Augustus, the Ludi Saeculares, and Roman Numismatic Memory
|Augustan Aureus showing the suffimenta ceremony|
Given that the bimillenium of Augustus' death falls on the 19th August 2014, we have decided to run a series of blogs highlighting the coins of the emperor. This weekend the JACT Inset Day will focus specifically on Augustus, with a special session examining Augustan coinage. Amongst the coins discussed will be an aureus struck in conjunction with the celebration of the saecular games in 17 BC (pictured right, LACTOR L 26).
The ludi saeculares were held at the beginning of each new 'age' or saeculum, a period defined as 110 years. The performance of these games was believed to ensure the continuity of Roman power. Although an old ritual, Augustus transformed the celebration so that it fit in with his new imperial ideology. The games were closely associated with the deified Julius Caesar, and Apollo, Augustus' divine supporter, received a special place in the carmen saeculare or hymn (composed by Horace). Several coins were struck to mark the games (several incorporating iconography associated with Julius Caesar), including the above aureus. The reverse of this coin shows the distribution of the suffimenta, the materials given to Roman citizens to purify their homes.
|Domitianic sestertius showing the suffimenta ceremony|
This type, and other Augustan numismatic saecular iconography, is referenced on the ludi saeculares coinage of the emperor Domitian in AD 88. The platform with the emperor, the basket of purification materials, as well as the legend SVF P D, all recall the aureus of Augustus. In fact, Domitian's saecular games coinage consciously references other Augustan types as well, although very few of the Augustan coins would have been in circulation at the time.
In AD 204 Septimius Severus would also celebrate the saecular games, and his coins would recall those of Augustus and Domitian. This suggests that these coins did not only serve as currency, but also probably formed an official 'record' of the event, preserved and archived in some way. This would explain how the iconography could be accessed and reused every 110 years, when the next saecular festival came around (after all, no one would have been alive to remember the previous games or their coins!) If this hypothesis is correct, and the designs, dies, or examples of coins were kept on record in Rome, these coin types not only served to decorate the currency, but also functioned as a visual record of the emperor's performance of his religious duty.
(Coin images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Triton V, lot 1857 and Mail Bid Sale 73, lot 875) (www.cngcoins.com))