Home Page Site Map Useful Links Email Me Glossary Next Page

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

Mercury and his Magic Wand

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

The obverse of a Republican denarius showing Mercury The obverse of a Republican denarius showing Mercury with petasos and caduceus.

Mercury was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of prosperity and of thieves. His attributes were a purse, a winged cap and a caduceus. There is more about the caduceus further down. He had several other aspects too; for example, as a decider of victory in athletic contests, and as a psychopomp, a guide of the spirits of the dead.

He appeared on several Republican coins, usually showing just his head wearing a traveller's broad-brimmed sun-hat, known as a petasus, with two wings emerging from it. The wings symbolised his speed, and were a very straightforward way of making it clear which deity was being depicted. He was often shown with winged sandals, and these, too, occasionally appear on coins. The Republican denarius on the right, from 82 BCE, is rather worn, but you can clearly see the winged petasus and, behind the bust, a caduceus.

The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Postumus showing Mercury The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Postumus naming Mercury.

In the Empire, strangely, coins showing Mercury very rarely named him. Here is one that did: an antoninianus of Postumus from 265 CE, with the legend MERCVRIO FELICI, dedicated to Mercury who brings happiness and prosperity. Postumus ruled the breakaway Gaulish "Roman" empire. According to Caesar, the Gauls worshipped Mercury as inventor of the arts (probably syncretising him with the Celtic god Lugus), so with this coin Postumus is showing all the things he should be praised for: trade, prosperity, and cultural advancement.

A single seed-pod of Capsella bursa-pastoris Shepherd's Purse seed pod.
(Actual size 6mm across.)
The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus.

Mercury appears on several other coins, labelled differently. On the right is a typical figure of Mercury, holding his caduceus and purse, with the legend FIDES AVG. This is an antoninianus of Gallienus from 267 CE. Mercury has no direct association with faithfulness, so this coin might be intended to point out that the good faith between emperor and people was built on sound commercial foundations. The same kind of message occurs on a denarius of Vespasian shown below, where the caduceus is used with a FIDES legend.

This is an interesting coin in another way, too. It's a particularly clear example of the reverse, and if you look closely you can see that his wings emerge directly from Mercury's head. If that's not clear, click on the image to see an enlargement. This image derives from an early Greek statue type of an athlete, copied by the Romans and converted to a statue of Mercury. A statuary head still exists, dated around 200 CE, and with the head-wings added later. There is a Greek coin from Amisos showing Perseus with a different version of head-wings on my "Story of Medusa" page.

The shape of the purse is possibly significant. It often shows two side projections. Pat Lawrence has pointed out (in email) that shepherds were likely to have made purses from the skins of hares, which would be in this sort of shape, with two fat thighs and possibly a remaining scut of tail. Hermes in particular was a god of shepherds, so Mercury's purse could easily be a rabbit or hare-skin one. For a corroborating reference to this shape, there is the so-called "Shepherd's Purse," Capsella bursa-pastoris, a wild plant that has seed-pods in the same shape.

The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Herennius Etruscus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Herennius Etruscus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus.
The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus.
The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing Mercury with purse and caduceus.

On the far left is an antoninianus of Herennius Etruscus from 251 CE. The legend on this one, PIETAS AVGG, does have a direct explanation.

Mercury was said to be the first god to insititute religious worship and sacrifices, so was a suitable figure to illustrate a coin which celebrated the dutiful practice of religion by the emperors.

The antoninianus of Gallienus in the centre, dating from 256 CE, shows Mercury with the legend FORTVNA REDVX. This legend normally accompanies an image of Fortuna, either holding a rudder or seated over a wheel, or both, and symbolises a safe return from a voyage by sea or land accordingly.

So, this legend has a very standard and specific meaning, and we can conjecture that Mercury was being invoked as a god of swift journeying. You can see that this one has head winglets, too – the go-faster stripes of the ancient world.

On the right, the same image of Mercury, but with the legend PROVIDENTIA AVG; the foresight of the Emperor leads to prosperity.

The reverse of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Hermes with a cock The reverse of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Hermes with a cock.
The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus showing a criocamp The reverse of a billon antoninianus of Gallienus naming Mercury and showing a criocamp.

Mercury is also known on two other scarce coins of Gallienus. One, on which Mercury is accompanied by a dog, has the legend DONA AVG, and probably shows him as the giver of the emperor's poetic and artistic abilities. The other has the legend PROVIDENTIA AVG, referring to the emperor's forethought. Gallienus seems to have had a particular fondness for Mercury as a coin type, in comparison to the other emperors. At one point, he issued coins invoking the aid of numerous deities, and as you might expect, Mercury was one of these, on a coin with the legend MERCVRIO CONS AVG, shown on the near right.

The legend means "Dedicated to Mercury, preserver of the Emperor." This odd reverse type is a criocamp, a creature with the head and forelimbs of a ram, and a sinuous and fishy rear end. Mythical creatures in such strange combinations were not uncommon, but the reasoning behind the choice of reverse image for this coin is not known today. The ram was Mercury's sacrificial animal, from his role as a god of shepherds, but the fishy tail is a mystery.

The cock was also associated with Hermes and Mercury, possibly because it crowed at dawn and so acted as a guide into the day. I do not think there is an Imperial example, but on the far right is a provincial coin of Septimius Severus from Nikopolis ad Istrum showing Hermes with his wand and purse, and with a cock at his feet.

Among Imperial coins, there is also a very scarce Mercury coin of Postumus with the legend INTERNVTIVS DEORVM, "Intermediary of the Gods", which might refer to the termination of hostilities with Gallienus, the ruler of the "real" Roman empire, with Mercury supposedly acting as a messenger between the two.

The Cadeuceus

The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing a winged caduceus The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing a winged caduceus.
The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing hands clasped round grain and a caduceus The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing hands clasped round grain and a caduceus.

Seemingly the most important of Mercury's attributes was his caduceus. The Greeks knew it as the kerykeion of Hermes, and in Rome it had the same form and meaning. It most likely originated as a herald's wand, decorated with ribbons. As the kerykeion or caduceus, the ribbons became snakes, twined together and with their heads pointing towards each other.

The reverse of a silver Republican denarius showing a grain ear, a fascis and a caduceus The reverse of a silver Republican denarius showing a grain ear, a fascis and a caduceus.

It was often shown winged, as on the denarius of Vespasian on the far right. By its association with Mercury, it symbolised swift and profitable trade, and symbolised a stable grain supply on the Vespasian denarius on the near right, also shown on this page about the corn supply to Rome. It may also have been used to award victory in athletic contests, another of Mercury's aspects. Harold Mattingly, author of several learned books on Roman coins and life in ancient Rome, called it Mercury's "magic wand," a romantic but intriguing view.

The symbol was also used in Republican times, as on the denarius on the left, dating from 87 BCE. This coin commemorates the support given by the moneyer's father to two towns during the Social War.

In modern times, the caduceus is sometimes used as a symbol or logo for medical services. This usage is based on confusion between the caduceus and the staff of Aesculapius, a minor deity of health. His serpent-twined staff can be seen at the bottom of this page about his daughter Salus, who tended and fed his snakes.

The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Felicitas The reverse of an antoninianus of Claudius II showing Felicitas with a long sceptre and a short caduceus.
The reverse of a silver antoninianus of Gordian III showing Felicitas The reverse of a silver antoninianus of Gordian III showing Felicitas with a tall caduceus and a cornucopia.

The caduceus was appropriated by Felicitas, a personification symbolising happiness, peace and prosperity. Sometimes it was shown as a short wand, as on the antoninianus of Claudius II on the far left. Often it was a long sceptre, as on the antoninianus of Gordian III on the near left. In either case, the snakes were twined in their typical knot at the tip.

The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing Pax with a caduceus The reverse of a silver denarius of Vespasian showing Pax seated with a branch and a caduceus.

The caduceus appeared on almost every coin showing Felicitas, and there were many. It was very rare to see it held by other deities or personifications. Here is one, on a denarius of Vespasian from 70 CE. The image is Pax, seated with her olive branch in one hand and a short caduceus over her shoulder. Other coins around the same time show a standing Pax also holding a caduceus. The legend on this coin, COS ITER TR POT, is all about the emperor, saying that he was consul for the second time, and had the tribunician power. The message that the public were intended to read on this coin must be that the emperor's peace brings prosperity.

The reverse of a denarius of Trajan showing Felicitas The reverse of a denarius of Trajan showing Felicitas with a caduceus and a cornucopia.

I mentioned earlier the role of Hermes in deciding victory in athletic contests. There are Greek coins which seem to show an athlete looking to a kerykeion for a decision (a suggestion made by the author of the article listed below); and one coin shows the kerykeion being held by Nike, who would present his award to the victor. The stance of that athlete is the same as that of Felicitas on the denarius of Trajan to the left.

It is possible, then, that when Felicitas gazes down at her caduceus on this coin, she expects to award the onlooker a happy victory. On the other hand, it is also possible that the engraver drew it this way to fit it within the lettering.

The reverse of a potin tetradrachm of Maximinus I showing Hermanubis The reverse of a potin tetradrachm of Maximinus I showing Hermanubis.

I wondered if there might be some link with games to be held in 108 CE, the year this coin was struck, which might support the more interesting interpretation, but there do not appear to have been any.

Finally, here is an Alexandrian coin from 236-237 CE which shows a guide of the dead to the underworld, called a psychopomp. Alexandria was populated mainly by Egyptians and people of Hellenic origin, and even though it had been under direct Roman rule since the first years of the empire, the deities shown on its coins were from the Greek and Egyptian pantheons. So here we would expect to see Hermes rather than Mercury.

In fact, this coin is an example of syncretism, the combination of two or more deities into one image. In this case, the deities are Anubis, the Egyptian guide of the dead, and Hermes, in his role as the Greek equivalent. The combination is known as Hermanubis. He is wearing a kalathos, a small basket worn on the head by many Greek deities and personifications; in front of that is what might be a lotus blossom. His combination of caduceus and palm branch is shown in front of him. So this Imperial Roman coin, with the emperor's bust on the obverse, has Greek text and shows Greek and Egyptian imagery on its reverse – just one of the things that can make these coins so fascinating.

————————  Useful References  ————————

These books and this article provided some, but not all, of the information on this page. Thanks also to the contributors to the Forum Classical Numismatics Discussion Board, a group of people who are both helpful and knowledgeable.

A Dictionary of Roman Coins by Seth William Stevenson, F.S.A., C Roach Smith, F.S.A., and Frederic W. Madden, M.R.A.S. First published by George Bell and Sons, 1889. Reprinted by B A Seaby Ltd, London in 1964.

The Man in the Roman Street by Harold Mattingly, F.B.A. Published by the Numismatic Review, New York City in 1947.

Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume III by David R. Sear. Published by Spink, London, in 2005.

Coins of the Greek Pentathlon, by Anthony F. Milavic. An article in The Celator, vol. 20, no. 7, July 2006.


The content of this page was last updated on 26 October 2011

Home Page Site Map Useful Links Email Me Glossary Next Page