An Alexandrian tet with an Isis/infant Horus (Harpokrates) reverse

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by DonnaML, Oct 20, 2020.

  1. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    This coin arrived in the mail today. I had never come across another example before, so I bought it as soon as I saw it. I'm very happy with it; the dealer's photos below don't really do it justice!

    Antoninus Pius Billon Tetradrachm, Year 23 (159-160 AD), Alexandria, Egypt Mint. Obv. Laureate bust right wearing cuirass and paladumentum, ΑΝΤѠΝΙΝΟϹ - ϹƐΒ ƐVϹƐΒ (counterclockwise from upper right) / Isis crowned with disk, horns, and plumes, seated right offering her right breast to crowned Harpokrates [infant Horus] seated on her lap; Harpokrates extends his right hand towards her and holds lotus flower in left hand; crowned falcon [Horus] perches right on left end of back of throne, L - Γ [G] /K [= Year 23] across field. Emmett 1402.23; Milne 2403; Dattari (Savio) 2257; RPC IV.4 Online, 13938 (temporary) (see; Köln (Geissen) 1842 [same dies, see RPC Online 13938 at the link provided, Example 3]. 21x28 mm., 11.67 g. Ex. Harlan J. Berk, Ltd., 168th Buy or Bid Sale, March 16, 2010, Lot 475 [with ticket].

    Antoninus Pius - Alexandria (Isis & Harpokrates on reverse).jpg

    Year 23 was the final year of Antoninus Pius's reign. According to Emmett, it was the only year in which this reverse type was minted for Antoninus Pius as an Alexandrian tetradrachm. (There are several varieties of this type, with the differences all on the obverse -- see RPC IV.4 online, 13936-13937, 14355-14356 -- and the same theme was presented on some bronze drachms earlier in Antoninus Pius's reign.) Emmett classifies the 1402.23 type as common; however, I was only able to find three examples of any of the varieties of this type on acsearch, and I haven't been able to find any CT posts about it.

    In any event, I think it's an interesting type. I particularly like the fact that Horus appears twice on the same coin in different manifestations -- once as an infant, and once as a falcon.

    It is, of course, quite similar in theme to my Julia Domna denarius with Isis nursing infant Horus on the reverse (RIC IV-1 577, RSC III 174, Sear RCV II 6606). No falcon on that one, though!

    Julia Domna  Denarius - Isis & Horus Reverse - jpg version RIC IV-1 577, RSC 174, Sear RCV 6606.jpg

    Does anyone know when this theme was first portrayed, either on Imperial coins or on Alexandrian or other Provincial coins?

    Please post your own examples of this theme.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  3. Macromius

    Macromius Well-Known Member

    I love your very impressive new acquisition. I rather like the oval flan too.

    I think the infant Harpocrates on your coin originated Ptolemaic Alexandria as a Greco-Egyptian synthesis with Horus. I don't know exactly when. Weirdly, the Isis nursing Harpocrates image had remarkable longevity surviving into Christian times on "festival of Isis" coins even after Constantine.

    Here's my rather rugged Hadrian AE Drachm with Isis.

  4. Broucheion

    Broucheion Supporter! Supporter


    The earliest "Isis as a mother with Harpokrates" I could find listed in Emmett is Trajan year 12, Emmett 525. That would make it 108/109 CE. A quick look in Geissen didn't turn up anything earlier.

    - Broucheion
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  5. ominus1

    ominus1 Supporter! Supporter

    very neat coin Donna! :)
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  6. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Very nice! Not only an interesting and uncommon type, but in much better condition than your average A-Pi tetradrachm. A Domna Imperial is still on my list. Yours is lovely.

    Antoninus Pius - Drachm ex Grover Dattari Isis Harpokrates 2014.jpg ANTONINUS PIUS
    AE Drachm. 23.18g, 35.2mm. EGYPT, Alexandria, RY 12 (AD 148/9). Emmett 1587.12; Dattari-Savio Pl. 160, 12289 (this coin); RPC Online Temp #13646 (this coin cited). O: Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right. R: L ΔωΔƐΚΑΤΟV, Temple with two columns and rounded pediment enclosing statue of Isis seated right, holding Harpokrates and offering him her breast with one hand; a palm branch to their right.
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection of Roman-Egyptian Coinage, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1981.475); Ex Giovanni Dattari Collection
  7. Shea19

    Shea19 Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent coin @DonnaML , love the great detail on the reverse (especially for an A. Pius tet). I unfortunately don’t have any coins to share...I don’t have any reverses in my collection with a baby being cared for by a non-wolf parent :)
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  8. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    Cool coin @DonnaML - this syncretic theme appears to have become popular after the turn of the millennium, that was my guess.

    Here is a wikipedia passage which supports this assumption.

    "In the Alexandrian and Roman renewed vogue for the Greco-Roman mysteries at the turn of the millennium into the common era — mystery cults had already existed for centuries — the worship of Horus became widely extended, linked with his mother Isis and his father Serapis."

    I've also heard of the Isis cult spreading to Rome in the 1st century A.D. and then becoming popular throughout the empire. One of the theories on this phenomenon is that after Octavian's annexation of Egypt there was a great deal of interest in Egyptian culture and styles (which already were ancient at the time) for example, use of the systrum and even representations of the Nile and Nilos appearing on household mosaics.
  9. Brian Bucklan

    Brian Bucklan Well-Known Member

    Here's another Hadrian Tetradrachm with the Isis/Harpokrates reverse within a temple:
    Hadrian Alexandria Isis CNG.jpg
  10. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Always a cool theme, @DonnaML . I really like your Tetradrachm.

    I have shown this before, and I have a matching Fouree. Perhaps it shows how popular this design was...

    RI AR Den Julia Domna 200 CE Felicitas Isis Horus foot on prow rudder against altar behind RIC 577. Ex: @Mat ; Ex Harlan Berk

    RI Julia Domna 194-217 Fouree AR Plated Den Isis Horus Ex: @Mat from Doug Smith Collection
  11. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks for looking it up, @Broucheion. I took a look in Emmett at the specific coins on which the theme appears, and it seems that all of the approximately 20 Alexandrian coins -- with more than 60 varieties, according to RPC Online -- depicting Isis seated nursing (or about to nurse) Harpokrates (within a temple or otherwise), beginning with Trajan, were bronze drachms or smaller bronze coins, except for my Antoninus Pius type. That type, issued in AP's Year 23, was apparently the only time the theme ever appeared on a tetradrachm. The last time the theme was depicted inside a temple on any kind of Alexandrian coin was on a bronze drachm of Lucilla [Lucius Verus's empress], Year 9, and the last time the theme was depicted without a temple was on a bronze drachm of Caracalla, Year 22.

    As far as Imperial coins are concerned, I did searches on OCRE for Isis, Horus, and Harpocrates/Harpokrates. Although Isis appears on quite a few coins beginning with Hadrian, the first time she was depicted seated with infant Horus (as OCRE refers to him) on her lap was the Julia Domna type I posted above, which was issued as an aureus as well as a denarius. The theme was not depicted again on an Imperial coin until it appeared on two coins of Julian II, and again on two coins of Jovian. Nothing thereafter.

    I found only one example of the theme on RPC Online outside Egypt: an AE23 of Argos in Achaea, issued under Hadrian (see RPC III Online 363, at

    I haven't checked to see if the theme appears on any Ptolemaic coins.

    Of course, there are many examples of Ancient Egyptian bronze statuettes or figurines depicting the theme, largely from the Late Period. See these examples from the Brooklyn Museum, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art:;; and . To quote from the Met's description:

    "In the Late Period, the popularity of this important goddess dramatically increased. She is nearly always depicted in anthropomorphic form, standing or seated on a throne. This statuette shows the goddess in her most beloved pose, nursing her son Horus (known also as the lactans pose). Other goddesses sometimes nurse Horus or other child gods, but Isis is preeminent among them in this role. She wears the horned crown that by the Late Period she had adopted from the goddess Hathor, as well as the vulture headdress that emphasized the role of goddesses as royal mothers. Horus, meanwhile, wears an amulet on his chest, a common feature for child gods.

    The large number of Isis statuettes in this particular pose demonstrate some of the qualities for which Isis was most valued in the first millennium BC: her role as a life-giver and protector. These types of statuettes were very common, dedicated not just to Isis cults, but seemingly to many temples and shrines, usually in association with Osiris and the child god Horus."

    Public Domain

    From the Louvre:

    "During later periods, Egyptians produced many small bronze statuettes of their deities, which they then gave as tributes during pilgrimages to holy sites. Thousands of them have been found in concealed areas, where they were placed to make room for others. This image of Isis nursing her child only appeared during the last millennium BC. Prior to this time, this role was attributed to other goddesses, such as Mut and Hathor, the Celestial Cow, also called the Temple of Horus, whose cow horns were usually attributed to Isis at the time. This is a good example of a common image that was reproduced in varying degrees of craftsmanship. It is difficult to accurately determine the geographical provenance or the precise date for most of these objects, as Isis was viewed as the universal mother from an early time. During the Christian era, the Virgin assumed this role, although in a much different style."

    As the Louvre points out, although it should be pretty obvious, the theme was eventually continued in a different form, and entirely replaced, by depictions of the Virgin and Child.

    I can't think of an explanation for why the theme appeared on Alexandrian coinage only once on a tetradrachm, and the rest of the time on "lesser" denominations (even though the bronze drachms seem to have been generally larger in diameter than the tetradrachms). Nor can I explain why the theme appears on so few Imperial coins, despite Isis's growing popularity throughout the Empire. Any speculations would be welcome!

    Leaving all that aside, it seems that I couldn't have better examples of the theme than the two coins I posted above. Unless I could afford an aureus of Julia Domna -- or $14,500 for an Ancient Egyptian bronze (see -- which I certainly can't!
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  12. Broucheion

    Broucheion Supporter! Supporter

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  13. Macromius

    Macromius Well-Known Member

    How long after Jesus and his mother first became known and venerated did they appear together on a coin? When did Isis and Horus/Harpocrates first appear in any medium?

    Wikipedia: Harpocrates (Ancient Greek: Ἁρποκράτης) was the god of silence, secrets and confidentiality in the Hellenistic religion developed in Ptolemaic Alexandria (and also an embodiment of hope, according to Plutarch). Harpocrates was adapted by the Greeks from the Egyptian child god Horus, who represented the newborn sun, rising each day at dawn. Harpocrates's name was a Hellenization of the Egyptian Har-pa-khered or Heru-pa-khered, meaning "Horus the Child".

    I'm talking history of ancient religion here, not just coin iconography!
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  14. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    The type also comes in a version from the Syrian mint. RIC 645
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  15. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    Speaking of syncretism, compare this 3rd century Christian image of Mary nursing the infant Jesus from the Roman Catacombs. madonna_catacomb.jpg
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  16. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    ...Well, except, according to the Gospels, when that crazy, half-Roman king started killing babies, those folks went to, wait for it, Egypt.
    ...Right, with an already deeply Hellenized state, culture and population. Except, as this many people here have eloquently demonstrated, it was still Egypt.
    ...In a broader context, I'm thinking that when religious syncretism, or its wider cultural equivalent was taking place, people were well aware of what was happening, in real time. For anyone (--hypothetically; no one here) to think, 'Ooooh, Now we have this Concept of Syncretism; that gives us All That on what was happening in these people's heads,' is sheer hubris.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  17. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Isis with Harpocrates/infant Horus on her lap first appeared in the form of Egyptian bronze statuary hundreds of years before the theme's first appearance on an Alexandrian coin -- which occurred, according to Emmett, in the reign of Trajan. See the quotations above from the Met and the Louvre. (The name "Harpocrates" for the child Horus wasn't introduced until the Ptolemaic period, I believe.) I will defer to others on the chronology of visible representations of the Virgin and Child (see the comments above); I have no idea when or whether they appeared on coins.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  18. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    If I'm not mistaken the first coin images of Mary holding the infant Jesus appear well into the Byzantine era. From a more general perspective, I have seen scholars draw a syncretic connection between popular Roman reverence of Isis Lactans in the first centuries CE and the nascent cult of Mary as "Mother of God" which was formally incorporated into orthodox Christianity at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Having a strong interest in the early Church, that's where my mind tends to go when I see one of the Isis denari.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  19. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    ..Well, fine, except for the mere fact that babies and maternal lactation have been an ongoing phenomenon for that many generations, never mind millennia. If you got the same motif (tempted to use the more recent, but inclusive term, 'meme') on Australian Aboriginal art, I for one wouldn't be surprised.
  20. Macromius

    Macromius Well-Known Member

    Please forgive me for changing the subject of this wonderful thread, slightly.

    Although the subject of the first "Isis nursing an infant" coin is fascinating, I am astonished at how long this Isis image persisted on Roman coins even into the Christian period. Has anyone out there got one of these?! I think there is only a few late festival of Isis coins on Vcoins at pretty high prices.

    Plate from Afoldi's A festival of Isis in Rome PDF. (Highly Recommended.)


    s-l1600 (5).jpg
    I have long wondered about this corroded old thing. The frontality of the figure in the chair seems wrong for an Egyptian drachm. I paid 8 dollars for this and frankly thought it was a fantasy or retooled religious medal. The flip said Faustina, Smyrna on it. I don't think so...
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2020
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  21. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Are you suggesting that the resemblance is a coincidence, despite the geographic and chronological overlap?
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