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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Sol and Oriens - the Rise and Fall of a Superhero|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
The sun as a deity, called Helios in Greek (ηλιος) and Sol in Latin, was well known throughout the ancient world. The Colossus of Rhodes, which is often said to have stood astride the entrance to Rhodes' harbour, was a large statue of Helios – though, not so large that it could actually stand in such a pose. It stood on one side of the entrance.
But it was definitely impressive. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was about 33 metres high and had a bronze outer shell. It stood from 282 BCE for 55 years, until it was felled by an earthquake in 226 BCE. The coin on the far right, showing Helios' head with its distinctive sun-rays, is from Rhodes in 188-167 BCE; so, by the time it was struck, the statue had long since fallen, but even then it was still an object of wonder and its fame persisted. For modern comparisons, consider the Statue of Liberty at 46 metres high, excluding the pedestal; and Antony Gormley's "Angel of the North" at 20 metres. The remains of the Colossus were finally disassembled by an Arab general, Mu'awiyyah, who shipped the bronze to Syria, where it was bought by a Jewish merchant from Edessa. At least 900 camels were required to carry the bronze away.
Next to that coin is a silver denarius struck by Mark Antony in 38 BCE, which shows the radiate head of Sol. As you can see, at that time there was no difference between representations of Sol and Helios. This coin has several test punches and a banker's mark – typical for the period, especially for a coin which, like this one, has seen decades of circulation and (as it was minted in Athens) probably crossed borders.
Before Aurelian, Sol was no more prominent than many other deities. The denarius of Trajan on the far right, from 111 CE, demonstrates this; it shows the heads of Sol and Luna being carried by Aeternitas, symbolising that day and night are component parts of eternity. Trajan and his successor, Hadrian, also struck coins much like those above, showing the radiate head of Sol; sometimes they were labelled Oriens, meaning the rising sun in the east.
Next to it is a denarius of Caracalla from 199-210 CE. I have included this because the figure is identified by the British Museum catalogue as Caracalla in the role of Sol, as the ruler of the world; RECTORI ORBIS, as the legend says. But actually, this is not at all likely. Sol is always radiate. Even the tiny head of Sol being carried by Aeternitas is clearly radiate. This figure is laureate; it is clearly Caracalla in the role of some heroic original, but it is not Sol.
These two denarii, of Septimius Severus on the far left from 197 CE, and Elagabalus next to it from 220 CE, show a figure of Sol that was to become very familiar on the coinage. The denarius of Severus was its first appearance.
On this coin, Sol was probably Oriens, the rising sun in the east, rather than a specific representation of Sol Invictus. It was early in Severus' reign, and Oriens would have represented the rising fortune of the new emperor. But the posture and the hand gesture are all here. The hand gesture was important enough that even though this engraver was not particularly good, he made an effort to show all of the fingers, resulting in something more like a War of the Worlds Martian than a real human hand.
On Elagabalus' coin, Sol was a reminder that the emperor was high priest of a Syrian sun-god, Elah-Gabal, from which is derived the name we use for him.
Sol's whip is the one he uses to drive his sun-chariot up into the sky. His hand gesture, later to become an indispensible aspect of the Unconquered Sun, may be a greeting.
The leftmost of these three coins is an antoninianus of Gordian III from 241-243 CE which has the same nude Sol, this time holding a globe in his left hand. A globe on Roman coins usually symbolises dominion over the cosmos. In the centre, a similar figure, this time fully clothed in a tunic and chlamys, on an antoninianus of Gallienus from 266-267 CE. The coin on the far right is an antoninianus of Victorinus from 269-270 CE. Sol is wearing a chlamys, and also has something around his loins. These coins definitely show the unconquered sun, and two of them say so in their legends: SOLI INVICTO (Dedicated to the Invincible Sun) in the centre, and a simple INVICTVS on the right.
Aurelian promoted the worship of Sol Invictus, and made it Rome's major official religion in 270 CE. That's when it really began to come to life on the coinage, in a particularly aggressive way. These three antoniniani, all from 274 and 275 CE, show how the traditional depiction of Sol began to change.
On the near right, Sol has the same clothing, attributes and basic stance as before, but now he is looking down at a captive who is bound at his feet. In the centre, he is heroically nude again and has taken a more aggressive stance, right leg forward; there are now two captives at his feet. On the coin to the far right, he maintains the more aggressive stance, and is actually trampling on one of the captives. The captives are wearing pointed caps, which normally indicates that they are Persian.
Now Sol has really gone wild. His cloak has been reduced to a drape round the neck and off the arm, and his wiry muscular body is emphasised. On the far left he is brandishing a laurel branch of victory and a bow.
On the near left he wields a military standard or perhaps a legionary flag, the type known as a vexillum, and holds a globe with a lunar crescent on top. The meaning of that is not properly understood, but it is certainly intended as a symbol of supremacy. He is trampling a small Persian figure who raises his arm in futile protest. It looks as though he is about to pierce him with that flag, which had a pointed staff and is held like a spear, but this might be an accident of the composition. This is how Aurelian wanted the people to picture him. Active, aggressive, all-conquering, undefeated. And definitely scary. In fact Aurelian was a very capable general, and was able to reunite and reinvigorate an empire which had begun to disintegrate.
Probus, who followed Aurelian, also pictured Sol on his coinage , and carried on the aggressive approach. On the near right, from 281 CE, Sol is in a quadriga racing to the left. The four horses are all shown rather nicely at the head, though they don't seem to have enough legs. If you've seen the chariot race in Ben Hur, that's what you should imagine. His short cloak is flying out behind him (and he is still naked apart from that, still muscular and wiry). He has his whip in his left hand, and his right is held out in the palm outwards position seen in the other coins.
The other antoninianus, from 277 CE, shows the same Sol, this time coming straight at you, two horses to either side as the quadriga runs you down. It's unusual for a Roman coin to show a facing head and palm. The outline in profile is much more recognisable, and lasts longer as a coin becomes worn. Even when a personification stands facing you, their head is usually turned to one side, as on the coin on the left just below. Not here, though! Sol's coming right at you! And he's invincible.
The left-hand antoninianus is from the reign of Diocletian, in 285 CE. Sol is much calmer now, more like his old self. He is standing facing us, with his head turned to show the radiate profile. He is holding a globe, as before; his hand is raised in that typical gesture; there are no captives. He still appears well-formed, but is not over-muscular.
The other coin is a follis of Constantine II as Caesar, from 317 CE. Sol has some of that energy back, and, as usual, his right hand is extended palm outwards.
This vivid representation of Sol emphasises the legend's message about the bright renown of the Republic – CLARITAS REIPVBLICAE. Sol is active and restless, he can't be contained by the exergue line below him, and his head and hand thrust vigorously through the legend. But .. muscular and heroic though he is, could it be that he is not quite so wiry and athletic as before?
Next, three folles of Constantine the Great, all showing Sol.
On the near right, the pose is similar to the Diocletian coin, but the body is an odd shape, not realistically proportioned or very heroic any more. This is typical of Constantine's coins. Jove and Genius suffered the same fates. Here, Sol looks weighed down by the burden of the globe he carries. Constantine is a "Companion of the Unconquered Sun," but Sol as the active superhero has passed away.
On the centre coin, Sol is carrying, not a globe or a whip, but a figurine of Victory, and the legend says very clearly that the coin is dedicated to Sol as a companion of "our lord," referring of course to Constantine himself. The imagery of Sol has now been fully subsumed into Constantine's own propaganda programme, just it was by Aurelian 40 years earlier.
And, in a return to beginnings, Constantine also produced a coin which showed Sol's bust in the same way as Greek coins from 500 years earlier. Invincibility is still proclaimed in the legend, but this image is so far from Aurelian's invincible conqueror that the lively body with its characteristic pose and gesture is not there at all!
The unconquered sun was too vibrant an image not to be used as much as possible. Here are some of Aurelian's coins that use the image of Sol in other ways.
On the leftmost of the three is very much the sort of image of Sol you would expect to find from Aurelian, but this time, the legend is different. Sol is still a conqueror, treading down a bound and submissive captive, but here the legend, CONSERVAT AVG, names him the emperor's protector.
In the middle, Sol in his usual pose is confronting Fides Militum, who carries two military standards and who represents the loyalty of the army. It's imperial propaganda. The faithful imperial army is gifted with Sol's invincibility, and the combination is labelled the Foresight of the Gods by the legend, PROVIDEN(tia) DEOR(um). A much more relaxed view of the Providence of the Gods is shown here: Elagabalus Providence denarius.
And on the right, another two-hander. On this coin Sol is presenting the globe to the war god Mars, himself named as invincible by the legend, MARS INVICTVS. There had been a temple to Invincible Mars in Rome's Circus Flaminius since 133 BCE, so his invincibility predated the predominance of Invincible Sol by at least four centuries.
On some coins, Sol is shown taking on the attributes of Serapis. Serapis was commonly shown making a gesture which was the same as that of Sol, and in fact it's not clear which of them used it first. But whereas Invincible Sol was usually shown nude but for a chlamys, Serapis wore a long and ornate robe. Serapis (or Sarapis) was "invented" during the reign of the first Ptolemy in Egypt, in the late 4th century BC. He combined Egyptian and Hellenistic elements and was designed to bring some unity between the hellenic Greeks and the Egyptians. There were elements of sun worship and bull worship (from Osiris and Apis) which would later fit well with Roman culture and religion. There is much more about this on my Serapis page.
On the denarius of Caracalla on the far left, Serapis is using the same gesture as Sol Invictus. His heavy robes are clear to see and he is carrying his typical long sceptre.
On the other coin, a follis of Licinius I, Sol is given a new twist. He is dressed in a long robe, but this isn't the plain tunic that he wore on the Gallienus coin far above. It's ornate and highly decorated, and probably belongs to Serapis. And what he is carrying on this coin is not his usual globe, but Serapis' head, complete with distinctive beard and headwear. Sol has sometimes been shown as quite bloodthirsty, but in this case the head indicates supremacy and shows that Sol is incorporating Serapis' characteristics.
See also the imagery on the coin of Trajan near the top of this page, with Aeternitas carrying the heads of Sol and Luna, which is also meant symbolically. There are more coins like this on my "Heads in Hands" page.
Two last coins at the end of this story ...
On the follis of Maximinus II Daia on the near right, once again, Sol's head is being held in someone's hand, but this time the meaning is quite different to when it was held by Aeternitas on the coin of Trajan right at the top of this page. Now, the image of Sol is imbued with 200 years of invincibility. The spirit of the Augusti is shown with this at its heart.
And after the sun comes the moon. She is not shown on many Roman coins, but here is Luna the bearer of light, queen of darkness, riding her chariot through the night, with her drapery billowing out in a semicircle behind her head. This last coin is a limes (base metal) denarius of Julia Domna. These coins are usually in silver, but on this one, the dark background really does make Luna look like the queen of the night. There are more moon coins on my Luna and Selene page.
|The content of this page was last updated on 7 July 2009|
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