All entries for Friday 21 June 2013

June 21, 2013

Sextus Pompey the Iconographic Innovator

Pompey the Great as Janus

Although the reign of Augustus as first emperor of Rome is often seen as a period of innovation in iconography and ideology, several Romans in the late Republican period also pushed the boundaries of traditional representation. This role is often obscured in literary sources, which were written to favour the emperor Augustus. Coins, however, survive in abundance from this period and can provide an insight into what other Romans, the opponents of Augustus, were thinking and doing.

Coinage reveals that Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, was a great innovator in terms of ideology and iconography. Although Augustus portrayed himself as the pious successor of Julius Caesar after the latter's assassination in 44 BC, Sextus Pompey had, in fact, already been developing this ideology after the death of his father in 48 BC. The way Sextus used the memory of his father went beyond the normal boundaries of the Roman Republic, and indeed, was far more radical than the ideology and imagery eventually used by Augustus. In this sense, Sextus Pompey was one of the great innovators of his time.

This coin, a bronze As struck by Sextus Pompey somewhere in Sicily or Spain, is a perfect illustration of this. Roman bronze coins normally had the head of Janus on the obverse, and the prow of a ship on the reverse (in fact, the Roman version of our game 'heads or tails' was called 'heads or prow'). On this coin the features of Janus are changed so that they resemble Pompey the Great, an allusion that is reinforced by the legend MGN or Magnus ('Great') above. Neither Julius Caesar nor Augustus were ever portrayed in such a blatantly divine fashion. In fact, Sextus also portrayed his father as Neptune. The reverse of the coin displays the traditional prow alongside the legend IMP or imperator, as well as the legend PIVS or pious. Sextus potrayed himself as the pious son of his assassinated father (see these other coin issues), and so when Augustus and Antony did the same after the death of Caesar they were actually playing catch up. Coinage thus reveals that Sextus Pompey had an important role in setting the ideological agenda that would eventually shape the ideology of Marc Antony, Octavian and the Roman principate.

(Coin image above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (Auction Triton XVI Sessions 3 & 4, Lot 876) (

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