From Nike, Winged Goddess of Victory, to an Angel in Three Coins

A winged goddess of victory has been a widespread image over the past two and a half millennia. Here I illustrate her transformation from Greek goddess to Roman goddess to Christian angel with three coins spanning a period of about 900 years. 

She, Nike, appears in Archaic form in a statue from Delos, dating to the 6th century BCE and found in front of the old Temple of Artemis in 1887. A famous 5th century BCE sculpture of Nike by Paionios was found at Olympia in 1875 and the even more famous Winged Victory of Samothrace, dating to the second century BCE, was found in 1863.

Nike also appeared on coins and a beautiful ancient Greek example from the fourth century BCE shows this winged goddess of victory carrying a wreath and a naval stylis (what appears to be a staff with angled trident head).  

Reverse of gold stater of Alexander III (The Great), Ake mint, dating to 308/9 BCE, showing Nike with wreath in right hand and stylis in left hand.

In her later Roman guise as the goddess Victoria Augusta she appears in the same form, offering a wreath while standing on a globe in the emperor's left hand, as seen in this coin of Arcadius. She was shown frequently on Roman coins from the third century BCE onwards (Doyle 2015).

Reverse of Arcadius (383-408) solidus, Constantinople mint, 395-7 CE. The emperor, in military attire is standing right holding a standard in his right hand and winged Victory on globe in his left hand. The legend is VICTOR IA AUG GGØ with COMOB in exergue, S and M in fields.

By later Byzantine times, the name Victoria is there on the coins in the same place as before, but now the winged figure has become an angel carrying a staurogram and globus cruciger. Two centuries after the Arcadius solidus, the transformation from winged victory to angel is complete.

Reverse of Maurice Tiberius (582-602 CE) gold solidus showing facing angel with grounded staff surmounted by staurogram in right hand and globus cruciger in left hand. VICTORI A AUG GI. CONOB in exergue. Constantinople mint.

The winged goddess of victory has continued to appear in numerous monuments over the centuries since then, notably on the Victoria Memorial in London. More pervasive still of course are the images of winged angels.

To finish with, here is the Orphic Hymn to Nike in the 1792 translation by Thomas Taylor:

"O Powerful Victory, by men desir'd,

With adverse breasts to dreadful fury fir'd,

Thee I invoke, whose might alone can quell

Contending rage, and molestation fell:

'Tis thine in battle to confer the crown, 

The victor's prize, the mark of sweet renown;

For thou rul'st all things, Victory divine!

And glorious strife, and joyful shouts are thine.

Come, mighty Goddess, and thy suppliant bless,

With sparkling eye, elated with success; 

May deeds illustrious thy protection claim,

And find, led on by thee immortal Fame."

Or, in the more sober translation by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (1977):

"I call upon mighty Nike, beloved of mortals,

For she alone frees men from the eagerness of contest,

And from dissent when men face each other in battle.

In war you are the judge of deeds deserving prizes,

And sweet is the boast you grant after the onslaught. 

Nike, mistress of all, on you and your good name depends noble glory,

Glory that comes from strife and teams with festivities.

But, blessed and beloved one, come with joy in your eyes,

Some for works of renown and bring me a noble end."

On a bridge in the city of York


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