Cult Development in Provincial Syria
I will use the above coinage to briefly explore the developments of a Syrian cult and thus the relationship between local cults and Roman (military) presence in the eastern provinces.
Pictured in fig.1 is a rare tetradrachm minted in the 3rd century AD under Caracalla. The tetradrachm may have been the principal unit of silver coinage used in Syria during this period, but the iconography on the reverse makes this coin intriguing. It is thought to depict cult statues belonging to the Temple of Ataragtis and Hadad (Syrian gods) at Hierapolis (Syria).
Cultic and Civic Context
The cult of Atargatis and Hadad was Syrian in origin and the sanctuary pre-dated Greek/Macedonian conquest. From Seleucid rule to the late third century AD Hierapolis was a provincial religious hub and mustering point for the Roman military. The Greek legend on a similar bronze coin under Severus Alexander (fig.2): ΘΕΟΙ CYRIAC IEPOΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ ‘the gods of Syria, (coin) of the Hieropolitans’ helps identify the figures represented on the Caracalla coin. Near-contemporary written accounts and artwork from Syria corroborate this.
Fig.2 Bronze coin of Hierapolis, minted under Severus Alexander (222-235 AD).
Obverse: Radiate bust of Severus Alexander right, AYT KAI MAP AYΡ CE - ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟC [CEB].
Reverse: Image of the Syrian gods of the Hierapolitans: Hadad left, seated on throne; Atargatis right, seated on throne; ensign between them. Below lion walking right; ΘΕΟΙ CYRIAC IEPOΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ.
Photo credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Münzkabinett.
It seems that a variety of peoples worshipped at this sanctuary, and thus the deities were attributed a variety of names and associated myths. The Greeks called Atargatis ‘Hera’ (and Aphrodite) and Hadad ‘Zeus’. Lucian, writing in the second century AD, describes the ionic temple with its cult statues of Atargatis and Hadad sitting on their thrones borne by lions and bulls respectively, as Caracalla’s coin depicts. These specific deities are further identified by their tall headdresses and attributed objects. Both deities hold sceptres in their left hands and Atargatis holds a spindle in her right hand, as Lucian describes. It is thought that Hadad may be holding either a thunderbolt or ear of corn in his right hand.
Between the cult statues themselves was an ensign, called a ‘semeion’. Its exact nature has been disputed. Lucian writes: ‘between both of these [statues] stands another golden statue. It does not have its own shape but bears the images of the other gods’. I agree with Darcus that here Lucian is likely referring to the images of Atargatis and Hadad (or some other ‘indigenous’ gods).
Roman Military Symbols and Indigenous Gods
The near identical ensigns on the coins comprise of hollow rings on staffs. Gabled pediments top them with doves at the summits. They bear a clear resemblance to Roman military standards. Another similar standard in the same iconographical context can be seen in a relief from fellow Syrian city, Dura-Europos (fig.3). The relief depicts a specific type of military standard with cloth banners called a ‘vexillum’. Based on other archaeological evidence Dura has yielded, this vexillum type seems to have been the most common there. The same vexillum has been identified by some scholars on the coins of Caracalla and Severus.
Fig.3 Relief from Dura-Europos,
second or third century AD.
On the left Hadad; the right Atargatis;
between them the ‘semeion’.
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.
There is evidence that Roman military standards were housed in shrines in provincial Syria. It seems that in the imperial period these standards possessed their own spirit/sacred powers, offering protection and symbolising the strength of the Roman Empire. Ergo, they were an expression of military ideology and collective identity. The ethnic composition of the army in Syria would have been diverse, with local recruitment having been initiated the previous century. Although the extent to which the Roman military interacted with civilians in provincial Syria is uncertain, it is well known that the Roman military acted as a primary vehicle in the process of cult mobility in imperial times. Thus the cult of Atargatis itself disseminated across the empire: throughout Syria, northern Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and even made it to Britain.
Fergus Millar noted that the absence of the ensign on earlier coins under Trajan supports the suggestion that the ensign was a later addition to the temple. If there had been a permanent Roman military standard in the temple, it was likely not the ensign Lucian saw. Instead Lucian describes a more indigenous religious ensign, very similar to motifs seen on Syrian cylinder seals dating back to the second millennia BC: staffs bearing the heads of deities with birds on top.
At the bottom of the reverse, an eagle with a lion walking below it can be seen. The exact meanings of these symbols in this context are uncertain. It is possible that this is a visual hierarchy reinforcing imperial positions, a common practice in the provinces: Rome on top, symbolised by Jupiter’s eagle and Hierapolis/Syria below, by a lion of Atargatis. However, the presence of the eagle on Syrian coinage has been traced back to before Roman conquest and on other Syrian coinage the eagle is thought to allude to local myth and history.
Commissioner and Audience?
Knowing the commissioner and audience of a coin helps greatly in attempting to identify the potential meanings of such symbols. Based on the metallurgical composition and style of the Caracalla coin, it has been suggested that it was minted in Rome but it could also have been minted in Syria. Regardless, the coinage almost certainly represents deliberate choices made by the elite, meaning that the imagery could reflect social attitudes of the inhabitants of Hierapolis, attempt to modify them, or even ignore them (although the latter is unlikely).
Additionally, without knowing the circulation of this coinage, it is difficult to say the extent to which the messages were intended for the local community and ‘outsiders’, although in most cases it was predominantly for the former. The Caracalla coin likely only circulated locally, but like many Syrian cities, the inhabitants of Hierapolis would have been culturally diverse. Furthermore, people throughout Syria and other provinces visited and sponsored the cult, so if they had seen this coinage it likely would have resonated with them too, evoking a sense of collective Syrian identity. This may have also been the case for people who were familiar with a similar image, for example the Dura relief.
As for the Roman military present in this area, would they have seen this coinage? Such locally issued silver coinage was used for army pay. Would the juxtaposing of a military standard with the Syrian gods have created a sense of collective identity and unity for soldiers and civilians? Or in this context had the traditionally Roman symbol been transformed into a distinctly local one?
The analysis of this coinage has shown the development of the cultic identity of Hierapolis (Syria). When a Roman military symbol was placed in the local temple context, ‘Romanness’ would have become a part, not just of the religion, but also the local myth and history surrounding the cult. Even if a Roman military standard were not housed in the temple, the desire to express it as such existed and was on public display through this coinage. Thus, Hierapolis reconciled their civic identity with the Roman presence in their society, exhibiting their place in the empire.
This month’s coin of the month was written by Nicholas Aherne. Nicholas studied Classical Civilisation at Warwick and graduated in 2019. He is planning to undertake a Masters in 2020. His current research concerns the interactions between Greco-Roman culture and indigenous cultures in the Hellenistic and Imperial Periods, with particular focus on religion.
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