Featured Julian: The Beard and the Bull

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Curtisimo, Jun 22, 2019.


What do you think the bull represents on this coin?

  1. The biblical Golden Calf

    0 vote(s)
  2. A sacrificial scene

  3. The Apis Bull

  4. The emperor Julian

  5. The astrological sign of Julian's birth

  6. Mithraic iconography

  7. Helios / Cattle of Helios

  8. Other

Multiple votes are allowed.
  1. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    I have wanted one of these coins for quite some time. It is rare to find one with the any of the original silvering intact but this coin retains hints of the silvering on both the obverse and reverse. So far it is my only coin of 2019 so I can say with confidence it is my favorite coin so far this year!

    Roman Empire
    Julian II (AD 360-363)
    AE1, Antioch mint, struck ca. AD 361-363
    Dia.: 28 mm
    Wt.: 8.7 g
    Obv.: D N FL CL IVLI-ANVS P F AVG: Diademed, cuirassed bust right.
    Rev.: SECVRITAS REI PVB; Bull, head facing, standing right. Two starts above
    Ref.: RIC VIII 216, pg 532
    Ex Frank S. Robinson (Auction 107 lot 389)

    Julian the Apostate
    Julian was a fascinating historical figure and is one of my favorite emperors of the later empire. He is best known as the last polytheist emperor of the Roman Empire but he was also a talented philosopher, intellectual and military leader. Those interested in reading an outline of his life and rule can do so here.

    Julian was a member of the Constantine family and his hard experiences with his Christian relatives almost certainly played a decisive role in his decision to abandon Christianity as a young man. Most of the male members on his side of the family were massacred by his cousin Constantius II after the death of Constantine I in AD 337. Julian only survived this purge because he was a young child at the time. The bloody family dynamics can get rather confusing so I compiled the following family tree to help keep everything straight.

    Figure 1 – Constantine Family Tree

    The Beard – Obverse Portrait
    When Julian became sole emperor upon the death of Constantius II he is well known to have grown a long beard in imitation of the ancient Greek philosophers and as a physical manifestation of his austerity and philhellenism. This distinguishes his depiction on coins from his immediate predecessors (Constanine and sons) who were all shown as clean shaven.

    His beard was apparently a source of ridicule to the largely Christian population of Antioch. Julian wrote an entire satire about his beard that he called Misopogon (Trans: “Beard-hater”) which I found to be quite an amusing read. For instance, Julian claims that he was angry at his face for not being “delicate” and “lovely” and so grew;

    “… this long beard of mine, to punish it, as it would seem, for this very crime of not being handsome by nature.” [1]

    He goes on to contrast his bearded face with the clean shaven Antiochenes and sarcastically pretends to understand the ridicule of the Christians by saying;

    “For I myself furnish you with an excuse for it [ridicule] by wearing my chin as goats do… But you, since even in your old age you emulate your own sons and daughters by your soft and delicate way of living, or perhaps by your effeminate dispositions, carefully make your chins smooth, and your manhood you barely reveal and slightly indicate by your foreheads, not by your jaws as I do.” [1]

    It is a highly unusual document to say the least. If you want to read the whole essay in its entirety you can do so here.

    Considering the contemporary uproar surrounding Julian’s beard during his stay in Antioch I am very pleased to have a coin, struck at Antioch, with such a detailed depiction of this supposed goat beard to go with my earlier example of a beardless Julian (before he was openly polytheist).

    Roman Empire
    Julian II, AD 360-363
    AR Siliqua, Lugdunum mint, struck ca. AD 360-361
    Wt.: 2.23 g
    Dia.: 18 mm
    Obv.: FL CL IVLIA NVS P P AVG, pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right
    Rev.: VICTORIA DD NN AVG, Victory advancing left, holding wreath and palm frond
    Ref.: LVG. RIC VIII 212; Lyon 259; RSC 58†c, IRBCH 1424

    The Bull – Reverse Imagery
    The reverse of this coin prominently features a bull standing underneath two stars and the legend SECVRITAS REI PVB (Security of the State).

    These bull coins of Julian are particularly famous for one major reason… in a manner that is most unusual for ancient coins it is referenced by the emperor himself. In the above mentioned Misopogon, Julian expresses his displeasure with the people of Antioch because they insulted him “for the devices on his coins [1].” He frustratingly doesn’t tell us why.

    Historians, writers and numismatists both ancient and modern have been proposing meanings for the coin iconography and why it should be so offensive to the people of Antioch ever since. I know this is not a new topic on CoinTalk but I thought it would be worthwhile for me list all of the theories I have come across in my research and explain a little about each.

    Ancient Theories

    The Bull References the Golden Calf of the Israelites in the Bible

    Figure 2: Right - Moses confronts the Israelites about the Golden Calf (Oil on Canvas, Mid 17th century). Left - Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf (Illustration, 1901).

    Surprisingly, this is the oldest theory on record and was proposed in the year of Julian’s death in AD 363 by Ephraem of Nisibis. The story behind the claim is an interesting one. After Julian was killed in his failed invasion of Persia his successor Jovian was forced to surrender Nisibis to save the remnants of the Roman Army. Ephraem tells us that he actually saw the body of the emperor lying in state in front of the city gate as the flag of the Persians waved in the breeze overhead [2]. He was inspired by this event to write his Hymns against Julian in which he mentions the coins.

    According to Ephraem the coins are evidence of a conspiracy against Christianity by the Pagans and the Jews and that “on his coins they saw the shameful bull… in that bull they saw their own ancient calf… and they rejoiced that there were restored the calves of Jeroboam [2].”

    The short version of the biblical story is that the Golden Calf was made by the Israelites while Moses was receiving the 10 commandments because they had lost faith. The Golden Calf crops up again in the story of how King Jeroboam tried to prevent the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel from sacrificing in Jerusalem for fear they would rebel and so set up Golden Calves for them to worship in two northern cities. To read more see here.

    Considering that Ephraem liked to place all of Julian’s actions in the context of biblical events most historians do not give much credit to his attribution of the type.​

    The Bull References Julian’s Excessive Sacrifices
    According to this theory Julian’s coins reference a sacrificial scene with the bull as the intended sacrifice. The earliest mention of this theory is in the church histories of Socrates and Sozomen (with the later relying heavily on the former’s account). However, these accounts were written as late as 75 years after the death of Julian and make one critical error in support of their view. Socrates claims that the reverse features both a bull and an altar but to date no examples have been found with an altar on the reverse. This leads one to speculation on whether Socrates had actually even seen one of these coins in person or whether we was only aware of them from written sources such as Julian’s Misopogon and made his assertions based on assumption.

    However, despite these doubts about the source material this theory seems to me to be entirely plausible.​

    Later Theories

    The Coin Shows the Apis Bull Discovered in AD 362

    Figure 3: The Apis Bull

    This is perhaps the best known of the theories for Julian’s bull coins precisely because it is such a fascinating possibility. In AD 362 an Apis Bull was discovered in Egypt. The Apis Bull was a sacred animal whose worship in some form stretched all the way back to the first dynasty of Egypt. However, its worship may have lapsed during the Christianization of Egypt under Constantine and his sons. Therefore, the discovery of an Apis Bull and the reconstitution of the cult by Julian seems like an occasion momentous enough to warrant inclusion on the coinage.

    However, it should be considered that the bull on the coins does not show the typical iconography of the Apis Bull. In particular it lacks the characteristic sun-disk and uraeus that almost always accompany a depiction of the Apis. It is also worth noting that the mint at Alexandria was one of the only mints not to strike this reverse type which does not bode well for this theory. Despite these misgivings this theory still seems possible.​

    The Bull Represents the Emperor
    This theory is mentioned by J.P.C. Kent in RIC as one of only two theories he deems plausible [4]. The theory is pretty straight forward: Julian is the bull and protects the state. However, in common with all the theories mentioned above this theory doesn’t explain the two stars which, as far as I am aware, show up in that number on coins from all mints that struck this type. Additionally, it doesn’t explain why the Christians of Antioch would take offense to such an innocuous message from Julian which we know that they did. One possibility is that perhaps they willfully misinterpreted the message based on Julian’s paganism.​

    The Bull Represents Julian’s Astrological Sign (Taurus)

    Figure 4: Epic Bull

    This is another theory that J.P.C. Kent deems plausible in RIC [4]. In this theory the bull represents the star sign under which Julian was born. This may in part explain the stars as part of the design. However, we do not have any sources that tell us when Julian was born so this theory must remain entirely speculative.​

    The Bull Represents Mithraism

    Figure 5: The Tauroctony Scene from a Mithraic temply found at Fiano Romano, Near Rome (2nd or 3rd century).

    Another popular theory is that Julian was an initiate into the Mithraic Mysteries and the reverse is a reference to Mithraic iconography. Central to the iconography of Mithraism was the depiction of Mithras slaying the sacred bull in a cave (tauroctony). This scene usually includes a dog, a serpent and a scorpion along with the bull and there are sometimes two torch bearers that accompany Mithras. In reliefs (see Figure 5), this scene usually includes depictions of Sol (top left) and Luna (top right) along with stars. An astrological element has been proposed as part of the iconography but almost nothing is known about the cult beliefs or rites outside of the artistic remains.

    This theory posits that the bull represents the sacred bull and that the two stars represent Sol and Luna, the torch bearers, or stars with some unknown astrological significance. However, it should be noted that a depiction of the Mithraic Bull outside of the tauroctony would be entirely unique and that the scene does not include many of the other elements from the known iconography (such as the snake, dog and scorpion). There is also no evidence that Julian was a Mithraic initiate.​

    The Bull Represents Helios

    Figure 6: A coin of Gallienus showing Sol in connection with a bull. Image courtesy of CNG

    This theory suggests that the bull represents Helios / Sol and that the iconography of stars on coins of this period can simply be suggestive of a divine presence in a generic sense. As evidence a link is suggested between the “zoo series” coins of Gallienus (SOLI CONS AVG) where Sol is associated with a bull as protector of the emperor and the coins of Julian where a similar looking bull is depicted as protector of the state (SECVRITAS REI PVB) [5]. Additionally Julian was known to be a great admirer of Helios / Sol and even devoted a hymn to the god entitled Hymn to King Helios.

    The best association with Helois and the bull in mythology is recorded in the Odyssey with the story of the Cattle of Helios. When Odysseus and his men stop on the isle of Thinacia, Poseidon sends a storm that keeps them there for a month. When Odysseus leaves to pray to the gods for help his men set upon and eat some of the cattle of Helios which the titan kept on the island. When Helios learns of this and threatens to take the sun to the underworld in his anger Zues strikes Odysseus’s ship with a lightning bolt and drowns the entire crew except Odysseus.

    Figure 7: The companions of Odysseus rob the cattle of Helios (Painting, AD 1554-1556)

    It’s an interesting theory but it is not without a few caveats. For one, there is little artistic association between Helios / Sol and a bull outside of the one coin issue from Gallienus shown above. There is also almost a century between that coin issue and when Julian struck his bull coins. Further, while the story from the Odyssey provides a link between Helios and cattle it does not provide a precedent for Helios taking on the form or being represented by a bull himself.​

    [1] http://www.attalus.org/translate/misopogon.html

    [2] Griffith, Sidney H., “Ephraem the Syrian’s Hymns ‘Against Julian’: Meditations on History and Imperial Power.” Vigilae Christianae 41, 1987.

    [3] Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica; 3.17

    [4] Kent, J.P.C., The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. VIII, The Family of Constantine; London, 1981.

    [5] Woods, D.; Julian Gallienus and the Solar Bull; ANJ Volume 12, 2000; pp. 157-169


    So there you go. Please comment and vote on any of the theories presented above and feel free to add any that I may have missed in my research.

    Also please post your;
    • Coins of Julian II
    • Coins with a bull (man-faced or not!)
    • Coins with hotly debated iconography
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2019
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  3. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Wonderful writeup and coin, I can see why it is a favorite.

    Mine is nothing to write home about.

    Julian II, The Apostate (355 - 363 A.D.)
    O: D N CL IVLIANVS NOB CAES, Bare head, draped and cuirassed right.
    R: FEL TEMP REPARATIO. Helmeted soldier to l., shield on l. arm, spearing falling horseman; shield on ground r. Horseman turns head to soldier and extends l. arm. M in l. field, BSIRM star in exergue.
    Sirmium Mint, 355-61 A.D.
    RIC 78

  4. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Very interesting presentation of the extant theories @Curtisimo ! I used to think it was the Apis bull - now I am not so sure. Perhaps a more likely scenario is that of Taurus.



    It is unfortunate that the historian Ammianus Marcellinus did not mention Julian's coinage in his thorough panegyric on Julian's rise to power and reign. He was a great admirer of the emperor.
  5. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper

    I ain't got no bull....

  6. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Welcome back, @Curtisimo! You have been missed, and wow-- what a re-entrance! The coin itself is fabulous. "Fine style" is not a phrase that often accompanies base metal coins of that era but yours definitely warrants the words! It's gorgeous.

    As for the meaning of the bull, I suspect that Julian II, being a clever man, intended multiple interpretations of the iconography and suspect several of those theories are correct.
  7. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Good to see you back on deck Curtisimo and with a loverly detailed coin, especially the portrait. Only one bull for me. 356.jpeg
    SICILY, Syracuse. Hieron II. 275-215 BC. Æ (20mm, 6.45 g, 8h). Struck circa 275-269/5 BC. Head of Persephone left, wearing wreath of grain ears; poppy head behind / Bull charging left; club and M above, IE in exergue. CNS 191 Ds89 R1 12; BAR Issue 53; HGC 2, 1469.
  8. Alegandron

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

    Fantastic OP and super Julian II Mr @Curtisimo ! Hope all is well with you, and I really miss your World-Class, well thought out posts!

    APIS probly oldest religion in Egypt (at least First Dynasty), Mesopotamia (Epic of Gilgamesh), probly origins predate even those civilizations.

    I wonder why Humans developed so much reverence to the Aurochs?

    The Dog was domesticated and a companion to Humans at least 14,000 years ago, and some point to 36,000 years ago. Probly the earliest domesticated Animal with Man.

    My Bull from Julian... I captured it because I like what Julian did for the Empire, and that he was a rebel. He was a respite from the Christian rule.

    RI Julian II CE 360-363 AE1 maiorina Diademed R - SECVRITAS REIPVB 2 stars Apis Bull stg R ANT-Gamma 2 palms ANTIOCH RIC 217 LRBC 2641
  9. Alegandron

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

    As requested, here is an MFB:

    Sicily Gela AR Litra Horse-Achelous 0.63g 13mm 465-450 BCE HGC 2 p 373
  10. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Thanks @TIF !

    Multiple interpretations is certainly a possibility and several of the theories could easily be considered together (ex.: emperor as bull + astrological sign). I do wonder though if there was an intended primary theme. Julian mentions the insult to his coins so matter of factly and in such a way that it suggests that the answer to why was so obvious he didn’t even need to spell it out. It’s interesting to think about how much “common knowledge” from the ancient world is lost to us precisely because it was so common and not worthy of note! Either way it is fun to speculate!

    Thanks AA. Wow to that Syracuse obverse portrait. That’s a great coin!

    Thanks Brian and great Julian AE bull! I agree about the Aurochs being fascinating. It’s a shame they are now extinct.
  11. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    Curtisimo, Those are two fine coins ;); I really like the siliqua with the beardless Julian II. Great article too, well researched & excellent illustrations :). This should be a Featured Article. Pictured below is my only example from Julian II, AE 29 mm, 8.14 gm, 12h, struck at the Sirmium Mint, 2nd Officina, AD 361-363. My coin has no trace of silvering like yours has but it is a razor sharp strike.

    Julian II, 8.14 gm, 361-3.jpg
  12. Alegandron

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

    And your Third Request: Hotly Contested Iconography:

    (Yeah, this is a true story, again, @TIF )

    Yup, the real story of Eeyore starts in the newly established Province by Rome in Macedonia... Defeated Makedons harkened back to the heady days of Philip II and Alexander III. Eeyore represented the Power and Majesty of that time. Eeyore was considered a great and powerful War-Mule of that time, possibly killing at least 10,000 Persians on the battlefields... but, alas, this is such a highly contested lost segue in history. I regret there is so much conspiracy against this true story.

    I digress; I give you the Great Eeyore...

    RR Prv Macedon Province 168-166 BC Tamios Quaestor Athena Cow - Eeyore The Great War-Mule of Makedon


    For all the new collectors here, yeah its a true story.
    For the longer term collectors, yeah its a true story.
    Now, it is gonna be Hotly Contested!
  13. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    You don’t have to convince a believer my friend... don’t mess with Eeyore!
  14. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Curtisimo likes this.
  15. ominus1

    ominus1 When in Rome, do as the Romans do Supporter

    thats a very nice Julian & bull @Curtisimo ...i haven't got either, that i know of..yet.,:D
    Curtisimo likes this.
  16. Alegandron

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

    LOL, AWESOME! Since EVERYTHING is true info on the internet, in 1000 years, folks will look back at this as the Origins of Eeyorism...
    Curtisimo likes this.
  17. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    My example of the type. One of the few Roman Imperial coins from my old collection that I've kept...for now... roman56obv.jpg roman56rev.jpg :
  18. Shea19

    Shea19 Supporter! Supporter

    Great post...I don’t have a Julian, but I can share my only bull.


    Mysia, Parion, 4th century BC. Hemidrachm (13 mm, 2.46 g).
    Facing gorgoneion/ Bull standing left, head turned to right. ΠA-PI
  19. Parthicus Maximus

    Parthicus Maximus Well-Known Member

    Beautiful coin and great article! I personally think that the back does not have a clear message. I think Julian's bronze coins may be seen as a continuation of that of the Constantine dynasty. This is because there are only a few different types. In my opinion, the legend has a general meaning, just like its predecessors. I think the bull also has a more general meaning. It was just what the owner of the coin associated with the bull.
    Theodosius and Curtisimo like this.
  20. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    BITHYNIA. Kalchedon (340 - 320 B.C)
    AR Siglos
    O: KAΛX Bull standing left on ear of corn.
    R: Mill-sail incuse
    SNG BM 112

    Rarely posted:

    Macedon, Amphipolis. 187-168/7 BC
    Æ 21
    O: Draped bust of Artemis right, bow and quiver on shoulder.
    R: Artemis Tauropolos riding right on bull, veil billowing out behind her.
    SNG ANS 150-1
  21. Pavlos

    Pavlos You pick out the big men. I'll make them brave!

    Great coin and great write up! Glad to see you back @Curtisimo !
    Curtisimo likes this.
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