Mercury (☿) is based on the design of Hermes’ staff, which is often erroneously described as a caduceus (the staff of the healing god Aesculapius, which is entwined with twin snakes.)
 Triton XV, 3 January 2012, Lot 1013. Realized $300,000 USD(!)
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 64, 17 May 2012, Lot 890. Realized $4,232 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 408, 25 October 2017, Lot 367. Realized $240 USD.
 CNG Auction 105, 10 May 2017, Lot 683. Realized $475 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 68, 9 July 2003, Lot 128. Realized $46 USD.
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 11, 23 August 2014, Lot 247. Realized $75 USD.
 Triton IX, 10 January 2006, Lot 1557. Realized $17,000 USD.
Brown, Norman O. Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. New York (1947)
Jones, John Melville. A Dictionary of Greek Coins. London (1986)
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York (1999)
Israelowich, Ido. “The Rain Miracle of Marcus Aurelius: (Re-) Construction of a Consensus”, Greece & Rome 55 (2008)
Johnson, Richard and David Mulroy. “The Hymn to Hermes and the Athenian Altar of the Twelve Gods”, The Classical World 103 (2009)
Stevenson, Seth W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1964)
NGC-Certified Ancient Coins Featuring Hermes Currently Available on eBay