The only surviving depiction of the temple of Mercury: a sestertius of Marcus Aurelius

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Limes, Jan 30, 2023.

  1. Limes

    Limes Well-Known Member

    This year started off with a bang! I’ve already been able to add four coins, including not one, but two grail coins that I will post at a later date. This one might not be a ‘grail coin’, but ever since @Andres2 showed his a while ago on cointalk, I’ve been on the hunt for a specimen myself. And I’m a sucker for coins with a building on it, and this sure is a special one!


    This sestertius of Marcus Aurelius is special for several reasons. First, the reverse shows the temple of Mercury, which makes it the only remaining image of the temple, as no remains of the temple itself have been dug up. The temple of Mercury once stood on the slope of the Avantine hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus. Founded in 495 BC, it was one of the oldest temples in Rome and it is known that it still existed in the 3rd century. The reverse of the sestertius shows the temple, but what’s particularly interesting is that its nothing like the ‘usual’ Roman temple. One can see pillars (on better specimens than my coin, this is even more clear) in what looks like the shape of a body with heads on top. And the roof is not triangular in shape, but a half circle. The pediment shows several objects, which are the attributes of Mercury (from left to right): a tortoise, a cock with the head turned right, a ram, the petasus, the caduceus, and a purse. Overall, the structure has a sort of Egyptian feel to it, which may have been done deliberately to pay tribute to the Egyptian origin of Mercury. The unusual pillars reminded me of the telamons we saw in Sicily, Agrigento, when we were there for our honeymoon in 2012.

    RIC identifies the columns as ‘telamones’ (I don’t have this RIC volume however, so I used OCRE), which is the Roman term for Atlases. In his book Monumental Coins, Marvin Tameanko puts forwards several theories to identify the columns. Besides telamones, he makes a stronger case that the columns are actually ‘herms’: stone idols related to Hermes, which had several functions, such as a good luck charm, but also protectors of travellers and traders. Not learned in this matter in any way, I do think the identification used by Marvin Tameanko makes more sense due to a directer link with Mercury. Also, as you can see from the photo from Sicily, one would think that the imagery of the telamones would include them raising their arms to hold the roof. (Or then again, maybe a more generalistic imagery was used, or maybe there was no room to make the arms...?) What do you think?

    Although I’ve always thought it’s tricky to make assertions on what a building may have looked like or what its seize could have been, based on merely a coin, Marvin Tameanko does put forward an interesting idea in his abovementioned book, following his identification of the columns as herms. He states that the peculiar shape and size of the temple may indicate that the ‘temple’ shown on the coin is actually not a temple, but a shrine placed inside a temple. The temple itself may have had a more familiar shape and size, and the shrine would constitute the sacellum. This also corresponds with the herms shown on the coin, which were used on small scale monuments. As long as no remains are found, it’s impossible to know for certain how the temple looked like, but it is an interesting idea nevertheless.

    The second thing that makes this coin interesting, is that it refers to the miraculous event that happened to the Roman legions of Marcus Aurelius, during their war with the Quadi. About this even, Cassius Dio writes: “The Quadi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the Romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing and the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them.” There’s some debate going on between ancient (and modern) authors whether the “Egyptian magician who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air” or that “a division of soldiers (...) from Melitene when they had prayed, their God immediately gave ear and smote the enemy with a thunderbolt and comforted the Romans with a shower of rain” were responsible. But I wont go into this discussion. I'm just simply amazed by the fact that an event that took place almost 2000 years ago is brought to us via a writing, a column that still stand today, and my coin! Just let that sink in...! And I'm able to hold a piece of that history in hand!

    Here's the display of the miraculous event on the column of Marcus Aurelius. To me, the bearded guy does not look like Mercury at all! I wonder what the sculpters tried to recreate here.

    MA column.jpg

    I’m very happy to have added this coin to my collection. And although it will not win a beauty contest, the history behind it, the design, and the story it tells me (I even went through our old photos from Sicily!), makes me enjoy it. The coin shows some honest wear, and has quite a few hard green deposits. In hand it’s nevertheless an attractive piece in my opinion, with interesting details on the reverse. Thanks for reading and share anything you want.

    For more photos of the column itself, see this beautiful album on flickr!
    For more info on the miraculous event, see See also the article by Péter Kovács, 'Marcus Aurelius’ rain miracle: When and Where?', in the archaeological institute of the Slovak academy oy sciences, 2017, available here:
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  3. cmezner

    cmezner do ut des Supporter

    @Limes great and very interesting write-up. Thanks you so much for sharing your research.
    It is H. Mattingly who relates this coinage to the miraculous victory of the XII Legion over the Quadi in 173 AD, attributed by the emperor to Mercury. The legend RELIG(io) AVG(usti) connects Mercury with the religious feeling of Marcus Aurelius. Diodorus Siculus tells how in Egypt who wore the petasus and carried the caduceus was seen as a figure representing the religious and spiritual world, so the presence of this god might be generically symbolic of the emperor's religiosity.

    Mine is RIC III Marcus Aurelius 1074: laureate, draped, cuirassed bust of Marcus Aurelius.

    AE Sestertius, Rome 172-173 AD
    30x31 mm, 26.13 g

    upload_2023-1-30_15-39-14.png upload_2023-1-30_15-39-30.png

    Attached Files:

  4. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Terrific addition, congrats.
    Limes likes this.
  5. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Bravo. I wish I had one of these RELIG AVG sestertii. I don't know if it is the facade of a temple, as seen from the outside, or if it is the baroque architectural frame of a niche in which stood Mercury's statue, the focal point of the temple interior.
    The columns are not Telamons IMO, but herms with shoulders but no arms and simple square section pillars as bodies.
    I could not find any Greek or Roman parallel for such an architecture. Ironically, the only parallel I have in mind is the gateway of the Vaux le Vicomte castle not far from my home.
    vaux le vicomte.jpg
    It is typical 17th c. baroque architecture. It was built by Nicolas Fouquet, Finance minister of Louis XIV. After completion, Fouquet had the nerve to invite the king in person at the house-warming party. When the king saw this castle, he did some maths and concluded that in no case his finance minister could afford this unless he swiped from the till, and not moderately. Some time after Fouquet was arrested (by the famous d'Artagnan) and spent the rest of his life in jail.
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