Ancient Myths on Roman Coins at the ANS

Many coins at the American Numismatic Society illustrate human interpretations of the universe and religious beliefs regarding human destiny. Among these are various samples from the ANS Roman collection having mythical and mythological themes.  

Fig.1: Roman Empire Augustus (27 BC–AD 14). Spanish mint. Silver denarius. 19–18 BC. (ANS 1944.100.39033)

One of the great illustrations of astral imagery from the Early Roman Empire, strongly connected with Julius Caesar’s heritage, is found on a silver denarius of Augustus struck circa 19–18 BC. This coin has the Emperor’s image on the obverse and the famous Caesar’s Comet on the reverse (fig. 1). The comet, which appeared some four months after assassination of Julius Caesar, was interpreted by the Romans as a sign of his deification and became a powerful symbol in the political propaganda of Augustus, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son.

Figure 2: Roman Empire. Augustus. Roman Empire Augustus (27 BC–AD 14). Pergamum. Gold aureus.19–18 BC. (ANS 1944.100.39177)

Another important Augustus issue is a gold aureus from the Pergamum mint with the image of Capricorn, which had a special meaning for Augustus, who was born under this sign (fig. 2).  Capricorn was associated with the planet and god Saturn. According to Roman mythology, Saturn had come to live in Italy when his son Jupiter kicked him out of heaven. The age in which Saturn ruled as king over Italy was considered a golden age of paradise on earth. Virgil took up this theme in his treatment of Augustus’s reign as a return of the Saturnian age.

Figure 3. Roman Provincial. Egypt. Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Alexandria. Bronze drachm. AD 144–145. (ANS 1944.100.60358)

The allegorical depictions of divinities associated with the planets and zodiac signs—such as Capricorn and Saturn (fig. 3);

Figure 4. Roman Provincial. Egypt. Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Alexandria. AD 144–145. Bronze drachm. (ANS 1944.100.60352)

Scorpio (scorpion) and Mars (fig. 4.);

Figure 5. Roman Provincial. Egypt. Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Alexandria. AD 144–145. Bronze drachm. (ANS 1944.100.60355)

Sagittarius and Jupiter (fig. 5);

Figure 6. Roman Provincial. Egypt. Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Alexandria. AD 144–145. Bronze drachm. (ANS 1944.100.60364)

Virgo and Mercury; Aquarius and Saturn (fig. 6.)—were shown on Antoninus Pius’s large bronze issues struck at the Alexandrian mint in Egypt around AD 144–145.  A full circle of twelve zodiac signs surround Astarta’s chariot on the bronze coin of Julia Paula of Phoenician Sidon of AD 219–220 (fig. 7).

Figure 7. Roman Provincial. Phoenicia. Julia Paula (AD 219–220). Sidon. Bronze coin. (ANS1944.100.71806)

The same ring of zodiac signs encircling Zeus on a throne, with Helios’s chariot and biga of Selene in the field, can be seen on the reverse of a Maximinus I bronze coin struck in Thracian Anchialus circa AD 235–238 (fig. 8).

Figure 8. Roman Provincial. Thrace. Maximinus I (AD 235–238). Anchialus. Bronze coin. (ANS 1999.80.1)

Among other ANS examples are a group of gemstones from the Society’s collection with the zodiacal images of Gemini (fig. 9),

Figure 9. Seal/Gem. Carnelion. Standing Gemini, each with star over head & holding inverted spears. (ANS 0000.999.33892)

Cancer, Leo, Aries and Selene riding in biga on sky (fig. 10). These small objects illustrate the popularity of astrological themes in personal adornment.

Figure 10. Seal/Gem. Carnelion. Selene riding right in biga. (ANS 0000.999.33860)

Some coins illustrate how the Romans chose to interpret the mythical past, displaying their religious beliefs through iconographic representation on objects of daily and domestic use. These include examples of the As, a bronze cast coin used in central Italy during the 3rd century BC, with the image of Janus, one of the most important gods in the Roman archaic pantheon, who was used to represent time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other. Janus was worshipped at times of planting and harvest and also at times of marriage and death (fig. 11).

Figure 11. Roman Republic. 225–217 BC. Rome. Bronze as. 275.970 g. (ANS 0000.999.556)

Roma, a female deity representing the personification of the city of Rome is depicted famously as a she-wolf with her twins Remus and Romulus, as represented on a silver Republican denarius of the 2nd century BC (fig. 12).

Figure 12. Roman Republic. 137 BC. Rome. Silver denarius. (ANS 1944.100.380)

Some of the allegorical depictions on the coins reinforce the importance of Roman beliefs, including the cult of Roman ancestors. One of the ANS’s beautiful gold aurei of Antoninus Pius (fig. 13) bears the images of a legendary defender of Troy, Aeneas, who fled with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius from the burning city after the Greeks destroyed it in the Trojan War.

Figure 13. Roman Empire. Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161). Rome. AD 140-143. Gold aureus. (ANS 1954.256.17).

He and Trojan survivors traveled to Italy, where Aeneas became a great hero and progenitor of Romans. The family of Julius Caesar and Augustus claimed descent from Aeneas, whose son Ascaniuis was also called Iulus.

Figure 14. Roman Republic. 70 BC. Rome. Silver denarius. (ANS 1937.158.150)

The design of the ANS coins not only shows the the major gods of Roman Pantheon, but also helps illustrate the patronage of the Roman deities and their guardians. It encouraged personal beliefs in all aspect of every-day material life and nature.  Among these are a personification of Honos, god of chivalry, honor and military justice and Virtus, deity of bravery and military strength (fig. 14);

Figure 15. Roman Empire. Pertinax. Rome. AD 193. Rome. Gold aureus. (ANS 1967.153.166)

Providentia, a goddess of forethought and representation of the ability to foresee (fig. 15);

Figure 16. Roman Empire. Geta (AD 209–211). Rome. AD 211. Gold aureus. (ANS 1954.256.28)

Felicitas, a goddess of good fortune and lucky happenstance (fig. 16);

Figure 17. Roman Empire. Caracalla (AD 198–217). Rome. AD 213–217. Gold aureus. (ANS 1944.100.51518)

Securitas, a goddess of security and stability (fig. 17); and Concordia, one of the oldest of the Roman deities, having been worshipped since the earliest days of Rome, a goddess of agreement and harmony—harmony of the emperor (fig. 18), the army, the provinces and marriage.

Figure 18. Roman Empire. Nero (AD 54–68). Rome. AD 64–65. Gold aureus. (ANS 1905.57.292)

These coins show not just how the Romans themselves perceived their world in terms of its mythological past, but also help us to understand how this legacy of mythology and myth-making has been received and reinterpreted within our modern and popular culture—in books, graphic novels, television, and movies—perhaps fostering an appreciation of ancient societies among a population that lacks regional access to the material culture of the ancient world.