All entries for Wednesday 03 August 2016

August 03, 2016

The generic Roman emperor?

palmyrene_token
Token of Palmyra (TM Pl.LXXIII no. 48)

The Roman author Fronto, writing to his former student, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, commented:

You know how in all money-changer's bureaus, booths, bookstalls, eaves, porches, windows, anywhere and everywhere there are likenesses of you exposed to view, badly enough painted most of them to be sure, and modelled or carved in a plain, not to say sorry, style of art, yet at the same time your likeness, however much a caricature, never when I go out meets my eyes without making me part my lips for a smile and dream of you.

(Loeb vol. 112 p. 206-7)

Fronto's comment on the 'badly painted' images of Marcus Aurelius has always reminded me of the 2012 restoration of a Spanish fresco by an older amateur, or the painting presented to Queen Elizabeth II in Germany that prompted her to ask "Is that supposed to be my father?" These 'rustic' images of Roman emperors are rarely studied, but they must have formed a large part of the everyday experience of people outside the city of Rome. Many of these images (e.g. weights in the form of an emperor's bust) may have originally been intended to show a specific emperor (e.g. Nero), but they bear only a superficial (if any) resemblance to the official portraiture of the emperor concerned. The same can be seen on many provincial coins, particularly in the transition from the Republic to the principate, where it is often hard to know whether the male bust on the obverse of coins is Augustus, or a deity or some other figure.

One token from Palmyra, shown right, supports Fronto's statement, with Side A (shown on the upper side) showing a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor hanging on a wall over a banquet scene. This type of representation suggests the ubiquitous nature of the Roman imperial portrait, though the finer details of the portraiture are harder to see, suggesting to the viewer, 'Roman emperor', with the particular name of the emperor supplied by the mind of the viewer. If this token was in use for a longer period of time (unlikely) the identity of the emperor 'seen' on the wall would likely change. To what extent, then, might we speak of a 'generic' Roman emperor, whose precise identity was supplied by the viewer? A portrait of Caracalla in Rusicade, Numidia, that was later converted into a monument honoring Constantine, suggests that Caracalla's quite recogniseable visage was, in late antiquity, re-interpreted (at by some viewers).

A similar 'generic' image can be seen on a token from Rome, perhaps issued for use in the celebration of games by a curator. One side of the token shows a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor (perhaps Tiberius?), while the other side names the person responsible for the token and organising the celebration. Again the viewer would supply need to the identity of the emperor themselves, an identification that might change according to context. As well as expensive marble busts and other portraits, there existed the 'everyday' portrait of the emperor, and these types of images are something worth more detailed investigation.

screen_shot_2016-08-03_at_151657.png

Token showing a laureate imperial portrait on one side, with the legend Q. CAECILIVS Q.F. OINOGENVS CVR on the other. (Numismatica Classica 12, 1983, 39, Rostowzew 514b).


This blog entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the ERC-funded Token Communities project.


Further Reading:

Dahmen, K. (2001). Untersuchungen zu Form und Funktion kleinformatiger Porträts der römischen Kaiserzeit. Münster, Scriptorium.

Du Mesnil du Buisson comte, R. (1944). Tessères et monnaies de Palmyre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale (France). Département des médailles et antiques.

Franke, P. R. (1984). Q. Caecilius Q.F. Oinogenus F. Curator. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 54: 125-126.

Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.


Noah's ark in Roman Apamaea

apamea_coin_obverse apamaea_coin_rev

Alloy coin of Apamaea with Philip I on the obverse and an ark scene on the reverse. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above coin is one of a series of exceptional coins from ancient Apamea, Phrygia. On the obverse we have a Greek inscription naming the emperor as Philip I (AD 244-249), and a bust of the emperor looking to the right wearing a laurel crown, cloak and cuirass. Philip, commonly known as Philip the Arab, was an emperor of Syrian origin, and he is best remembered to history for his sympathetic view of Christianity, and potential conversion, as discussed by Christian writers such as Eusebius, Jerome and Orosius. On the reverse we have an inscription naming the town of Apamea and the magistrate in charge of minting the coin. The reverse has four figures depicted: two of them are inside a box with NOE inscribed on it that seems to be floating on water, this box has two birds perching above it; the other two stand to the side of this box, and have their right hands raised in a gesture of prayer. Five coins of this type, with minimal variation, have been found, and are attributed to five emperors of the first half of the 3rd century: Septimius Severus (AD 192-211), Alexander Severus (AD 222-235), Gordian III (AD 238-244), Philip I (AD 244-249) and Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253). Before looking at what makes these coins so extraordinary, it is important to look at the city of Apamea, and what this might reveal about the coin itself.

Apamea, founded in the 3rd century BCE, was a centre for trade in ancient Phrygia, and acted as an important transit centre for merchants travelling to the east. Perhaps due to the city’s economic significance, the city gained the epithet kibotos (chest) around the time of Strabo. The kibotoi were clearly significant for Apamea, as they appear on coins depicting Marsyas reclining in a cave, and in fact it is a kibotos that we find on the reverse of the coin type in question. Apamea also seems to have had a strong Jewish presence, as Josephus describes how the Seleucid king Antiochus III brought Babylonian Jews to Phrygia to serve as garrison soldiers, civil servants and royal administrators in the newly established city (Josephus, Antiquities, 12.3.4). This Jewish population was certainly still thriving in the 1st century BCE, as Cicero claims that a large sum of gold was confiscated from the Jews at Apamea as it was to be sent to the Temple in Jerusalem (Cicero, Pro Flaccus, 68); and we can assume that this prominent position was sustained under the Roman Empire. There was also a local tradition (The Sibylline Oracles, 1.320-40) that the nearby mountain was in fact Mount Ararat, the mountain on which Noah’s ark came to rest (Genesis 8:4); a tradition that must have been formed by the Jewish population of the city.

On this coin, then, we find a celebration of this local tradition. This is made clear by the NOE inscription, which is the same spelling that the Septuagint Bible uses for Noah. Thus we find that the kibotos is Noah’s ark, further tying the city into this episode from the Old Testament; the two figures inside are Noah and his wife during the flood, and the two figures on the outside are Noah and his wife praying to God after being saved. The two birds make this identification even more concrete; the one on the right is probably the raven that Noah sent out after 40 days, and the one on the left depicted holding some sort of branch, must be the dove sent out a week late that brought back an olive leaf to let Noah know the water had receded (Genesis 8:6-12). Many scholars have argued for a pagan reading of this coin instead, arguing it to be an allusion to one of the many other flood legends, such as Nannakos (Zenobius and the Suda), Philemon and Baucis (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) or Priasos (Nonnos). Even more popular is identifying this coin as a representation of the flood of Deucalion. In this reading Deucalion and Pyrrha are the figures in the kibotos, and the bird a reference to the dove released from the ark (Plutarch, Moralia, 13.1). However, none of these readings take into account the specificity of one of the birds holding a branch, and all require us to ignore the NOE inscription. It is too simplistic to look at this as a binary choice between this being a representation of a pagan myth or the story of Noah. In all likelihood, the flood myth was viewed as a point of similarity between the Jewish and pagan world; pagans could be reminded of their own traditions upon viewing this coin. The reason that this coin explicitly refers to Noah, rather than more broadly evoking flood myths, was probably due to the local legend of Mt. Ararat, which gave the relatively new city some historical prestige, whereas other flood myths were not specific to Apamea itself. We also cannot ignore the possibility of a Christian community in Apamea being behind the imagery on this coin. This coin type comes into existence at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, just when the first Christian art is beginning to emerge. Additionally, it is interesting to note that both Maximinus Thrax and Decius, who both persecuted Christians, are absent from this coin type. Although there is no direct evidence for Christian involvement, this possibility cannot be entirely ignored.

This coin series is quite extraordinary as being one of the only coin types known to bear a biblical scene. Not only that, there are two scenes depicted in sequence- something common on sarcophagus art, but hardly ever found on coins. They show the possibility for the tolerant acceptance of a Judaeo-Christian myth in a pagan city under a pagan emperor. This coin may lead us to reassess our views on the local relationships between pagans, Jews and Christians in the pre-Constantinian empire. In Apamea, it seems the local community were united by the local legend of Mt Ararat than they were divided by the fact that this story came from a non-pagan source. Perhaps local Apameans were not as concerned with religious identity as we might assume, and instead had civic unity at the forefront of their minds.

simon

This month's coin entry was written by Simon Collier, is a second year part-time MA student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. His academic interests focus on the interaction between religions, specifically focussed on the reception of ancient paganism. He has previously written on topics such as blasphemous graffiti in Severan Rome, the reception of Hecate by William Blake and Neo-paganism, and colonial and post-colonial reactions to the origin of the Buddha image. His MA thesis is looking at the reception of Roman paganism in silent and epic cinema, and in what ways this is a continuation of ancient Christian views of paganism.


Bibliography:

Goodenough, E.R. (1953) Jewish symbols in the Greco-Roman period Vol. 2 (New York: Pantheon Books)

Hachlili, R. (2009) Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues and Trends (Leiden: Brill)

Kelp, U. (2013) ‘Grave Monuments and Local Identities in Roman Phrygia’ in Roman Phrygia: Culture and Society, ed. P. Thonemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 79-94

Madden, F.W. (1866) ‘On some coins of Septimius Severus, Macrinus, and Philip I., struck at Apameia, in Phrygia, with the Legend NOE’ in The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society, New Series, Vol. 6: 173-219

Mitchell, S. (2013) ‘An Epigraphic Probe into the Origins of Montanism’ in Roman Phrygia: Culture and Society, ed. P. Thonemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 168-197

Spier, J. (2007) Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (London: Yale University Presss)

Tameanko, M., Noah and the Ark on Ancient Coins— http://www.theshekel.org/article_noahs_ark.html (Accessed 6th May 2016)

Thonemann, P. (2011) The Maeander Valley: a historical geography from antiquity to Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Treblico, P.R. (1991) Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Weitzmann, K. (1979) Age of spirituality late antique and Early Christian art, third to seventh century : catalogue of the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979)


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