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The History of Trophies: Ancient Awards

From the cities of ancient Greece to the bustling arenas of Rome, the human quest for recognition and achievement has been a constant throughout history. This enduring desire has manifested itself in various forms, including the creation of awards and trophies, which are seen as tangible symbols of honour and victory. 

In this blog, we’ll be diving into the evolution of these various awards, which provide a fascinating insight into the values of civilizations past and present. These trophies may have been given thousands of years ago, but some of them will look very familiar – if nothing else, humans certainly have a thing for tradition. 

Source: World Aquatics

In the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, medalists also received olive wreaths in commemoration of the ancient tradition.

Ancient Egyptian Awards

We begin our journey into the history of awards and trophies a few thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian trophies were usually made from gold, which was considered to be the skin of the gods and goddesses of the Egyptian pantheon, in part due to its abundance. Even today, Egypt is a land rich in gold, whilst silver was comparatively rare.

Unfortunately, a lot of what we know about Ancient Egyptian awards is down to interpretation of archeological finds and hieroglyphics. One such example of a theorised Ancient Egyptian award was the Golden Fly, which is thought to have been an honour given to military personnel for acts of bravery and valour in battle. Whilst a fly may seem a strange choice for a military award due to our modern associations with the pest, the Ancient Egyptians actually associated flies with courage and tenacity

Source: Egypt Museum
This Golden Fly necklace belonged to Queen Ahhotep, and was given to her by her sons to thank her for her support in the struggle for liberation against the Hyksos. It was discovered in her tomb.

Other pieces of gold jewellery, such as necklaces, collars, bracelets, and rings, were also given as rewards by royalty. Jewellery was highly valued, which is why the Ancient Egyptians always buried their dead adorned in jewellery, and why any depictions of their gods or kings were also embellished. Shebyu collars, for example, were gold necklaces covered in beads which were presented to individuals by the king as a form of honour. Another example of honour jewellery were a’a-armlets

Source: The Met Museum

These are the Armlets of Amenhotep, which were found in the coffin of a young child alongside a shebyu collar, presumably as a parting gift from the child’s father.

Rather than being part of official schemes or programmes like in modern times, these honours and awards were a way for the pharaohs and other important figures to recognize and reward individuals who had made significant contributions to the kingdom at their own discretion. They were also a way to promote loyalty and obedience among the people.

Awards in the Roman Empire

Often remembered as one of the greatest civilisations in history, The Roman Empire was founded in the 7th Century BC, and lasted for about 1000 years. An empire doesn’t get that far without a strong military, and civilians who are loyal to the emperor. The Roman Empire, therefore, had various honours and awards that were bestowed upon individuals for their military achievements, civic contributions, and loyalty to the state. 

Depictions of the most prestigious crowns awarded in the Roman Empire.

Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, the Roman Empire had more official awards programmes which meant military commanders were regularly presented with a range of medals upon their return from battle. These medals were presented in a Triumph, which was a grand celebration involving a ceremonial procession through the city, showcasing the triumphant general, soldiers, and captured spoils of war. 

This illustration depicts the Triumph of Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in 202 BC, where he received the Grass Crown.

The Laurel Wreath (corona triumphalis) was one of the two most coveted military awards available, and was awarded to a triumphant general in honour of his victories.

Also incredibly prestigious, the Grass Crown (corona obsidionalis or corona graminea) was reserved for generals, commanders and officers who saved the entire army. It was only given in the most extreme circumstances, when all hope had otherwise been lost, and would be presented to the general by the soldiers. 

One step down from the Grass Crown was the Civic Crown (corona civica) which could be presented to any Roman citizen – not just high-ranking soldiers. The Civic Crown, which was a chaplet made of oak leaves, was reserved for those who had saved the life of another citizen. 

Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen

On display at the Louvre, this is an early 1st Century AD marble bust depicting Emperor Augustus wearing the Civic Crown.

Other Roman honours included the Gold Crown (corona aurea), which was awarded to centurions who had killed an enemy in single combat, and the Naval Crown (corona navalis), for the first soldier to board an enemy ship. Similarly, ground troops could receive a Mural Crown (corona muralis) if they were the first soldier to mount the wall of an enemy camp.

Athletic Awards in Ancient Greece

Whilst the Roman Empire was celebrating great battles and handing out war medals, the Ancient Greeks began to honour those with particular athletic prowess. The Olympic Games were first held in the 8th Century BC, and, just like the Olympics we know today, took place every four years. 

Illustrations were painted onto vases to commemorate winners of the Olympic Games. In this painting, the goddess Nike is shown presenting a laurel wreath to a winner.

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, a group of four individual games which were arranged as such that one would take place each year. The other games were the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games.

The Pythian Games were held every four years, two years after each Olympic Games – much like the Winter Olympics today. These games were held in honour of the Greek god Apollo, and were considered the second most important, behind the Olympics. Those victorious received wreaths woven from bay laurel.

The Nemean Games were held once every two years in honour of the Greek god of the sky, Zeus. Victors at the earliest Nemean Games received wreaths of olive branches, which were then replaced with wreaths made from wild celery leaves. This same prize was awarded at the Isthmian Games, which also took place every two years, and honoured Poseidon. 

As well as wreaths, winners also received financial prizes100 drachmas at the Isthmian Games and 500 drachmas at the Olympics. The most noteworthy victors were even celebrated with life-sized statues, often made from bronze, and paintings on vases which would then be given to them as a prize. 

Source: Mintage World

At later Games, coins were created to commemorate winners, especially in events like wrestling and horse-racing. The coins above show wrestling, chariot racing, and discus.

The Legacy of Ancient Awards

This legacy extends far beyond the confines of history, with these ancient trophies serving as a source of inspiration for modern-day accolades. From the coveted medals of the Olympic Games to the prestigious trophies awarded in various fields of endeavour, these symbols continue to embody the pursuit of excellence, the recognition of extraordinary feats, and the desire to leave a lasting legacy.

As we strive for greatness in modern times, let us draw inspiration from the stories of ancient awards and trophies. Let us remember that these tangible symbols represent not only the triumphs of the past but also the potential that lies within each of us to achieve remarkable things. May we continue to honour exceptional achievements, inspire future generations, and strive to leave our own mark on the world.

Personalised Awards in the 21st Century

Just as the Ancient Greeks would meticulously paint depictions of each winner on their vases, we value the enhanced feelings of recognition and pride delivered by personalised awards. As the UK’s leading manufacturer of 3D crystal, our two decades worth of experience in creating crystal awards and trophies allows us to achieve unbeatable quality using state-of-the-art 3D laser engraving. 

Our huge range of crystal awards, trophies and gifts includes a wide variety of designs to suit all budgets, tastes and occasions from corporate awards to academic accolades. Let us know what you need and when you need it, and we’ll do the rest. We ship worldwide and offer a same-day courier service for UK orders. Every award will be supplied in a high-quality, satin-lined presentation gift box.

Browse our range of crystal awards or contact the Laser Crystal team for further information, to receive a quote or if you’d like a sample. Alternatively, pop us a call on 01202 675000 and we’ll be happy to chat to you about your project!

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