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A Familiar Image: A Re-Examination of Roma on Republican Denarii of the Middle Republic

§i Between c. 211 BCE and the late 1st century BC, Rome produced the now-iconic “Roma” series of silver denarii. Numismatists and historians have traditionally identified the head represented on the coin as the Roman Goddess “Roma” in part because of the presence of the legend “Roma,” and also in part because no other goddess or figure fully matches the helmeted woman on the denarii. This attribution, however, has not been universally accepted. Historian Ernst Badian questioned the “Roma” identification, arguing that “contemporary Romans knew no such goddess,” since the cult of Roma is not documented in Rome until the time of Hadrian (117–138 AD).[1],[2] Badian’s comment has prompted a reconsideration of the image, one that is informed by recent scholarship on Rome’s cultural absorption of the Italian peninsula.[3] This paper will attempt to show that the Roma figure on Middle Republic coins is a composite, formed by blending traditional Italic and Greek imagery into a new bellicose warrior goddess with the familiar features of classic deities.[4] This image, with the exception of minor iconographic modifications throughout the 2nd century BC, became the consistent obverse type that came to define Roman silver coinage for much of the Middle Republic.

1. Historical Background

1§1 After the Celtic invasion of 390 BC, the Romans started to expand economically, geographically and militarily in Italy. After three wars against the Samnites (343–282 BC), Rome defeated its Southern Italian neighbor and thus moved closer to the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia. This expansion throughout the third 3rd century BC enlarged Rome’s sphere of influence on the Italian peninsula and consequently put the Romans in closer contact with Southern Italy. This Southern expansion entangled Rome in Greek affairs which in turn prompted conflict with the powerful Carthaginian Republic centered in North Africa. The overhaul of Roman currency in c. 211 BC came in the midst of the Second Punic War, one of the most perilous periods in Republican history. With Hannibal Barca wreaking havoc on the Italian peninsula, Rome faced its first major challenge to Italian hegemony since the Gallic invasions of the 4th century. Its eventual success in defeating Hannibal and the final defeat of Carthage in 146 BC established Rome as the dominant power in the Western Mediterranean. In emerging as a new regional hegemon, the Romans needed a new currency system, based on the internationally recognized metal silver, to both legitimize themselves internationally, and create a stable economy internally.

1§2 While the focus of this paper is on the denarii of the Middle Republic, these coins did not emerge in a vacuum but rather were preceded by almost a century of silver Roman coinage minted on the Greek drachma standard.[5] One such early type features a female wearing a Phrygian helmet without wings.[6] The reverse of these coins shows a winged Victory fixing a wreath to a long palm branch. The inscription “Romano” or “of the Romans” behind Victory clearly identifies the coinage as belonging to and originating from the Romans. This image is almost certainly a predecessor to the helmeted woman on Republican denarii and the reverse type is a clear copy of a standard Greek victory scene.[7],[8] The introduction of a silver Roman standard saw the production of new coin, the “denarius” derived from the Latin, a denis assibus, which was the value in bronze asses of a single denarius.[9] The Romans, possibly as a sign of local power, did not use the Greek system but rather created their own monetary structure; the denarius was almost equal in weight to a drachma.[10] The Roman denarius featured the helmeted female traditionally identified as Roma on the obverse and Castor and Pollux on the reverse.[11] While historians do not know exactly why the Romans reformed their coinage at this time, certain historical and cultural circumstances likely played a role in the transition to the new system. First, the more advanced trading cultures of the South and East had relied on silver coinage for almost two centuries to pay for goods. Rome may simply have felt pressure to change its monetary system to be on par with the rest of the developed world.[12] Throughout the Second Punic War, paying for troops was a major expense and thus required a considerable influx in currency in Italy. Additionally, those troops had to be paid in good silver that would be accepted throughout Magna Graecia and the Mediterranean. In that same vein, the Roman Senate, in order to secure food purchases and other foreign products, needed a currency that could be used in international trade. [13] Finally, for the Romans — as well as for all states — coinage, both internally and externally, spoke for the ideals and legitimacy of the state. Rome, in the middle of a crisis on the Italian peninsula, needed a visible symbol of power and stability. Together, these factors, at least in part, explain the invention of the denarius during the Second Punic War.[14] The economic and political reasons for a new currency were significant, and the choice of imagery for these coins also suggests that Rome drew on recognizable iconography of Greek coins.

2. “Roma” Denarius Coins

2§1 The first denarius features the standard helmeted female on the obverse with the Dioscuri on the reverse.[15] The female faces right, and wears a horse-hair fringed Attic helmet ornamented with a griffin’s head at the apex and a protruding three-part visor from the head. In addition to her military gear, she also wears jewelry: a single drop earring and a beaded necklace. Her hair is divided into multiple locks behind the ear and fastened by a cord. On the reverse, the Divine Twins are shown on horseback galloping right with the legend “ROMA” below in relief. The Dioscuri both appear with a star over their heads. They hold a spear in one hand, and wear a chlamys (short cloak), cuirass and the pileus (a conical hat later associated with manumission).

2§2 While some minor iconographic facets such as helmet details and jewelry types changed, the general image of the helmeted figure remained consistent as an obverse type through the start of the moneyers around 100 BC. This consistency created a visible standard that, like George Washington’s image today for American money, or the owl for Athenian coinage, started a new ‘brand’ for the Romans that in time came to be recognized throughout the Mediterranean.

3. Literature Review

3§1 While numerous historians and numismatists have investigated the Roma cult, only a few have examined Roma on Republican coins.[16] Most of these scholars have focused specifically on numismatic evidence, seeking parallels and models of inspiration. Broader historical considerations, such as religious or cultural influences, have received less attention. Thus, previous scholarship has assumed that the Roma figure was related to or based on specific cults, goddesses and/or various mythological figures. Despite their attempts to make such a connection, none of these authors have been satisfied with any single identification of Roma. As a result, the theories surrounding the origin of Roma and what she may be derived from all rest on tenuous assumptions backed by limited evidence. To illustrate this point, I will survey the scholarship that has examined Roma on coins of the Republic.

3§2 From the onset of the 20th century through current scholarship, most historians and numismatists have connected Roma on Republican denarii to fit a specific goddess or image. In 1900, an article from the “Numismatic Circular” sought to compare Roma with Pallas Athena.[17] The bulk of the discussion was fixed on Pallas, “identified with the goddess Roma” on coins of the Magna Grecian city of Metapontum.[18] Thus the article, at its core, tried to first establish if the helmeted woman is Pallas or Roma and then secondly what influenced the Romans to design the helmeted female in that manner. The article concluded that the head is in fact Pallas/Minerva and that the Roma/Pallas imagery, such as wings on the helmet, support the Pallas identification.[19] While the author linked the Roma/Pallas head with a host of other images and influences, the eventual conclusion remained that the head represented Pallas/Minerva copied from previous coins of Metapontum.[20] Later scholarship, specifically the work of Crawford, has convincingly overturned this view, now Roma is the accepted figure with the debate centered on influence for Roma versus attribution on the denarius.

3§3 Ronald Mellor, in 1975, wrote at length on the Dea Roma cult in the East. Within this larger study, he briefly visited the numismatic evidence but did not discuss early Roman coinage. Instead, Mellor mainly focused on coins from Athens and Macedon and their visual connection to Athena.[21] Mellor saw Athena as the clear model for Roma’s representation in the East, and since Roma came from the East to Westin Mellor’s view, there was a clear link between Athena and Roma on Roman coinage.[22] Also, similar to the view of the Numismatic Circular, Mellor was not convinced that the head on early Republican coins was Roma, as a cult to her had yet been established in the East so much as in Italy by the early third century.[23] Mellor’s view on the existence of Roma on early Roman Republican coins has since been overturned by Crawford based on his dating timeline but the overall conclusion that Athena was linked to Roma’s representation in the East is logical and not without evidence.[24]

3§4 Michael Crawford’s exhaustive study of Roman Republican coinage is, to the present day, the definitive and most widely cited chronology of Republican coinage. Crawford included a brief summary of the controversy over the identification of the goddess Roma on Republican coinage. First, Crawford believed that from Rome’s earliest coin types from the mid 3rd century onward, the helmeted figure who wears both Attic and Phrygian helmets is Roma.[25] As part of his analysis, Crawford focused on the helmet types and created a progression of types as follows: Phrygian helmet during the Pyrrhic War (280–275 BC); Attic helmet in 225 BC; and, then minimally altered for the new denarius in 211 BC.[26] Crawford did not go into technical detail as evidence but rather relies on the numismatic evidence in the macro view where the head of Roma “is one of continual minor modifications.[27] After establishing the chronology, Crawford rejected Andreas Alföldi’s hypothesis that Romawas actually ‘Rhome’ the mythical Trojan slave girl, founder of Rome.[28] By dismissing ‘Rhome’ as the image attributed to Roma, Crawford also believed that the Phrygian helmet was mainly an artistic motif free of deeper mythological meaning rather than a reference to the Rhome story.[29] Crawford also attributed later changes on the helmet, such as wings, to artistic variations. Finally, Crawford only made passing reference to any connection between the Goddess Roma and Pallas Athena, in light of their obvious similarities in representation contra to the core ideas of other writers.[30]

3§5 What is distinctive about Crawford’s analysis on Roma is his “Diana — Roma” hypothesis which linked the goddess Diana to Roma through numismatic iconography?[31] To support the Diana hypothesis, Crawford pointed to two pieces of evidence: first a semi litra from c. 235 BC with a Phrygian-helmeted Roma on the obverse and a dog on the reverse with “ROMA” in the exergue.[32] Crawford’s rationale for this piece was an ancient mythological connection between Diana and dogs.[33] Crawford also examined a denarius of P. Nerva (113/2 BC), which has a crescent above a helmeted head of Roma on the obverse.[34] The crescent, like dogs, is an ancient symbol of the Goddess Diana.[35] Crawford’s analysis of Roma, while thorough, relied only on numismatic and gem iconography. In addition, Crawford relied on only a few coins to link Diana with Roma which constitutes a significant weakness in his argument. You are able to trade binary options from USA as explained in this website about binary options and binary options brokers. While Roma’s iconography and symbolism may have come in part from imagery associated with the goddess Diana, Crawford did not seek to incorporate a wider field of imagery and influence for the Roma figure. In general, Crawford was more concerned with establishing a chronology and identification of heads than deeply exploring iconographic contributions to Roma’s image on denarii.[36]

3§6 A.M Burnett, in 1986, examined two early Roma types in his study of third-century numismatic iconography. Burnett agreed with Crawford that both types are Roma, but disagreed with him about the influence and significance of the goddess. For his Type I, Burnett emphasized Minerva/Athena’s influence on the depiction of Roma, arguing that, “the goddess Roma was almost entirely borrowed from that of Athena.”[37] In comparison, Crawford made only passing note of iconographic similarities between the two deities, but rather emphasized Diana, a view that Burnett found not wholly convincing.[38] For Type II, Roma with a Phrygian Helmet, Burnett dismissed links to Bellona or Diana and instead agreed with Crawford’s prior conclusions that the Type II is Roma as well.[39] Furthermore, Burnett went into greater depth on the unresolved issue of why Rome would model Roma on the goddess Athena. Burnett connected the warlike imagery of Roma with the helmeted and martial appearance of Athena to explain Type I and for the Type II. He further linked Alexander the Great’s influence on Rome as an explanation for the Trojan/Phrygian helmet type.[40] Essentially, Burnett agreed with Crawford’s basic conclusions but further emphasized Minerva’s influence on the portrait of Roma. Improving on the work of Crawford, Burnett added a reason to the early imagery — mainly that as Rome expanded through military force, her coinage reflected that fact and thus Rome’s early coinage features largely marshall themes.[41]

 3§7 The scholarship surrounding Roma on Republican denarii and pre-denarii types, while effective in identification and chronological analysis, has failed to conclusively prove that Roma’s image was generated from a single earlier goddess or figure. While a single progenitor or inspiration for the image of Roma on early Republican denarii may be eventually be found, in light of the current evidence there is no perfect answer. Instead, from the scholarly analysis we are left with different authors pushing various influences for Roma. I believe that in c. 211 BC the Romans decided, for the aforementioned reasons that they needed to overhaul their coinage system and thus needed a new standard image to grace the obverse. Therefore, as part of Rome’s desire for internal as well as international legitimacy, the Romans crafted a standard warrior female head that drew on a well established tradition of female deities as protectress figures on coins throughout the Mediterranean world.[42]

3§8 In going forward with this study, more extensive research needs to be done on Italic and Greek influence on Roman Republican imagery with a specific focus on composite/blended types. This new analysis will help to strengthen my proposal in light of the scarcity of direct primary evidence on Roma or her conception in Middle Republican time period.

 

[1]Ernst Badian: From the Roman Republic to Augustus Continuity and Change on Some Motifs on Roman Coins, Section II, “The Portrait.”

[2]Mellor 1967, 20 and n. 5.

[3] Mellor 1975, 195.

[4] While this paper will evaluate modern scholarship on Roma, I will not attempt to wade into the debate on whether Roma is mainly a personification or a goddess and furthermore if she is a city goddess or some spiritual image (genius) of the Roman people. Those discussions, while important, are moot when it comes to examining the iconography surrounding Roma on denarii of the Middle Republic and specifically the emergence of the denarius in 211 BCE. Also, these issues are not relevant to this discussion because Roma in the West does not merge as a deity in the Eastern sense of the word until the time of Augustus, “Roma et Augustus” as a possible ploy to allow Romans to worship him along with the safer, “Roma” goddess. Thus, “Dea Roma” in Rome is outside of the time period of review in this study and thus, while historically interesting, is irrelevant for this review of the earlier Roma on Republican denarii.

[5] RRC, 35.

[6] RRC 22/1.

[7] RRC, 722.

[8] See Rev. of Alexander Staters.

[9] Atchity and McKenna 1997, 398 As, pl. Asses: An early Roman cast bronze coin, originally worth 1/10 of a denarius.

[10] Murray 1875, 393-394. “The Attic drachma was almost equal to 9¾d., whereas we have seen that the denarius was but little above 8½d.”

[11] See “Coinage” Section below.

[12] Burnett 1987, 16.

[13] Burnett, 1987, 15.

[14] Frank, 2005, 69-85.

[15] Crawford 44/5.

[16] Numismatic Circular 1900; Crawford RRC; Mellor 1975; Burnett 1986.

[17] Spink and Son’s was a prominent jewelry and coin dealing firm originally founded in London England in 1666. Today they still exist in name and are a major auction house for coins, medals, autographs and other Spinkcollectables. The Numismatic Circular, which still exists, was a periodical first published by Spink in 1892 that contained, among the coin listings, articles of general numismatic interest.

[18] Numismatic Circular, 3727.

[19] Numismatic Circular 3728.

[20] Numismatic Circular, Ex: Perseus, 3727; Valentia, p. 3727, wings on Roma’s helmet, 3728.

[21] Mellor 1975, 163.

[22] Mellor 1975, 162.

[23] Mellor 1975, 162, contra Mellor, Crawford’s argument as follows: The Locrian didrachm appears in almost every detailed work on Roma and Crawford utilized the didrachm as complete evidence to explain the early, “ existence of the personification Roma” by the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) (Crawford 1975, 724). At this point, Roma was a personification, not a goddess as deification and cult worship did not begin until 195 in Smyrna, thus Mellor’s conclusion is fallacious due to his dating the Locrian coin to 204 BC, after the emergence of the first denarius in c. 211 BC ( Mellor 1975, 163).

[24] Mellor is the main source for the history “Dea Roma” as an Eastern cult starting in Smyrna in 195 BCE

In Mellor’s earlier (1967) Princeton thesis, he makes note of a controversy in numismatics but does not make any assertions or press any theories on the topic. Mellor highlights the divide between the personified Roma in the city of Rome and the deified Roma that spread in the East in the 2nd century BC.

[25] RRC II 721.

[26] RRC, II, 722.

[27] RRC, II, 722 and n. 1.

[28] RRC, II, 722.

[29] ibid.

[30] RRC, II, 725.

[31] RRC, II, 723 and 725.

[32] Crawford 26/4 with Roma on the obverse wearing a non-winged Phrygian helmet, R/(reverse) dog standing right in exergue, “ROMA”. This type is used by Crawford as part of his evidence for his connection between the Roma and Diana (Crawford RRC II, 725).

[33] e.g. eg. for Diana and dogs connection, “Syracuse.for Diana and dogs connection, “Syracuse. Fifth Democracy. 214-212 BC. AR 12 Litrai (25mm, 10.16 g, 3h). Helmeted head of Athena left / Artemis standing left, drawing bow, before hound advancing left; YA/Σ to left. Burnett, Enna 26 (dies 9/r); BAR Issue 84; HGC 2, 141.

[34] Crawford, 292/1.

[35] Crawford 222/1 or the later denarius of Faustus Cornelius Sulla, Crawford 426/1.

[36] Crawford II, 721, “There is a problem of identification, shelved so far, which must be faced…”.

[37] Burnett 1986, 68.

[38] Burnett 1986, 69, n. 17.

[39] Burnett 1986, 69, n. 15.

[40] Burnett 1986, 75.

[41] Burnett 1986, 75.

[42] See Staters of Athens (Athena), Corinth (Athena) and Carthage (Tanit) to name a few powerful states with female figures on their silver coinage.


Bibliography

Badian, Ernst. 1995. “From the Roman Republic to Augustus Continuity and Change on Some Motifs on Roman Coins, Section II, ‘The Portrait.’”.

Bradley, G. 2007. “Romanization: The End of the Peoples of Italy?” Ancient Italy: Regions Without Borders. Exeter. 295–322.

Burnett, A. M., and Burnett, A. 1986. “The Iconography of Roman Coin Types in the Third Century BC.” The Numismatic Chronicle 146: 67–75.

“CoinArchives.com Ancient Coins.” CoinArchives.com Ancient Coins.

Crawford, Michael H. 1975. Roman Republican Coinage (in Two Volumes). Cambridge.

McKenna, Rosemary. 1997. The Classical Roman Reader: New Encounters with Ancient Rome. Oxford. 398

Mellor. Ronald. J. 1967. Dea Roma: The Development Of The Idea Of The Goddess Roma. PhD diss., Princeton University.

Mellor, Ronald J. 1975. ϴΕΑ ῬΩΜΗ: The Worship of the Goddess Roma in the Greek World. Göttingen.

Murray, John. 1875. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London.

Rosenstein, Nathan. 2012. Rome And The Mediterranean 290 To 146 BC: The Imperial Republic. Edinburgh.

Spink and Son. 1900. “Pallas or Roma? The Helmeted Head on the Early Roman Denarii.” The Numismatic Circular 8–9: 3724–3730.

Vermeule, Cornelius C. 1959. The Goddess Roma in the Art of the Roman Empire. Cambridge MA.

One Response to A Familiar Image: A Re-Examination of Roma on Republican Denarii of the Middle Republic

  1. This is an excellent and very interesting paper and and an excellent presentation and fascinating discussion

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