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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Silver Denarius of Octavian


Shown here is a coin issued by Octavian before 31 BC, the time of the battle of Actium, the naval conflict in which Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra to become master of the Roman world under the new name of Augustus.  The coin was used to pay Octavian’s troops.  But it carried a powerful message, as we will see, for those troops and for anyone else who saw the coins.  And that’s just the thing: coins have a way of getting around.

The obverse (to the left) shows the head of Octavian in profile.  Thin neck, hint of an Adam’s apple, strong cheekbones, large pointed nose: these are the characteristics of the man.  His head is bare and there is no legend, no long titles of office that one finds around the whole circumference of so many other coins of the late Republic.  The result a cleaner, simpler, more beautiful coin.  And there was more room for the portrait.  No legend meant that Octavian’s head could be larger.  We are invited to consider his features.  His forehead hair was a conscious imitation of the wavy locks associated with those of Alexander the Great in his youthful portraits.

The reverse (to the right) shows the standing, half-dressed figure of the goddess Venus.  Leaning her left elbow against a column, she holds a transverse scepter in her left hand and a helmet in her right.  Behind the column is a shield bearing a star with eight rays.

Seen in isolation, the coin suggests a connection between Octavian and Venus—and Venus not only as goddess of love but also as sponsor of warfare.  Hence her half-nakedness on the one hand, and her contemplation of the weapons of Mars on the other.

Now, the gens Iulia, the house of Julius Caesar, claimed descent from the goddess Venus (as the mother of Aeneas, who in turn was the father of Iulus, who gave his name to the Julian gens).  So when the eighteen-year-old Gaius Octavius was named heir to the assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, he became one of the Julii.  He even took the name Gaius Julius Caesar, omitting the cognomen Octavianus, to stress his connection to his adoptive father (we call him “Octavian” to keep the two men of the same name distinct).  After the appearance of a comet in the sky (the sidus Iulium) during the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44 BC, it was proclaimed that Caesar had become a god: later, in 42 BC, he became part of the state religion and the worship of the new god divus Iulius, the deified Julius Caesar, was introduced into all the cities of Italy.  His deification allowed Octavian to style himself divi filius, “son of a deified one.”  And that is what we read on the coin we are examining: CAESAR DIVI F. (F = FILIUS): “Caesar, son of the deified one.”  Note, too, the eight-rayed star on the shield: that is a reference to the sidus Iulium.  Octavian had been using the star for years.  So people knew what it meant.

But there is more to say about the coin.  In what follows we will consider the (controversial) reading of the coin by Paul Zanker (Augustus and the Power of Images, chapter 2).  Our coin (let’s call it COIN A) was in fact one of three denarii issued in a series, so to understand it we must look at the other coins.


Another coin (COIN B) also shows Octavian’s portrait on the obverse, but the goddess Pax (Peace) on the reverse.  She holds an olive branch in her left hand and a cornucopia in her right.


The third coin (COIN C) in the series shows, again, Octavian’s portrait on the obverse, but the goddess Victoria (Victory) on the reverse.  She is standing on a globe and holds a wreath in her right hand, a palm branch in her left.

There is a second series of three denarii corresponding to the three we have already considered.  Here they are:


COIN D: The obverse shows a portrait of Pax (Peace) wearing a crown, with a cornucopia to the left and an olive branch to the right.  The reverse shows Octavian advancing in military dress, his right hand raised in act of adlocutio (a general’s formal address of his troops), his left hand holding spear over his shoulder.


COIN E: The obverse shows a portrait of Venus wearing a crown and a necklace.  On the reverse is Octavian in military dress, his cloak flying behind him, advancing to the left, his right arm extended, his left arm holding a transverse spear.


COIN F: The obverse shows a portrait of Pax (Peace) wearing a crown, her wings spread behind her.  On the reverse, a naked male figure (Neptune?) stands facing to the left, his right foot on the globe, his right hand holding an aplustre (ornamented stern-post of a ship), his left hand a vertical scepter.

Now we may put the coins together in their proper sequence in order to grasp what they meant.  Before the battle of Actium, Octavian delivers an address (adlocutio) to his army: the goal of his war against Mark Antony is peace (coins A and D).  At Actium, he leads his men into battle under the protection of his special goddess, Venus Genetrix or Victrix (coins B and E).  After the battle, he celebrates his victory (coins C and F) as master of the Roman world.

In the first series (A, B, C) the portrait heads are always of Octavian, and the three goddesses are shown on the reverse.  In the second series (D, E, F) it is the other way around: the portrait heads are of the three goddesses, and the figures on the reverse are Octavian—or, in the case of COIN F, Octavian in the guise of Neptune.

To understand a single coin, it is often necessary to view it in a larger context.  The coin spoke the language of legitimacy: “I am the son of the deified Julius Caesar and the rightful heir to his legacy.”  But it also offered the fighting men a program of action for the final conflict with Antony and Cleopatra: “Our goal is an end to war; we have the support of the goddess of my gens; we will be victorious!”

It is tempting to imagine these two coin series as analogous to stamps or baseball cards in our day: the soldiers could collect the coins and puzzle out their proper sequence in order to grasp the message Octavian intended—and which he no doubt spelled out when he spoke to his troops.

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