Featured Trajan: the Best Emperor and the Mystery of the River God

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Curtisimo, Jun 26, 2018.


What do you think the DANVVIVS reverse type is referencing? See post 2 for my top theories.

  1. Trajan’s famous bridge over the Danube.

  2. The pontoon bridges Trajan used to cross the Danube in the First Dacian War.

  3. The canal Trajan had built along the Danube in preparation for the wars.

  4. Something else? Bacon? Please comment below.

Results are only viewable after voting.
  1. dlhill132

    dlhill132 Member Supporter

    Crutis, awesome write-up and coin! great reading!

    27b.jpg 27c.jpg
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  3. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Interesting! I didn't know that about the word trophy. Very cool pic, too... I think that calls for another trophy coin. Here's a less commonly seen variety.

    Trajan - Denarius Trophy 157.jpg TRAJAN
    AR Denarius. 3.24g, 18.5mm. Rome mint, AD 107-108. RIC 147a; Woytek 269b-2; BMCRE 355-6; RSC 99. O: IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P P, laureate bust right, slight drapery on shoulder. R: COS V P P S P Q R OPTIMO PRINC, trophy of arms with three oval shields.
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  4. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & avid numismatist Moderator

  5. Agricantus

    Agricantus Allium aflatunense


    Excellent write-up and thread! Ancient folks worshipped all sorts of creek gods. The god of the second largest river in the empire, after Nilvs, definitely deserved coin presence and a velificatio. I think the coin type in the OP is just that: reverence to the now friendly river god.
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  6. Smojo

    Smojo dreamliner

    I browse when I have a few minutes. I miss everyone for sure.
    I'm not gonna lie it has been more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Have had some set backs but God willing all should be in order by the 1st of August.
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  7. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish)

    Then I guess it's a good thing I spared you all my commentary on why a pontoon bridge is especially structurally vulnerable in this part of the Danube :eek:

    Thank you @Severus Alexander for taking the time to think through my question and provide such a thoughtful response. As you already know I value your opinions very highly. As to the generalized theory I am still unconvinced for several reasons that I came across in my research. I'm actually very glad that you brought this up and I hope you will all humor me a long response :)

    For one I think my initial write up VASTLY undersells the importance of the Roman canals on the Danube... let's fix that!

    Hopefully you all wont mind me laying out a bit more of the research I did on the Danube while I was researching my coin :)

    Physiography of the Danube


    The Danube can be divided into 3 basins;

    Upper Basin: Runs from the Black Forest of Germany to a gorge known as the Hungarian Gates (about 600 miles). The average inclination is a steep 0.93% and the current is swift.

    Middle Basin: Runs from the Hungarian Gates to the Iron Gate. After exiting the Hungarian Gates the topography flattens out and the river widens to more than a mile in places. The current slows considerably because of this. Along this stretch the Danube takes on most of its runoff (increasing by almost 250%) before entering into the narrow Iron Gate

    Lower Basin: Runs from the Iron Gate to the Black Sea. At the Iron Gate the velocity and depth of the river fluctuate wildly and unpredictably. The river flows through rapids and reefs and the gorge walls are steep. After the Iron Gate the river enters a plain where it widens and slows again.

    Travel and Trade on the Ancient Danube

    On paper it looks like the Danube would be a fantastic corridor to facilitate trade and commerce (and today it is). In reality however, for most of its history the natural barriers on the river served to segment it and limit its potential. The Greeks were only able to navigate the river up to the Iron Gate (I.E. the lower Danube) and named this section the Ister. In order to get any idea though of how sparse was trade and travel along the river in ancient times it is helpful to look at what happened AFTER Roman power in the area collapsed.

    When the Romans were no longer around to maintain the canal system the sediment from the tributaries that the canal ran through caused it to silt up over time and the river effectively returned to its pre-Roman state. It is telling that centuries later (data from the mid 18th century) when the Ottoman Empire was in desperate need of constant sources of grain to feed Istanbul they imported grain from the Black Sea region as well as the Balkan interior only up to the Iron Gate [1]. The Ottomans were aware of the great agricultural potential of the Hungarian Plain but were simply unable to get grain from the middle Danube through the Iron Gate in sufficient enough quantities to make it worthwhile even as they struggled to find enough food to feed the capital [1]. When it came to travel and trade on the Danube the Iron Gate effectively split the middle and lower river in two.

    Downstream of the Iron Gate the river was incredibly unpredictable as it opens up into the Wallachian Plain. The Danube floods frequently, and when it does the river is prone to change course drastically. This was a problem until the dam at the Iron Gates regulated the floodwater more effectively. In ancient times however, the floods kept the region’s agricultural production from reaching its potential and prevented the growth of any large cities along the length of the Lower Danube. This is still evident today when you consider that the largest city in Romania, Bucharest, is located almost 40 miles north of the Danube (I.E. well outside the historic flood zone). All of this to say that trade along the section of the Danube in question was not well developed.

    The Iron Gate was Usually Shut!

    As discussed above the Danube picks up the bulk of its runoff in the middle basin and then gets channeled into the narrow Iron Gate. Here there are a number of imposing rapids. The steep drop in elevation and the rocky rapids made the term “waterfall” not too far off the mark in many places. This makes sense as we know this elevation change made for a good spot to build the hydroelectric dam that opened in 1972.

    Iron Gate Dam.jpg
    Iron Gates Dam – Note the navigation locks on either side… neat!

    Because of the narrow channel the current was much too strong for an ancient ship to have sailed against it. Even early steam ships on the Sip Canal through the gorge had to be pulled by train when travelling upstream. When the conditions were just right it was possible to maneuver a small boat through the gates but it was dangerous and conditions rarely allowed for it. When conditions did allow it was necessary to hire local fishermen to guide the boats through the worst of the rapids.

    A canal through the gorge was planned for decades in the 19th century and when it was finally built it was a major engineering undertaking. Yet the Romans under Trajan managed to accomplish this feat almost 1,800 years before that time. This completely changed the nature of the ancient Danube.

    It’s good that you mention this. Notice that the Romans had two navies that controlled the Danube; one to cover the area from the Iron Gate to the Black Sea and the other to control the area upstream of the Iron Gate. Even the Roman navy was divided by this barrier! If Trajan wanted to execute an invasion from both sides of the gorge (which he did) then his canal was essential. He would not have been able to respond to Decebalus’s counterattack in AD 101 as effectively without it.

    Also notice that the Roman navy controlled the Danube for almost a century before Trajan became emperor. I am not convinced that the Romans equated the Danube with Dacia. If the column is any indication the Romans equated the Dacians more with the Carpathian Mountains than with any river.

    As to piracy, with the large presence of the Roman navy and the weak trade I doubt that piracy would have been a serious enough concern to make the coinage over other contemporary achievements.

    Thank you for bringing this up Terence. Good information.

    However, I don’t believe that the "Trajan’s bridge theory", "the pontoon bridge theory", or "the canal theory" is inconsistent with the message of the other coins minted in this group. One would need to cross the Danube in order to capture Dacia with the help of Fortuna and Mars so that you could ride about in your chariot after making your fancy trophies ;):D The canal project, as I hope I illustrated above, was just as important to the victory as well.

    Here are some of my thoughts that lead me to shy away from the general reference theory
    • I am not convinced that the Romans considered the Danube to be Dacian in character. The visual evidence on the column suggests that from the very beginning the Danube was considered friendly to the Romans. The Romans may have considered it to be a distant border, to be sure, but it was a ROMAN border. It was what Trajan did with the Danube (i.e. bridge, canal etc.) not the possession of the Danube that constituted a great achievement. The actual act of crossing the Danube would also have been important.
    • As alluded to above, the Romans had an intense presence on both sides of the Danube for a century before Dacia was added. Why would Trajan seek to glorify a general message that could have been attributable to many previous emperors when he had so many amazing achievements that were SPECIFIC to him to draw from?
    • As much as any other emperor that I am aware of, Trajan sought to use his types to play up his role as a builder. 12% of the scenes on his column are devoted to construction and one of the stipulations at the end of the First War was that Decebalus could not hire or use Roman engineers. Roman engineering was an important aspect of prestige. For instance he uses a personification to allude to the construction of his aqueduct in Rome. It would not be out of place in the setting of celebrating the Dacian War victories to showcase a construction achievement.
    A few of Trajan's construction types.
    • The Danube was effectively cut into two at the Iron Gates, which stifled trade. Trajan connected these two pieces for the first time in history and opened up the natural resources of the Balkans (including Dacian gold, timber etc.) for export to the eastern Mediterranean. This cannot be overstated. In a way Trajan could claim that he literally built the Danube as a transportation corridor. He may well have been doing this by showing the Danube in a similar way as he would later show his road (VIA TRAIANA).
    • If the coin was referring to the Danube generally why include the ship? As shown above trade by ship was not something that likely would have been associated with the Danube and so its inclusion as one of his attributes seems strange if not for some deeper meaning. Other Roman river personifications that I am familiar with do not show a ship so I doubt it was formulaic.
    • The type is not formulaic. It is unique, which suggests some thought went into choosing and executing the type.
    Trajan's bridge is shown on a coin and we have no reason to think it was significantly more famous in it's own time than other Danubian projects (road, canal etc.) even if it was the proverbial cherry on top.

    Plus I don't think it is illogical to reference something specific and still represent something broader to a large audience. For instance, if I was going to highlight a portion of my own career for something like a portfolio I wouldn't invent a generalized / idealized project. I would pull a representative project that I worked on to show the broader achievements. Even someone who was unfamiliar with that specific project could look and say, "oh he is a bridge engineer." It only seems within human nature to be specific when we are trying to sell our own achievements even if we are the only ones that fully understand the reference.

    [1] McGowan, B., The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy

    Oh boy I wrote another book :banghead::banghead::facepalm::muted::muted::muted:

    Great examples SA! and yes... at the very least Severus Alexander makes for an epic CT handle :)
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2018
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  8. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & avid numismatist Moderator

  9. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Ah yes, @Curtisimo, it is always a joy to read one of your superlative write-ups - and in my opinion this is your best one! Trajan has always played a big role in my calligraphic life because of the Capitalis Monumentalis exemplars on his famous column. Here is my instructional Calligraphy web page that uses early Roman Empire Coin inscriptional lettering as the definitive letter form models:

    My first Calligraphy teacher was a firm believer in his students learning to render Roman Capital letterforms correctly before using other writing hands. We therefor devoted a considerable amount of time to studying their structure; rendering them .on paper using pencils; and finally cutting them in linoleum blocks and printing them.

    Following is an exemplar rendered by me of the CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS letterforms employed by stone cutters for edifices, monuments, tombstones, etc. A particularly fine extant example is found on Trajan's column in Rome and the essential constructs of these letterforms are the models for all Majuscule (Capital) alphabets used in the western world. Stone cutters in particular still employ their distinctive proportions and terminating serifs. It should be noted that only twenty letters were normally used in the ancient Roman alphabet : A B C D E F G H I L M N O P Q R S T V X. Our modern J and U were not used, their equivalents being I and Vrespectively. Thus, our modern JULIUS was written IVLIVS. The letter K was seldom used and then only before A. The letters Y and Z were only used when reproducing Greek words. W was not part of the ancient Roman alphabet at all. It was Medieval scribes who eventually formalized the construction models for the letters J K U W Y Z. Capitalis Monumentalis lettering is at the apex of the "Hierarchy of Scripts" for Calligraphers and is often used by them for headers or versals in pen and ink renditions.



    There are numerous excellent photographs of actual CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS lettering (including that on Trajan's column) mostly accompanied by location information, translations and analyses, at Bill Thayer's Latin Inscriptions section of his LacusCurtius web site

    In general I follow the classic CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS letterforms except as follows: I modify them to produce closer spacing and this, together with a compaction of the wide letters C O Q and M results in more uniform and "square" lettering. I often do not apply serifs in order to enhance speed in rendering.


    I think the inscriptional lettering found on Roman Imperial coins provides excellent models for Calligraphers. Although the letterforms employed by the coin die engravers, particularly those of the early Empire, closely follow CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS letterforms there are some subtle differences, mostly resulting from the limited space available on coins for inscriptional lettering (a problem often encountered by Calligraphers during pen on paper renditions). Most notably, they were modified to produce closer spacing and a compaction of the wide letters C O Q and M resulting in more uniform and "square" lettering. The essential letterform constructs were closely followed for coins of the early to mid Empire who's inscriptions are generally stately and elegant.


    Examples of early Roman Empire coin lettering

    [​IMG] [​IMG][​IMG] [​IMG][​IMG] [​IMG]


    • EXPLICATIO FORMARUM LITTERARUM (The Unfolding of Letterforms), Rutherford Aris, The Calligraphy Connection, St. Paul (1990)
    • ROMAN LETTER FORMS (How to Render), Tommy Thompson, Holme Press, (1946)
    • WRITING & ILLUMINATING & LETTERING, Edward Johnston, Pitman Publishing (various Publishers), Bath, (1973-various dates)
    • LETTERING, Graily Hewitt, Seely, Service & Co. Ltd. (various Publishers), London, (1930-various dates)
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2018
  10. Deacon Ray

    Deacon Ray Smiles, everyone! Supporter

    Great to see your work, James! I'm looking forward to reading your essay—it looks interesting. I first wanted to say that I've missed seeing your posts and welcome back!
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2018
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  11. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    I was finally able to read your writeup(s), Curtis-- and what a wonderful and entertaining piece of work it is! Great coin, too :)

    I'm not sure what to think about the meaning of the iconography but lean toward a blending of meanings.

    Meanwhile, my own collection is woefully undertrajaned, with only one Imperial and two Provincials.

    Rome mint, CE 114-115
    AR denarius, 18 mm, 3.7 gm
    Obv: IMP CAES NER TRAIANO OPTIMO AVG GER DAC. Laureate and draped bust right
    Rev: P M TR P COS VI P P S P Q R. Trajan’s column surmounted by statue of Trajan, holding patera and scepter; two eagles at base
    Ref: RIC II 35
  12. Orfew

    Orfew Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus Supporter

    Great post @jamesicus

    Would you say that in today's terms that the CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS is a mono-spaced font?
  13. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you @Orfew. My only familiarity with Typography is my use of various fonts in writing my web pages. I had no idea what a mono-spaced font was until I just googled it. Based on that search, I would say that the Capitalis Monumentalis lettering employed by stone cutters using a chisel or burin, and by Calligraphers for pen and ink renditions does not equate with typographical mono-spaced fonts.
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  14. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish)

    Thank you @ancient coin hunter

    Thank you @chrsmat71 ! Great addition and even with the wear it's got nice eye appeal :)

    Thank you @randygeki .

    Wow @gogili1977 to both of these examples :wideyed: Your first example is extremely sharp and in especially nice style. I intend to pick up an example of the second type one of these days because I really like that type. Thank you for the additions :happy:
  15. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you Ray! Great stuff from so many contributors here - including your excellent work!
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  16. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish)

    Thank you for the kind words @tenbobbit ! This is a great coin. I like the patina and it's a great representation of Istros / Danube.

    I really like this coin too @ro1974 . A great example of a coin type used to celebrate a construction project.

    RAGNAROK Naebody chaws me wi impunity

    :eek:!!! G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S write up/s (and killer denarius!)! :)
    I voted for #3 :bookworm: (er, well, crispy bacon with a guinness always work... :D)
    Best emperor?
    Augustus: "I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble" :cool:
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    RAGNAROK Naebody chaws me wi impunity

    :wideyed: Where? :woot: How much??
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  19. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish)

    What's up @RAGNAROK ! You are too kind my friend. Glad you enjoyed the write up.

    Augustus was a boss no doubt. My collection is sorely deficient in Augustus coins :eek:

    I saw this display at the museum dedicated to Trajan in Trajan's Market (highly recommend it for those in Rome).
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  20. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish)

    I've been meaning to post my thanks individually to all the contributors who took the time to respond to the thread. Unfortunately I've been on the road and haven't been able to do so in a timely manner.

    I do want to say thank you to whoever nominated the thread to be featured :) very nice to be honored with a featured thread.

    Thanks to @Johndakerftw , @dlhill132 , @Agricantus for the nice words.

    This coin is so nice I expected to see Ex Coloseo at the bottom ;)

    This is a truely fantastic post! You have a very fascinating talent and its very rewarding to learn about it (and lots of other stuff) from your posts).
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2018
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  21. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    This one arrived in the mail a few days ago. I'm always tickled when I see one of these auctioned in a similar grade with the caption "Affordable Circus Maximus Sestertius". It's safe to say I'm never going to own one of the unaffordable ones :D.

    In any case, I'm really pleased with my budget example. I've always wanted one as a memento of my visit to Rome. I have fond memories of taking a break from sightseeing and relaxing at a spot overlooking the open park area where the Circus once stood.

    Trajan - Sestertius Circus Maximus.jpg
    AE Sestertius. 25.21g, 34.4mm. Rome mint, circa AD 103-104. RIC II 571; Woytek 175a. O: IMP CAES NERVAE TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS V P P, laureate, draped bust right. R: S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI, view of the Circus Maximus, showing a colonnaded front (the Duodecim Portae), with arched gateway surmounted by facing quadriga; on right, a similar arch with quadriga, and another arch surmounted by quadriga facing right, temple of Sol along back wall; within from left to right, meta, equestrian statue of Trajan, obelisk of Augustus, shrine of Cybele, and a second meta; S C in exergue.
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