History of Awards
The history of unit commanders giving their soldiers medal coins go as far back as at least ancient Egypt. Records indicate that the ancient Egyptians were given golden bees or flies for individual acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. An accumulation of these "flies and bees" entitled the recipient to receive land, goods, and elevated status within Egyptian society.
The Roman Legions routinely minted and distributed commemorative coins and medals for members who participated in various campaigns and battles. History has indicated that the Romans used the occupying legion or the unit’s logo as the coin of the realm. These coins were used to purchase goods and services within the occupied jurisdiction.
During the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, champions were not originally awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals as they are today. Instead, ancient Olympic victors were awarded an olive branch twisted into a circle to form a crown. The wild olive, called Kotinos, had deep religious significance for the ancient Greeks. At the ancient Olympics, only the champion was recognized—there were no prizes for runners up. In our modern era, medals recognizing the top three finalists have supplanted the olive-crown as the Olympic award.
Most can probably recall seeing at least one Olympic medal ceremony. The sight of a triumphant Olympic athlete stooping to receive the gold medal as his or her country's anthem plays is one of the more moving images of each Olympiad.
Orders of knighthood, such as the Order of the Bath and the Order of the Garter, still exists in Great Britain. British orders created in modern times-e.g., the Distinguished Service Order (1886), the Royal Victorian Order (1896), the Order of Merit (1902), and the Order of the British Empire (1917)- are decorations for civil and military service. Orders of knighthood, where they still exist, among the some of the best-known awards for orders of chivalry are the Order of the Golden Fleece, created 1429 by Philip the Good of Burgundy and conferred by Austria, and by Spain; the Danish orders of the Dannebrog (1219) and Elephant (1462); the Italian orders of Annunziata (1362) and of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (1434); the papal order of the Golden Spur (1559); the Prussian orders of the Black Eagle (1701) and Red Eagle (1734); the Swedish Order of the Seraphim (1748); and the Polish orders of the White Eagle and of Polonia Restituta (1919). The French Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon I in 1802, is composed of an unlimited number of knights and headed by a grandmaster (the president of France).
In the late 19th and 20th century, countries in many parts of the world followed the lead of the European nations and instituted elaborate systems of honors. Most European orders are graded in several classes, and the stars, crosses, ribbons, and another insignia corresponding to different classes vary greatly in aspect and value. Major military decorations include the Medaille Militaire (France, 1852); the Croix de Guerre (Belgium and France, 1915); the Iron Cross (Germany, 1813; revived in 1939); and the Victoria Cross (Great Britain, 1856).