Noah's ark in Roman Apamaea
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.
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.
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