After returning from particularly notable campaigns, the commanders of Roman legions would distribute small coins to their men as rewards for their service and mementos of their time in those campaigns. These coins were the originators of a now ancient tradition—the challenge coin—that continues all these centuries later, with generals like Washington, Grant, and Mattis handing out small, specially designed coins to their men the same way generals like Fabius and Scipio did.
What is so telling about the power and purpose of this tradition is that other communities have picked up on it as well: 12-step groups hand them out to mark stretches of sobriety, government agencies give them out to mark service in a presidential administration, and so on. We even have challenge coins here at Daily Stoic to immortalize the most important Stoic concepts—Memento Mori, Amor Fati, Sympatheia, the Four Virtues, and more.
What binds these disparate groups in their attraction and connection to the challenge coin is the way that the word “challenge” can be taken and turned and applied to the lives of the people in those groups. In one sense it can be taken to mean that if you’ve been given a coin—for, say, serving on a campaign—you can be challenged by a compatriot from the campaign, and if you’re not carrying it, drinks are on you. In another sense, these coins represent and memorialize the actual challenges that their holders have been through or are currently dealing with. In this way, one would not expect to find a set of challenge coins commemorating a family’s annual spring break vacation destinations; whereas marking 10 years of recovery or memorializing membership to the hallowed ranks of 9/11 first responders makes perfect sense for a challenge coin.
The idea fits hand in glove with Stoic philosophy. To the Stoics, life was all about challenge. Those who have never been tested should be pitied, Seneca said, because they don’t know what they’re capable of. To Marcus, philosophy was all about challenging yourself. It was about settling on words and reminders (epithets, he called them) to live up to, particularly in difficult situations.
We must always be challenging ourselves. Seeking to be part of important moments in history, not running away from the call to serve or to help others. A challenge coin is a way to memorialize that kind of challenging idea and the standards required to live up to it. It’s something we can carry with us, something we can touch, something to remind us of all that we have done and all that we must do.
So… are you up to the challenge?