Featured Three recently acquired coins of Octavian/Augustus, including my first Imperial Cistophorus

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by DonnaML, Feb 8, 2022.

  1. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    I have long admired the silver cistophori issued in Asia Minor under the reigns of Augustus through Hadrian -- large silver coins that are among the few types routinely classified as both "Imperial" and "Provincial," and continue to be labeled with that term long after any trace of the original cista mystica and snakes that gave the type its name in the Roman Republican period had entirely disappeared. My own example of one of the original kind, issued by Tralleis/Tralles in Lydia ca. 78/77 BCE:

    Lydia, Tralleis. AR Cistophoric Tetradrachm. jpg version.jpg

    In my opinion, the Imperial/Provincial cistophori issued after 27 BCE are often at least the equals of Roman Republican or Imperial denarii in style and artistic merit.

    For a summary, see the entry for "Cistophorus" in John Melville Jones’s Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins (London 1990), at pp. 55-56:

    p. 1 -- entry for cistophorus in Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins.jpg

    p. 2 -- entry for cistophorus in Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins.jpg

    The Imperial cistophorii can be very expensive, but I finally saw one that I could afford, in a condition that's nowhere near perfect, but good enough to make me very pleased with it!

    Augustus, AR Cistophoric tetradrachm [ = three denarii], 27-26 BCE, Province of Asia [NW Asia Minor], Mysia, Pergamum[?] Mint. Obv. Bare head right, IMP•CAESAR downwards behind, lituus before / Rev. Capricorn* swimming right with head turned back to left, cornucopiae on its back, AVGVSTVS below; all within a laurel wreath tied in bow at bottom. RIC I Augustus 488 (2nd ed. 1984) [see http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.1(2).aug.488]; RSC I Augustus 16a (3rd ed. 1978) (ill. p. 132); RPC I Online 2208 [see https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/1/2208]; Sear RCV I 1585; Sutherland Group IIIβ, nos 87–98a [see Sutherland, C.H.V., The Cistophori of Augustus (London, 1970)]; BMCRE I Augustus 698; BMCRR II (East) 287. 26 mm., 11.7 g. Purchased Feb. 2022 from Wessex Coins, UK.


    *Why did Augustus adopt Capricorn as his astrological sign, despite the fact that his birthday was purportedly 23 Sep. 63 BCE? For one theory, see Amelia Carolina Sparavigna (Dipartimento di Scienza Applicata e Tecnologia, Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy), Octavian Augustus at Apollonia and the statement of his astrological sign, 2019. ffhal-02267867f, https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02267867 (also available at https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02267867/document#:~:text=As a consequence, Octavian Augustus,was building with his empire) at p. 1:

    ABSTRACT. The article discusses a possible link between the astrological sign of the Capricorn, that Octavian Augustus chose as his symbol, and the constellation in which the sun was at the beginning of the calendar of Julius Caesar, that is the First January of 45 BC. Augustus may have chosen this constellation as the symbol of the birth of a new age, which Caesar, his adoptive father, had established with the reform of the calendar. The astrological sign was assigned to Octavian when he was in Apollonia, in the same year of the reform, 45 BC. The “magnus gubernator” of the world was born. Under the sign of Capricorn, Octavian Augustus ruled the empire.

    See also David Wray, “Astrology in Ancient Rome: Poetry, Prophecy and Power” (2001) (available at https://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777122543/):

    “If Augustus' military struggle was over after the defeat of Mark Antony, he would never be finished with his ideological campaign to insert a monarchical principle into the still intact political structure of the Roman republic. One of the ways Augustus had been carrying on this ideological campaign was through the symbolism of images on coins and public monuments. Another way he had asserted his claim to sole power had been, remarkably enough, by publishing his own natal horoscope. We don't know precisely what form this publication took (I suspect it was probably an actual astrological chart), and we don't know the exact date of publication, but it seems to have been long before Augustus came to sole power. Our source is Suetonius' second century biography of Augustus, and Suetonius narrates these events as taking place just after Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE:

    ‘In his retirement at Apollonia (a Greek colony in Illyria), Augustus went with his friend Agrippa to visit Theogenes the astrologer in his gallery on the roof. Agrippa, who first consulted the fates, had great and almost incredible things predicted of him. Augustus therefore did not wish to make known his nativity, and persisted for some time in the refusal, from a mixture of shame and fear, lest his own fate should be predicted as inferior to that of Agrippa. When Augustus had been persuaded, however, after much importunity, to declare his nativity, Theogenes started up from his seat and paid him adoration. Not long afterwards, Augustus was so confident of the greatness of his destiny that he published his horoscope, and struck a silver coin bearing the image of Capricorn, the sign under which he was born.’

    There are a number of very interesting things about this story. The first and most obvious thing to say is that Augustus' visit to the astrologer Theogenes could be a complete fiction. Suetonius' biography includes portents and prophecies of every kind, starting with Augustus' birth in 63 BCE, and all of them pointing to Augustus' destiny as master of the world. Ancient literature is full of such prophecies, and in almost every case the prophecy (in the story) has to come true; that's simply the narrative logic by which stories of this kind work. Think of Sophocles' Oedipus, for example.

    Every emperor's biography seems to have featured some omen or prediction of future greatness, so on one level there's no reason to attach any truth value to this story about Augustus and a Greek astrologer. On the other hand, there is nothing impossible or unlikely about an astrologer making a prediction of future greatness and power to Augustus as early as 44 BCE. Astrology was a part of Greek learning and culture, with a high prestige value. And more importantly, individual natal horoscopes tended to be associated in the Hellenistic world with individual power, and specifically with claims to kingship. Publishing your horoscope, in other words, could be read as a way of making a bid for royal power without having to say openly that you were making such a bid. The first "published" horoscope we possess dates from 62 BCE. It is preserved in the form of a relief carved into a rock on the top of Nimrudh Dagh in the Tarsus mountains, and it represents the coronation horoscope of King Antiochus I of Commagene.

    Whatever form the so-called publication of his horoscope took, we can be completely certain that Augustus wanted the world to know what sign he was born under. Let me refer you to the three images you've seen in this article. The first one is a coin, one of several Augustan coins featuring Capricorn. You can see the name "Augustus," and the sea-goat holding the globe of the world. Augustus is Capricorn, in other words, and as the cosmocrator (master of the universe), he's got the whole world in his hands. While Augustus' rhetoric in words was putting forward an image of himself as "first among equals," the astrological imagery of this coin is putting forward an unmistakable bid for autocracy and even kingship. The next image is the most famous cameo portrait of Augustus, the so-called ‘Gemma Augustea.’ The woman placing the crown on Augustus' head almost certainly represents the oikoumene, a Greek word meaning "the inhabited world" (we know this Capricorn from similar representations on coins where the image bears a caption). Just behind Augustus' head is a round lozenge containing a small image of Capricorn the sea-goat. We have a fair number of other Capricorn artifacts that probably belonged to private individuals, and these have been found throughout the empire. My third image, another cameo, is an example. The young man swimming the waves is both riding on Capricorn and probably also to be identified with Capricorn. His features, shown in profile, are recognizably those of the young Augustus.

    Why Capricorn? We don't really know. Augustus' sun sign was Libra. Capricorn was probably either his rising sign or, more likely, his Moon sign. Modern popular astrology, of the newspaper kind, is of course purely sun sign astrology, but the ancients tended to attach more importance to the Moon sign and rising sign. What particular qualities of the sea-goat made this sign especially appropriate for Augustus? Again, we don't know for sure. Possibly because Capricorn, then as now, was associated with stern moral authority. Possibly because Capricorn is the sign in which the sun passes through the winter solstice and is, in a sense, reborn--like the Roman republic, in Augustus' propaganda. Possibly because Capricorn, then as now, was associated with the planet Saturn. According to Roman mythology, Saturn had come to live in Italy when his son Jupiter had kicked him out of heaven, and the age in which Saturn ruled as king over Italy was a ‘golden age’ of paradise on earth. Augustus' reign was portrayed, in the poetry of Virgil and Horace as well as in Augustus' propaganda, as a return to that Saturnian golden age. Perhaps each of these reasons was a factor in Augustus' adoption of Capricorn as his emblem.”

    Here are two other coins of Octavian/Augustus that I recently purchased. As with the cistophorus, and as is often necessary with his coins, I compromised on my usual expectations regarding condition in order to be able to afford both instead of only one -- meaning, for these two, that they cost me in the range of $500 apiece rather than over $1,000.

    The first is the exact same type that @Gam3rBlake purchased and posted not too long ago, although mine isn't nearly as nice, especially on the reverse. Still, I like the obverse a great deal, especially because it's anepigraphic -- something I had also wanted for a long time.

    The Triumvirs, Octavian, AR Denarius, Autumn 30-Summer 29 BC, Italian (Rome?) Mint. Obv. Bare head right, anepigraphic / Rev. Naval and military trophy, composed of helmet, cuirass, shield to right, and crossed spears to left, set on prow of galley right, crossed rudder and anchor at base, IMP – CAESAR across fields. CRI 419 (ill. p. 256) [D. Sear, The History and Coinage of the Roman Imperators 49-27 BC (1998)]; RIC I Augustus 265a; RSC I [Babelon] Augustus 119 (ill. p. 139); Sear RCV I 1556 (Octavian) (ill. p. 300); BMCRR II (East) 4352 (= BMCRE I Augustus 625). 20 mm., 3.73 g. Purchased from Kölner Münzkabinett, Feb. 2022.*

    Octavian RIC 265a Trophy on Prow reverse Kolner Munzkabinett.jpg

    *David Sear states at CRI p. 256 that given the image’s lack of specificity, “it may be taken as a general reference to the various naval victories achieved by Octavian (or rather by Marcus Agrippa), most notably at Naulochus [off Sicily] in 36 BC [over Sextus Pompey,] and at Actium in 31.”

    Finally, an Imperial denarius issued by Augustus about two decades later. Again, I found the obverse sufficiently appealing for me to buy the coin even though one can't see the bull's face or one of his horns on the reverse:

    Augustus AR Denarius, 11-10 BCE, Lugdunum (Lyons) Mint. Obv. Laureate head right, banker's mark[?] below ear, AUGVSTVS downwards behind, DIVI • F upwards in front / Rev. Bull butting right, right forefoot raised, lashing tail over back, IMP • XII in exergue. RIC I Augustus 187a (2d ed. 1984), RSC I Augustus 155 (3rd ed. 1978), BMCRE I Augustus 472 at p. 81 & Pl. 11 No. 19 (see https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1866-1201-4186). 19 mm., 3.69 g. Purchased from Kölner Münzkabinett, Jan. 2022.

    Augustus denarius - bull reverse Kolner Munzkabinett.jpg

    (If anyone thinks that's not a banker's mark beneath Augustus's ear, please let me know. I'm tempted to speculate about what the shape represents, but will refrain from doing so, given that any attempt I made would just be a guess.)

    Please post your recent and/or favorite coins of Octavian/Augustus, whether they're classified as Republican, Imperatorial, Imperial, or Provincial (or any combination of the foregoing), and/or your silver cistophori issued by anyone or any city, whether before or after 27 BCE.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2022
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  3. Marsden

    Marsden Well-Known Member

    Wow thanks. Your posts are like going back to school for me, which is a good thing because I always enjoyed school!

    When I was in grad school I was permitted to take courses anywhere in the university so I loaded up on Greco-Roman :)
  4. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    Great post and even better coins! Thank you for sharing!
    I love the Augustus/Octavians. One day, I'd like to own an example of both Octavian and later, Augustus.
    The cistophorus coins are beautiful as well. I've seen some tetradrachms that may one day be in my budget.
  5. romismatist

    romismatist Well-Known Member

    The banker's mark under Augustus' ear reminds me of the prow of a ship. Lovely coins, as usual!
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  6. BasSWarwick

    BasSWarwick Well-Known Member

    Very interesting.

    Coincidentally I was watching a video last night about Pergamum. Seeing the snakes on the coin reminded me regarding a particular type of non-venomous snake that was often used in healing rituals at Pergamum. These snakes – the Aesculapian snakes – crawled around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept.
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  7. The Meat man

    The Meat man Supporter! Supporter

    Very nice! That first one with Augustus...that is stunning! There's nothing quite like those big silver coins. Yours is a real beauty. Congrats!
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  8. Ryro

    Ryro Trying to remove supporter status

    Wonderful things!
    I STILL need a cista mystica and yours is lovely:D
    I believe that to be a banker's mark/ gouge of authenticity. Though, if we're using our imaginations... yes, prow of ship is the first thing to come to mind. But if you zoom in and reeeeaaally look...ithyphalic satyr;):troll:
    (And is that a bull? I see the, errm, yeah. But then I see it also appears to have ummmm.
    Just so much beauuuuuutiful silver Augustus:woot:
    Probably ten to one would be my ratio for bronze to silver Augy:happy:
    But I've got a few laying around.
    Much smaller but still with snakes is my mini wannabe cista mystica:
    IMG_0757(1).PNG IMG_0615(1).PNG 1825382_1618171287.l-removebg-preview.png 001-1201-34-removebg-preview.png
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  9. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Well-Known Member

    Wow!! Lovely additions to your already marvelous collection, @DonnaML!
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  10. Edessa

    Edessa Well-Known Member

    Roman Egypt, Alexandria. Nero, with Divus Augustus, AD 54-68. Billon Tetradrachm (24mm, 12.90g, 12h). Dated RY 13 (AD 66/67). Obv: NEPΩ KΛAY KAIΣ ΣEB ΓEP AY; Radiate bust of Nero left, wearing Aegis; L-ΙΓ (date) to left. Rev: ΘEOΣ ΣEΒAΣTOΣ; Radiate head of Divus Augustus right. Ref: Köln 177-80; Dattari (Savio) 184; K&G 14.100; RPC I 5294; Emmett 113.13.

  11. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Well-Known Member

    I have always been impressed with the Roman Imperial cistophoric tetradrachms and have over the years picked up a few. In fact at the NYINC I bought another one. However this one I have owned for a few years now.
    Augustus Ar Cistophorus Pergamon 25-20 BC Obv. Head right bare. Rv. Six stalks of grain tied in a bundle. RIC 494 RPC 2214 Sutherland Group VI 276 a 11.81 grms 25 mm Photo by W. Hansen cistoph august1.jpg I always liked the portraits they have an essential serenity and simplicity that gives the whole composition a sense of dignity which is sometimes lacking o=in some of the other images on his coinage. I saw this coin at a dealers table back in January 2018 NYINC. I just had to have it.
  12. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    @Ryro, I must say that your second interpretation of the banker's mark never occurred to me. Some people have only one thing on their mind! I might as well mention my own guess at this point: I thought it looks like a shoe or sandal, with the sole to the right and the opening on the left. Perhaps with a small wing protruding from the back?

    As for the bull, I didn't notice that either. My guess: it's "old man at the beach" syndrome.
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  13. cmezner

    cmezner do ut des Supporter

    Great additions @DonnaML awesome exemplars :)

    I think that the most likely possibility, as stated for the Triumvir denarius, is that it only commemorates Agrippa’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, the final triumph for Octavian, which happened the previous September, being so more recent than the battle at Naulochus.

    Regarding your quote from David Wray:

    I disagree with the statement that he was in retirement and they went to visit Theogenes, because Theogenes was one of their teachers in Pergamum

    In the fall 45 BC Julius Caesar had decided, by the Lex Cassia, to create a new class of patricians. Octavian was one of the members of this new class. Shortly afterwards, and considering the preparations for the Parthian campaign, Caesar sent ahead his great-nephew to Apollonia (today's Vlora in Albania) were he was to spend the winter. Octavian's task was to meet the forces in Illyria and Macedonia and get acquainted with military leadership and prepare himself as a future military commander. At the same time he pursued studies in Greek (language) and Rhetoric with Apollodarus in Pergamum; in Mathematics he was taught by Theogenes. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Quintus Salvidienus Rufus were his companions in Octavian's military and humanistic studies. Therefore during the winter of 45/44 BC in Apollonia and nearby places, Octavian's time was dedicated to learn under his Greek teachers, and with military exercises. There was no retirement.
    In the spring 44 BC, he took part in the preparation of the forces and their equipment, forces that would be for Caesar. One evening, in the month of March, Octavian received notice about Caesar's assassination [Appian, Bellum Civile III,9]. His closest advisors and friends in Apollonia recommended him to take care of his security by staying in Apollonia or Macedonia protected by his troops.
    After a few days, the details of the conspirators and murders of Caesar, and about the turbulence happening in Rome, reached Apollonia, Octavian decided to go to Rome.
    He crossed the Adriatic, probably in the last days of March and arrived with a small escort at the port of Lupiae (Lecce) in Calabria, about to the north of Brundisium [Appian, Bellum Civile III, 10]. He didn't choose the large port of Brundisium, which was controlled by the conservative party, but he chose the small and insignificant Lupiae as his starting point for his way to Rome. This shows the prudence and wisdom that was always later his outstanding characteristic, particularly since he was now only 18 years old.

    My pièce de résistance, not a Cistophorus, but one that I wanted very much to have and which I already shared in December:):

    Aureus, Lugdunum, 8 BC
    18.73 x 18.65 mm, 12h; 7.912 g
    RIC I 200; Lyon 64 (unlisted dies); Calicó 235; BMCRE 492 = BMCRR Gaul 215

    Ob.: ΛVGVSTVS DIVI•F, laureate head right
    Rev.: Jupiter Augustus, bare-head and togate, seated left on curule chair set on low daïs, extending his r. hand toward a cloaked Gaul or German on left, standing right, presenting a child held out in both hands toward Augustus. IMP•XIIII in exergue

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  14. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    Yes, "retirement" does sound wrong. Maybe it was a transcription error, since this was a speech rather than a formal article. But it doesn't necessarily detract from what the author had to say about Octavian's reasons for choosing Capricorn as his zodiac symbol.
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  15. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    Stunning coins @DonnaML and everybody.
    These are my short term targets - a cistophoric (any would do) and an Augustus silver.
    Can't explain why, but I simply don't like the Caius and Lucius denarii, even if this types should be attractive for me, since the reverse type is "unique" (one of my criteria when choosing a coin). Probably because I lost too many examples (some of them quite badly preserved but prices were too rich for my tastes) so I simply want another type, being fully aware they are not cheap.
    I find both examples excellent.
    I have a couple of Augustus imperial bronzes but my favorite remains this Kyzikos, I find it quite "imperatorial" in design.


    17 mm 3.24 g
    Bare head of Augustus, r. / ϹƐΒΑϹΤΟϹ, capricorn, l., with head turned back; [monogram including ΖΚ]
    RPC I, 2245, F.W. Hasluck, NC 1906, 27, no. 3, AMC 1183
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  16. Cucumbor

    Cucumbor Well-Known Member

    What a buying spree @DonnaML !
    There will soon be nothing left for us mortals !!


    Those three Octavian/Augustus are very covetable, thanks for sharing

    An Augustus coin I haven't shown in quite a while

    Augustus, Posthumous - As, struck under the reign of Tiberius
    DIVVS AVGVSTVS PATER, Radiate head of Augustus left
    PROVIDENT, Altar, S C in field
    11.02 gr
    Ref : Cohen #228, RCV #1789, RIC I # 81

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  17. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    Donna, Thanks for an enjoyable & well researched article :happy:! The Augustus/Capricorn issue is my favorite :cool:.
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  18. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana

    The Augustus cistophorus is beautiful. I love the style! My most recent Augustus is much less so, but holed fourrées are kind of up my alley... not an alley many people visit, admittedly. :shame:

    Augustus - Holed Fouree Denarius Tarpeia 4185.JPG AUGUSTUS
    Fourrée Denarius (holed). 2.95g, 20.4mm. Copying Rome mint, circa 19-18 BC, P. Petronius Turpilianus, moneyer. Cf. RIC I 299 (for official issue). O: AVGVSTVS CAESAR, bare head of Augustus right. R: TVRPILIANVS III VIR, Tarpeia standing facing, hands raised, buried to the waist in a pile of shields.
    Ex Raintree Collection
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  19. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Nice cistophori Donna and a superb article.
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  20. Etcherman

    Etcherman Well-Known Member

    Here's an Augustus I recently won, just photographed. I think the portrait is wonderful.

    AR Cistophorus (25mm, 11.48 g, 1h). Pergamum mint. Struck circa 19-18 BC. Bare head right / MART • VLTO across field, temple of Mars Ultor: circular, domed, tetrastyle temple set on five-tiered base; a signum within. RIC I 507; Sutherland Group VIIγ, 547 (O56/R12); RPC I 2220; RSC 202.

    cistophorus augustus_obv.jpg cistophorus augustus_rev.jpg
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  21. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    You're right: the portrait is beautiful. And so is the reverse. Outstanding!
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