Featured VENVS CAELESTIS, a uniquely Elagabalan goddess

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Roman Collector, Jul 4, 2020.

  1. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    In Roman foundational mythology, Venus was the mother of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. Being such a central figure in Roman myth, the goddess featured prominently in numismatics for nearly 500 years. She first appears on Republican coinage in the second century BC and was depicted on the folles of Galeria Valeria as late as AD 311. Venus is depicted on Roman coins with many avatars and epithets -- Venus Felix, Venus Victrix, Venus Genetrix, and so on -- but she does not appear in the guise of Venus Caelestis -- "Venus of Heaven" -- until the reign of Elagabalus, when she is used as a reverse type for coins issued for Julia Soaemias, his mother. Venus Caelestis then disappears from Roman coins altogether, with the inexplicable exception of a rare Antoninianus of Magnia Urbica[1] some 60 years later.

    Soaemias VENVS CAELESTIS Standing Denarius.jpg
    Julia Soaemias, AD 218-222.
    Roman AR Denarius, 3.02 g, 19.2 mm, 1 h.
    Rome, AD 220-221.
    Obv: IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG, bare-headed and draped bust, r.
    Rev: VENVS CAELESTIS, Venus diademed and standing l., holding apple and scepter; in right field a star.
    Refs: RIC 241; BMCRE 45; RCV 7719 var.; Cohen 8; CRE 467.

    Soaemias VENVS CAELESTIS seated denarius.jpg

    Julia Soaemias, AD 218-222.
    Roman AR Denarius, 3.15 g, 18.8 mm, 7 h.
    Rome, AD 221-222.
    Obv: IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG, bare-headed and draped bust, r.
    Rev: VENVS CAELESTIS, Venus enthroned l., holding apple and scepter; child standing r. at her feet.
    Refs: RIC 243; BMCRE 55; RCV 7720; Cohen 14; CRE 465.

    Soaemias VENVS CAELESTIS S C seated as.jpg
    Julia Soaemias, AD 218-222.
    Roman orichalcum dupondius, 11.05 g, 25.3 mm, 7 h.
    Rome, AD 221-222.
    Obv: IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG, bare-headed and draped bust, r.
    Rev: VENVS CAELESTIS S C, Venus enthroned l., holding apple and scepter; child standing r. at her feet.
    Refs: RIC 408; BMCRE 387; RCV 7729; Cohen 20; Thirion 390.

    The question is why was this avatar of Venus so closely associated with Elagabalus and to no one else? Because Venus Caelestis is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite Ourania,[2] who was associated very early in Greco-Roman mythography with the eastern goddess named (in various languages) Astarte, Ishtar, Ashtaroth, and others. We know from ancient authorities such as Sukkunyaton, Herodotus, and Pausanius, as well as in a bilingual Greek/Phoenician inscription of the fourth century BC and a second century BC inscription from Delos, that Astarte was to be identified with the Greek Aphrodite Ourania.[3] Astarte is unsurprisingly identified also with Venus Caelestis,[4] and was worshiped at the temple of Venus Caelestis in Carthage, as known to Ambrose in the fourth century AD.[5] She may have been considered too foreign to have been worshiped in Rome and to appear on Roman coins until the Severan period.

    The emperor nicknamed and popularly known as Elagabalus was born in AD 204 to Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, the Praetorian Prefect under Caracalla,[6] and given the name Varius Avitus Bassanius. In the months leading to his accession to the throne, Varius' name was changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus to establish himself as the illegitimate son and rightful heir to Caracalla. Some modern scholars, such as Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, refer to Elagabalus as Varius to emphasize his true identity.

    Astarte was the titulary deity of Elagabalus' ancestral Avitus family[7] and Venus Caelestis features prominently in the activities of Elagabalus. Venus Caelestis appears on a relief sculpture on a column capital found in the Roman Forum, known as Elagabal’s Idyll, and which may have originally come from the Temple of Elagabal on the Palatine.

    Idyll of Elagabal.jpg
    La pompa del magistrato, Musea de Aquileia, Udine. Photo: Aquileia Nostra, Udine.[8]

    A two-dimensional reconstruction of the column capital[9] depicts a female figure on a plinth raising her right arm above an eagle and grasping her drapery with her left hand.

    Idyll of Elagabal 2.jpg

    Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, on the basis of iconography, concludes that this half-draped female figure is Venus Caelestis.[10]

    Indeed, the figure is similar to this late-eighteenth century print from the British Museum collection depicting a Roman statue of Venus Caelestis in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, at the time.[11]

    Venus Caelestis Uffizi Gallery BMC 2.png

    In a bizarre series of celestial wedding ceremonies and divorces paralleling his own earthly ones, Elagabalus, in his role as priest of Elagabal (the Syrian sun god), divorced Elagabal from Vesta and married him to Venus Caelestis, simultaneously with his own divorce from the former Vestal Virgin Julia Aquilia Severa and marriage to Annia Faustina.[12]

    This series of celestial marriages was one of many religious acts Elagabalus performed that offended the Roman ruling class. The young emperor replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity Elagabal and forced leading members of Rome's government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided. It was this impiety in elevating a foreign god above Jupiter himself that led to his assassination by the praetorian guard in AD 222[13] and for sun worship to be suppressed for decades thereafter. The Roman people had had enough of Elagabal and of Venus Caelestis and they vanished from Roman coinage for half a century until Aurelian reestablished sun-god worship in AD 274.

    Post anything you feel is relevant, of course!


    1. RIC5 / The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 5. Part 2: Probus to Diocletian, p.185, no. 345. See here for the example in the British Museum collection. Why this eastern goddess should appear on the coins of Carinus, whose family originated in Gaul, is puzzling.

    2. Perhaps the most well-known discussion of Aphrodite Ourania occurs in Plato's Symposium (180d ff.) in which Pausanias points out that there are two kinds of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. First, there is Aphrodite Ourania ("Heavenly Aphrodite"), the daughter of Ouranos, with whom he associates "Heavenly Love." Second, there is Aphrodite Pandemos ("Common Aphrodite"), daughter of Zeus and Dione, who is considerably younger than Heavenly Aphrodite, and with whom he associates "Common Love."

    3. Susan Ackerman, "'And The Women Knead Dough': The Worship of the Queen of Heaven in Sixth-Century Judah", in Peggy L. Day (Ed.), Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, Fortress Press, 1989, pp. 109-24 (111-112).

    4. De Arrizabalaga y Prado, Leonardo, and de La Fuente, Marcos Raúl. Varian Studies. Vol. 2, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, p. 265.

    5. Ambrose. The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan: Translated, with Notes and Indices. J. Parker, 1881, p. 111.

    6. Vagi, David L. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, c. 82 B.C.- A.D. 480. Vol. 1, Coin World, 1999, p. 295.

    7. Smyth, William Henry. Descriptive Catalogue of a Cabinet of Roman Imperial Large-Brass Medals. Bedford, 1834, p. 221.

    8. De Arrizabalaga y Prado, Leonardo, and de La Fuente, Marcos Raúl, op. cit., p. 144, fig. 30.

    9. Ibid, p. 145, fig. 31. Drawing by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado.

    10. Ibid, p. 265.

    11. This drawing is copied from an illustration in Antonio Francesco Gori, "Museum Florentinum exhibens insigniora vetustatis monumenta quae Florentiae sunt Ioanni Gastoni Etruriae magno duci dedicatum", vol. III (1734), "Statuae antiquae", pl. XXX.

    12. Vagi, David L, op. cit., p. 298.

    13. Dio, LXXX.11.1.
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2020
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  3. svessien

    svessien Senior Member Supporter

    Nice post!

    Don’t know if it’s relevant, but....

    Here’s Venus Felix, mother of Cupid.
    (My photo in the Vatican 2008)
    2nd C AD, with a head that resembles Faustina the Younger

  4. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks so much, @Roman Collector. I had no idea about any of this. Here is my one Venus Caelestis coin:

    Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus). AR Denarius 220-222 AD, Rome Mint. Obv. Draped bust right, IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG / Rev. Venus standing facing, head left, holding apple & scepter; large star in right field, VENVS CAELESTIS. RIC IV-2 241 (Elagabalus); RSC III 8b. 18 mm., 2.85 g.

    Julia Soaemias Denarius - Venus Caelestis - jpg version.jpg

    I will have to add a footnote to the description of this coin in my catalog to summarize what you wrote!
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  5. Andres2

    Andres2 Well-Known Member

    reintroducing Venus Caelestis by Magna Urbica:

    P1170218 (2).JPG
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  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Amen-Ra-Hotep

    Wonderful coins @Roman Collector and a nice write-up as well. I do like it when folks post references and/or endnotes. I do the same myself when I want to pour research into a post to make it more "meaty".
  7. thejewk

    thejewk Well-Known Member

    It's almost funny how only a short time afterwards the worship of Mithras/Sol predominated amongst the citizenship. I just finished reading a book about Julian which talked about the attempts to square the worship of Mithras/Sol and the rest of the pantheon using a system developed from Neo Platonism. It was fascinating.
  8. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    Your research is so awesome RC that I do not have much to add except my Sestertius of this type (pictures and writeup by David R. Sear):

    Bildschirmfoto 2020-07-05 um 11.19.03.png
    Denomination: orichalcum sestertius
    Mint: Rome
    Date: AD 220
    Weight: 17.78 grams
    Maximum Diameter: 30.20 millimeters
    Obverse: [IVLIA] SOAEMIAS AVG, diademed and draped bust of Julia Soaemias right, her hair waved and knotted in queue and small bun at back.
    Reverse: [V]ENVS CAELESTIS S C, Venus seated left, holding apple in extended right hand and resting on sceptre held in left, child standing right at her feet.
    References: RIC 406; BMCRE 378; Cohen 18; Thirion (Le Monnayage d'Elagabale) 391; Banti (I Grandi Bronzi Imperiali) p. 57, 5 — citing 30 specimens; Sear (Roman Coins & Their Values II) 7725.
    Grade: VF with excellent portrait, edge hammered in antiquity resulting in flattening behind and before the empress’s effigy
    Historical & Numismatic Note: Julia Soaemias was the elder daughter of Julia Maesa (sister of Julia Domna) and the mother of Varius Avitus Bassianus, later the Emperor Elagabalus. After her mother had successfully engineered the restoration of the Severan dynasty Soaemias traveled to Rome with the rest of the imperial family. There she foolishly encouraged her son in the religious fanaticism and moral depravity that eventually were to bring about his downfall. She also shared his fate when, in early March of AD 222, the imperial guard rose in open mutiny. Both Elagabalus and Soaemias were murdered in the praetorian camp, their bodies being dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into the Tiber. The coinage of Julia Soaemias was not on a large scale and was mostly struck at Rome, though a few types were minted in Antioch. It all belongs to the final two years of the reign following Soaemias' elevation to the rank of Augusta in AD 220. Prior to this, she had only borne the inferior rank of Clarissima. The principal reverse type of Soaemias’ coinage depicts Venus Caelestis (“the heavenly Venus”), an unusual representation of the goddess of love and beauty which otherwise occurs only on the coinage of the late 3rd century empress Magnia Urbica. Base metal denominations of Soaemias are especially scarce and the larger flans of the sestertii accorded the die-engraver more scope in accurately depicting her facial features.
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  9. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    That is a very beautiful statue, @svessien ! I'm glad you had the opportunity to visit the Vatican in person to photograph it.

    I'm glad my write-up brought you a greater appreciation for what is already a nice example of the type, @DonnaML .

    Wow, @Andres2 ! I can't believe you have an example of that coin! About all I ever see are the VENVS VICTRIX and VENVS GENETRIX ones!

    Thank you for the kind words, @ancient coin hunter . Yes, it is important to cite one's sources.

    Yes, @thejewk , it is astonishing how quickly the religious landscape moved away from the traditional pantheon and increasingly incorporated eastern religions. I think the reason was multifactorial, including economic and political instability, migrations of people throughout the empire, soldiers coming into contact with other religions while deployed and so on.

    That's a beautiful sestertius, @Julius Germanicus ! I don't have a sestertius for Soaemias or even Elagabalus himself. Thanks for sharing your historical notes, too; they flesh out my rather focused write-up by discussing the broader historical background.
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  10. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    @Roman Collector, an excellent post, thank you for changing the lens with which I see these coins and the associated empress. Your note prompted me to pull up and read this article from Clare Rowan on the subject of Severan women which adds to the picture of Venus Caelestis and Julia Soaemias:

    Rowan, C. (2011). The Public Image of the Severan Women. Papers of the British School at Rome, 79, 241-273.

    I will share two quotes to show the connection, although this doesn't do justice to the article:
    • "VENVS CAELESTIS is not seen before or after Elagabalus's reign on imperial coinage, and one must then conclude that it likely had some connection with the Emesene cult that rose to prominence during these years. If so, Soaemias was connected very publicly with the cultic activities of Elagabalus, an idea that is confirmed when one examines the coinage of Soaemias's mother, Julia Maesa."
    • "Whether through official intention, or through a more organic knowledge of the activities and characters of these women, or for some other reason, Mamaea and her daughter present radically different public images, and one must imagine that this was a contributing factor in Soaemias's death and Maesa's survival."
    I don't have a VENVS CAELESTIS, so I will share this seated Venus in appreciation of your post:
    Julia Domna Venus Genetrix.jpg
    Julia Domna, mother of Caracalla, died 217 AD. AR Antoninianus, struck in Roma 211-217 AD
    Obv: IVLIA PIA FELIX AVG, Draped bust right
    Rev: VENVS GENETRIX, Venus seated left, extending hand and holding sceptre
    Ref: RIC IV 388c (Caracalla) (c) obv. without diadem or crescent
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2020
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  11. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you so much for posting the link to Rowan's article. I look forward to reading it!
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  12. Alegandron

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

    Thank you for the super write-up on this bizzarro family. :)

    You have some great coins!

    I have only one, but I believe it is your first one shown.

    RI Julia Soaemias 218-222 CE AR Den Venus Caelestis star RIC IV 241
  13. Spaniard

    Spaniard Well-Known Member

    @Roman Collector ..... Great write up as always, love learning something new..Thanks.
    I have one the same as your OP coin but mine has the star in the left field but I'm assuming this doesn't effect any of the Ref numbers??
    JULIA SOAEMIAS, mother of Elagabalus. AR Denarius (18mm, 2.87 gm).
    Obverse..IVLIA SOEMIAS AVG, draped bust right.
    Reverse..VENVS CAELESTIS, Venus standing left, holding apple and sceptre; star in left field.
    RIC IV 241; BMCRE 45; RSC 8.
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  14. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    It's still RIC 241, but RSC 8a and BMCRE 49-53.
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  15. curtislclay

    curtislclay Well-Known Member

    My dates for these two VENVS CAELESTIS types:

    Standing, always with star in field, from beginning to end of 220 and part way through 221.

    Seated, star omitted, the rest of 221 and until death in March 222.

    These two types changed at the same time the four emperor-sacrificing types and the "horn" on obv. portrait were introduced for Elagabalus.
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2020
  16. Blake Davis

    Blake Davis Well-Known Member

    Beautiful coin - the sestertii of Soaemias are as rare or more rare than Julia Paula - I had to search and search before I found mine in French ebay - I had a chance at one with the same patina as your but was outbid. I very much like the portrait on this coin -
  17. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks for the link to the Rowan article. I have started reading it, and it's quite interesting.
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