Image: Bust of Elagabalus, laureate, draped, cuirassed, looking right
Inscription: IMP CAES ANTONINVS AVG
Image: Roma seated left holding Victory and sceptre, shield at her side
Inscription: PONTIF MAX TR P II COS II P P
RIC IV/2, Elagabalus, no. 25, p. 30.
This aureus, minted at Rome, depicts on the obverse the head of Elagabalus and on the reverse the goddess Roma. The inscriptions on the obverse and on the reverse refer to the emperor as imperator, Caesar, Antoninus, Augustus, pontifex maximus (high priest), with tribunician power for the second time, consul twice and father of the fatherland. This titulature enables us to date the coin to the second year of Elagabalus’s reign, 219 CE.
Before analysing precisely the coin presented here, it is important to recall a few points about Elagabalus’s life and reign. Varius Avitus (Bassianus?), known more commonly as Elagabalus, was born in 203/204 CE at Emesa (Cassius Dio names him Varius Avitus, and Herodian names him as Bassianus see PIR2 VIII.2, Varius Avitus, p. 140-141). The father of Varius Avitus was high priest of the god Elagabalus, the Ba‘al of the Mountain, whose main temple stood at Emesa. This god was venerated in the form of a betyl, a black conical meteorite. Varius Avitus had himself become high priest of Elagabalus in the years before his accession to the throne. On the instigation of various members of the Severan dynasty, chiefly Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna, and her daughters Julia Soaemias, the mother of Elagabalus, and Julia Mamaea, her sister, at the beginning of 218 CE a rumour circulated saying that Elagabalus was the natural son of Caracalla. The aim of this operation was to harm the authority of the man who had been promoted to the throne after Caracalla’s assassination in April 217 CE, namely Macrinus. In May 218 CE, when Elagabalus was fourteen years old, he was acclaimed emperor by the Legio III Gallica at Raphanea, in the wake of Macrinus’s unsuccessful campaign against the Parthians. Facing the increasing number of troops joining Elagabalus and the decision of the Senate who declared Macrinus and his son public enemies, Macrinus engaged in a battle against the troops supporting Elagabalus at Antioch on the 8th of June 218 CE. Macrinus was defeated; he fled but was seized just after he crossed the Hellespont and was killed (on the historical background, see Ando, Imperial Rome, p. 63-66).
During the summer of 218 CE, the new emperor took the road to Rome. On that occasion, Elagabalus decided to bring with him from the East his own god to Rome, a decision that was widely publicised through many coins produced throughout his reign, and which represent the imperial quadriga transporting the betyl (see Aureus depicting the head of Elagabalus and a quadriga, bearing the Stone of Emesa (218-219 CE); 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)). Bassianus arrived in Rome during the summer of 219 CE (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).
The scene depicted on the reverse of the coin presented here, namely the goddess Roma, helmeted, seated, with a shield behind her, holding a sceptre and a Victory in her extended arm, is a reasonably common motif in the imperial coinage iconographic repertoire from Nerva’s reign onwards. Actually, it is attested with varying frequency on coins produced under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Pescenius Niger, Septimius Severus, and of course Elagabalus. There also exist variants of this type where Roma holds a wreath or the Palladium, that is the statue of Pallas Athene from Troy, which Aeneas was said to have taken to the future site of Rome (see Denarius depicting the head of Marcus Aurelius and the goddess Roma (165 CE); Aureus depicting the head of Antoninus Pius and the goddess Roma holding the Palladium (145-161 CE)).
It has to be noted that under the reign of Elagabalus this motif of the goddess Roma seated and holding a Victory appears on many gold, silver, and bronze coins produced in the mint of Rome, yet only during a limited period, 218-219 CE, that is precisely when the new young emperor was on his way from the Eastern provinces to the capital. This last point is important to propose some interpretations regarding the choice of this motif. For Martijn Icks, there is no doubt that this series of coins minted at Rome and representing on their reverse Roma holding a Victory in her hand have to be interpreted in association with Elagabalus’s recent success against Macrinus at Antioch. For Icks, these coins must have conveyed the message that “it was not just Elagabalus who had triumphed but Rome” (Icks, The Crimes, p. 67). Second, the choice to represent the goddess Roma is in itself meaningful as it may have been motivated by the necessity to recall that the preceding emperor, Macrinus, never went to the capital of the Empire. Martijn Icks thus writes: “By explicitly making Rome a part of his triumph, Elagabalus showed that he cared more about the city than his predecessor” (Icks, The Crimes, p. 67-68). Finally, the choice of this traditional motif and the fact that these coins were only minted at Rome, during the period following Elagabalus’s accession to power when he was on his way to Rome, can be interpreted as conveying a reassuring message towards the elites from the West of the Empire. Actually, by representing the goddess Roma associated with Victory, the aim must have also been to spread the idea that this young and new emperor, even if he came from a remote part of the Empire and even if he worshiped a foreign god that he was bringing with him from the East to Rome, would remain respectful of Rome as a city, but also of its sacral standing.
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