By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
While Pride month is over, I feel it would be interesting to dive into the history of LGBTQ+ representations on ancient coinage.
This representation can take several forms.
Firstly, as everyone should be aware by now, the LGBTQ+ community is not an invention of modern society. Queer individuals are as much a pillar of humanity as any other. So it stands to reason that, while perhaps not recognized at the time, there have been many LGBTQ+ rulers who have appeared on coins.
Secondly, many ancient myths and legends include LGBTQ+ deities and heroes. So a second form would include cultural and or mythical representations of LGBTQ+ stories or individuals on coins.
Thirdly, there is the specific, and perhaps most salacious, category of ancient Roman spintriae.
LGBTQ+ Rulers on Coins
Ancient societies viewed homosexuality in a very different light than most modern ones. In fact, the term “homosexual” was not even invented until the 19th century by Austrian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny. During the Christian age, anyone not strictly heterosexual was “downplayed or ignored” in the best of times and violently oppressed at others. Ancient society was different. Two main examples are the Mesopotamian religious cult of the goddess Inanna and the Sacred Band of Thebes. The priesthood of Inanna was exclusively comprised of “bisexual and transgender” individuals. They were even “regarded as mediators between the world of humans and that of the divine” and while “sometimes criticized, they were still respected”. In ancient Thebes, a band of 300 men who were partnered and made vows to each other at the shrine of Iolaus, “one of the [male] lovers of the hero Heracles”. This group of elite male warriors was undefeated for 30 years.
Of historic LGBTQ+ rulers who struck coins, the most famous is Alexander the Great. While not too long ago it would have been considered practically heretical to state this fact, it is now well established that his “close friend” Hephaestion was his male lover. Appearing and disappearing from the historical record, Hephaestion was exceptionally close to Alexandar and even fought by his side in the Persian campaign. After Hephaestion’s death, Alexander ordered a “state of mourning” and cut off his hair. He also unsuccessfully attempted to have Hephaestion defied.
The Western Han emperor Liu Che, also known as Han Wudi or the Martial Emperor, ruled from 141 to 87 BCE. One of the most successful rulers in Chinese history, he oversaw the solidification of imperial power and a series of territorial expansions doubling the Han empire. Han Wudi was also bisexual and had a series of male and female lovers in addition to his formal marriages to Empresses Chen and Wei Zifu. His male partners included musician Li Yannian and Han Shuo, the brother a notable courtier.
Gian Gastone de’Medici (r. 1723 – 1737) was the last Medici to rule Tuscany as Grand duke and is another example of a ruler, who, while married, conducted a semi-secret relationship with a man. An unhappy figure who oversaw the final collapse of the Medici dynasty, Gian Gastone had one long-lasting male relationship with the courtier Giuliano Dami. While many of the coins struck in Florence during Gastone’s reign show the fleur de lis or the Medici coat of arms on the obverse and John the Baptist on the reverse, there is a silver coin or tollero with the duke’s portrait.
These three rulers are simply a small sampling of the dozens of LGBTQ+ individuals who held power and produced coins. From Elagabalus (r. 218 – 222 CE) in Rome to King James I of England (r. 1603 – 1625), many well-known individuals are now being recognized for who they really were and many of their relationships are being accepted as legitimate and not just “close friendships”.
LGBTQ+ Myths and Legends on Coins
Next are coins which, while not necessarily struck by LGBTQ+ rulers, are mythic or cultural representations of LGBTQ+ stories or individuals. One of the main examples of this type of imagery is the Imperial Roman coinage that depicts the myth of Ganymede. Struck by the emperors Commodus, Marcus Aurelius, and Caracalla to name a few, these coins almost always depict a nude Ganymede holding or standing next to Jupiter in eagle form.
In this myth, Jupiter came to earth in the form of an eagle to win or abduct (whichever would be easier) the youth Ganymede, who was widely considered “the most beautiful of mortals.” In some of the versions, Ganymede is a man, and in others, he is a young boy. After serving as Jupiter’s cupbearer on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, he was honored by being made into the constellation Aquarius.
Another example of coins being used to commemorate a male lover or other members of the LGBTQ+ community are those struck by the emperor Hadrian with images of his love Antinous. Their relationship was not the same as Alexander and Hephaestion’s, for Antinous, being a teenager, was much younger than Hadrian, age 48. While Alexander never struck coins with Hephaestion’s likeness after his passing, Hadrian did so for Antinous.
The provincial bronze above from Roman Egypt shows the deified Antinous as part of the imperial cult on both faces of the coin. On the obverse, he is wearing the Hemhem or “scream” battle crown. On the reverse, the youth is riding a horse holding a caduceus. Since the youth drowned in the Nile River, it seems fitting that most examples of this type were struck in Egypt.
Another LGBTQ+ individual commonly commemorated on Greek and Roman coins was the ancient poet Sappho. In her lifetime, Sappho was recognized as “among the greatest of poets” and on par with Homer, with the Athenian philosopher Plato naming her the “tenth muse”. Today, she is viewed as a “feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both.” But according to the early Roman Catholic Church, Sappho was a “sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness.” Greek coins usually depicted only her head while Roman coins generally showed the poet playing a lyre.
LGBTQ+ Representation on Roman Spintriae
The last group of ancient coins commonly associated with LGBTQ+ representation is perhaps the most famous: Roman spintriae. The spintriae, often mistaken as brothel tokens, were most likely used as gaming tokens. Their most important feature was not actually the obverse images, which ranged in prurience from depicting nudity and sex acts to simple busts and portraits, but the roman numerals (1-16) on the reverse.
While these tokens are famous for their depictions of both hetero- and homosexual sex acts, they need to be viewed with the most current research in mind and not as lewd pieces of pornography that can be used to demonize both the sex industry and the LGBTQ+ community.
From back in history to the current day, LGBTQ+ discrimination has played a prominent role in our society. As a result, there is an unearned and unfair stigma surrounding the community. It seems that the ancients were much more open-minded and accepting.
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