Featured The Asklepian Snake on Roman Coins

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Roman Collector, May 20, 2017.

  1. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Post any coins you feel are relevant!

    Asklepios (Latin: Aesculapius) was the god of healing in the ancient world. Legend tells us he was the son of Apollo and the Trikkaian princess Koronis (Latin: Coronis). His mother died in labor and when she was laid out on the pyre, Apollo cut the unborn child from her womb. From this, Asklepios received his name which means "to cut open." He was raised by the centaur Kheiron (Chiron), who instructed him in the art of medicine. He grew so skilled in the craft that he could restore the dead to life. This was a crime against the natural order and so Zeus destroyed him with a thunderbolt. After his death Asklepios was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus ("the Serpent Holder").

    The snake of Asklepios (Latin: Aesculapius) is thought to be Zamenis longissima longissima, a constrictor harmless to man and feeding on small mammals. It can grow up to five or six feet long and is native to southern Europe, preferring open woodlands with glades and rocky areas, ruins and walls.


    On the one hand, the snake is considered as a chthonic being, associated with the underworld, the realm of death and many gods. On the other hand, the snake can be seen as a symbol of a healing force in that it was thought to revive itself by sloughing off its skin. There are myths of snakes possessing magic herbs with medicinal properties such as the legend of Glaucus (Apollodorus, The Library, III.iii). Glaucus was revived with herbs used by a snake after he had drowned in a vat of honey. Therefore, the serpent has been interpreted as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the physician, who deals with life and death, sickness and health.

    In honor of Asclepius, Zamenis snakes were often used in healing rituals, and they crawled around freely on the floor in temples to Asklepios (called an Asklepion) where the sick and injured slept. The snakes were purposely introduced into the temple at the founding of each new Asklepion throughout the classical world.

    The origins of the Asklepios myth are obscure but may go back to the sixth century BCE at Tricca in Thessaly, where he was merely a minor deity. At any rate, Asklepios seems to have been associated with snakes from the beginning. The myth subsequently spread and, in previously existing healing sanctuaries and temples, he often supplanted other deities, such as Amphiaraus. Pausanias, in his Guide to Greece (II.26.7) says that the most famous sanctuaries to Asklepios, such as in Pergamum, had their origins in Epidaurus.

    It is from Epidaurus, too, that the cult reached Athens, arriving circa 420 BCE. The Athenians then dedicated the fourth day of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Festival of Asklepios, called the Epidauria. Sophocles, the great tragedian, was closely involved with the introduction of the Asklepian cult into Athens, and housed the sacred snake which was sent from the Asklepion in Epidaurus. He made his own home the place of worship for Asklepios until Athens completed work on its own Asklepion. For this, Sophocles was honored with the title, Dexion, meaning “worthy one.”

    Other attributes of Asklepios include a goat, a dog, and a cockerel, but I won’t go into these, because I have no coins depicting Asklepios with these items (though please post any coins you may have that do!).

    The snake of Asklepios is usually depicted coiled round a staff which has had a variety of interpretations from being merely a travelling staff reflecting the itinerant life of the physician to being a symbol, perhaps with magical overtones, of the help and support available from the god. Asklepios is depicted with his serpent staff on these coins:

    Gordian III and Tranquillina Anchialus Asklepios.jpg
    Gordian and Tranquillina, AD 238-244
    Roman provincial AE; 26.4 mm, 12.98 g
    Thrace, Anchialus, AD 241
    Obv: Κ Μ ΑΝΤ ΓΟΡΔΙΑΝΟC ΑVΓ CΕΒ-[...], laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Gordian and draped bust of Tranquillina, wearing stephane, confronted.
    Rev: ΟVΛΠΑΝW[ΑΝ]ΧΙΑΛΕWΝ, Asklepios standing facing, head left, with serpent climbing staff to left.
    Refs: Moushmov 2936; AMGN II 665; Varbanov 672; SNG Copenh --; BMC Thrace -- .

    Severus Asklepios.jpg
    Septimius Severus, AD 193-211
    Roman Provincial AE; 20.5 mm, 5.63 gm
    Bithynia, Nicaea AD 193-211
    Obv: ΑΥ ΚΛ CΕΠ CΕΥΗΡΟC CEB, laureate head, r.
    Rev: ΝΙΚΑΙΕΩΝ, Asklepios standing facing, head l., holding serpent-staff.
    Ref: Waddington/Babelon/Reinach, Recueil général des monnaies grecques d'Asie mineure, no. 333, citing a retouched specimen in Milan, AE 21 with illegible obverse legend.

    Gallienus Aesculapius.jpg
    Gallienus, AD 253-268
    Roman billon Antoninianus; 2.24 g, 20.5 mm
    Antioch, AD 265-266
    Obv: GALLIENVS AVG, radiate and cuirassed bust, r.
    Rev: CONSERVATOR AVG, Aesculapius standing l., leaning on staff with serpent.
    Refs: RIC 632 (sole reign); Cohen 140; Sear 10193; Hunter 208.

    Postumus, AD 260-269
    Roman Billon Antoninianus; 2.84 g, 21.1 mm
    Cologne, AD 265-68
    Obv: IMP C POSTVMVS AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust, r.
    Rev: SALVS AVG, Aesculapius standing facing, head l., holding snake-entwined staff; globe at feet, r.
    Refs: RIC 86; Hunter 85, 86; Cohen 336; Sear 10985; DeWitte 280.

    The Asklepian snake is not limited to Asklepios himself, however. Coins depicting the goddess Hygeia (Latin: Salus) typically depict her with Asklepian snakes as well. Hygeia is usually said to be the daughter of Asklepios, though there were others, such as Panacaea (mentioned with Hygeia in the Hippocratic Oath) and Iaso. Hygeia was the most important of the attendants of Asklepios and was said by some ancient authors to be not his daughter but his wife. She was a little apart from other members of the family and more on par with Asklepios himself. Hygeia, the “personification of health” is remembered today in the word, hygiene. Hygeia is depicted on numerous coins, typically feeding the sacred snake from a patera.

    Faustina Jr Pautalia Hygeia Snake Stele.jpg
    Faustina Jr, AD 161-175
    Roman provincial AE; 6.94 gm; 21.1 mm
    Thrace, Pautalia, AD 161-175
    Obv: ΦΑVCΤΕΙΝ Α CΕΒΑCΤΗ, bare headed and draped bust, r.
    Rev: ΟVΛΠΙΑC ΠΑVΤΑΛΙΑC, Hygeia standing r., holding patera in l. hand, feeding snake wound around stele and extending head l.
    Refs: Ruzicka 127; Moushmov 4116.

    Gordian and Tranquillina Tomis.jpg
    Gordian III and Tranquillina, AD 238-244
    AE 4 Assaria; 26.6 mm; 11.27 gm
    Moesia Inferior, Tomis, AD 241.
    Obv: ΑVΤ Κ Μ ΑΝΤΩΝΕΙΝΟC ΓΟΡΔΙΑΝΟC ΤΡΑΝΚVΛI/ΝΑ, Confronted busts of Gordian and Tranquillina
    Rev: ΜΗΤΡΟΠΟΝΤΟV ΤΟΜΕΩC, Hygeia standing, feeding snake from patera.
    Refs: Moushmov 2288; AMNG 3535; BMC --

    Salus was an old Roman goddess that became identified with Hygeia. While the inscription SALVS appears on many Roman coins, this is often not in a true medical context, but rather in a broader political sense that peace, safety, and public well-being prevailed in the empire, such as on coins bearing the inscription, “SALVS REIPUBLICAE” (health of the empire). I will not go into these coins. As a goddess, however, like Hygeia, Salus is typically depicted seated or standing and feeding a snake from a patera. She appears on the following coins:

    Calligula and Caesonia.jpg
    Calligula AD 37-41
    Roman provincial Æ 28 mm, 11.17 gm
    Carthago Nova, Spain, AD 37-38
    Obv: C. CAESAR AVG. GERMANIC. IMP. P.M. TR.P. COS., laureate head of Caligula, right
    Rev: CN. ATEL. FLAC. CN. POM. FLAC. II. VIR. Q.V.I.N.C., head of Salus (some attribute to Caesonia, wife of Calligula) right, SAL AVG across field
    Refs: SGI 419; Heiss 272, 35; Cohen 247, 1; RPC 1, 185; SNG Cop 503.

    Lucilla Salus Dupondius.jpg
    Lucilla, AD 164-169
    Roman orichalcum dupondius; 11.49 g, 24.88 mm, 6:00
    Rome, AD 166
    Obv: LVCILLAE AVG ANTONINI AVG F, bare-headed and draped bust, right
    Rev: SALVS SC, Salus standing left, feeding snake arising from altar
    Refs: RIC 1761; BMCRE 1186; Cohen 67; RCV 5521.

    Maximinus Salus Sestertius.jpg
    Maximinus I, 235-238
    Roman AE Sestertius; 26.7 mm; 18.01 gm
    Rome, AD 236-238
    Obv: MAXIMINVS PIVS AVG GERM, Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust, r.
    Rev: SALVS AVGVSTI SC, Salus enthroned l., feeding snake arising from altar.
    Refs: RIC-85; BMCRE-175, Sear-8338; Cohen-92.
    Last edited: May 20, 2017
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  3. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Interesting write-up and nice coins.
    Roman Collector and gregarious like this.
  4. Alegandron

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

    Cool write up and great coins! Thanks for the detail.

    I only have one featuring Aesculapius:

    RR Rubrius AR Quinarius Donnsenus 87 BC Neptune Victory alter snake Aesculapius S261 Cr 348-4.JPG
    RR Rubrius AR Quinarius Donnsenus 87 BCE Neptune Victory alter snake Aesculapius Sear 261 Craw 348/4
  5. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    People who tolerate/love snakes of the type shown might expect to have better health than those who do not. That snake eats rats. Not having rats around the house is a healthy situation. Did the ancients equate snakes with health because they ate rats? IDK.
    Smojo and Roman Collector like this.
  6. Orfew

    Orfew Supporter! Supporter

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  7. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Great writeup, thanks! Coincidentally, this morning I've been doing a little serpentine research as well, trying to better understand the reverse of this coin:

    MOESIA INFERIOR, Nikopolis ad Istrum. Elagabalus
    Æ 26 mm, 12.5 gm
    CE 218/9, Novius Rufus, consular legate
    Obv: ...ΠΗ ANTΩNEINOC΄ laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Elagabalus right
    Rev: VΠ NOBIOV POVΦOV NIKO[ΛOΛITΩN ΠPOC IC TP]; Athena standing left before serpent coiled around olive tree to left; shield on ground behind her
    Ref: Hristova & Jekov (same as last illus. Specimen); Varbanov 3906 (same dies as illus.); Moushmov 1384

    I'm trying to understand the reverse scene and why it appears on this coin from Nikopolis. Maybe it recalls Athena's creation of an olive tree as she competed with Poseidon for patronage of Athens? Where does the snake fit in? Did this scene copy a contemporary statue?

    Regardless, the serpent and Athena appear to be on good terms, unlike the coin shown below in which Athena is about to slash it's head off. Septimius appears shocked by this turn of events.

    (from CNG's archives)
    CILICIA, Carallia. Septimius Severus. 193-211 AD. Æ 37mm (25.45 gm). Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right, seen from behind / Athena standing right, holding shield decorated with gorgoneion, striking at serpent entwined around tree. SNG Levante -; SNG Levante Suppl. 52 (this coin); SNG France -; SNG von Aulock -.

    Looks like snakes can't trust Athena :D


    More on topic, here's an Asklepios, holding a serpent-entwined rod and riding on a winged serpent:

    THRACE, Pautalia. Caracalla
    CE 198-217
    AE29, 16.4 gm
    Obv: AYT K M AY CEY ANTΩNEINOC; Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right
    Rev: OYΛΠIAC ΠAYTAΛIAC; Asklepios seated right on back of winged serpent
    Ref: Varbanov 5007
  8. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Thanks for the excellent writeup and coin show. I kept going back to "drowned in a vat of honey"... what the heck was going on there?!

    Anyway, let me throw in a coin featuring Telesphoros, Asklepios's creepy little son. He was a minor deity whose sphere was the convalescence of the ill. His distinctive cucullus is thought to suggest Celtic origins.

  9. Alegandron

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

    LOL, wow, Telephoros DOES look creepy... Like an ANGRY GNOME!

    Leave it to us Celts to have some oddball dieties...

  10. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Or Damien...
    MOESIA INFERIOR. Marcianopolis. Elagabalus (218-222)
    AE 17, 2.5 gm
    Obv: AVT K M AVP ANTΩNINOC; laureate head right.
    Rev: MAPKIANOΠOΛITΩN; Telesphorus standing facing.
    Ref: Varbanov 1422.
  11. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Nah, some of them are pretty cool. I used to worship the goddess Enya myself...

  12. Alegandron

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

    LOL!!! Yeah, I can see why! :D I do enjoy Celtic music...
    RAGNAROK and gregarious like this.
  13. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    There is sort of a connection. One of the epithets of Apollo (Asklepios' dad) was Smintheus, or "Lord of the Mice." This is the guise in which Apollo appears in book 1 of the Iliad, killing the Greeks with a plague because the Greeks have taken the daughter of Apollo's priest into slavery.

    The priest prays to Apollo Smintheus as follows:

    πολλὰ δ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἀπάνευθε κιὼν ἠρᾶθ᾽ ὃ γεραιὸς
    Ἀπόλλωνι ἄνακτι, τὸν ἠΰκομος τέκε Λητώ:
    κλῦθί μευ ἀργυρότοξ᾽, ὃς Χρύσην ἀμφιβέβηκας
    Κίλλάν τε ζαθέην Τενέδοιό τε ἶφι ἀνάσσεις,
    Σμινθεῦ εἴ ποτέ τοι χαρίεντ᾽ ἐπὶ νηὸν ἔρεψα,
    ἢ εἰ δή ποτέ τοι κατὰ πίονα μηρί᾽ ἔκηα
    ταύρων ἠδ᾽ αἰγῶν, τὸ δέ μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ:
    τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.

    I translate as:

    And then, going a long ways away, the old man began to pray
    to Lord Apollo, the one beautiful-haired Leto bore:
    "Hear me, silver-bowed one, who yet protects Crysa
    and most holy Cilla, and who is mighty protector of Tenedos.
    Smintheus, if ever I built a roof upon a graceful temple for you
    or if truly I ever burned for you the fat thigh pieces
    of bulls and goats, then grant me a wish:
    May the Danaeans pay for my tears with your arrows!"

    Scholars have suggested that the Greeks associated mice and plagues, even from the time of Homer.
  14. Jwt708

    Jwt708 Well-Known Member

    Excellent post @Roman Collector when I get home I'll toss in a few and a pic from the Asklepion from Kos I visited.
    gregarious and Roman Collector like this.
  15. gregarious

    gregarious E Pluribus Unum

    idk, it kinda reminds me of the space shuttle taking off.. space shuttle.jpg
  16. gregarious

    gregarious E Pluribus Unum

    TIF, your coins reverse is the starship enterprise (kinda:rolleyes:) starship enterprise.jpg
  17. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    I'll be darned. You're right :D
    gregarious likes this.
  18. Smojo

    Smojo dreamliner

    Cool write up RC.
    Some sweet coins from everyone.
    I do like snakes but as far as ancient and coins I've only 2 that have absolutely nothing to do with the OP.
    Although that may change if I happen onto a similar one to @zumbly 's gnome. That is just to cool.
    zumbly and Roman Collector like this.
  19. chrsmat71

    chrsmat71 I LIKE TURTLES! Supporter

    nice write up RC!

    this rough coin commemorates caracalla's visit to the aesclepium in permagum, the reverse shows asclepius and his snake buddy, there is a barely visible telephoros to our left of him ( I can see it in hand, but not on pics really).

  20. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    Great write-up and coins
  21. Mikey Zee

    Mikey Zee Delenda Est Carthago

    Fascinating thread!!! And so many cool coins!!!
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