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The Labors of Hercules

The demigod Hercules has captured the imaginations of generations since ancient times, and stands as one of the most famous personas from classical mythology. Hercules is the Roman adaptation of the Greek divine hero Heracles, and the tales of his adventures are many.  The most famous of these adventures became known as the “Twelve Labors” and established Hercules as the greatest of the Greek demigods and Heroes. Hercules has been immortalized through numerous stories and works of art, including on Ancient Greek, Roman, and multiple modern coinage series. We preview here from our Stack’s Bowers Galleries August ANA World’s Fair of Money auction in Chicago, `a gold 100 Litrae featuring the first and possible most iconic of Hercules’ Twelve Labors, his slaying of the Nemean Lion.

This particular coin was minted at the city of Syracuse — on the island of Sicily situated off the coastal toe of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea — the most important city in Magna Graecia. Syracuse was a major power in the ancient world and rivaled Athens in size during the fifth century B.C. The issuing authority was the Tyrant Dionysios I, a cruel yet effective tyrant, who ruled through his “personal guard” of mercenaries, essentially a private army loyal only to him. The obverse of this coin features a design typical for a Syracusan coin, the effigy of the river nymph Arethusa and the ethnic — or legend — stating “Syracuse”. The nymph Arethusa was a maiden who became the desire of a river deity. He pursued her through the woods until she beseeched Artemis the moon goddess for aid. Through divine intervention Arethusa was transformed into an underground stream and directed to emerge as a fountain on the island of Ortygia the historical center of the city of Syracuse. The reverse features the demigod and hero, Hercules. Shown in the nude, Hercules is kneeling facing right strangling the Nemean Lion.

The first of Hercules’ heroic Twelve Labors which would establish him as legendary figure, the slaying of the Nemean lion would provide the crucible that tempered Hercules into mythic proportions. The Twelve Labors are most often considered a penance for past crimes, which would need to be completed to achieve immortality. The oracle at Delphi directed Hercules to serve King Eurystheus in the completion of tasks of epic proportions. Most often the tasks were to slay a mythic beast, such as the Hydra, or to capture an elusive creature, one of which was the golden deer of Artemis. The first and possibly most significant was the slaying of a vicious lion terrorizing the Peloponnesian peninsula. The lion was immense, with claws like daggers and a golden hide that was impervious to mortal weaponry. The beast was fond of luring warriors into its cave then devouring them. Hercules began by stalking the beast outside of its cave, and firing arrows at it. The arrows bounced off the lion’s hide harmlessly. Hercules then cornered it in its cave, stunned the beast with his club, and then used his titanic strength to strangle the beast to death. Hercules then desired the lion’s pelt as a trophy, but was unable to pierce its hide with a knife. Cleverly, Hercules used the beast’s claw to skin it, and wore its pelt as armor and headdress. The impenetrable hide provided ample armor for his later heroic deeds. The image of Hercules wearing the lion’s skin may be the most prominent visual representation of the demigod, and is the obverse design for the famous Tetradrachms of Alexander the Great. In addition to Alexander, many Roman emperors identified with Hercules as well. Hercules and his heroic exploits are some of the most well known portions of classical mythology, and represent an oft-used design in the numismatic world.

Look for this and other ancient and world numismatic rarities in our Official Auction of the ANA World’s Fair of Money in August. Preview this impressive coin along with the rest of our auction this July at the Stack’s Bowers Galleries office located in Irvine, California. For details please refer to the Events Calendar on our website. To schedule an appointment, please call 800.458.4646. While our Stack’s Bowers Galleries August ANA World’s Fair of Money Auction is closed for further consignments, we are currently taking consignments of ancient and world coins for our November 2014 Official Auction of the Whitman Coin & Collectibles Baltimore Expo and 2015 January New York International Auctions. Time is running short, so if you are interested in consigning your coins and paper currency (whether a whole collection or a single rarity) be sure to contact one of our consignment directors.

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