Roman Views of a Greek God

Of the major gods of Greece and Rome, Apollo stands out as unusual in several respects. It would seem that Apollo was the god with more general nature; the god who is hard to define or limit; perhaps a god ahead of his time. Beginning students of Greek and Roman mythology are presented a list of Greek gods and the equivalent Roman names for the same deity. Zeus is Jupiter; Ares: Mars; Poseidon: Neptune; etc. etc. etc. Of the major list, one stands out as different: the Greek Apollo was known to the Romans as 'Apollo'. This suggests that the early Roman/Italian pantheon lacked a divinity easily equated with Apollo so no association was made when Greek culture was adopted for Roman use. This seems more likely considering that Apollo is also the most difficult of the gods to define in simple terms. Other major gods ruled a domain: 'War', 'Sea', 'Love'; Apollo's function can not be summed up in a word. Mythological dictionaries list Apollo as the god of 'youthful masculine beauty', the god of 'music and poetry' and the god of 'light and purity'. Perhaps it would not be too far fetched to call Apollo the god of 'Good'. As an additional function, Apollo had powers of healing which he passed on to his son Aesculapius (Asklepios), the god of Medicine. (footnote: Did you ever notice that the son is always shown as older while the father is forever young?)

Attributes of Apollo that help identify him on coins are rather more varied than for most gods. Sometimes he is shown with a lyre as the god of music and poetry. Sometimes he borrows his sister Artemis' (Diana) bow and is shown hunting. He is accompanied by a snake either as the symbol of healing or representing the 'dragon' Python which mythology credits him slaying. Out of the slaying of Python arose the Pythian oracle at Delphi which is represented with a tripod for sacrifices. The story of Apollo's love for Daphne and her being turned into a laurel tree is honored by coins showing the god with a laurel branch or wreath. Apollo is often shown nude posed in a graceful manner. There are a few coins that show a nude boy with a bow standing next to a tripod around which curls a snake and on which rests a lyre. These certainly depict Apollo. More commonly, we see a pretty boy with perhaps one of the attributes. The rest of this page will examine examples of the ways Apollo was shown on Roman coins. Certainly he was shown on earlier Greek coins but many/most of these were only heads ('pretty boy') leaving the development of Apollo as a full coin type to the later period.

Geta - Nicopolis ad Istrum, Moesia Inferior - 18 mm Bronze - c.200 AD
Apollo Sauroktonos (Lizard slayer) - copy of statute by Praxiteles

This page on Apollo is the direct result of a letter I received from an art history professor at a major university. The coin shown above was also featured (in much smaller size!) on my Geta page. It attracted the attention of the professor since it clearly depicts a statue of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles known today by several copies that survived antiquity to represent the lost original. 'Apollo Sauroktonos' shows a boy sneaking up on a lizard on a tree trunk. The young god (exactly how we are to know this is the young Apollo rather than a generic boy still eludes me) is posed in a graceful forward leaning manner as he prepares to dart the lizard. (Again I need to be shown the dart to relieve my skeptic nature which asks if his intent was to kill or to catch the creature in hand.) This 18mm coin of Nicopolis ad Istrum in Moesia Inferior dates to the early days of Geta as Caesar (c198-200 AD). The lizard is somewhat enlarged on the coin (red arrow on inset points to the head) compared to the full size statue but the pose of Apollo is unmistakable. The statue is described in Pliny making the identification of the work more certain than is the case with many works of Greek sculpture. Some read the intent of Praxiteles here to show young Apollo practicing the skills he would later use when confronting the greater reptile Python. I see a pastoral scene of what must have been normal life for Greek boys for millennia. It is a wonderful statue but why was it shown on coins at Nicopolis? Did, perhaps, the city obtain a copy of the Praxiteles for the city 'museum'? Did, only a step less likely, the original work end up there? Certainly either would be a matter of civic pride sufficient to generate an issue of coins. We can prove nothing; only speculate. I only hope the type commemorates the love of the statue rather than its melting to provide the metal for the coinage. Large bronze original sculptures survived antiquity only through sheer luck. Many that survive come from shipwrecks which saved them from the melting pot of later barbarians. We will probably never know what happened to the original Sauroktonos. The Louvre is fortunate to have its marble copy; I am lucky to have this little coin.

A very different Apollo is shown on these two Imperial denarii. The god is shown fully clothed and holding his lyre. Both coins identify the subject with legends or I would never have recognized Apollo. The Commodus denarius (left) reads 'APOL PAL' identifying the figure as the Palatine Apollo. The statue by Scopas was located on the Palatine Hill. The mint workers under Trajan dedicated a statue of Apollo that is thought to be the one shown on the Alexandria mint coin of Septimius Severus (right). The type was also issued at the Rome mint. This late use could suggest that the statue was still at the mint but the possibility that this coin was simply copied from an earlier model is quite real. The exact pose is known on coins of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

Perhaps this as of Commodus showing a completely different Apollo as 'APOL MONETAE' is evidence that the Septimius issue was copied from a coin. The legend certainly suggests that the mint statue in 190 AD was nude with hand over the head and leaning on a column. Certainly there is the possibility that the mint owned more than one statue of Apollo or that they chose to use a different pose for some other reason. The fact remains that a small percentage of statues that existed in Classical times remain. In some cases we have records of things now lost while some works survive that were never mentioned in literature. Coins provide another evidence of what once existed. Certainly some coin types bear original scenes but copying famous art was a common source of reverse types. As this is being written, the United States just released the New Jersey quarter bearing the famous scene of Washington crossing the Delaware. When the series of fifty quarters are all out, how many do you think will use original types and how many will recycle art? Some things never change.

Much earlier (c.82 BC) is this (fourree) denarius of the Roman Republic. Apollo is shown only as a head (with laurel wreath) on the obverse. The reverse on this coin shows the satyr Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a music contest with the winner to do as he pleased with the loser. Apollo, the god of 'Good', defeated Marsyas in the contest and chose to have the satyr skinned alive. Our motto: Don't bet what you can't afford to lose! There are rare coins showing the actual flaying of Marsyas but he is usually shown simply as a figure stooped by the weight of a large wineskin. The coin would seem an excellent choice for flipping to determine winner (Apollo) and loser (Marsyas). This coin was #18 (or 81?) in a collection sometime in the past but I have no idea who felt it necessary to mark the coin with red paint. Hopefully this sort of thing is out of fashion today!

A less usual pose of Apollo shows the god actually shooting the bow. The type is much more common for Apollo's twin sister Artemis/Diana, goddess of the hunt. Artemis is always fully clothed. The figure on this coin is clearly nude except for a quiver and the drawn bow. It is Apollo. The coin is an 18mm bronze of Hadrianopolis, Thrace, issued in the name of Marcus Aurelius when he was first made Caesar in 139 AD. The legend OVHPOC KAICAP can cause this coin to be mistaken for an issue of Lucius Verus but earliest issues for Marcus used the name Verus. The portrait is certainly the young Marcus showing his typical curly hair.

Two Provincial coins from Marcianopolis, Moesia, of Septimius Severus show the same statue of Apollo with hand over head. In both he holds a bow and stands besides a short tree with entwining snake. While there are other differences in style, most notable is that the right specimen shows a stump at the left of Apollo. Classical sculpture frequently includes supporting columns, trees or similar items. This was necessary when the figure was undressed and the weight of the figure would have been too much for support by the ankles alone. The Greeks were great artists but yielded to practical needs. Working supports into the design that would add strength was to be expected. Coin designs usually include the supports but usually lack the cross pieces that sometimes are seen joining the figure to the support. This statue is often described as showing Apollo drawing an arrow from a quiver but I believe the pose is to make best use of the graceful 'S' curve of hand and body. Many specimens of this coin are poorly struck making some part of the design unclear. Here the right coin is weak on the top half of the bow making it look like a lyre. Other versions of this coin actually do have a lyre on top of the tree. Part of the fun of ancient coins is the variety to be found. Each student must be careful to consider whether a variety is significant or simply the workers at the mint experimenting with the design.

Gordian III, Hadrianopolis, Thrace, 26 mm Bronze - 238 - 244 AD
Apollo with Tree - copy of unknown statue?

The above Gordian III bronze shows exceptional refinement in die artistry. The cutter of this die was an exceptionallly gifted artist. The reverse design of the coin shows Apollo holding a branch standing beside a tree. At his feet (poorly struck on this specimen) is a bow and bow case. Compared to many coin designs, this Apollo shows exceptional grace and balance. Usually when we observe gracefully posed figures on our coins we suspect the die cutter was copying a known statue. In this case, however, I can not identify the original being copied. This could be evidence that there was once a fine statue of Apollo that has been since lost to time. This could be evidence that the best die cutters were allowed the freedom of original design and this coin is an original in its own right. Relatively few of us collect coins primarily for the artistry of their design. Those who do tend to specialize in coins of the Greek Classical period. Remember this coin dates to a time and place not far removed from the conquest of the region by the Goths. This Gordian from the wild frontier of the Empire demonstrates that fine coin art can be found in any period.

Our next coin returns us to the story of why this page was written. Upon seeing the Geta shown in the first photo on this page, my correspondent the professor asked if I thought it would be possible to find another Sauroktonos. I flipped through a few of my old auctions catalogs (I have a thousand of them!) and found a few other examples. All were from Nicopolis. Next I contacted a friend/dealer who I knew had a good stock of Provincial coins and asked that he check for Apollos. He turned up three coins of which one is now property of the professor. Another is the Nicopolis ad Istrum 25mm Bronze coin shown above. At first look it seems to be similar to Sauroktonos but the question of whether the cutter intended this to show the same statue required looking more closely. Here also we have a nude Apollo with tree to the right. On the tree, however, is a snake in place of the lizard (right inset rotated). The right hand of Apollo reaches back rather than forward changing the balance of the pose. In the right hand is what seems more like a laurel branch than a dart (left inset). Possibility the cutter rotated the scene a bit to show the darting hand more clearly but the other differences in balance made me think we were dealing with a completely different statue. For the sake of completeness, I will mention that this Apollo is wearing a thin ribbon or baldric passing under his left arm, across his chest (where wear has eliminated it) and over his right shoulder. The end of this band falls just below his right elbow. The obverse portrait of Septimius seems later (and more tired in the eyes) than the date of the Geta above. I propose a date for this coin at least five years later. This brings up the same question we faced with the Apollo Monetae coins of Commodus. Did Nicopolis own two very similar statues of Apollo? Did, perhaps, the first coin commemorate the commission of a copy of the famous work and the second show what was delivered after the copy was completed? Are these coins accurate renditions of the statue or is this second work original to the die cutter inspired by looking at Sauroktonos but wanting to work in the normal attributes of Apollo of snake and laurel? We will probably never know the answer to these questions but, if luck is with us, perhaps a future archaeological dig near will find more evidence to shed light on our little mystery. What will they find? We have to dream that the original Sauroktonos will turn up someday. It would be great if a statue matching this coin is lurking in some museum and one of you would tell me (send photo!). At least we will find is that there is much more to our coins than commonly has been realized. They are little mirrors of the society that produced them and deserve careful study.

Compared to the other major gods, Apollo was never a particularly common coin type. By the middle of the third century AD the Empire was deeply troubled by barbarians and internal strife. There was little time for purity and poetry. The function of Apollo as god of light was eclipsed by the new cult of Sol, the god of the sun. Coins showing Apollo become relatively scarce after Gordian III. His last appearance on coins (known to me - correct me here!) is on the Anonymous Pagan issues of Antioch now attributed to the time of Maximinus II (c.310 AD). Here Apollo is fully dressed, holding lyre and patera recalling the design shown above on the Septimius Severus denarius above. The figure is a copy of the massive statue of Apollo by Bryaxis that stood in the temple at Antioch. Ancient descriptions of the statue (now lost) enable us to be certain of this identification. The arrival of Christianity ended the use of all pagan gods as coin types shortly after this issue.

Our examination of Apollo could be repeated for dozens of deities of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Apollo was selected due to the correspondance of one person who read my earlier page. I thank my friend the professor for opening my eyes to the matter of Sauroktonos and I will thank whoever among you goes on to spread knowledge gained from looking closely at your ancient coins. My background is stronger in history and technical numismatics than art so more of my pages have concentrated on the obverse personalities or the technical matters of coin production. History, art, science, sociology, economics, politics and language work together to form the study we call numismatics. We must remember to consider our coins as the sums of all their parts.

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(c) 1999 Doug Smith