Featured Not a shield but the circle of the zodiac!

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Roman Collector, Jul 9, 2018.

  1. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    This evening, I was doing some research on a new coin and learned there has been a paradigm shift regarding the identity of the female deity on the reverse of this denarius of Faustina Senior. This highlights the importance of not taking the venerable old references such as RIC and BMCRE as gospel.

    Post your comments, coins the standard references misidentify, your Faustina I coins, or anything else you feel is relevant.

    Here's the coin in question:

    Faustina Sr AVGVSTA Venus denarius.jpg
    Faustina I, AD 138-141.
    Roman AR denarius, 3.0 g, 17.1 mm.
    Rome, AD 145-150.
    Obv: DIVA FAVSTINA, bare-headed and draped bust, right.
    Rev: AVGVSTA, Female figure standing facing, head left, holding spherical object and resting left arm on circle-shaped object.
    Refs: RIC 366a; BMCRE 432-33; Cohen/RSC 73; RCV 4586; CRE 147.

    You'll notice I was very vague in my description of the reverse. That's because the traditional view that the reverse depicts Venus holding an apple and resting her arm on a shield has been called into question. This view is held by Mattingly (BMCRE4 432, p.61), Mattingly and Sydenham (RIC3 366, p.71), David Sear (RCV2 4586, p.269), and Temeryazev and Makarenko (CRE 147-148, p.54).

    However, Strack (p.102) identifies the figure on the reverse as Aeternitas with globe and zodiac.

    Despite the long tenure of Harold Mattingly at the British Museum and the esteem in which he has been held, the curators of the collection currently describe the reverse as "Aeternitas standing facing, head left, holding globe on right hand and resting left hand on circle of zodiac."

    Here is the example in the British Museum which bears this description:


    Martin Beckmann (p. 57, n.6) concurs with Strack and the current curators of the British Museum collection. He notes:

    The round object is much larger than the apple shown by figures identified as Venus by inscription; in addition Venus normally holds her apple between thumb and forefinger, not in the flat palm of her hand (e.g. BMC IV: pl. 23.1-5); the round object could represent a shield seen from behind, but no such depictions of shields (they are much rarer than shields seen from the front) show a wide border with points in it. The points here are almost certainly intended to represent the constellations.​

    Here are the coins in BMC pl. 23 cited by Beckmann:

    Capture 1.JPG
    Since these images don't show up well, here is an example of Venus holding an apple on a denarius of Faustina II (RIC 728). Note the apple is relatively small and held between the goddess's thumb and forefinger, as noted by Beckmann:


    After looking online for well-preserved examples of this coin, such as this one sold in Savoca online auction 9, lot 635, August 21, 2016 ...


    and the corresponding aureus (Auctiones GmbH eAuction #59, lot 168, March 18, 2018) ...


    ... it's clear that the spherical object in the divinity's hand is a globe. The Savoca denarius clearly shows the globe decorated with crossed arcs, representing the equator and the prime meridian:

    3220759 closeup.jpg

    Moreover, both of these coins clearly depict not a shield, but a circle or hoop, comprised of sections, almost certainly representing the zodiac as postulated by Strack more than eighty years ago:

    4831157 closeup.jpg

    Therefore, I will catalog my coin thus:

    Faustina I, AD 138-141.
    Roman AR denarius, 3.0 g, 17.1 mm.
    Rome, AD 145-150.
    Obv: DIVA FAVSTINA, bare-headed and draped bust, right.
    Rev: AVGVSTA, Aeternitas standing facing, head left, holding globe on right hand and resting left hand on circle of zodiac.
    Refs: RIC 366a; BMCRE 432-33; Cohen/RSC 73; RCV 4586; CRE 147.​


    Beckmann, Martin. Diva Faustina: Coinage and Cult in Rome and the Provinces. American Numismatic Society, 2012.

    Mattingly, Harold, Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, vol.IV: Antoninus Pius to Commodus. Introduction, indexes and plates. London, BMP, 1968

    Mattingly, Harold; Sydenham, Edward A, The Roman imperial coinage, vol. 3: Antoninus Pius to Commodus, London, Spink, 1986

    Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values II: The accession of Nerva to the overthrow of the Severan dynasty AD 96 - AD 235, London, Spink, 2002

    Strack, Paul L. Untersuchungen Zur Romischen Reichspragung Des Zweiten Jahrhunderts, Teil III: Die Reichsprägung zur Zeit des Antoninus Pius, Stuttgart, Kohlhammer, 1937

    Temeryazev, S. A., and T. P. Makarenko. The Coinage of Roman Empresses, Volume I: Antonia Minor – Didia Clara, 41 – 193 AD, San Bernardino, CreateSpace, an Amazon.com Company, 2017
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  3. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Very interesting information RC, I agree probably is a circle of zodiac. Would not have thought that until I read your article.
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  4. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Nice research, RC!
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  5. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Fascinating stuff! One of these is now on my list.
  6. Okidoki

    Okidoki Well-Known Member

  7. Okidoki

    Okidoki Well-Known Member

    Hadrian Denarius Roma 119-22 AD Providentia standing
    Strack 76; RIC 134; BMC 307;

    Head of Hadrian, laureate, right.

    Rev. P M TR P COS III in field PRO AVG
    Providentia standing left, resting on column, pointing at globe with Zodiac belts and holding sceptre. 576Hadrian RIC134.jpg
  8. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    That's really interesting, @Okidoki , and lends further credence to the notion the Faustina coin depicts Aeternitas (the female equivalent of Aion) holding a globe and resting her arm on a zodiac circle.

    I appreciate the information given in the NAC catalog for this coin. It's fascinating and relevant:

    Mattingly did not notice the signs of the zodiac that are clear on our coin. This detail – which is not mentioned in either RIC or BMCRE – securely attributes the figure as Aion, a deity associated with cyclical time or eternity, and who represents the Saeculum. Here he is shown walking through the cosmos, represented by the wheel decorated with the signs of the zodiac, exactly as he is depicted on the large silver Parabiago patera found near Milan in 1907 ...​

    There is, of course, a Wikipedia article about the Parabiago patera. It's very cool! It depicts the triumph of Cybele and her companion Attis on a chariot drawn by lions, watched by the gods and personifications of Time, the Sky and earthly Nature. Here are some details of the artifact. First, the detail of Aion within the zodiac circle:


    Clockwise from the bottom of the zodiac circle are representations of Virgo, Leo and Cancer.

    The principle design element, though, is Cybele in a quadriga of lions ...


    ... which is depicted on a denarius of Julia Domna ...


    ... which has been on my wish list for a long time. But that's a subject for another thread.

    Fascinating stuff, Oki! Thanks for enriching this thread.
  9. Theodosius

    Theodosius Unrepentant Fine Style Freak! Supporter

    Great thread! It is amazing what you can learn when you take a coin and really research and analyze it.

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  10. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Redditor Lucis Aeternae

    Thanks @Roman Collector - you are really doing full due diligence on this coin and have contributed to the body of knowledge surrounding this coin type. Nice work!
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  11. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    It could also be a celestial globe with an equinoctial cross, as described by Reid Goldsborough in this Celator article about Constantine's Sol coins. (I'm not sure what he bases this idea on. Is he just making it up?)
    Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 8.23.14 AM.jpg
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  12. Cheech9712

    Cheech9712 Every thing is a guess

    You certainly keep busy. Your a plethora of info
  13. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you for pointing this out because it changes my interpretation of what these crossed arcs on the globe are. The relevant portion of the article read:

    The globus, often referred to with the English word "globe," is also often misinterpreted on these coins, regarded as depicting the Earth, as globes typically do today. In actuality this globus is a celestial orb or sphere, which was an ancient depiction of the Cosmos, the Earth being at its center. This is clear from the way it's decorated, which is evident on well-engraved, well-struck, and well-preserved specimens. The markings on it are not of any known land masses at the time but instead represent an equinoctial cross, with the crossing two lines signifying the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the two days of the year in which day and night are equally long. In some cases stars are depicted on the globus as well.​

    So, those aren't an equator and prime meridian, but symbolic lines on a celestial globe.

    This thread is getting more and more informative. I appreciate everybody's comments and info.
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  14. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    It might be a bit hasty to assume Goldsborough is right... I’d want to hear what his reasoning is first. Maybe later I can check into it.
  15. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo Temporarily Away Supporter

    What an awesome thread @Roman Collector and well deserving of being a featured article. The case for the coin depicting a globe and zodiac is interesting and convincing.

    I would be interested to read why Strack thinks it represents Aeternitas over other possibilities.

    I am curious if it was considered whether or not the reverse could depict Urania, the muse associated with astronomy and philosophy.
    Here is a photo I recently took at the Vatican museum (Roman copy from the time of Hadrian) showing Urania holding a globe. Diodorus Siculus said that she "raises aloft to heaven" those who take her instruction. She is usually shown with a globe and compass.
  16. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    In a discussion thread at Forum, Reid Goldsborough writes:

    The best material I've come across regarding this is an article titled "Symbolism of the Sphere" by Michael R. Molnar in the June 1998 Celator. In short, it's not a globe representing the Earth that's depicted, a common fallacy, but a sphere, or orb, symbolizing the Cosmos.​

    Here's a pdf file of Michael Molnar article from the Celator. Molnar writes:

    The evidence that the orb depicted on so many coins was the cosmos and not the Earth is revealed first of all by stars and astronomical markings. Close inspection of the orbs sometimes shows not a smooth ball, but bands or hatch marks. On small orbs there appears a letter “X,” but on larger orbs, it is recognized as crossed bands that represent the intersection of the all-important zodiac* and the celestial equator. The system of circles that the Greeks marked on the celestial sphere is described in the Phaenomena of Aratus, Pliny’s Natural History, and Manilius’ Astronomica. The “X” is called the equinoctial cross which represents the spring and autumnal equinoxes (where the Sun crosses the celestial equator). It signified the belief in cosmic cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. (The Timaeus of Plato referred to this symbol as a celestial Greek letter “chi.”).
    Molnar may have learned this information from his first work cited: Otto J. Brendel Symbolism of the Sphere Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977.

    *Technically, it's the intersection of the ecliptic and the celestial equator. The zodiac is a zone or belt about 16° in width containing the constellations of the zodiac and through which the orbits of the planets (except Pluto) pass. In the middle of this zone is an imaginary line called the ecliptic. The celestial equator is also known as the equinoctial--RC.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2018
  17. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Getting back to @Okidoki 's post about the aureus of Hadrian, here's a photo of the Mosaic from Sentium (now in Munich's Glyptothek) depicting Aion within the circle of the zodiac. It has been dated to AD 200/250:


    Another mosaic, from Hippo Regius, depicts in its central portion (in the upper left of this photo), Annus-Aion, depicted as young and half-naked, standing and holding a Zodiac circle in his right hand. On his left hand, he holds a cornucopiae that is full with vine leaves. It has been dated to AD late 3rd Century/early 4th Century:


    See Derya Sahin, "The Zodiac in Ancient Mosaics: Representation of Concepts of Time." JMR 3, 2009: 95-111.
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  18. lrbguy

    lrbguy Well-Known Member

    Linking those mosaics to a coin image is first rate numismatic detective work. That is the stuff of primary scholarship. Bravo, JC!! That is what it takes to move from speculation to established observation.

    "Mattingly did not notice the signs of the zodiac that are clear on our coin. This detail – which is not mentioned in either RIC or BMCRE"

    An auction house will say what it must to sell a coin, and NAC is no exception though they are usually careful. But in defense of Mattingly, coins with this much detail are not often seen. Mattingly may not have been able to see what the NAC example shows.

    In your searches do you find any images of a half-zodiac band being used as we see the image on these denarii of Faustina? Something ancient to "rule out" the shield interpretation. To establish a precedent for such use of a zodiac band (which is almost there in the Annus-Aion image except for gender). Speculation aside, any external clues about the best "goddess" to associate? Anything to support the Urania suggestion? S400L656.jpg

    This example in my collection is tantalizing in the striations marked on the band in her left hand. Anyone find an example with "vines?"

    And the globe-with-band image on this denarius is rather enticing as well. Celestial images associated with death/eternity, the hereafter? And the figure?


    Let me know if you need to see closeups.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2018
  19. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you for your kind words. I'm having a lot of fun with this.

    I don't think that the Faustina denarius depicts a "half-zodiac band." The other half is hidden behind Aeternitas' back.

    Given that this is a posthumous issue to honor the deified Faustina, Aeternitas is the figure to be identified here. Aeternitas is the female equivalent of Aion (Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, pp. 310–311), the god of limitless time. As such, it's no surprise that one of her attributes (the zodiac circle) mirrors his. It makes complete sense in the context of this issue: Aeternitas is here welcoming the departed and deified empress into eternity in the celestial realm.

    Hence Urania -- one of nine muses -- doesn't fit the historical or religious context of the issue at all.

    I think those striations are meant to represent the demarcations between the various houses of the zodiac.

    I'm not sure if any vines are depicted in your example of RIC 366 (the coin in the OP); it would certainly make for an interesting tie-in to the Hippo Regius mosaic if it did, though!

    I'm intrigued as well by the imagery on the bottom coin (RIC 350) you have posted as well. The figure is traditionally identified as Providentia -- and she probably is, given the similarity in her attributes to the Hadrian denarius @Okidoki posted earlier in this thread explicitly identifed as Providentia by "PRO AVG" -- but, as this thread proves, one has to be skeptical about such attributions unless the coin specifically identifies the figure. You'll recall that there is no consensus on the identity of the female figure on the reverse of this issue:

    Faustina Sr AETERNITAS Venus denarius DIVA AVG FAVSTINA.jpg

    Not only has the figure on your coin been attributed to Providentia, so has the figure on this one (RIC 351):

    Faustina Sr AETERNITAS Providentia denarius 2.jpg

    One has to wonder now, though, whether the figure thought to be Providentia on this coin isn't actually Aeternitas. Mattingly and Sydenham aren't so sure, either, indicating their uncertainty with a question mark in parentheses:

    Capture 5.JPG (RIC III, p. 70)

    Capture 6.JPG
    (BMCRE 4, p. 56)

    And that circular object above the figure in RIC 351/BMC 373? Well, you can see the catalogs call it a veil blown out behind her head. I wonder now if it isn't supposed to be a zodiac circle as well.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2018
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  20. lrbguy

    lrbguy Well-Known Member

    The point is that we are only seeing half of whatever the object is. The example on the left has the striations that we agree are consistent with reading the figure as a zodiac band, if we grant that interpretation. But then the example on the right which lacks those striations would support reading the image as a shield. Note the curvature at the top which gives a sense of size of that figure in relation to the person holding it up. The mosaics portray a zodiac band that is larger than the figure of the being holding it up.

    Moreover, the striations in the figure on the left are not definitive for a zodiac band, and would not preclude it from being a shield. What would it take to nail it down?

    I think a good case is being developed for reading this as a zodiac image, but given the longevity of the alternative reading, for which we still need to critique the rationale of its origin, the onus is on us to preclude that alternative reading by evidence and not merely a sense of conviction. Otherwise we might fall into the kind of interpretive trap that gave us a shield here in the first place.

    Logically we are attracted to the narrative argument you have been building in which we are able to make a coherent reading of the coin and its imagery with the zodiac reading, whereas the shield approach left open questions about the identity of the female figure and the narrative behind it all. That all is nice to consider, but that is still a plausibility from conjecture rather than evidence. Our imagination about what things meant to the ancients need more than our creative energy to make our insights relevant. It has value in weighing evidence, but it is not the source of evidence.

    Let us grant that there is some evidence that the imagery could be based on a zodiac motif. What evidence could we show that would indicate the image in question can not be a shield?
  21. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    One problem with such evidence is it is almost certain the globe is not original, rather the result of a restoration. Naturally, the restoration would have been according to the interpretation of the time. If it was originally a globe which originally had some design on it, that original design might indicate something relevant to this discussion, but a restored globe can, at most, tell us something about thinking at the time of the restoration.
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