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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Ceres, Annona and the Corn Supply to Rome|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Rome was always concerned to get a good supply of corn. "Corn" is the name for whatever cereal grain is in common use. The Roman cereal crops were wheat and barley, and they also used millet. My page on Bonus Eventus also shows some cereals.
A good crop every year was essential. Ceres (equivalent to the Greek Demeter) was the goddess of agriculture, and appeared on coins carrying ears of corn. Annona was a personification of the annual corn supply. This is a very specific sort of thing to have a personification, which shows how important it was.
Rome depended heavily on supplies of grain from Egypt. The fertility of the lands around the Nile allowed Egypt to export large amounts and still not starve. This made Egypt a critical dependency for Rome, which established direct control on the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BCE.
During most of the period of the empire, a free corn dole was handed out to the poor of Rome. From the 3rd century, it was cooked into bread first. To stop this would have caused riots. Reassurance of a good supply, and credit for providing it, were common themes on coins.
These coins show Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. You can see the Romans weren't concerned with making her look glamorous. Their interest was in the goods, and she is carrying a bunch of wheat ears and, on the left-hand coin, also a poppy seed head – shown enlarged below.
They are out of proportion on the coins so that they will be all the more visible and clear. In her left hand is a long torch. Sometimes she is shown carrying two shorter torches.
The coin on the left above is a denarius of Titus from 77-78 CE. On the right is the same type 70 years later, differing only in the lack of a poppy head, on a coin of Faustina Senior, the deified wife of Antoninus Pius.
From these coins, you can see that Ceres as a reverse type was applied to coins of empresses as well as emperors. Ceres, like her Greek original Demeter, was a caring mother as well as an agricultural deity.
On the far left is a much older coin; it is a republican denarius from 56 BCE, showing a seated Ceres. That particular coin commemorates the founder of the Games of Ceres, or Cerealia, a seven-day festival which was celebrated in April. Ceres is holding ears of corn and a short torch. The design is not as crisp as on the coins around it because this is actually a contemporary fake, with a silver coating over a base metal interior.
Next to it is a republican coin from 78 BCE. This was one of a set issued by the moneyer M. Volteius M.f to celebrate the five major Roman festivals of the time, and of course this one, showing Ceres carrying two short torches, is for the Cerealia. The snakes pulling her carriage represent health and welfare, as they do also on coins showing Salus and Aesculapius. The rather nice little owl behind her is just a control symbol, one of the ways the mint kept track of the series of coins they were producing.
Rome's corn dole was measured out with a modius. The coin on the far left is a quadrans of Claudius from 42 CE which shows quite clearly what must be a standard type of modius, set on a low tripod.
Claudius was very concerned to ensure a regular supply of corn. There was a shortage when he came into power, and not only did he avert this by offering to insure the traders' vessels, but to deal with the longer term situation, he also started the construction of a safe harbour in Ostia and encouraged the traders to build extra large transports, capable of holding 10,000 modii – about 70 tons of grain.
This design of quadrans was made in the first two years of Claudius' reign. It was the smallest of small change, with space enough only to show a simple and clear image, and would have been in the purses of all the citizens, a constant reminder of his good work. This was a good piece of propaganda for Claudius, and it was an effective image which was also used on later coins.
The coin in the centre is a denarius of Antoninus Pius from 139 CE which shows a very similar modius, this one containing the same bunch that Ceres was holding – corn and poppy. (Mmm, a nice poppy seed loaf.)
The rightmost of these three coins is an Alexandrian hemiobol of Hadrian. Rome's corn came from Egypt via the port of Alexandria, and this shows the eastern equivalent of a modius; a basket called a kalathos. But this must have had a different connotation. These Egyptian coins had a strictly local circulation and were not seen in Rome. So this coin probably marked the place of Egypt as the grain-basket of the empire, rather than boasting of the maintenance of the supply. Notice the rather nice torches of Ceres on either side, each tied with a ribbon bow.
Back to Italy, and a rather more complicated piece of propaganda from Vespasian. The clasped hands represent harmony; the caduceus in the centre represents commerce; and there too are the corn and poppy heads. The legend is FIDES PUBL, the good faith or confidence of the people. The emperor and the people are in harmony, and he has their confidence because he guarantees the continued trade in grain.
Two more examples from Vespasian. On the far left is a denarius that was minted in Ephesus in 74 CE. Its shiny surface makes it hard to get a realy good photo. It shows Ceres holding two corn ears and a poppy seed head, with a cornucopia in her left arm. The legend names Concordia, goddess of harmony, and the message is that harmony reigns where food is abundant.
On its right right is a contemporary counterfeit, with a silver coating over a base metal core. It's a good copy of the genuine denarius, which was struck in 77-78 CE.
The outsized ear of wheat behind Mars probably refers to the stability of the grain supply which results from having an effective and loyal army to maintain control of the grain-basket conquests. Mars carries a sword and a trophy; there are more Mars coins on my "Mars, God of War" page.
These two denarii were issued by Antoninus Pius in 148-149 CE and 153-154 CE respectively, and show Annona, a personification of the annual grain supply to Rome.
On the near right, she holds a ship's anchor in her left hand, indicating that the corn is arriving by sea (from Egypt). In her right hand, she holds two ears of corn over a modius which already contains a poppy head.
I am not quite sure what Annona is doing with her left hand on the far right coin. It looks as though she might be picking up poppy heads from a modius on a ship's prow. The standard descriptions says she is "resting her hand" on a modius. In her right hand, she is holding the usual two ears of wheat.
The image of Annona became quite complex. On the far left below is a denarius of Antoninus Pius on which Annona is standing, holding a ship's rudder in one hand and a full modius in the other. Her left foot is raised and set on the prow of a ship.
The other coin is a denarius of Commodus. On Annona's right is the stern of a ship. It looks as though there's something on the ship, but that's most likely Annona's left hand with a trailing sleeve. In that arm she is holding a cornucopia, symbol of plenty. In her right hand she holds a statuette of Spes, goddess of hope. Or it might be Ceres, symbol of agriculture – it's hard to tell. And on the ground to the left is a modius with four ears of grain.
But is it always wheat? The image on this Republican denarius of C. Norbanus from 83 BCE refers to the father of the moneyer, who organised provisions for two towns in Rhegium during the Social War, which had ended only a few years earlier. This grain is clearly barley – the whiskers on wheat are nothing like that long. So barley was enough of a staple to be shown on the coinage. Some of the other images on this page have suspiciously long whiskers too, although some – like the Ceres at the top – are definitely wheat.
Nice imagery on this coin. The fascis in the centre, the axe bound into a bundle of sticks, means strength in unity, and also symbolised the power and authority of a lictor. So, if we stick together, we shall be strong, powerful and prosperous.
The last coin on this page is an antoninianus of Numerian from 282 CE, much later than the other coins on this page, showing that the grain supply was still a matter of concern. The foresight of the emperors is personified as a female who, like Annona, is filling a corn measure with grain. There is a cornucopia of abundance in her left arm.
But why poppies? Why are poppy heads so often mixed with corn ears in the depictions of Ceres and Annona?
In the Herakleion museum in Crete is a statuette of an unknown goddess with three poppy seed heads on her brow. She dates from the 13th century BCE. This "poppy goddess" is something of a mystery, but it is likely that there was later some connection with Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, because poppies were certainly one of Demeter's sacred attributes.
Their colourful flowers were commonly seen in amongst the grain crops, and that is because the seeds are stimulated to germinate by scratching and scraping such as is caused by ploughing. So poppy heads were always associated with corn in the worship of Ceres, the Roman equivalent of Demeter.
|The content of this page was last updated on 25 August 2009|
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