Sestertius depicting the head of Antoninus Pius and Aeneas’s flight from Troy (140-144 CE)

140 CE to 144 CE
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 

British Museum Collection. Ref: 1847,0709.1

Name of Ruler: 
Antoninus Pius
Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Bust of Antoninus Pius, laureate, with aegis on left shoulder, looking right

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Aeneas moving towards right, carrying Anchises and leading Ascanius by the hand in their flight from Troy
Inscription: P P TR P COS III S C

Weight (g): 

RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 615, p. 109.

This sestertius depicts on the obverse the head of Antoninus Pius, and on the reverse Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his shoulders and leading Ascanius by the hand. The inscription refers to the emperor as Antoninus, Augustus, Pius, pater patriae (father of the fatherland), holder of the tribunicia potestas, and consul for the third time. Concerning the dating of this issue, the mention COS III in the legend of the reverse enables us to date this coin from the period 140-144 CE (Antoninus Pius actually became consul for the third time in 140 CE, and then consul for the fourth time in 145 CE). It has to be noted that during Antoninus Pius’s whole reign three emissions of this type are attested, one is gold (minted between 140 and 143 CE; RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 91, p. 37), and the two others bronze (the type presented here and RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 627, p. 111).

On the reverse of the coin presented here appears a classical motif of Roman iconography often called the “Aeneas group”: Aeneas is depicted while fleeing from Troy, carrying on his shoulders his father Anchises and leading Ascanius by the hand (an episode narrated in Virgil, Aeneid II.706-721; Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities I.46-48). This scene appears on coins minted at the end of the Republican period (for the earliest representation of this scene on coins see Denarius depicting the head of Venus and Aeneas leaving Troy (47/46 BCE)). It then encountered a real success during the Augustan period when it was reproduced on various media – coins, statues, frescoes (see A Painted Parody of Aeneas and Romulus as Dog-Headed Apes) – and later continued to be reproduced during the imperial period (on the representations of the Aeneas group see Spannagel, Exemplaria principis, p. 90-131). It actually appeared punctually on coins produced under Galba (RIC I2, Galba, no. 483, p. 255), Trajan (RIC II, Trajan, no. 801, p. 309; see also the coin minted at Dardanus), Hadrian (as attested by one medallion and by various coin issues minted in Eastern cities such as Apamea, Dardanus and Ilium), and of course Antoninus Pius. The message conveyed through the representation of this scene varies according to the context in which the coins were produced. For instance, under the Republican period and under Augustus it fitted in with the association between Aeneas, the mythical “founder” of Rome, and the gens Iulia. Second, during the Republican period or the whole imperial period this scene was also reproduced because it celebrated one cardinal Roman virtue, pietas, personified by Aeneas, who was on this scene fulfilling his duties towards the gods and his family. Finally, when the myth was depicted on local coins minted in the various cities of Asia Minor (see examples quoted below), in particular under Trajan and Hadrian, it actually conveyed the message that these Greek Eastern cities and elites associated themselves with Roman rule.

To understand more precisely why Antoninus Pius chose to represent this scene on these sertertii minted at Rome between 140-144 CE, it is important to consider it in the context of Antoninus’s reign, but also the other coins minted at that time. Antoninus succeeded Hadrian in July 138 CE. The policy he led during his reign (138-161 CE) fitted in with the main orientations of Hadrian’s policy, thus benefiting from the general prosperity that existed in the Empire at that time. However, unlike Hadrian, Antoninus did not accomplish any grand tours through the Empire. His interests were mainly focused on Italy and Rome, and on the revival of some ancestral religious cults. The official propaganda of his reign is thus characterised by the fact that the main themes of the Golden Age were constantly repeated, especially through the coins. It is in that context that the minting of the coin presented here has to be understood.
More precisely, it has to be noted that from 140 CE onwards, various emissions depicting scenes associated with the mythical origins of Rome were produced. For instance, between 140 and 144 CE gold and bronze coins were minted on the reverse of which appears a theme that is often represented in association with the scene of the Aeneas’s flight from Troy: Romulus advancing, holding spear and trophy (for examples of the association of these two themes see A Painted Parody of Aeneas and Romulus as Dog-Headed Apes; RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 90, p. 37; no. 624, p. 110; no. 645, p. 112; no. 665, p. 114; no. 698, p. 117). Also minted during the very same period were denarii and sestertii representing on their reverse the she-wolf suckling the twins (RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 94-96, p. 37; no. 603, p. 108; no. 630-634, p. 111; no. 648-650, p. 113; no. 718, p. 119; no. 734-735, p. 120), and sestertii representing the sow suckling numerous piglets, which was the sign given to Aeneas as to where Lavinium, the mother city of Rome, should be founded (RIC III, Antoninus Pius, no. 629, p. 111; no. 722, p. 119; no. 733, p. 120). Finally, various bronze medallions minted approximatively in the same period as the coins previously quoted also represent scenes connected to Rome’s mythical origins (these medallions related to Rome’s origins have been dated between 140 and 144 CE in Toynbee, “Some ‘Programme’,” p. 171; between 140 and 146 CE in Strack, Untersuchungen. Teil III, p. 69-70; they are presented in Toynbee, “Some ‘Programme’”). Among these medallions, three represent Aeneas in different situations. In one of them Aeneas leads Ascanius by the hand while disembarking from his ship upon Lavinium’s coast (Gnecchi, I medaglioni romani, II, plate 54, no. 9). In a second, Aeneas is depicted on the background of a major scene representing the sow suckling the piglets, while he is carrying his father Anchises on his shoulders (Gnecchi, I medaglioni romani, II, plate 55, no. 8). The third one is the most interesting for us as it represents the same scene as the one depicted on the reverse of the coin presented here (Gnecchi, I medaglioni romani, III, plate 160, no. 1). We may also add to this list a medallion of Marcus Caesar (the future emperor Marcus Aurelius), dated from 145/146 CE, which represents Aeneas and Ascanius sacrificing and on which Aeneas can be identified with Antoninus Pius and Ascanius with Marcus Caesar (Strack, Untersuchungen. Teil III, p. 70; Gnecchi, I medaglioni romani, II, plate 66, no. 6).
It thus appears that the period during which the coin presented here was minted is characterised by a clear increase in the number of coins and medallions bearing motifs celebrating the mythical origins of Rome. This phenomenon has to be understood in relation to the fact that on the 21st of April 148 CE Antoninus Pius celebrated the ninth centenary of Rome (mentioned by Aurelius Victor in De Caesaribus XV.4; on the dating of this celebration see Gagé, Recherches, p. 102). This coin should thus be understood as fitting into an official programme that exalted the mythical origins of Rome and whose aim was to herald and prepare the celebration of Rome’s forthcoming ninth centenary (in that perspective, see Toynbee, “Some ‘Programme’,” p. 171).

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Sestertius depicting the head of Antoninus Pius and Aeneas’s flight from Troy (140-144 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Fri, 09/07/2018 - 10:39
Visited: Sat, 06/06/2020 - 06:52

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