Thursday, March 3, 2011


Eros was a powerful force in the ancient world. Then as now, Eros could seize you and shake you to the bottom of your being. 

The poets associated him with springtime (Theognis), and gave him golden wings and hair (Anacreon). Early in the sixth century B.C., Sappho of Lesbos called him “the limb-loosener”, and “bitter-sweet”, and described him shaking her heart “like a wind falling on oaks on a mountain”. Her near-contemporary Ibycus (here, in the translation by Richmond Lattimore) also felt his power:
Out of the hard bright sky,
A Thracian north wind blowing
With searing rages and hurt—dark,
Pitiless, sent by Aphrodite—Love
Rocks and tosses my heart.
And Anacreon declared, “Once again, Love has struck me, like a blacksmith with a huge hammer.”

Who was Eros? There was no full agreement on this among the ancient sources. In his earliest form, he may have been a nature god. In the cosmogenic tradition (e.g. of Hesiod) he was a primal force, appearing in the very beginning along with Gaia (Earth) and Tartaros (the Abyss) out of Chaos (the Void), and necessary for the procreation of things. In Olympian mythology, he was the god of Love as sexual desire, though a late Olympian god, and not present in personified form in Homer. According to the different traditions, he was the son of Aphrodite and Ares (or Zeus, or Hermes), or of Iris (the rainbow) and Zephyr (the west wind), or of Uranus and Gaia. Sometimes he took plural form, as the Erotes, who were attendants and helpers of Aphrodite, along with Himeros (Desire) and Pothos (Yearning)—other followers of the goddess were the Three Charites (Graces) and Peitho (Persuasion). Eros is an incorporeal being, a daimon, who links gods and mortals (Plato, Symposium). Like other spirits who operate between the human and the divine—Nike, Hypnos, Thanatos—he is winged (the messenger Hermes, although a god, also has winged sandals and a winged cap, and sometimes wings on his herald’s staff, the caduceus, and Nemesis is often winged as well). 

How was Eros represented? In pre-Hellenistic Greek art he is a youth, not always winged. He pursues lovers with such weapons as a whip, an axe or a sandal, or, slightly later, with his bow and arrows. In the Hellenistic period (third and second centuries) he more often appears as a playful, irresponsible child, and for the Romans he is Cupid or Amor. He is still sometimes portrayed as an adolescent, when it is necessary to make him plausible as a lover (for instance, in the Cupid and Psyche story). Here is a youthful Eros on a fragment of Roman painting in the National Museum in Poznań, Poland.

Eross less interesting brother is Anteros, or Requited Love—the two of them are occasionally represented in fifth-century vase-painting as being blond and dark-haired respectively.

There were famous images of him by Praxiteles and Lysippus in particular. His best-known cult centres were at Thespiae in Boeotia and Parium in Mysia. At Thespiae, Eros was worshipped in the form of a baetyl, or sacred stone, perhaps a meteorite, until Praxiteles fashioned in marble the most famous statue of him, in the fourth centurywhich according to Cicero was all that attracted people to Thespiae, “there being no other reason to go there. The masterpiece was shipped to Rome by Caligula, returned by Claudius, stolen again by Nero, and eventually lost in a fire. Thespiae also had a marvellous bronze statue of Eros by Lysippus (for which, see Type 02). At Parium was the other famous marble statue of Eros by Praxiteles (see Type 13).

In Roman times, Eros appears as an element in many different reverse types of Roman provincial coins, more than fifty altogether—as a slim youth or a chubby putto, as a single figure or together with other Erotes, with his “girlfriend” Psyche, in the company of Aphrodite or some other deity, with a favoured animal like a dolphin or lion, or as part of a more complex tableau like the story of Hero and Leander or the so-called Rape of Persephone. 

In these notes we’ll be surveying the different types, describing and discussing them. We’ll also try to build up a catalogue to show where and when they were struck, and which issues are commonest. We hope that this will serve as a useful work of general reference. Some of the Eros reverse types have been the object of controversy or misunderstanding. We shall have something to say on these topics, and we welcome your comments and criticisms. 

A few other depictions of Eros, for example on tesserae, gemstones and small artworks, will be included for comparison, but not systematically. Specialist studies are available, however, and a few recommendations for reading have been made under “Miscellaneous Erotes” (Type 24).

No systematic attempt will be made to distinguish between variants in the legends on the coins or the types of imperial bust (similarly, it shouldn’t be assumed that the exact descriptions of the coins illustrated in the text necessarily apply to all the specimens known for that type). A large percentage of Roman provincial coins are in any case too worn and battered to permit exact description. The size of the images does not match the size of the coins—sizes are given in the detailed descriptions—and some of the images are deliberate enlargements of especially interesting or attractive coins.

We need your help!
We will need your help in looking for new and unfamiliar types or previously unknown variants, and in building up a corpus of known specimens of even the commonest types. If you have an Eros provincial coin in your collection, even if it is badly worn or not fully identified, please send us a description, including the weight in grams (to one or, if possible, two decimal places, e.g. “3.7 g” or even “3.72 g”), the widest diameter in millimetres and the die axis (e.g. “7 o’clock”), plus digital images of the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. The email address to send this information to is the following:

Please don’t try to send us the coin itself. We won’t use the images without your express permission. However, if we have inadvertently used an image the rights to which are protected, and without obtaining prior permission, please get in touch with us. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.