New Otacilia Severa Sestertius - Hippos in ancient Rome!

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Julius Germanicus, Aug 26, 2020.

  1. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member


    MARCIA OTACIL SEVERA AVG - Draped bust of Otacilia Severa right, seen three quarters from front, wearing Stephane, hair weaved in straight lines and rows with long plait carried up the back of her head /
    SAECVLARES AVG - Hippopotamus walking right, head raised with mouth open, S C in exergue
    Sestertius, Rome, 4th officina, 9th emission of Philip I, AD 248
    30 mm / 18,37 g / 6 h
    RIC (Philip I) 200a (scarce), Cohen 65 (12 f.), Sear RCV 9170, Banti 13, Hunter 26
    ex CNG E-Auction 474 (12.08.2020), Jack A. Frazer Collection, purchased from John Aiello, March 1976.


    The hippopotamus was native to Egypt and originally to be found along the entire course of the Nile up to the delta.
    According to Pliny, the first hippopotamus was shown in Rome in 58 BC. displayed by M. Scaurus on the occasion of his assumption of the office for aedil in a specially created moat together with five crocodiles. The animals were obviously a present by Ptolemaios XII who paid enormous sums to gain recognition by the Senate.
    The next hippo that we hear of was brought to Rome by Augustus and killed in the games following his triumph over Ptolomaios´ daughter Cleopatra VII in 29 BC.
    In the seventh eclogue of Calpurnius Siculus, the hippopotamus was among the animals displayed in the Amphitheatre during the time of Nero, while according to Suetonius, Nero himself kept a beast from Egypt for the purpose of disposing of his enemies, which was more likely a hippopotamus than a crocodile.
    Under Hadrian the hippo made it´s first appearance on Roman coinage on the NILUS reverse of his famous travel coinage in company of it´s antagonist, the crocodile. Like the crocodile, the hippopotamus was a popular curiosity that was repeatedly displayed at events in Rome. Both the hippopotamus and the crocodile functioned as symbols of the Nile and thus Egypt, and as typical animals belonged to the repertoire of animal representations of Nilotic scenes in Roman art.
    For the following two centuries the animal was repeatedly documented in literature in the imperial menageries of Rome and in the arenas:
    According to the Historia Augusta, Antoninus Pius showed a Hippopotamus together with crocodiles.
    According to Cassius Dio, Commodus personally killed five Hippos with spear and bow.
    According to the Historia, the extravagant Helagabalus had hippopotami among the various rare animals which he displayed in public as a part of his state.
    Gordian III, during whose rule a hippo was among the animals slaughtered during a festival in 240 aD, imported an unprecedented mass of wild animals to be paraded through the streets during his anticipated triumph over Persia. This however was not to be as he dies under mysterious circumstances during that campaign.

    When Philip came to power in 244, he according to the Historia Augusta found no less than ten Hippos (likely the highest number of such beasts present in Rome at any single time) in the imperial menageries together with 32 elephants, a single rhinoceros, 10 giraffes, 10 elks, 10 tigers, 10 wild and 6 tame lions, 30 tame leopards, 10 hyenas, 40 wild horses, 20 wild donkeys, and many other animals.

    The trade in wild animals was highly lucrative. Animals were sourced from the far reaches of the Empire especially Africa, Egypt and Asia.
    The natives of these areas would have captured and caged these animals. According to Diodorus, the hippopotamus was hunted by harpooning it.
    The animals would then have been sold to animal traders who arranged for their transport to Rome and also to other amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire. Shipping the hippopotami across the Mediterranean from Alexandria to Ostia was not easy.
    Wild animals were transported by the cursus publicus. In the cities, the aediles were responsible for the transport of animals for the games. The animals were then delivered to the Beast Masters.

    The hippopotami were exposed to the public the day before their appearance in the arena. In Rome this happened at the vivarium near Porta Prenestina.
    The common feature of all venationes was that there were animals in it; they weren't necessarily killed, and could also perform other roles. Nevertheless, the usual hunt saw beasts matched one against the other, or against men.

    Like the even rarer African rhinoceros, which was mainly used to fight bulls and bears, the hippopotamus in the arena was not merely slaughtered, but usually staged in a fight against it´s natural antagonist, the Nile crocodile, in a kind of “sea battle of the largest beasts of Egypt”.

    In nature, such fights can be observed above all when the hippopotamus calves are endangered and in dry seasons, when the two species have to endure in a very small space:


    The representation of a fight between these two animals can already be found in Pharaonic times, for example in the mastaba of the Mereruka in Saqqara (ca. 2.300 BC):


    This coupling was a popular motive in Roman times and is pictured on several mosaics, cameos, vessels, and sculptures like on the base of the marble statues of the resting Nile in the Louvre and the Vatican Museum:

    Bildschirmfoto 2020-08-26 um 18.49.28.png
    Venationes usually ended with the show of animals trained to perform tricks, like in today’s circuses. To keep these animals, and also all the beasts that were condemned to find death in the arena, it was therefore necessary to organize a kind of a zoo. It was called vivarium, and at least three locations in Rome and outside it have been identified as probable sites of such a zoo.

    I like to hope that the animal that stood model for this coin in the imperial menagerie survived the Saeculares and lived a happy life in a garden with a pond the troubled times that followed.

    Otacilia Severa certainly did not survive the games for more than a year as she became subject to damnatio memoriae after Philipp´s defeat against Trajanus Decius in 249 AD.

    After this climax of hippo stardom in ancient Rome, the animal slowly faded out of sight again:
    The Historia Augusta´s claim that Firmus, usurper against Aurelian, once rode a tame Hippo, must be as fabricated as the man himself.
    The poet Nemesianus describes a hippopotamus shown in Rome during the Rule of Carus.
    The last appearance of hippos in Roman times may have been on the festival of Ises coinage of Maximinus Daia is shown on the revers of a festival of Isis type struck under Maximinus Daia. According to one reverse, attempts were also made to harness the hippopotamus to a wagon.

    Due to intensive hunting, however, the stocks were already so depleted in late antiquity that Ammianus during the time of Julian reported that the hippopotamus war nowhere to be found in Egypt and had presumably withdrawn to Nubia.
    After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Hippo disappeared from Europe and the rest of the world outside Africa until the mid 19th century.
    There is no trace of a live hippopotamus having been brought to Europe between the time specified in the last of these testimonies and the middle of the sixteenth century, despite the Hippo having returned to Egypt by the late 12th century.
    Pierre Belon was the first European to see a living hippopotamus for more than a millenium when he saw a specimen brought from the Nile during his visit to Constantinople in 1550.
    The last hippopotami in the Nile Delta again disappeared in the 17th century and the animal had been exterminated in all of Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century.

    Please show your Otacilias, hippos, or whatever comes to your mind!
    Finn235, robinjojo, Limes and 20 others like this.
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  3. Alegandron

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

    Wow, nice writeup and excellent coin, @Julius Germanicus .

    I have nary a Water Pig to offer...
    Julius Germanicus and ominus1 like this.
  4. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks for a great coin and write-up. Here is my antoninianus version (RIC IV-3 116(b), RSC IV 63, Sear RCV III 9160; 23 mm., 4.52 g.), on which the hippo shows its teeth. The hippo on your coin looks much friendlier!

    Obverse image only, Otacilia Severa antoninianus hippo reverse - jpg version.jpg

    Reverse image only, Otacilia Severa antoninianus hippo reverse - jpg version.jpg
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2020
  5. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Another fantastic sestertius for your stunning and well-matched collection!

    I have a couple of Egyptian hippos :)

    EGYPT, Alexandria. Tiberius
    Year 5, CE 18/9
    AE obol, 20 mm, 4.45 gm
    Obv: bare head right
    Rev: hippopotamus right; TIBEPIoY above; [L] E in exergue
    Ref: Emmett 62.5, R1; Geissen 47; Dattari-Savio 102 (this coin); RPC 5082
    ex Dattari collection (Giovanni Dattari, 1858-1923)

    EGYPT, Alexandria. Claudius
    Year 2, 41/2 CE
    AE diobol; 24 mm, 9.12 gm
    Obv: [TIB KΛAV KAI] CЄBAC ΓЄ[PMA,\; laureate head right, star before
    Rev: hippopotamus standing right; AVTOKPA above, L B below
    Ref: RPC 5124; Dattari (Savio) 162; Emmett 82.
  6. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

  7. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    ..nice one! :) sesteterius Otacilia Severus pachyderm (hippo) 001.JPG sesteterius Otacilia Severus pachyderm (hippo) 002.JPG
    robinjojo, Limes, PeteB and 8 others like this.
  8. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    Otacila Severa Ar Sestertius Rome RIC 200 Rv Hippo walking right,248 A.D. 16.54 grms 30 mm Photo W. W. Hansen
    octseveras3.jpeg A number of years ago I wrote an article on this coin with the title of "Does this Coin Make Me Look Fat". I never really did come any conclusion as to why Otacila got the Hippo.
  9. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Gorgeous specimen, @Julius Germanicus ! Mine is much more humble:

    Otacilia Severa SAECVLARES AVGG S C Sestertius.jpg
    Otacilia Severa, AD 244-249.
    Roman Æ sestertius; 11.52 g, 30.4 mm.
    Rome, AD 248.
    Obv: MARCIA OTACIL SEVERA AVG, diademed and draped bust, right.
    Rev: SAECVLARES AVGG SC, Hippopotamus standing right.
    Refs: RIC 200; Cohen 65; RCV 9170; Hunter 26.
  10. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    ...ya know, i think of you everytime i post mine...if not for you correcting my Hereinna Estrusclia, i'd not have my hippo RC ...thanks again! :)
  11. Ocatarinetabellatchitchix

    Ocatarinetabellatchitchix Supporter! Supporter

    Very instructive write-up. If I may add an interesting detail, the Biblical book of Job talks about a creature named Behemoth. Many specialist believe it is in fact a description of the hippopotamus amphibius.

    15 Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox.
    16 Behold, his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly.
    17 He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
    18 His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron.
    19 He is the first of the works of God; let him who made him bring near his sword!
    20 For the mountains yield food for him where all the wild beasts play.
    21 Under the lotus plants he lies, in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh.
    22 For his shade the lotus trees cover him; the willows of the brook surround him.
    23 Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened; he is confident though Jordan rushes against his mouth.
    24 Can one take him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare?
  12. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    You have one mean hippo there, Donna! There must have been different celators responsible for the naturalistic, plumpfaced hippos often seen on Sestertii, and the more abstract, fierce creatures sometimes showing long, tooth-armed snouts featured on many Antoniniani.
    It was the latter that definitely inspired most medieval and Renaissance artists:

    DonnaML, PeteB and Roman Collector like this.
  13. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    Your Sestertius has great detail, Terence!

    The hippopotamus on Otacilia's coins could also be an allusion to the egyptian deity Thoeris, protector of women and obstetrician, and therefore a celebration of Otacilias motherhood of the imperial successor, Philipp Junior.
    DonnaML and Roman Collector like this.
  14. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    Interesting! That would not be unlikely, as hippopotamus amphibius is known (from fossil remains) to have survived in the coastal plain of Palestine until the 4th century BC.

    An extinct species of Hippos from the late Pleistocene of the Levant was indeed christened hippopotamus behemoth in respect to this theory!
    DonnaML and Roman Collector like this.
  15. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter I dig ancient coins...

    Great write up and a beautiful example of the type.
  16. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    Nice coin and presentation.

    Here's my sestertius, purchased back in the mid-80s. It was obviously cleaned, but has since toned back somewhat.

    Roman Empire, 248 AD
    AE Setertius
    Otacilia Severa (244-249 AD), wife of Philip the Arab
    Obverse: MARCIA OTACIL SEVERA AVG, diademed and draped bust right.
    Reverse: SAECVLARES AGG SC, hippopotamus moving right, with mouth open.
    RIC 200
    VF, with brown, somewhat rough surfaces.
    13.6 grams
    25 mm, 1 h.

    D-Camera  Otacilia Severa Sestertius, Hippo Reverse, RIC 200, 13.6 gms, 8-27-20.jpg

    Speaking of hippopotami, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has an iconic resident ancient Egyptian hippo from the Middle Kingdom, named William.

    Here's the original:


    In 1970, while visiting NYC and camping across the Hudson, in New Jersey, my parents bought this reproduction at the museum's gift shop:

    D-Camera William, NYC, 1970, 8-27-20.jpg

    In 1975, while attending grad school in NYC, I picked up "Lilly" (my name) at the gift shop:

    D-Camera Lilly, NYC, 1975, 8-27-20.jpg

    These reproductions were made in Italy, and they seem to be higher quality compared to those being sold by the museum these days.
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