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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
There are six kinds of plant material held out, offered or otherwise gripped on the reverses of Roman Imperial coins – that is, not including ALexandrian and provincial coins. They are palm fronds, olive branches, laurel branches, wreaths, flowers, and ears of grain (often mixed with poppy heads). The corn supply to Rome has its own page, and more grain is carried by Bonus Eventus and Fides. Many flowers are carried by Spes. This page will cover the other four categories.
The various branches had quite specific meanings and were attributes of particular gods and personifications. Because the meanings were so clear, they, like many other symbols, were often applied in other contexts as a pictorial language.
Palm fronds had been used for centuries before the Romans as an attribute of winged Νικη (Nike), the goddess whose name is the Greek for Victory. The Hellenic bronze coin on the near right is from Sinope, 120-63 BCE, and shows Nike carrying her palm frond over her shoulder. Her name has been anglicised into a well-known brand of sportswear. The other side of this coin is on my Medusa page.
In the Empire, Nike became the Romans' Victoria, often carrying the same frond on coins. That name is also well known in modern times, but as a personal name. People like to associate themselves with success. The denarius of Trajan, 102 CE, above right shows Victoria, with the same wings and the same long palm frond. This symbolism is clearly a direct steal from Greek culture.
The palm frond, as an attribute of Victory, was a useful symbol. On the left is a denarius of Julia Domna from 210 CE. Here, Venus is represented as a victor, bringing a helmet and shield as trophies. Her long palm frond, carried rather awkwardly, signifies the successful result of the battle.
Branches and greenery were used in Rome to decorate streets and buildings during festivities. This was the sort of good cheer represented by Hilaritas, who is shown on the denarius of Septimius Severus on the right.
The legend names this as a coin of Fortuna, meaning good luck, usually in connection with a safe return from a joruney. Hilaritas is planting her long palm branch in the ground as a cheerful decoration, probably celebrating a safe voyage by the Emperor. In this usage, it has no direct connection with the victor's palm.
Apollo's victory over the dragon Python was the nominal inspiration for the Pythian Games, which were held at his sanctuary in Delphi and were sacred to him. Because the bay tree, Apollo's Laurel, was linked to the god, wreaths of bay were given to signify victory. This pre-dated the Roman Empire by something like 600 years. The custom spread, and wreaths of this particular type of laurel have signified victory ever since. So much so in Roman times, that Victoria was often shown holding out such a wreath as well as – or even instead of – a palm frond.
This follis of Constantine I, from 307-337 CE, is dedicated "to Jupiter, preserver of our Augusti". And here he is, the chief god of the Roman pantheon, looking very muscular and masculine, posing gracefully with a tall sceptre. He carries in his right hand a statuette or miniature of Victoria standing on a globe. Victoria is reaching out towards Jupiter's head with her laurel wreath. At the same time, an eagle at Jupiter's feet is reaching up with a second wreath held in its beak. He is over-wreathed!
Although nearly all wreaths on coins were laurel, some on earlier coins were the Civic Crown, a wreath of oak leaves awarded for saving the life of a civilian. Like the laurel wreath, it was sometimes shown worn by the emperor, and sometimes it was the main feature of the reverse, with an inscription inside it.
Branches were held in a number of ways, with many variations, and it's unlikely that they were all meaningful. In many cases it looks as though design and aesthetics were the important factors. But there are three, possibly four, basic poses. Holding a branch high up might be celebration; holding it at waist level might be an offering gesture; and if it is downwards, it is likely to be a sweeping or cleansing action. You can't use this as an iron rule, but if you bear it in mind it can help you work out what these coins are saying.
For example, there was more to the laurel that just an indication of triumph. It was known to have healthful and cleansing properties, and branches might be swished in water to purify it, or used to sweep floors, or both.
The antoninianus of Gallienus on the near right shows Apollo, carring a laurel branch. This branch looks as though it has been swished in water and is being used to sprinkle cleansing drops around. Another example of this coin is on my leaning page.
On the far right is a bronze provincial coin, from Philippopolis. Bonus Eventus is holding a branch behind his back, and a phiale in front. Phiales, whose Roman equivalents are pateras, are shallow dishes used in religious ceremonies, so the branch has probably been used to ritually sweep or cleanse.
In fact, having a branch rather than corn ears, this might be Apollo again and not Bonus Eventus at all. Click on the coin image for more notes about this.
Here are two denarii of Elagabalus, my choice for the weirdest ever emperor, shown as a priest, sacrificing over a lit altar. The branch in his left hand is laurel, and once again is probably being used in a cleaning ritual. On these coins, Elagabalus claims that he is the highest priest of all.
The branch on the left-hand coin is fairly plain. On the other, it is depicted as a bunch of leafy fronds, very suitable for being whisked about in a purifying fashion.
These two coins will be interesting to more experienced collectors for other reasons. Click on the images for expert-level information.
According to Pliny the Elder, it was Augustus who began the custom of associating laurel with a triumph. Afterwards, the wreath on the Emperor's head was of laurel, and the Emperor also carried a laurel branch when celebrating a victory. This looks a lot like a rationalisation for another steal from Greek culture!
This is an antoninianus of Aurelian from 274-275 CE. It's one of my "cover" coins, and shows Sol in triumphant mode, brandishing a laurel branch and trampling a helpless victim underfoot. It's also on my "Sol and Oriens" page.
The Greek goddess Athena gave the olive tree to the Greeks, and so earned worship as the patron goddess of Athens. On this antoninanus of Probus is Minerva, the Roman version of Athena, holding up an olive branch. Because this is a Roman coin, the branch probably means a celebration of peace rather than the historical connotation it would have for the Athenians.
Minerva was a war goddess, among her other attributes, and as also shown with the Mars and Virtus coins below, the Romans believed in achieving peace through conquest.
To hold out an olive branch is still known as an offer of peace. Pax, the personification of peace, held them out most often on coins; but they are also grasped by other personifications and gods.
On the near left, an antoninianus of Probus with a straightforward standing Pax, holding a long sceptre at an angle in her left arm and raising high an olive branch with her right hand. The raised branch makes it look like a celebration of peace, rather than an offer.
On the far left is a silver antoninianus of Philip I. This has a much more exciting depiction of Pax, striding to the left with her skirt swirling around her legs. In fact, everything about this image is more ornate and decorative.
Below left is a denarius of Vespasian showing a typical seated Pax, holding out her olive branch. She is leaning back with her elbow on the arm of her throne. This signifies confident relaxation, as shown on my "leaning" page.
Next to it, a famous denarius of Tiberius. On this coin, Tiberius showed the revered Livia, wife of Augustus, in the pose of Pax, seated with a tall sceptre and olive branch. This is the coin which is usually identified as the Biblical "Tribute Penny" of Saint Matthew, to be "rendered unto Caesar". This particular example is a contemporary fake, with a silver plating over a base metal core.
The olive branch held by the Pax on the right is pointing down, but not right at the ground or drooping like the cleansing laurels. Still, the brushy nature of the branch suggests that this is a sweeping pose, not an offering. But this might not be intentional. Other examples of this coin, a follis of Helena from 337-340 CE, show the branch as less bushy, and more towards the horizontal.
The olive branch appeared in the grasp of several other gods and personifications, usually as a symbol of peace. A common theme was the imposition of peace through force, the Pax Romana.
On the far left, a denarius of Severus Alexander from 222 CE. It shows Mars, the god of war and the bringer of peace, holding out or offering an olive branch.
There is another coin showing Mars with an olive branch on my "Mars, God of War" page.
The centre coin of the three is an antoninianus of Postumus, showing Hercules the peace-bringer, holding club and lion-skin in his left hand, and an olive branch in his right hand.
On its right is Virtus on an antoninianus of Philip I from 244-245 CE. She stands, helmeted, one foot on a globe, and holding a downward-pointing spear and, again, an olive branch. The spear pointing downwards a sign of lack of aggression, like a sheathed sword – still there, but not actually pointing at you at the moment. Virtus is a female personification who embodies soldierly qualities. This meant that most coins with her name actually showed soldiers, or the Emperor, demonstrating those qualities. Sometimes, though, a female form was shown, and this was indicated by the drapery of her dress and the bared breast.
Three varied figures wielding the same branch. On the left, Honos, personification of honour, on a denarius of Marcus Aurelius also holds a cornucopia, signifying abundance. In the centre is Libertas, holding a tall sceptre. She usually holds a pileum, the cap of freedom, but this time she has a bushy branch. And on the far right, a denarius of Caracalla shows Apollo, standing resting his left hand on his lyre, which is set on a rock.
You can see that the branches shown on these coins are not mere symbolic twigs. They are often large and many-branched, a real piece of a tree. Even Apollo's branch is here not the cleansing sweeper he holds in the coin shown earlier. It is held up in the same offering stance as used by Pax.
Three more very varied branch-wielders. The leftmost is a denarius of Julia Domna from 198 CE. This has a very busy image. Here is Cybele, the Mother Goddess, seated on a throne, with a sceptre in her left hand and holding out a branch with her right. Notice the flex in her wrist which makes this look like a blessing gesture rather than an offering. To each side of the throne is a seated lion. Her feet are on a stool and under her left arm is a drum.
In the centre, a denarius of Hadrian from 135 CE. Nemesis appeared on many provincial coins, but fewer Imperial ones. This is the standard Imperial pose – Nemesis as Victory, pulling out a fold of her robe from her neck, and, some say, spitting onto her breast. At the same time, she is gesturing downwards with a branch, probably a laurel branch of victory.
The last of these three denarii is of Septimius Severus, from 194 CE. The legend is FORTVN REDVC, the Fortuna who watches over the return. This Fortuna legend and varieties of it appeared on several coins, celebrating Severus' return from war. A range of different figures were shown; this one is a seated Pax holding a branch and a cornucopia.
Both sides of this follis of Diocletian from 307 CE have branches. On the reverse is Quies, symbolising rest and repose; the coin commemorated the resignation of Diocletian from the role of emperor. Very few Roman emperors survived emperorship! Many of Diocletian's abdication coins also show Providentia, symbolising foresight, facing Quies. The whole coin is shown because the Emperor himself was also carrying a small branch on the obverse. You can see it just at the collar line. There are more emperors with branches in the next section.
The emperor himself was often shown gesturing with a branch on the reverse of the coinage, in various roles or just as himself.
On the far left is a denarius of Septimius Severus from 201 CE, advertising the fact that he has established peace by its legend, FVNDATOR PACIS. This he has done by subduing his many enemies. He is veiled and swathed in his robes, and brandishes his olive branch in his right hand.
Next to it is a denarius of Severus' younger son Geta, from 201 CE. This shows Geta as PRINC IVVENT, the Prince of Youth, the leader of the young men of his generation and a designated heir to the imperium. He is dressed in civilian clothes and he, too, is gesturing with a branch. The ill-fated Geta was later killed by his older brother Caracalla. Portraits of Caracalla and Geta appear on my "Publius and Lucius were Brothers" page.
Below is an antoninianus of Claudius II Gothicus from 269 CE. This boastful coin, issued in the year he fought the Goths, shows Claudius II wearing his toga, carrying a short sceptre and raising a branch.
The coin can be accurately dated by the Emperor's carefully listed titles and powers. PM is Pontifex Maximus, chief priest. TR P is Tribuniciae Potestas, the power of a tribune – for the second time. COS is Consul, one of the two annually appointed leaders of the Senate. P P is Pater Patriae, father of the people.
The coin on the far right is a denarius of Commodus from 187 CE. Coins, like much propaganda, often protrayed a wished-for situation rather than the reality. Here, Commodus set himself up as "Father of the Senate," whereas in actuality his relationship with the senate was pretty rocky. So much so that in 192, after his assassination, the Senate issued a decree which included "The memory of the parricide, the gladiator shall be erased; the statues of the parricide, the gladiator, shall be demolished. The executor of the Senate shall be hooked and dragged, as it was customary for our ancestors."
Here are some branches which I can't fully explain. If you can, please let me know!
On the far left, a denarius of Commodus from 178 CE. Here is Salus, personification of health and welfare, poking a short, forked branch at a snake rising from an altar. This seems odd. Most of this is very normal for Salus – see my Salus page – but why the branch? There is a similar coin which shows this branch being held above the snake as it rises from the ground. So, maybe it's an attempt to signify peace as well as public welfare. If so, this would be a really good example of a mixture of imagery being used as a language. But I expect there's a better reason which I haven't yet discovered.
The last coin on this page is a denarius of Elagabalus from 221-222 CE. Elagabalus was more than a little weird. Here, in the legend INVICTVS SACERDOS AVG, he is claiming to be an invincible priest. The coin shows him sacrificing at a lit altar, and the lumpy object behind the altar is a bull "lying down" – it's either waiting to be sacrificed or just has been. The object in Elagabalus' left arm is described in Sear's "Roman Coins and Their Values" as a cypress branch. Elsewhere, it's described as a club. Well, this was not a mightily-thewed emperor. The chances of him being able to lay out a bull with a club were slim, and anyway, that's not how Roman sacrifices were made. Could this be something from his Syrian priestly background? Other examples of this coin show that this is definitely a knobbly club, presumably made from a cypress branch.
|The content of this page was last updated on 10 March 2008.|
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