The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 26, Number 15, April 9, 2023, Article 27


Austin Andrews of the American Numismatic Society published a Pocket Change blog article on child-gods on coinage. Here's an excerpt - see the complete article online. -Editor

Infanthood is one of the few universal conditions that every adult has once experienced, which they—other than subconsciously—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.


  Antoninianus of Valerian, Infant Jupiter on a goat obverse Antoninianus of Valerian, Infant Jupiter on a goat reverse
Figure 1. Antoninianus of Valerian, Gallienus, Lugdunum, 255 CE. Obverse: VALERIANVS CAES. Bust of Valerian II, radiate, draped, facing r. Reverse: IOVI CRESENTI. Infant Jupiter on a goat, facing r. (ANS 1957.172.1208).

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 side-saddle, 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. 8th c. 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 were 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 in this period, 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, p. 153). Unlike the immortal Jupiter, however, Valerian II died in 258 CE, well before his age of maturity.

While Zeus (or Jupiter) is always described as a god born to gods, one of his sons, Herakles, or Hercules for the Romans, 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.

  electrum diobol infant Herakles strangling serpents obverse electrum diobol infant Herakles strangling serpents

Figure 2. Electrum diobol, Thebes, 4th c. BCE. Obverse: Dionysus head. Reverse: Herakles as infant strangling serpents (ANS 1967.152.253).

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. 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 babyfists. Some sources present these snakes as having been intentionally sent in wrath by Hera, angered at the product of her husband's extramarital dalliances.

To read the complete article, see:
Wee Deities on Coins (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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