FAVOURITE MYTHOLOGICAL FEMALE FIGURE – ROMA OR BRITANNIA – IT’S A BIT OF A COIN TOSS…
Another deep (some would say unfathomable) dive into the realms of ancient coinage today, but something of a departure from the more usual format as – although we’re featuring a Roman coin – there is no heroic emperor whose profile has been captured on the denarius in question.
Unsurprisingly, in order to have an emperor, you need an empire, and this epithet was only applied to Rome and its territories after the year 27BC. Prior to that – for almost 500 years – the entity was known as the Roman Republic, governed by consuls and a senate rather than an omnipotent individual (and before that, there was the Roman Kingdom, dating back to the founding of the city itself around 753BC).
The abiding ethos behind the Republic was that of collective strength, the unity of the people and a sense of something approaching civic pride. It was deemed appropriate for this essence to be depicted on coinage, and our denarius shows the image of Roma herself. A female deity and the subject of a near-cultish following at times, her roots can be found in the Roman idea of self, which (far from uniquely) suggested that every person had both a corporeal and spiritual element. The body was a vehicle for the manifestation of the spiritual being, and the spirit bestowed properties such as fortitude, guile, intelligence and the like alongside the physical traits of strength, endurance, martial skill etc. Roma was perceived as something akin to the collective will of the Roman people – every positive trait that underscored their resilience and allowed them to coalesce in to such a forceful whole. She is, to some extent, a forerunner to Britannia, who exemplified a similar sense of ‘national identity’ on British coinage from the 16th century to the present day. That said, her first appearance on coins minted in the UK, however, was under Emperor Hadrian, under whom she was used to exemplify the ‘splendid isolation’ of our islands off the European mainland – to Romans, we were quite literally on the very fringes of the known world.
Anyway, in order to properly portray the strength of will, physicality and general indomitability of – well – themselves, Roma was portrayed as a warlike figure, something of an Amazon, with her winged helmet and strong features. You can also make a case for her helmet being enhanced with a serpentine crest, which hints at the classical portrayal of Athena – the Hellenic goddess who also happened to embody enduring, civilised states wrought from chaos and conquest. Where Roma is depicted in larger form than on a mere coin – statues, friezes, murals, mosaics – she is invariably shown carrying weapons, with her foot on the head or helmet of a fallen enemy and in a variety of suitably triumphal poses.
So, while Roma gazes indefatigably from one side of our coin, what about the reverse? Well, this was invariably used to convey more ethereal ideas than the steadfastness of the Republic and its people, and often featured mythological scenes intended to evoke other noble thoughts and deeds. Our example shows Castor and Pollux – the half-twins, Dioscuri or Geminids. Mounted on horseback and brandishing spears, they are every bit the hunter-warriors who accompanied Jason and the Argonauts on their epic voyages – nemesis of kings, destroyers of cities, liberators of the oppressed, enslavers of the unworthy – exactly the sort of heroic and legendary characters who should inspire doughty Romans!
There is one other element of note with regard to our coin which needs to be explained, and that is why it is described as being of L. Autronius vintage. We’ve already established that this is not an emperor or general and is not even a consul or senator. Rather – it’s the name of a bureaucrat or civil servant – one of up to three such senate-appointed postholders who had been granted a licence to mint coins. You will often see such licence-holders referred to as ‘moneyers’ (monetarii), but this refers to the craftsmen who actually cast and struck the coins; Autronius and his erstwhile colleagues would be better known as ‘mint magistrates’, in that they filled a superintendent rather than hands-on production role. Crucially, though, they were also responsible for the design of the coins, which is how we know under whose watch our example was struck, as it bears the monogram AVTR which identifies Autronius; he is recorded as having held office from 189 to 180BC, which also enables us to date his coin.
One last point of numismatic pedantry to explain, and you will note that our description of the coin on our website describes the word ROMA as being ‘in exergue’ which simply means that it is reproduced on the coin in an otherwise clear area below the main image, similar to the reserve in which designs are applied on porcelain pieces. In our example – and others of a similar nature – the ground across which the horses of the Dioscuri gallop, is shown as a line which isolates the ‘in exergue’ area underneath.