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Cybele, The Mother Goddess

You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.

Imperial Roman coins struck for empresses, or female relations of emperors, were permitted only a limited range of reverse types – or it might be just as accurate to say that they were denied a wide range of types. For example, Sol was a god designed for worship by men, and only appeared on the coins of males. I have covered the Invincible Sun on this page. You'd think that the female counterparts would only appear on coins of females, but that isn't always the case. Here, for example, is the Mother Goddess, Cybele. She appears on some coins of Hadrian and Septimius Severus as well as coins of females such as Julia Domna and Faustina Junior.

The reverse of a bronze coin of Hieropolis-Bambyce showing Atargatis riding a lion The reverse of a bronze coin of Hieropolis-Bambyce showing Atargatis riding a lion.
The reverse of a bronze coin of Hadrianopolis showing Cybele and a Corybant The reverse of a bronze coin of Hadrianopolis showing Cybele and a Corybant.
The obverse of a bronze coin of Smyrna showing the turreted head of Kybele The obverse of a bronze coin of Smyrna showing the turreted head of Kybele.

Cybele (or Kybele) was also known as the Great Mother, or Mother of the Gods. Her Greek equivalent, Rhea, was the mother of Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus – quite a potent family!

Her worship originated in Phrygia and spread from there to Rome. She was originally a nature goddess, ruling over wild animals and fertility.

Her annual festivals in Rome, the Ludi Megalenses, were wild and potentially quite dangerous to men. They were directed by brightly-dressed, bejewelled eunuch priests with long greasy hair, to a frenzy of drum, flute and cymbal music. Corybantes danced to this music as part of their worship; they wore crested helmets and armour, and were similar to other groups of armed dancers such as Zeus' Kouretes.

Above, on the left, is a Greek coin from Smyrna, 2nd-1st century BCE, showing Cybele's head. You can clearly see the city wall "turreted" headdress, and some strands of hair curling artistically down to her shoulders.

Cybele was also often shown riding a lion, or in a carriage drawn by them. All these variations appeared on Roman coins, in Republican and Imperial times.

In the centre, she is riding a lion on a coin of Hadrianopolis, and a Corybant in a crested helmet is dancing alongside her, holding his shield and sword aloft, and probably clashing them in time to the music.

In Syria, the same role and attributes belonged to the goddess Atargatis, shown riding a lion on the coin on the far right.

A contemporary fake of a Roman Republican denarius of P Furius Crassipes, showing Cybele's head A contemporary fake of a Roman Republican denarius of P Furius Crassipes, showing Cybele's head

Towards the end the second Punic War – Rome's war against Hannibal and Carthage – a reading was taken of the Republic's most sacred texts, the Sybilline Books. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was also consulted. This resulted in a vow being taken to introduce the cult of Cybele into Rome, in the form of the Magna Mater, or Great Mother. Her symbol, a black stone, was imported from Pergamum in 204 CE.

Test punch in a contemporary fake of a Roman republican coin Test punch.

After the war ended in 203 BCE, a temple was built to her on the Palatine Hill and important annual games were instituted in her honour. The cult was rather wild for Roman sensibilities, and its undesirable elements (and its Phrygian priests) were very carefully controlled.

The Roman Republican coin on the left was originally struck in 84 BCE by P. Furius Crassipes. It shows the city wall headdress in more detail – the irregular row of towers is quite clear. You can see how the image was adopted by Rome with hardly a change.

I say "originally struck" because this was actually a contemporary fake, and the inset on the right shows one of the small square test punches which showed a suspicious money changer the truth about its base metal core.

A contemporary fake of a Roman Republican denarius of M. Volteius M.f. showing Cybele in a lion-car. A contemporary fake of a Roman Republican denarius of M. Volteius M.f. showing Cybele in a lion-car.

In 78 BC, Marcus Voltieus issued a set of coins celebrating the five main sets of annual games: the Roman Games, the Games of Ceres, the Games of Apollo, the Plebeian Games, and of course the Games of the Magna Mater. This is the coin for Cybele. This specimen is another contemporary fake which has been much more harshly dealt with than the last coin, but it is a good fake and faithfully represents the genuine style. Some of those ancient fakers seem to have been excellent craftsmen.

The obverse shows a young helmeted head, the helmet decorated with laurel. This has been interpreted as one of Cybele's eunuch Corybantes. The original Corybantes wore crested helms, unlike this figure, so it might instead be Attis, Cybele's consort and their inspiration. These are conjectures, but it is clear that the reverse is Cybele herself in a carriage drawn by two large lions, one of which is raising a paw. Lions regularly accompanied Cybele on Roman coins, and there is another lion-car just below.

The Magna Mater became well embedded in Rome's day-to-day religious life. During the Empire she was represented on several Roman coins, sometimes under that name, sometimes as Mother of the Gods.

The reverse of a silver denarius of the empress Faustina Junior showing Cybele enthroned. The reverse of a silver denarius of the empress Faustina Junior showing Cybele enthroned.
The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele enthroned. The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele enthroned.
The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele in a car drawn by lions The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele in a car drawn by lions.

250 years later, the coin of Faustina Junior on the far left was dedicated to the Great Mother. It is packed full of Cybele's imagery. She is seated with her drum under her left arm and a lion beside her throne, implying another one out of sight on the other side.

The drum is a simple tympanum, like a tambourine without the jingles. On her head is a version of the older city wall crown, with thinner turrets. She is gesturing with a branch. (There is more about that on my branches page). Her legs are crossed, which, together with the way she is leaning back on her drum, demonstrates that she is relaxed and confident.

The denarius of Julia Domna in the centre, 20 years later, is an even more regal image. As well as all the attributes on the Faustina Junior coin (with both lions clearly visible), she has a backed throne with a footstool, and is holding a sceptre. She also appears to be gesturing with her branch, not just holding it. The legend names her the Mother of God, probably referring to Jupiter.

The right-hand coin of the three is another denarius of Julia Domna, this time showing Cybele in a carriage drawn by four lions. Again, she is gesturing with her branch, which this time looks quite substantial. The legend means "Mother of Emperors." It's tempting to think that this might be intended to represent Julia herself, in a Cybele-like motherly role (as was suggested by Mattingly and Sydenham in RIC IV). Unfortunately for this hypothesis, only one of Julia's children (Caracalla) was an Augustus at the time this coin was struck. It's more likely to refer to Cybele as the spiritual Great Mother of Septimius Severus and Caracalla.

The reverse of a denarius of Caracalla showing Indulgentia The reverse of a denarius of Caracalla showing Indulgentia.
The reverse of a denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele standing The reverse of a denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele standing.

The interesting coin of Caracalla on the far right, struck just a few years later, has also been interpreted as showing Julia Domna in the role of Cybele (as indicated by the familiar head-dress), this time seated in the pose of Indulgentia. But once again, this is unlikely. The mixture of symbology does not support the idea. The curule chair was limited to people in certain positions of power. Of the other symbols, the sceptre belongs to Indulgentia; the crossed legs are shown in other poses of Cybele in this period, though this is not really indicative because they were used widely to indicate relaxation; the open hand holds neither the patera of Indulgentia nor the branch or tympanum of Cybele, so is neutral in import.

Curtis Clay (a knowledgeable expert) has suggested that this type instead represents The World, in a position of high power, which is what everyone could now attain since Caracalla granted universal citizenship in 212 CE. The coin was struck around that time, and its legend, INDVLG FECUNDAE, fits this interpetation well. It can easily be read as "prolific concession."

Next to that coin is another with the legend MATRI DEVM. This time Cybele is standing, but she is still demonstrating supreme casual confidence by the way she leans on that column and crosses her legs. She is holding her drum and her sceptre, and one of her lions is still at her feet. If that old theory is right, and this coin was supposed to suggest that Julia shared some of the characteristics of the Magna Mater, then it is worth noting that this coin was minted in the year after Domna's husband Severus died, when their son Caracalla was emperor. Caracalla hated his brother Geta, and had killed him a year before. So choosing this date for a reference to "Mother of God" in the singular might have been a pointed reference to Caracalla's sole rule and his position of supreme power.

A provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Cybele enthroned A large provincial coin of Septimius Severus, 27mm across, showing Cybele enthroned.
A provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Cybele enthroned A small provincial coin of Septimius Severus, 21mm across, showing Cybele enthroned.

Cybele also appeared on Roman provincial coins, mostly in the Severan period. Sometimes she was enthroned, as shown on the two coins on the left; sometimes she was riding a lion, in a style similar to the Dea Caelestis coin lower down on the right.

These two coins are both from Markianopolis, and are quite different in size, even though their images are almost identical. On the far left is a chunky coin 27mm across, and next to it a smaller and lighter coin only 21mm across. They differ from the coins shown so far in that they both show the emperor himself, Septimius Severus, on their obverse. In the provinces, Cybele was not restricted to coins of females.

The left-hand coin has the legend V ΦΛ OVΛΠIANOV MAPKIANOΠOΛIT, for the Roman legate Flavius Ulpianus and the name of the town. What look like crosses behind Cybele are not Christian symbols – they are the shoulders of her throne. She has a lion to her left, on our side of the throne, and the creature on the other side is described tentatively as a rabbit in Moushmov, one of the standard references, though I suspect it's actually the front of Cybele's second lion, looking a bit distorted. Her drum is still with her. She is holding out, not a branch or a tympanum, but a phiale; a shallow dish used to pour libations.

The other coin's legend is restricted to MAPKIANOΠOΛITΩ, which is all that can be fitted onto the smaller flan. Cybele's headgear on both of these coins is not the familiar city wall, but a kalathos, which is a basket with a flared top which was used in a domestic context, sometimes referred to as a "bushel measure" for grain. Sometimes it is confused with the Roman modius, also a basket used as a corn measure; or a polos, a cylindrical hat worn by some goddesses; but neither of these are accurate. The kalathos was typically worn by deities with eastern origins, or when deities are depicted on coins made in eastern mints.

The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Dea Caelestis The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Dea Caelestis riding a lion.
The reverse of a bronze coin of Geta from Hadrianopolis showing Cybele riding a lion The reverse of a bronze coin of Geta from Hadrianopolis showing Cybele riding a lion.

The coin on the near right is a chunky bronze of Geta from Hadrianopolis. It shows a common version of Cybele from the eastern provinces; she is riding a very large lion, sidesaddle and facing forwards, with her tympanum held under her right elbow. The lion looks very powerful, but is obviously completely at her command. This is equivalent to the coin at the top of this page with the Syrian mother goddess Atargatis, except that Cybele holds a tympanum whereas Atargatis holds a sceptre.

Gods and goddesses appeared in many guises and permutations in Rome. The official religious life of the republic and then the empire was a complex and ever-changing thing. Familiarity with the last depiction would lead you to think that the deity on the far right coin (a denarius of Geta's father Septimius Severus) is Cybele again, but the legend on the coin sets the scene in Carthage, which identifies her as Dea Caelestis, the patron goddess of Carthage. Not surprisingly, Dea Celestis, the Heavenly Goddess, is often identified with Cybele and the Mother Goddess.

You can see that she is holding a thunderbolt rather than a tympanum. Early versions of this type showed a tympanum, but that may have been a mistake by engravers familiar with the Mother Goddess, which was soon corrected. And in fact this particular representation is said to be based on a statue of the Mother Goddess on top of a shrine on the centre spine of the Circus Maximus in Rome.

Dea Caelestis appeared on coins of Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla, but not on coins of Julia Domna. There is a theory that this issue, with its river gushing from the rocks, celebrates the dedication of an aqueduct in Carthage, but as with many such ideas, there is no evidence to back this up.


The content of this page was last updated on 13 March 2010

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