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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Isis, Goddess of the Nile|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
"She who drives off the foe, who foils the deeds of the disturber by the power of her utterance; the clever-tongued, whose speech fails not; admirable in the words of command; Mighty Isis." —from an 18th dynasty hymn to Osiris
But Isis, the goddess, was also one of Rome's important deities. She represented the mystery and romance of Egypt to the Romans. Her worship was regarded as more respectable than the other major female deity of foreign orgin, the Magna Mater, Cybele, even though Cybele had a major festival and Isis did not. Her adherents claimed that she was the most important of the goddesses; that she was in fact the goddess also worshipped as Venus, Minerva and the Magna Mater. Of course this belief was not shared outside her cult. But her cult became fully integrated into Roman life; senators and well-placed women openly had priestly functions in it.
Imperial Rome was tied to Egypt by conquest and by necessity. The fertile lands around the Nile provided a major source of food for Rome, and there was even a Roman goddess Annona who represented the annual grain supply. Isis was linked specifically to the port of Alexandria, and was shown on coins like the one illustrated on the left (a bronze of Julian II) as Isis Pharia, Isis of the lighthouse. The image shows, not the lighthouse itself, but a ship guided by Isis, who is holding its sail. She also appears on the obverse, wearing a floral headdress. (This image is from A Dictionary of Roman Coins and is out of copyright.)
There was some association with the other major Egyptian religious cult in Rome, that of Serapis. They shared a site on the Field of Mars, the Sanctuary of Isis and Serapis. But unlike Serapis, she appeared on relatively few Roman coins.
This antoninianus of Claudius II on the left, from 269-270 CE, shows one of the most common representations of Isis. It is found in several surviving statues from the time as well as appearing on more than one type of Roman coin.
Isis is wearing her typical headgear. In her left hand, she is holding a ceremonial water container, called a situla. (The blob underneath was caused by a flaw in the die.) Sometimes this is called a bucket, but it is more ornate than that word might suggest. Held up in her right hand is her sistrum, a kind of metallic rattle.
On the right is a Greek coin from the Aeolian coastal city of Kyme, minted at almost the same time, and even though the surface is rather rough, you can see that it has exactly the same representation. Coincidentally, the situla is obscured by a flan flaw on this coin too. I can only see one horizontal bar on Isis's sistrum on this coin.
The sistrum was made of an oval metal frame on a handle, with loose metal rods passed horizontally through holes in the frame. Sometimes rings were strung on the rods. When this object was shaken, or sometimes struck with a rod, it gave out a metallic jingling sound rather like a tambourine. It was used by the priesthood in Isis's temples to draw attention to various parts of the ceremonies. An interesting historical note is that Cleopatra VII used a large number of sistra at the battle of Actium (which she lost), and so the sistrum was sometimes satirically called "Queen Cleopatra's War Trumpet".
These two photographs were taken in the British Museum. The sistrum on the right was made in Rome in the first or second century CE, for use by a Roman priest or priestess of Isis. It's about a foot long. It was said to have been found in the Tiber. The maker has added a wolf and twins finial on the top – not very clear in my photo, I'm afraid. This might have been to counter any thought that his support for a foreign religion made him unpatriotic.
On the left is a statue of Isis, again from Rome, made in about 120-150 CE. Her pose is the same as on the coin of Claudius II above. Her sistrum has been lost somewhere, but she is still carrying her situla, her container for the sacred waters of the Nile. The tops of the plumes on her headdress are missing, apparently broken off, and there is a snake on either side of the sun-disk, perhaps supporting it. This version of her headdress does not include the horns of Hathor.
Early, possibly romantic, modern interpretations of this pose say that the motion and sound of the sistrum represented the rise and fall of the Nile; and the ceremonial water container, the situla, represented the way the rising waters of the Nile filled all the channels and ditches. So, Isis was responsible for the fertility of the land as well as the transport of the grain. With this, and her major religious impact on Roman life, it's surprising that she does not appear on more Roman coins.
This Alexandrian drachm of Antoninus Pius shows Isis Pharia (or Faria), the protector of Alexandria's shipping. She is giant-sized, and is grasping a sail, as in the drawing at the top of the page, and moving towards the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria. She is wearing a lotus headdress. In the same hand that is grasping the top of the sail is a sistrum. This clear connection between Isis and safe navigation from the Nile is worth remembering when looking at Isis images on other Roman coins.
You might think that this coin looks worn and battered, and indeed it is, but it is in better condition than most of this type, which must have seen a full and hard life in circulation. That is true of many bronze coins.
Isis was often shown carrying her child, Horus, whom the Greeks referred to as Harpocrates. The coin on the left below belongs to Pat Lawrence, and her photo is used here with permission. There are only a handful of other peoples' coins on this site, but this one is so interesting that I had to ask. It's an Alexandrian coin again, this time of Hadrian, showing Isis suckling Harpocrates. Isis is wearing her lotus blossom, and Harpocrates has on his head an item which is referred to as a "lotus-bud crown," which is simply a length of lotus stem with a bud on the end laid horizontally on his head. The things used as crowns by Egyptian deities can seem very odd to us!
The coin next to it is a Roman denarius of Julia Domna. It is one of the few Imperial Isis coins from outside Egypt. This image is also usually interpreted as Isis holding the baby Horus or Harpocrates. Here, she is standing with one foot on a prow. Behind her is a rudder leaning on an object which is sometimes engraved as an altar, sometimes as the stern of the same ship. It is out of proportion to the prow on coins from Rome like this one, but not on coins struck in Laodicea, where it can be clearly seen to be part of the same vessel. Clearly the coin engravers followed a pattern without being clear about what it represented, made an incorrect assumption, and produced some rather odd coins as a result. This sort of thing can be seen to have happened on several Roman coin types.
Although most descriptions do not mention this, Isis is sometimes holding a small wreath in her right hand (thanks to Curtis Clay for that observation and for pointing out the ship-shape Laodicean coins). This little wreath is a mystery. On some of these coins it seems to resemble a beaded circlet, maybe a form of rattle, as on the coin shown here. On some it is very clearly a leafy wreath. But on the coins from Laodicea, it does not seem to be there at all. I suspect that the original intent was to show Isis offering her breast (which is the description given in the British Museum catalogue), and that the hand pushing at the breast has mutated in the Rome mint into a range of ill-understood objects, in the same way that the stern of the ship was shown correctly in Laodicea but sometimes mutated into an altar in Rome.
Harpocrates was typically shown with his finger to, or in, his mouth. Next to the coins is a tiny Roman Harpocrates image less than an inch long, probably a decoration which has become detatched from a larger item.
The headdress shown on the Julia Domna coin is a kalathos, sometimes inaccurately described as a polos. Isis can be shown wearing any one of a variety of headdresses, but the kalathos is unusual.
Isis's original headdress was in the shape of a throne. This reflects Isis' name, which means "seat," or in a more romantic translation, "She of the throne." (Other Egyptian deities were also shown with headwear in the shape of the objects described by the heiroglyphs of their their names; for example, Geb and Seshat.)
Later, Isis was shown with the crown of Hathor, a bovine deity. This consisted of a central sun-disk placed between Hathor's horns. Then, when the crown was taken on by Isis, the cow-horns were so much part of the visual impression that they came with it. This crown is often shown with plumes rising above. The plumes may derive from a later merging or syncretism of Isis with Mut, who sometimes wore the twin-plumed headdress of Min.
It seems that Isis also sometimes wore a lotus-bud coronet. It's not possible to be prescriptive about how Isis' crown was shown in the Empire, as the Romans were quite inventive in the variations they produced on statuettes. There is even one in the British Museum which has the crown of Hathor as a relief design on a type of kalathos.
On coins, Isis is usually shown with either an open lotus flower headdress, or one or another version of the crown of Hathor. The bronze diobol of Vespasian from Alexandria above left shows Isis with a disk and horns headdress. The full crown, with plumes, appears alone on several Roman and Hellenic coin types. Above are two examples. On the far right, a bronze coin of Antiochos VII from the Seleucid empire, 133-132 BCE; next to it, a small dichalkon of Trajan from Alexandria, 113-114 CE, nearly 250 years later.
In Egypt, the type of syncretism mentioned above in connection with the various crowns of Isis was very common. Isis was often combined with other deities. Syncretism with Isis was taken up with enthusiasm in Rome. On the right are two statuettes from the British Museum. On the far right, Isis is fused with Tyche, and is shown carrying Tyche's cornucopias and rudder. In the centre, there is a further fusion with Athena, resulting in a sort of home-made triple goddess who also wears Athena's ægis (she once had a rudder too, but it has become detatched at some time).
One effect of this process was that some quite odd combinations appeared on eastern coins, particularly those from Alexandria. Here is an Alexandrian coin which is given different interpretations in different texts. It is quite likely Isis-Thermouthis, a combination of Isis with the cobra goddess Renenutet, divine nurse of Egyptian kings. But these Alexandrian coins are rather specialised for their own culture, and often hard to interpret. (There is another Alexandrian syncretism on a coin at the bottom of my page about Mercury.)
There was little evidence of syncretism on coins from the main body of the empire, but there may be a touch of it here. The coin on the left is a denarius of Septimius Severus from the eastern mint thought to be in Emesa. Like the Rome mint, it produced coins intended for use in the heart of the empire. It shows Spes, personification of hope. Spes is always shown as carrying a flower and holding up the hem of her skirt like this, though this is a rather crude representation, typical of these eastern denarii of the early Severan era. But her headdress here is unusual.
Normally, minor deities or personifications on denarii are shown wearing a kalathos, which is essentially a type of basket, and this is even true for many coins of this specific type. But Spes holds a flower, and the engraver has echoed that in her headdress. This looks very like the lotus headdress of Isis, and might possibly represent another example of syncretism.
On the right is an enlargement of Spes' flower headdress next to an enlargment of Isis' lotus headdress from the coin of Claudius II shown earlier on. Is that similarity purely coincidental? It's possible, but I think it is quite likely that the engraver of Spes had Isis in mind.
|The content of this page was last updated on 22 September 2008|
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