Septimius, Julia & Venus

I am giving myself the privilege of featuring a coin that I particularly like from a series that has been my favorite since I began collecting. I hope you will find it interesting. When selecting subjects, I have attempted to present a mix of common coins that all collectors are likely to encounter and less common items that many of you will not have seen before. Here our subject is both. Roman Emperors regularly issued coins in the names of their wives and children. In some instances the reverse types of the family coins were the same as those used by the Emperor. More commonly special 'feminine' types were created for use by the Augusta. These could honor personifications of feminine virtues (Modesty, Fertility, Piety etc.) or goddesses (Cybele, Vesta, Diana etc.). From the beginning of the reign of Septimius Severus, coins were issued in the name of his wife Julia Domna. Venus, patron goddess of the Julii, was the most common reverse of the early period of the reign (193-196 AD, my favorite period in case you haven't guessed by now). The pose selected had been used previously during the Flavian period and probably was copied from a statue of Venus that was famous at that time. Venus is shown from the rear leaning on a column and holding an apple(?) and palm. She wears only a drape of fabric that falls across her thighs. The 'apple' varies in size to the point that some might better be described as a globe. Rarely (if ever?) is there any suggestion of a stem on the 'apple'. Coins of this type were issued for Julia from all mints that operated during this period.

Septimius Severus - Silver denarius - 194 AD - Alexandria mint - First issue

What is unusual about the featured coin is that it bears the portrait of Septimius rather than Julia. At Rome, Septimius used only types showing females when they were associated with 'unisex' virtues (Generosity, Victory etc.) or the warlike goddess Minerva. Venus was left to Julia. In the East, both in Syria (Emesa?) and at Alexandria a very few coins were issued combining Septimius and Venus. These are believed to be an early failure in understanding of the proper use of types (which was quickly corrected) rather than an accidental muling of dies. The same period saw a few coins of Julia combined with the reverses normal for Septimius. Later periods of both mints do not show such cross gender issues.

This coin shows all the characteristics that make the Alexandria mint distinctive. The portrait is cut heavily with a slightly clumsy treatment of the eye. The legends are ragged with large and small letters combined with more of a 'wander' than an order. Particularly distinctive is the 'L' on the obverse with the extremely long base.

No Alexandria mint denarius is really common but compared to most types this is rare. The Venus reverse, however, is easily available from the other mints combined with a portrait of Julia. In fact it is the most common reverse that was used with the first (193-196 AD) obverse legend (IVLIADO MNAAVG). Some dealers offer these as rare but this would be better stated as 'in greater demand' mostly due to the state of undress of Venus. Other issues usually show the goddess fully clothed wearing a long dress. The photo below shows only a few of the selection of styles available.

The top row shows two coins from the Syrian mint attributed to Emesa. The left coin is of the earliest style and shares the reverse legend used at Rome VENERI VICTR (Cohen 194). The right coin uses the later 'Emesa' legend VENER VICTOR (Cohen 189). The other four coins are from the Rome mint. It is interesting that the portraits cover a range of nose shapes and general appearance. Many portraits from the early years look older than later ones. Julia was much younger than Septimius and many of these early dies may have been cut by workers not really aware of her appearance. The treatment of the drapery on Venus interests me. The Eastern mints and gold coins from Rome show ends of the fabric hanging down both over the column on the left and the end of the palm on the right. Silver at Rome rarely shows both of these folds. The middle two coins show a fold of fabric over the column but on the right the material appears to wrap around in front of Venus. The lower two coins show the fabric attached to the top of the column (but not hanging down) and hanging below the end of the palm on the right. In most cases the fabric on the right does not go over the palm as is common in the East. I believe that these variations will eventually be found to have a significance (perhaps identifying a workshop or date period?) but my theory is weaked considerably by the existance of an obverse die known to have been used with both styles. I am not comfortable assigning a date to these issues beyond the general 193-196 AD. At this time I am tending to consider the coins with fabric wrapped around Venus and draped over the column to be later than those with a 'tail' on the right. This is only a guess; more study is needed.

Note that all coins of Julia with DOMNA in the obverse legend show a break between O and M. I have seen one photo of a coin with IVLIADOM-NAAVG and it was obviously a correction of a die cut with no M and no room to insert it in the correct place.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith