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The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart is a military award given to United State soldiers who are injured or killed in combat.  Since April 1917 the medal has been awarded in the name of the President of the United States to men and women of the armed forces (and, for a brief period, to civilians who were injured in meritorious action with the enemy).  The Purple Heart medal is indeed a purple heart with a profile relief statue of George Washington.  Above his head is the coat of arms of the Washington family (who were descended from British nobles) which consists of red and white bars beneath three red stars with holes in them.  The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with silver-white edges—which is also what the service ribbon for the Purple Heart looks like.

The Purple Heart Service Medal

The Purple Heart Service Medal

In 1945, the United States military was planning an all-out amphibious assault on Japan.  Military planners reckoned that this campaign would lead to an unprecedented number of casualties, so the Pentagon ordered 500,000 purple hearts to give to the troops injured or killed. However, thanks to hard-working scientists, the physical nature of the universe, and President Truman’s uncompromising orders, the assault on Japan became unnecessary.  In all succeeding years (and throughout all subsequent wars), total American casualties have never approached this number, so Purple Heart awards given out today are practically antiques.

The Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit

The Purple Heart is an incredibly distinctive looking award with a unique name and a powerful, unusual color.  What is the meaning behind the color of the medal?  The color and shape of the medal were conceived by no less a person than George Washington himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  Washington wanted to award common soldiers who had committed deeds of unusual merit and he commanded that such soldiers be honored with the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart shaped patch sewn onto their uniform.  The Badge of Military Merit is generally viewed as the first military award of the United States Armed Services, but, most unfortunately we do not know what exactly the enigmatic Washington was thinking when he chose the color (although the meaning of the shape, at least, seems obvious).  Perhaps the general associated purple with the noble qualities of sacrifice, valor, and courage which the badge was meant to embody.  Whatever the case, Purple Hearts bear a unique personal connection to George Washington, the foremost of the fathers of the nation.

An artist's interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

An artist’s interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

 

Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

Octavia as the Tyche of Corinth (from the collection of the Museum of Corinth)

In Hellenic culture, Tyche was the sacred goddess of a city’s destiny.  Confusingly, each different city worshipped a different tutelary version of the goddess, however Tychewas always the same goddess–a daughter of Aphrodite by Hermes (or possibly a daughter of an Oceanic titan by Zeus).  Tyche represented the fortunes of a city in a time when cities were frequently destroyed by famine, war, or disaster—so she was regarded as a fickle goddess.  Her emblem was a crown in the shape of a city’s walls and parapets.  In time she evolved into the Roman goddess of Fortuna—a goddess of luck and chance (whom many poets reviled as a fickle harlot).  Even after the decline of the Roman principate in the west, Fortuna was a common theme of medieval literature and song.

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Tyche’s crown—otherwise known as the mural crown–went on to acquire a different (though related) significance.  As the Romans swept through the Mediterranean world conquering city after city and state after state, the Roman army was often put in the position of besieging walled or fortified cities.  This was a profoundly dangerous task, as the defending army had the upper hand until the walls were stormed or breached.  The first Roman soldier to climb the wall of an enemy city and place the Roman standard atop it was rewarded with the mural crown (“corona muralis”).  The corona muralis was the ultimate reward for bravery (and fortune) and was regarded as second in martial honor only to the grass crown presented to a general who had saved an entire army.   Unlike the grass crown, which was made of, well, grass, (or the laurel crown presented to a victorious general) the mural crown was made of solid gold and thus had an immediate practical value as well as being a symbol of tremendous bravery.

Modern medals just aren't the same

Modern medals just aren’t the same

The Romans made use of many crowns during the time of the Republic.  Some proclaimed exceptional soldiers or dominant politicians.  Other crowns were worn by athletes, brides, or festival celebrants.  An entire list of Roman coronae can be found here.  Later on, as the empire began to crumble, Emperors might wear jeweled diadems, but in the republic a very different sort of crown stood above all the rest.

The grass crown was the highest reward a Roman military man could receive during the time of the Roman Republic (and for a brief period at the beginning of the Roman Principate).  A general could only win the grass crown by saving an entire army.  Well, actually, the crown was once given to a mere centurion for saving an army–so it was saving an army that was important.  Usually such a thing could only be accomplished by commanders.  A mere handful of the greatest Roman warriors ever received this singular honor.

The crown was woven out of grass, weeds, and wildflowers taken from the ground where the person receiving the award saved the army.  It was made by soldiers and presented by them to their savior, so it may have lacked the sophistication and loveliness of fancier wreaths and garlands.  Nevertheless the Romans esteemed it above all other headgear. Pliny the Elder described the grass crown in Chapter XXII of his work The Natural History (translated by John Bostock):

Of all the crowns with which, in the days of its majesty, the all-sovereign people, the ruler of the earth, recompensed the valor of its citizens, there was none attended with higher glory than the crown of grass. The crowns bedecked with gems of gold, the vallar, mural, rostrate, civic, and triumphal crowns, were, all of them, inferior to this: great, indeed, was the difference between them, and far in the background were they thrown by it. As to all the rest, a single individual could confer them, a general or commander on his soldiers for instance, or, as on some occasions, on his colleague: the senate, too, exempt from the cares and anxieties of war, and the people in the enjoyment of repose, could award them, together with the honours of a triumph.

But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to any one but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the “obsidional” crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. …

The crown thus presented was made green grass, gathered on the spot where the troops so rescued had been beleaguered. Indeed, in early times, it was the usual token of victory for the vanquished to present to the conqueror a handful of grass; signifying thereby that they surrendered their native soil, the land that had nurtured them, and the very right even there to be interred—a usage which, to my own knowledge, still exists among the nations of Germany.

Pliny went on to list the men who received the grass crown.  It is a short list of Rome’s greatest victors.  Here is that list of peerless Roman commanders with a brief explanation:

  • Lucius Siccius Dentatus (a general during the great civil struggles between the plebians and the patricians)
  • Publius Decius Mus (received two grass crowns—one from his own army, and a second from the legions he had rescued)
  • Fabius Maximus (received the crown for creating and employing “the Fabian strategy” a series of delaying tactics by which Hannibal was ultimately expelled from Italy)
  • Marcus Calpurnius Flamma (a commander who led 300 volunteers on a succesful suicide mission to free the consular army which was caught in a defile during a batule in the First Punic War)
  • Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (adopted grandson of the famous Roman general of the same name: Scipio the younger won his his grass crown in the final Punic war–which saw the utter destruction of Carthage)
  • Gnaeus Petreius Atinas (the previously mentioned centurion, who saved a legion during the Cimbri wars by means of good leadership and heroic battlefield prowess )
  • Lucius Cornelius Sulla (the great dictator won the crown in fishy circumstances during the Social War at Nola  [Pliny is dismissive of the award–and of Sulla])
  • Quintus Sertorius (who defeated several large armies campaigning in Spain–but may not have recived the grass crown[Pliny’s language is unclear])
  • Augustus (the crown was presented to Augustus by the Senate but was it was a political homage to an emperor rather than an army’s reward for its general.)

After Augustus, the grass crown exits history.  It lingers only as a memory of the warlike virtues of the Roman Republic.

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