Minerva / Athena

Previously, we looked at the ultimate 'bad girl' of Greek Mythology, Medusa. This week we will travel to the opposite pole and see a few images of the Greco-Roman idea of the ultimate woman. Called Athena by the Greeks and Minerva by the Romans, this goddess personified the combination of masculine virtues in a female form that appealed to the people of this time. Born fully grown from the head of Zeus, Athena embodied wisdom and strength. As time progressed, the Romans increased the emphasis on the goddess as a warrior, Minerva Victrix. She was the feminine counterpart of the very masculine Mars adding her wisdom to that god's strength. The two served as an invincible pair of military role models. She is shown frequently on Greek coins including the popular and common issues of Athens. This week, however, we will see some Roman examples of the goddess.

Septimius Severus - Silver denarius - 194 AD 'Emesa' mint - 18mm, 3.7g
Minerva, helmeted, standing left holding owl in her right hand, reversed spear in left, shield at feet

Of the types issued from the 'Emesa' mint, Minerva is one of the more scarce. There are, however, several different varieties. None of the catalog listings make any mention of an owl as shown on this coin. Minerva is always shown wearing a helmet and full length dress. Usually she carries a spear and shield or, at least, these items are shown at her side. Copied below (left) from my 'Early Emesa' page is a very unusual coin lacking the shield while (right) from my 'Later Emesa ' page is another odd coin with shortened obverse abbreviations and unusual style.

Of these three Septimius/Minerva denarii, none is listed in standard catalogs. It seems that Eastern Minerva types are consistent only in their inconsistency. It might be good to remember that the staff members of this mint were most likely not Latin speaking and quite unaware of Roman ways. Certainly dies were cut in a distinctly Eastern manner. While these coins are Roman Imperial denarii, they certainly are provincial in style and spirit. At Rome there was a much more consistent (and common) issue showing the goddess holding the shield in front of her body.

Long before Septimius, Minerva was used on coins in her role as bringer of victory. This 81 AD, Rome mint, denarius of Domitian shows Minerva with helmet, shield and spear but holding a small statue of Victory who is holding out a wreath toward Minerva. Domitian was a particular fan of Minerva and issued coins showing her in a number of different poses. Another (advancing in fighting attitude) was shown a few months ago as a supporting coin when I featured a denarius of Domitian.

Another coin of Domitian (or possibly slightly later) is this anonymous quadrans (1/4 as) showing a helmeted head of Minerva with the owl on the reverse. This small denomination frequently did not include a portrait of the emperor but this example goes a step further lacking any legend to identify its date. The favor Domitian showed to Minerva makes his reign at least a good guess.

Our last coin is a Greek Imperial of Septimius Severus showing either Minerva or Athena (depending on how you choose to view the matter) holding an owl in her right hand. This example was struck at Silandus, Lydia, during the early part of the reign so it is approximately the same date as the Featured denarius. The pose is also rather similar except that Athena rests her left hand on the shield. This specimen was illustrated in the currently available book Ancient Bronze Coins of Asia Minor and the Levant from the Lindgren Collection by Henry Clay Lindgren and Frank L. Kovacs. The book illustrates about 3000 coins from the region and includes some useful indices that can help identify coins not to be found in other references. The collection was broken up and sold so it is quite possible that you will find it included a coin now in your collection.

Back to Main page

(c) 1998 Doug Smith