Antoninianus depicting the head of Elagabalus and the emperor offering a sacrifice in front of the quadriga carrying the god of Emesa (219-220 CE)



219 CE to 220 CE


Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
auction NAC 29, n° 596
Name of Ruler: 


Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust of Elagabalus looking right

Inscription: IMP(erator) ANTONINVS PIUS AVG(ustus)

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Elagabalus standing left, sacrificing over altar; oncoming quadriga in the background carrying an eagle standing front on the betyl from Emesa

Inscription: CONSERVATOR AVG(usti)

Weight (g): 

The coin presented here does not appear in RIC. One exemplar has been sold during the auction NAC 29, n° 596 (11- 12 May 2005) (the antoninianus presented here), and another exemplar is preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna (Bundesslg. von Münzen, n° 43082).

This antoninianus, probably minted at Rome in 219-220 CE (on the dating, see Baldus, “Das ‘Vorstellungsgemälde’,” p. 470), depicts on the obverse the head of Elagabalus, and on the reverse the emperor offering a sacrifice in front of the quadriga, the chariot drawn by four horses, carrying the god of Emesa to Rome. This issue is an antoninianus, a denomination which was used to pay the soldiers. We can thus imagine that the message conveyed by this type may have been forwarded to the army. First minted under the rule of Caracalla, in 215 CE, the antoninianus was a double denarius. It was in fact one of the emperor’s main economic reforms and it was minted in order to raise the pay of the legions to 675 denarii, and distribute them various bounties. Thus, Caracalla created an issue which contained the double of silver present in the denarius, which by then had been seriously devaluated. In fact, the real value of the antoninianus was only 1,5 denarii.
From the reign of Caracalla onward, as in this case, the obverse of the antoninianus depicted the head of the emperor crowned by the radiate crown. The inscription on the obverse refers to Elagabalus as Antoninus, Pius, and Augustus. The inscription on the reverse refers to the god of Emesa as CONSERVATOR AUGUSTI, or “protector of the emperor,” a role which was usually assigned to Jupiter (see Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, p. 17; on the rare coins of Elagabalus bearing the legend IOVI CONSERVATORI, see RIC IV/2, Elagabalus, n° 89-91, p. 34; BMCRE V/2, Elagabalus, n° 138-142, p. 550). Clearly the issue celebrates both the fact that the emperor Elagabalus brought his god to Rome, but also the close bond between the young emperor and his god from Emesa, Elagabalus, or the Ba‘al of the Mountain which was venerated in the form of a betyl, a black conical meteorite.

As on other contemporary issues minted in Antioch in the same period (see Aureus depicting the head of Elagabalus and a quadriga, bearing the Stone of Emesa (218-219 CE)), in this issue the betyl representing the god is depicted following an iconography which already characterized his Greek counterpart, Helios, who was also riding on a chariot drawn by four horses (Hyginus, Fables 183). It is also important to note that the presence of the eagle depicted on the stone (an eagle which was not easily visible on the Aureus depicting the head of Elagabalus and a quadriga, bearing the Stone of Emesa (218-219 CE)) corresponds to the usual way to represent the deity. For instance, on the relief found 80 km south-east of Emesa in 1976 were represented two deities, one being a conical stone – often interpreted as a mountain – with an eagle perched on top. Thanks to the inscription written behind it (LH’GBL’), this deity has been interpreted as being the “God Mountain” and can be identified with the solar god venerated in Emesa. The association with the eagle can be explained by the fact that many mountain gods were also associated with the figure of the eagle, as for instance the god of Mount Argaios (see Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, p. 48).
The aim of the quadriga represented on the reverse is to associate the Syrian god with the triumphal procession through which Elagabalus carried the sacred stone from Emesa to Rome, crossing various provinces (on the adventus of Elagabalus in Rome perhaps the 29th August 219 CE, see Herodian, History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus V.5.7-8; Historia Augusta, Life of Heliogabalus I.6 and III.4; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XXIII.1).
On this issue, the emperor emphasizes his close connection with his own god on the obverse and on the reverse. The obverse depicts the emperor wearing a radiated crown, while the reverse depicts him offering a sacrifice to his god advancing on the chariot. According to Steven Hijmans, it is necessary to differentiate between the radiate crown, here depicted on the head of Elagabalus, on the obverse, and the rays which form the sun god’s crown. For Steven Hijmans, the radiate crown was a depiction of the honorary wrath granted to Augustus after his victory during the battle of Actium. As the victory was attributed to the divine intervention of Apollo-Helios, the personal god of Augustus, the honorary wreath reproduced the rays of the sun. Thus the depiction of the radiate crown on the head of the emperor would be a way to associate him with Augustus, rather than a way to attribute divine honours to the living emperor (Hijmans, “Metaphor, Symbol and Reality,” p. 509-541). However, it is clear that on this issue, as on similar issues depicting Elagabalus with the radiate crown, the emperor wishes to emphasize his association with the Sun god, not with Augustus. Indeed Stephan Berrens is probably right that in this case the purpose of the radiate crown, which associates the emperor with the sun god, is to conceal rather than emphasize the divine character attributed to the emperor (Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaisertum).
The emperor is actually depicted while offering a sacrifice to his god; besides, the star which associates the emperor with the gods, often depicted on other issues minted by Elagabalus, is lacking here. It is important to note that the types putting the spotlight on the solar god Elagabalus, either by representing the betyl or by mentioning its name on the legend, are a minority compared to the types staging the emperor performing a sacrifice (note that the issues representing the betyl or mentioning it are much more numerous in the Eastern regions than in the West; see Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, p. 17). Erika Manders has thus counted that, from 220 to 222 CE, there are around 27 coin types in which the emperor is represented as priest-emperor while performing a sacrifice (Manders, Coining Images of Power, p. 148; for a presentation of one type representing on the reverse the emperor performing a sacrifice, see Denarius depicting the head of Elagabalus and the emperor sacrificing over an altar (220-222 CE)). The coin type presented here should be considered as being at the crossroads between the types stressing on the introduction of the new solar god at Rome and the others highlighting the common priestly status of the emperor. However, the legend CONSERVATOR AUGUSTI on the reverse of the coin makes it clear that it is the personal relationship between Elagabalus and the Syrian solar god which is highlighted. If that type was issued in 219-220 CE, that is shortly after Elagabalus’s arrival at Rome, it is interesting to note that another coin issue, minted in Rome, bearing the same legend, and representing on the reverse a side view of the quadriga transporting the betyl, continued to be produced during the rest of the reign of Elagabalus (this issue is commonly dated from 220-222 CE, see RIC IV/2, Elagabalus, n° 61, 62, 64, 65, p. 32-33; and BMCRE V/2, Elagabalus, n° 197-198, p. 560). As rightly recalled by Martijn Icks, the coin types bearing the legend CONSERVATOR AUGUSTI and representing the betyl on the Roman quadriga show that the Syrian emperor may have wanted, from the moment of his arrival at Rome onwards, to incorporate his “exotic” god into a framework which was typically Roman. This is the case here through the representation of the quadriga, the performance of the sacrifice and the title CONSERVATOR (see Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, p. 74).

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Metaphor, Symbol and Reality: the Polysemy of the Imperial Radiate Crown”

Hijmans, Steven E.article-in-a-bookCommon ground. Archaeology, art, science, and humanities. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Boston, August 23–26, 2003Mattusch, Carol C.80-84, 440–443, 509–548“Metaphor, Symbol and Reality: the Polysemy of the Imperial Radiate Crown”OxfordOxford University Press2006
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