Image: Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust of Caracalla looking right
Image: Founder plowing right with ox and cow; above, Nikē flying left, crowning him
Inscription: COL L S SEBASTE
This small bronze city-coin from Sebaste (in present day Palestine) was minted between 198 and 217 CE, under the reigns of Septimius Severus and Caracalla (Caracalla reigned jointly with his father Septimius Severus until the latter died in 211 CE). The coin depicts on the obverse the head of Caracalla and on the reverse the ceremony which symbolized the foundation of the city as a Roman colony, which was granted legal colonial status in 201/202 CE (Meshorer, City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis, p. 114, no. 118). Therefore, the image depicted on the reverse, of a figure walking with a plough pulled by an ox (and probably a cow but it cannot be seen clearly here), actually portrays the emperor, probably the senior ruler Septimius Severus, ploughing the pomerium (the sacred boundary) of the city. As Nicole Belayche explains, Roman colonies were considered as “miniatures of Rome,” and as such, the Roman foundation myth was transferred to her colonies, with coinage from many featuring the Roman image of the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus. The imagery on the present issue refers to the ceremony performed at the foundation of a city as a colony (on which see further below). However, not all Palestinian colonies, such as Sebaste, were keen to give up their Greek heritage. Indeed, this is expressed by the retention of the Greek name Sebaste, derived from the Greek equivalent of the Latin Augusta (see Belayche, “Foundation Myths,” p. 171-174; for the present coin, p. 172, and for the quotation, p. 171). Moreover, Greek identity may also highlighted on this coin by the depiction of the Greek goddess of victory, Nikè, who appears flying above the emperor behind the plough, crowing him. The implication would therefore be that the Greek deity supports and submits to Roman presence in the city. However, the iconography of the goddess is similar to that of the Roman Victoria, meaning that this representation could be read both ways.
The inscription on the obverse is unreadable, but likely refers to Caracalla. The inscription in Latin on the reverse refers to the city as Colonia Lucia Septimia Sebaste. Unlike neighbouring Neapolis, which sided with Pescennius Niger in his claiming of the throne after the murder of the emperor Pertinax in 193 CE, it seems that Sebaste sided with Septimius Severus (see Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 487-488), who with the support of his troops marched on Rome and eventually won the imperial throne. After Pescennius Niger was defeated in a battle near Nicea, he retired to Syria, where he assumed he would receive the support of the local elites. However, one city after another, including Sebaste, decided to support the winner, Septimius Severus, instead. The new emperor visited the province of Syria-Palestina in 197 CE, on the way to his Parthian campaign. In the wake of his visit, the city of Sebaste became a Roman colony, taking the name Colonia Lucia Septimia Sebaste (Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 490). The city of Neapolis was punished for supporting Pescennius Niger, and the right to mint coins was withdrawn from it (Meshorer, City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis, p. 44).
A detailed description of the ceremony which surrounded the foundation of a city is given by Dionysus of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities I.88), who describes the model for this – the mythical foundation of Rome by Romulus. In homage to Romulus’s actions, upon the founding of a new city, the ruler, in this case Septimius Severus, or the local governor, offered sacrifices to conciliate the gods. Once the omens had been taken and found favourable, he proceeded with the circumductio, drawing the sacred boundaries of the city, tracing an outline of the area where the walls of the future colony would be erected. This ceremony was performed through the ploughing of the earth, with a bull and a cow yoked together. The ceremony ended with a prayer to Jupiter, Mars, and Vesta, in which the gods were asked to grant protection to the area. This ceremony was performed during the reign of Septimius Severus, when the city of Sebaste was given the honorary title of colony. In fact, the city of Sebaste was closely associated with Rome from its foundation by King Herod the Great in 25-24 BCE onwards. The king re-founded the city of Samaria as Sebaste in honour of Augustus, and erected a huge temple dedicated to Augustus on the acropolis, which was restored by Septimius Severus. The tangible symbol of Sebaste’s association with Rome was the fact that the city area was the main centre for the enlistment of auxilia units of the Roman army, namely the Ala Sebastenorum that served in Mauretania Caesarensis, and the Cohors I Sebastenorum M(iliaria) that continued to serve in Judea, and then in Syria-Palestina (Shatzman, The Armies of the Hasmoneans and Herod, p. 185, 194; Meshorer, City-Coins of Eretz-Israel and the Decapolis, p. 45).
The depiction of the founding ceremony of the colony on this coin therefore serves to emphasize the close bond between the provincial city and the far away capital Rome. By this point in history, not only was the city a Roman colony, but most of its citizens also possessed Roman citizenship. The foundation imagery not only commemorated a legal status being conferred on the city by the imperial power, but also implied a link back to Rome’s mythical past, which Sebaste, now an official extension of Rome could also lay claim to. Moreover, coins such as this served to express the loyalty of the colonial city to the central power which sustained it.