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----------     The Sign Language of Roman Coins     ----------

Happiness, Cheerfulness and Joy

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

These three subjects are personified on Roman coins by Felicitas, Hilaritas and Laetitia. Coins with these subjects should celebrate the brighter side of life. And in the Roman Empire, this was generally true.

Felicitas

The reverse of a denarius of Geta showing Felicitas The reverse of a denarius of Geta showing Felicitas with cornucopia and caduceus.
The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Felicitas The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Felicitas with cornucopia and caduceus.

Felicitas celebrated a state of peace, prosperity and general good fortune, and seems to have arrived in Rome as a protective divinity in 74 BCE, when Licinius Lucullus returned from his war against Mithradates. There was at least one temple to her in Claudius' time, because it is recorded as having burned down then.

The emperors all wished to be seen as providing such a happy situation for their subjects, so Felicity in various permutations was commonly seen on coins of the Empire.

Happiness belongs to the Augusti on the denarius of Septimius Severus on the right, with the legend FELICITAS AVGG. Felicitas is carrying a cornucopia and a short caduceus. As often happened, the caduceus is somewhat mis-shapen, in this case perhaps so that it could be fitted into the available space. The caduceus was an attribute of Mercury, and symbolised trade and prosperity. It was shown as two snakes twined around a rod, facing each other at the tip. In small-scale representations like these, you can't usually tell.

The reverse of a denarius of Trajan showing Felicitas The reverse of a denarius of Trajan showing Felicitas with cornucopia and caduceus.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Philip I showing Spes The reverse of an antoninianus of Philip I showing Spes, with a FELICITATIS legend.

But happiness should be widespread among the public. The denarius of Geta on the far right has an identical depiction, even down to the squashed caduceus, but its legend is FELICITAS PVBLICA. The cornucopia was a more specific symbol of plenty, and was an attribute of the personification of Abundance.

The use of attributes which originated in other contexts was very common on Roman coins, and is one of the things that adds interest to the language of the coins.

The earlier Felicitas on the denarius of Trajan on the far left has a legend that sticks to the emperor's titles - there just wasn't enough room for them all on the obverse. It has a less common depiction of Felicitas' caduceus. Here, she is pointing a short caduceus downwards, appearing to use it like a wand or sceptre rather than just hold it like a symbol. Mercury's caduceus almost always accompanied Felicitas. There is more about the caduceus on my Mercury page

Felicitas holding a capricorn on the reverse of a brass sestertius of Antoninus Pius Felicitas holding a capricorn on a brass sestertius of Antoninus Pius.
A galley on the reverse of a copper as of Marcus Aurelius. A galley on the reverse of a copper as of Marcus Aurelius.

Above right right is a very specific coin. Philip I became emperor after the death of Gordian III during a war with Persia. Perhaps Philip had him killed, or perhaps he died in battle; accounts vary. But Philip did not want to be involved in a prolonged eastern war when who knows what might have been happening back in Rome. He quickly negotiated a peace with Persia and issued celebratory coins like this one, with its legend SPES FELICITATIS ORBIS, hope for (or expectation of) the happiness of the world.

The coin on the near right celebrates another specific reason for happiness - the safe return of the emperor Marcus Aurelius from a dangerous sea voyage. The sea-god Neptune stands in the steersman's position, and is given credit for the happy return. The legend includes the words FELICITATI AVG P P, dedicating the coin to the "happiness of the emperor, the father of his country."

On the far right, Felicitas is holding a delightful little fish-tailed goat, called a capricorn. This was the star sign of the emperor Augustus, of revered memory, and this coin might be harking back to the happy times associated with his reign. This coin was struck for Antoninus Pius, an effective emperor who is himself reckoned to be responsible for a "golden age" for Rome.

The Happiness of the Times

On many coins, the concept was expanded to cover the happiness of the times, or of the age. There is a charming type struck by Caracalla, unfortunately beyond my budget, which shows the four seasons as children playing, with the legend FELICIA TEMPORA.

The reverse of a silver denarius of Elagabalus showing a galley The reverse of a silver denarius of Elagabalus showing a galley.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Felicitas The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Felicitas.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Gordian III showing Felicitas The reverse of an antoninianus of Gordian III showing Felicitas.

These three coins all have similar legends; either FELICITAS TEMPORVM, the Happiness of the Times, or an abbreviation.

Gordian III Felicitas, detail of caduceus Detail of caduceus.

On the left of this row is an antoninianus of Gordian III. For the happiness of the times, this Felicitas holds a tall caduceus ahead of her and has the usual cornucopia in her left arm. The caduceus has an unusual amount of detail, and seems to be scaled, as if to illustrate its snaky nature. The inset on the far left is an enlargement of this caduceus.

In the centre, an antoninianus of Claudius II. This elegant and buxom Felicitas is holding a short caduceus and a tall sceptre.

On the right is a denarius of Elagabalus. Rather more practically, Elagabalus, one of Septimius' successors, shows on this coin that the might of the fleet is what ensures that the times will be happy. Though it is possible that this coin actually refers to Elagabalus becoming emperor and journeying to Rome. This, too, would (officially) be a reason for happiness.

The Happiness of the Age

The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing the moon and stars The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing the moon and stars.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Tacitus showing Felicitas The reverse of an antoninianus of Tacitus showing Felicitas.
The reverse of a denarius of Julia Maesa showing Felicitas The reverse of a denarius of Julia Maesa showing Felicitas.

The next six coins all have as their legend SAECVLI FELICITAS, the Happiness of the Age, or a variant of it.

The "limes" denarius of Julia Maesa on the left of this row shows Felicitas sacrificing at a lit altar. The star in the right field appears on many denarii issued by Elagabalus – and ancient copies of them, such as this one – and is said to indicate divinity. The marks above Felicitas' head are the result of someone's careless and crude attempts to clean the coin.

55 years later, the rendition of the caduceus was still sometimes rather odd. This tall example on the antoninianus of Tacitus in the centre looks more like an egg-beater.

Back to the Severans. The denarius on the right, with a moon and seven stars, celebrated Septimius Severus' interest in astrology. The stars say .. the age will be a happy one! The way this coin has been holed and worn suggest it was used as a lucky charm. There are many more holed ancient coins on my Holed Ancient Coins pages.

The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Isis and Horus on a ship The reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Isis and Horus on a ship.
The reverse of a silver denarius of Faustina Junior showing children on a throne The reverse of a silver denarius of Faustina Junior showing children on a throne.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Postumus showing the emperor with spear and globe The reverse of an antoninianus of Postumus showing the emperor with spear and globe.

On the left of this row, a denarius of Julia Domna. The happiness of the age, with symbols of fruitfulness and plenty. Isis is suckling the infant Horus at her breast. The cult of Isis was strong in Rome, and this image represents the goddess as protector of children and guarantor of the succession. Isis' left foot is on the prow of a galley, and a rudder rests against an altar behind her; this represents safe supplies of food from Egypt. (In fact, one of the huge vessels which transported this grain two centuries earlier had been named "Isis".)

In the middle, a denarius of Faustina Junior. In this case, happiness is more explicitly shown to be the result of having a well-assured succession. This coin celebrates the birth of twins, Commodus and Antoninus, in 161 CE. One of these, Commodus, did indeed become emperor in 180 AD. Earlier coins of Antoninus Pius in 149 CE celebrated the birth of another set of twins to the same mother (with a legend TEMPORVM FELICIT). One of these became the empress Lucilla. But there was disharmony in the family .. Lucilla became involved in a plot against Commodus, and he had her killed.

The emperor himself, and his dominion over the world enforced by military might, ensures the happiness of the age on the antoninianus of Postumus on the right. It has been argued that the globe, when held like this by an emperor, represented, not just the world, but the whole cosmos. In fact Postumus controlled only Britain and Gaul, as a smallish breakaway empire.

The reverse of an antoninianus of Tetricus I showing Hilaritas The reverse of an antoninianus of Tetricus I showing Hilaritas.
The reverse of a denarius of Crispina showing Hilaritas The reverse of a denarius of Crispina showing Hilaritas.

Hilaritas

Hilaritas personified gaiety, celebration and rejoicing, often in a religious context. Her commonest attributes are a tall palm branch, planted in the ground, such as might be used to decorate houses or streets; and a cornucopia, symbol of plenty.

First, two identical images separated by 90 years. A silver denarius of Crispina, with the legend HILARITAS; and a billon antoninianus of Tetricus I, with the legend HILARITAS AVGG.

This is the standard portrayal of Hilaritas, planting her long palm branch in the ground in front, and holding a horn of plenty in her other arm. We have reason to celebrate, so let's be happy!

These coins also, incidentally, illustrate one of the periodic degradations in the quality of the coinage. The denarius of Crispina is decent silver, whereas the antoninianus of Tetricus I, nominally twice the value of the denarius, is only a fraction larger, and is made of an alloy which contains very little silver.

The reverse of a denarius of Julia Domna showing Hilaritas and two children The reverse of a denarius of Julia Domna showing Hilaritas and two children.
The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Hilaritas with a FORTVNA legend The reverse of a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Hilaritas with a FORTVNA legend.

On the far left, a denarius of Julia Domna which shows two children alongside the usual figure of Hilaritas. These children probably represent Domna's sons, the future emperors (and each other's deadliest enemies) Caracalla and Geta.

The denarius of Septimius Severus on the near left, from the mint known as Emesa, is a little different. The type of Hilaritas is shown here with a legend, FORTVNA REDVC, that celebrates the safe return of the Emperor after he had subdued his rival Pescennius Niger in battle.

Naturally, from the imperial viewpoint, this was an occasion for public celebration! With a sub-text that the people had better be happy about this, or else.

This coin was made at the very start of Septimius' reign, when he was still consolidating his power, contending with Niger in the east and Clodius Albinus in the west..

Laetitia

Laetitia, like Hilaritas, personified rejoicing, though perhaps in a less religious sense; public festivals would have been dedicated to Laetitia. Perhaps the most important were the Saecular Games, held (in theory) once every 110 years. This 110-year period, the Saeculum, was the "age" referred to on these coins. A type struck for Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta (which I cannot afford!) shows an elaborate scene which was staged in the arena – a ship complete with sail, unloading exotic animals destined to be killed during the show: a lion, a bull, a stag, a bird, and three tigers, with four carts waiting to pick them up. The legend on those coins is LAETITIA TEMPORUM.

The reverse of an antoninianus of Gordian III showing Laetitia The reverse of an antoninianus of Gordian III showing Laetitia.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Laetitia The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Laetitia.

Both of these coins have as a legend LAETITIA AVG, the joy of the emperor. On the far left is the most commonly available representation of Laetitia on an antoninianus of Gordian III, with a wreath or garland dangling from her right hand, and an anchor held behind her. The anchor indicates the well-founded and long-lasting nature of the cause of rejoicing. This variant has N for NOSTER in its legend after the AVG, which makes the joyfulness personal to "our Emperor."

Next to it is an antoninianus of Claudius II. On this coin, Laetitia is carrying a cornucopia, the symbol of plenty, instead of an anchor. In coin decriptions, Laetitia is usually simply said to be carrying a "wreath", but often, as in this case, it is far too large to wear on the head, so that "garland" would be a better description.

On the left of this last row is a denarius of Julia Maesa. Here, Laetitia holds a rudder which is set on a globe. This, together with the legend LAETITIA PVBL, leaves no doubt that command of the seas of the world was a cause for public rejoicing.

The reverse of an antoninianus of Postumus showing a galley The reverse of an antoninianus of Postumus showing a galley.
The reverse of an antoninianus of Philip I showing Laetitia The reverse of an antoninianus of Philip I showing Laetitia.
The reverse of a denarius of Julia Maesa showing Laetitia The reverse of a denarius of Julia Maesa showing Laetitia.

In the centre, an antoninianus of Philip I. Here, Laetitia holds her rudder and a patera, and has her right foot set on the prow of a ship, such as might carry corn to Rome. This, with the legend LAETIT FVNDAT, says that the corn supply is a good foundation for joyfulness and religious thanksgiving.

The last coin on this page is an antoninianus of Postumus, who ruled the breakaway Gallic "Roman" empire. Occasionally, as with this coin and a very few others, the Laetitia legend was used with a picture of a galley. In this case it indicates the importance of sea power in upholding the strength of the Gallic empire, and perhaps also refers to a trip to Britain early in Postumus' reign.


The content of this page was last updated on 14 August 2009.

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