By Austin Andrews for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
Infanthood is one of the few universal conditions that every adult has once experienced, which they cannot explicitly recall. Within this known ignorance, there is a fascinating projection of humanity onto the divine, in terms of religious sentiment and human psychology. If the gods look and act like people, with their unique personalities and eccentricities, then, according to some ancient accounts, they must also share in infancy and childhood.
Across the ancient Mediterranean, there were a number of anthropomorphic divinities who appeared on coins and on other visual media in the form of very young humans as their conventional iconography. Other gods manifested in this way in only certain instances, usually engaging a particular type of myth comparable to comic book “origin stories”, either portraying scenes from a divine childhood or, in some cases, a pre-apotheosis mortal childhood.
The exploits of child-gods often exhibited the realms of their authorities; visual representations provide a snapshot of these stories. Such evocative narratives and images demonstrate various ancient conceptions of the divine and what issuing authorities sought to evoke with such figures on their coinages. To survey these ideas, let us turn to three examples, reviewing infant representations of the gods known as Zeus, Herakles, and Eros in Greek, or in Latin as Jupiter, Hercules, and Cupid.
A baby is observable on the reverse of the above antoninianus minted in the middle of the third century CE (Fig. 1). He wears a bunched garment, rides a goat sidesaddle, and enthusiastically raises his outstretched right arm at the elbow. In other instances of this type, the figure seems to grasp one of the goat’s horns to steady himself. In this specimen, he may be holding something in front of his chest, but this is otherwise unclear. He glances playfully behind his livestock steed. The goat strides atop a simple groundline, her head raised and horns upright. If the image did not make it clear to the viewer as to who is being represented, the text of the Latin inscription, IOVI CRESCENTI, settles that fact, celebrating “to the growing Jupiter.”
The goat-rider is none other than the infant Jupiter, the king of the gods.
In myth, Jupiter’s infancy was an escape from a fraught scenario. Hesiod’s Theogony (c. eighth ccentury BCE), a title that could also be rendered in English as “The Birth of the Gods”, is one of the earliest written accounts of this myth. Here, the god Saturn (Kronos in Greek) defeated his own father and, thereafter, was justifiably paranoid that his own children would in turn similarly overthrow him (Hes. Th. 453–481). As each of his successive children was born, Saturn ate them whole. To prevent the loss of her sixth and youngest child, Saturn’s wife fed him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes in lieu of the child and hid the baby—the infant Jupiter—where he could grow to the point of being able to overthrow his father and to induce him to vomit up his now fully grown divine brothers and sisters. Variations of the god’s rearing emerge across the span of the millennium between Hesiod and when these coins were designed. Among the most popular narratives associated with the suckling Jupiter in the wilderness or on a faraway island includes his being raised and nursed by a she-goat or a nymph with a she-goat attendant, both variously called Amalthea, who we see depicted here as the proud goat with her ward.
The obverse of this coin features the radiate Valerian II, the son of the Roman emperor Gallienus, co-ruler with Valerian I. Valerian II was briefly elevated to Caesar, or junior emperor, as a young teenager in 256 CE. Nicholas M. McQ. Holmes in the Numismatic Chronicle, Vol. 177 (2017) noted that the reverse type is “unparalleled in any other coin series” and argued that the youthful Valerian II is being identified explicitly here with the myth of the king of the gods with this image as another emerging young leader, in order to invoke hopes for him to have such a successful future rulership in adulthood. Holmes suggests further that the image and myth tied Valerian back to a cult of Jupiter and Amalthea unique to his family’s hometown of Falerii in Etruria (Holmes, 153).
Unlike the immortal Jupiter, however, Valerian II died in 258 CE, well before his age of maturity.
While Zeus is always described as a god born to gods, one of his sons, Herakles, is typically presented in myth as having been born human and later elevated to divine status after a series of extraordinary heroic (if not always moral) acts. This presentation of Herakles as a demigod who achieves divinity accounts more easily for representations of his childhood. Mortal adults start off initially as mortal babies, unlike the occasional divinity who springs fully formed from a god-parent’s head, like Athena (Minerva) did from Zeus’s head, or emerges gracefully from a foamy sea, like Aphrodite (Venus). Herakles was the product of the union of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alkmene. Zeus’ wife Hera, the queen of the gods, unsurprisingly, is usually described as unhappy with this fact, even with Herakles’ ironic, or euphemistic, name, meaning “Hera’s glory”.
The infant Herakles is shown on the reverse of the above electrum coin from Thebes, minted in the fourth century BCE (Fig. 2), with similar types found on other Theban silver staters (Fig. 3). A pervasive narrative across the ancient Mediterranean describes a divine-hero conquering a serpentine monster, often representing darkness, chaos, and evil simultaneously. Notable among these stories are Apollo slaying Python and Zeus slaying Typhon. One story that riffs on this narrative type is associated with the infant Herakles encountering two malicious snakes and strangling them with his clenched baby fists. Some sources present these snakes as having been intentionally sent by Hera.
Herakles would go on to encounter snakelike figures during the course of his famous 12 labors forced upon him by Hera, including the regenerative multi-headed Lernaean Hydra and Landon, the dragon protector of the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.
The scene of the serpent-conquering infant was so popular in antiquity, it is found in almost every imaginable medium, from early vase paintings to mosaics to wall paintings, even earrings (Fig. 4). Artistic representations sometimes show variations, such as a funerary altar for the 15-year-old Lucius Marcius Pacatus now at the Ashmolean Museum, which depicts the infant killing the Hydra. These infancy myths are meant to foreshadow later feats and overall powers to come, proving that his heroic and divine strengths were not just achieved, but, in fact, were inherent to his being.
Visible on the reverse of the electrum coin are the Greek letters Θ and Ε, an ethnic indicating Thebes, and on the obverse of the silver stater, a Boeotian shield, a symbol uniquely associated with Boeotia, the geographical region around Thebes. Thebes was commonly connected in myth with Herakles, as his birthplace, the site of his rearing, and where he maintained a seat of power between his (mis)adventures. With this coin, the city-state of Thebes underscores this connection, claiming one of the most important Panhellenic deities as its own son. It was in Thebes where Herakles not only walked but also where he once crawled.
While Greek and Roman art often depicts Zeus as a bearded, regal adult and Herakles as a lionskin-clad, club-wielding hulk of a man, they each occasionally appear on coins as babies to make a particular point. Yet there were several gods acknowledged and worshipped in antiquity who almost exclusively appear in the guise of young children. The Greek god Eros, for example, is most often shown as a baby, usually as an attendant to his mother, the goddess Aphrodite (Cupid and Venus to the Romans). While some visual and textual traditions depicted Eros/Cupid as a young man, on coinage, viewers mostly encounter him as an infant or young toddler; here, on the reverse of an aureus of Julia Domna, we see the small, winged child before his enthroned mother on the reverse (Fig. 5).
As noted on the inscription of this obverse, this is not just any Venus, but specifically, Venus Genetrix, defined as “Venus the Progenitor” or “Venus the Ancestress”. Invoking Venus Genetrix—and her divine offspring—was initially propagated on a large scale by the Roman dictator Julius Caesar because of his self-mythologizing associations with the goddess. He claimed that his clan, the gens Iulia, was founded by Iulus, a figure he further equated with Ascanius, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Critically, Aeneas was the son of Venus herself. Thus, according to Caesar, the gens Iulia was a direct product of divinity and was, therefore, a kinsman of Cupid.
This premise is taken up further by Caesar’s successor, nephew, and adopted son Octavian (Augustus) as he becomes the first Roman emperor. Associations with Venus and Cupid became early visual hints of the imperial family’s divinity, as can be seen with a small Cupid holding onto the emperor in the reproduction of the famous Primaporta Augustus statue that stands in the ANS’s coin viewing room (Fig. 6). This iconography persists throughout the imperial era, finding resonances with Roman rulers well into the end of the third century CE.
Other figures appear on ancient coins as divine babies or babies approaching divinity.
The god Harpokrates, for example, like Eros, was depicted almost exclusively as a baby or young child with his mother (e.g., Fig. 7). Harpocrates was an Egyptian god adopted in the wider Mediterranean beyond Egypt alongside the widespread worship of Isis and Serapis as a divine Egyptian triad.
Along with Eros, there also was often a whole entourage of diminutive young, winged deities, usually called “erotes”, the Eros-like, who attended Aphrodite, primarily functioning as attributes. The list goes on: an infant Bacchus sits on a cista mystica (ANS 1944.100.46489) and the divine or divinized son of Domitian sits spangled on the globe (ANS 1975.226.78).
In reviewing the infantile imagery of these several gods on coins, a few patterns begin to emerge. Gods as babies are often shown on coins to make a specific point by representing a particular moment in their mythological biographies. Depictions of gods as infants, babies, and young children reflect the understanding that the Greek and Roman gods had social and familial relationships, that they came from somewhere, and that, in some capacity, they were once born and grew as we do.
Greek and Latin sources often frame the gods with epithets such as “immortal” or “deathless” to contrast them with our mortality and its necessary conclusion. This framing, however, did not preclude their starting points, i.e., having been conceived, born, and reared. There is a vivid contrast to the considerable power, influence, and authority associated with the divine against the weakness, dependency, and stark mutability for which babies are famous—and people, too, more generally. Yet, while philosophers from Plato to Augustine and beyond have sought to parse the implications of such a theological quandary, as we have seen, sometimes people need to engage images of such characteristics to point to concepts perhaps more powerfully and effectively than an adult figure could.
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