Aureus depicting the head of Elagabalus and a quadriga, bearing the Stone of Emesa (218-219 CE)



218 CE to 219 CE




Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 

British Museum: 1922,0909.4.
Available at:

Name of Ruler: 


Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: laureate, draped & cuirassed bust of Elagabalus looking left, seen from behind


Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: quadriga right bearing stone of Emesa upon which is an eagle; four parasols around


Weight (g): 

RIC IV/2, Elagabalus, no. 196A, p. 43.
Note however that the type shown here slightly differs from the type’s standard presented in RIC. First, the emperor is draped and cuirassed whereas he is only cuirassed in the type presented in RIC. Second, the legend on the obverse of RIC is slightly different (IMP CAES M AVR ANTONINVS P F AVG).

This aureus, minted at Antioch, depicts on the obverse the head of Elagabalus and on the reverse the chariot which transported the sacred stone of Emesa to Rome where a new sanctuary dedicated to the Emesian sun god – a temple commonly called the Heliogabalium - had been built on the Eastern part of the Palatine (on the adventus of Elegabalus in Rome perhaps the 29th August 219 CE, see Herodian, History of the Empire V.5.7-8; Historia Augusta, Life of Heliogabalus I.6 and III.4; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XXIII.1). According to Hans Roland Baldus, this issue would have been minted slightly before Elagabalus’s trip to the West, in 218/219 CE (Baldus, “Das ‘Vorstellungsgemälde’,” p. 473). The inscription on the obverse refers to the emperor as imperator, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Pius, Felix, and Augustus. The title imperator indicated that the army had acclaimed Elagabalus emperor in the wake of Macrinus’s unsuccessful campaign against the Parthians, 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. Once more, as in the case of Caracalla, the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, as well as the epithet Pius, indicate that the Severans wished to present themselves as the political heirs of the Antonine dynasty. The inscription on the reverse is a dedication to the sun god of Emesa, Elagabalus.
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). His father, Sextus Varius Marcellus, was a member of the equestrian order, elevated to senatorial rank under the rule of the Severi. He was married to Julia Soemias, who could claim a close connection with the imperial family since she was the daughter of Julia Maesa, the sister of the empress Julia Domna. The father of Varius Avitus Bassianus was also the high priest of the god Elagabalus, the Ba‘al of the Mountain, whose main temple stood at Emesa. The god was venerated in the form of a betyl, a black conical meteorite. When Varius Avitus ascended to the imperial throne, he decided to bring his own god to Rome. Thus, as illustrated on the obverse of the coin presented here, a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, transporting the betyl, surrounded by four parasols, followed the emperor in his journey to Rome. As exemplified by the legend on the reverse of this coin, Elagabalus associated his own god to Sol, the Roman solar god, who was the counterpart of the Greek god Helios; the two gods had two shrines nearby the Circus Maximus and on the Quirinal. Besides, the Fasti mention two holydays in honour of the Sun, in December and in August, together with Luna, or the moon. By the second century CE, Sol acquires two epithets, Invictus and Augustus. The first epithet, Invictus, undefeated or victorious, was also attributed to other Roman important gods, such as Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, and Hercules. The other epithet, Augustus, associated Sol with the imperial cult. Thus, according to Cassius Dio, the emperor decided to rename his god as Sol Invictus.  However, Sol Invictus became an important god only much later under Aurelianus, as a Roman god and not as a faraway provincial god, whose cult had arrived to Rome in the wake of a provincial emperor. According to Cassius Dio, the emperor Elagabalus wanted to place the Syrian sun god at the head of the Roman pantheon, thus dethroning the god Jupiter (on the credibility of this passage, see Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX.11). When Elagabalus arrived in Rome in 219 CE, the betyl might have been put temporarily in the imperial residence before the complete achievement of the construction of the Heliogabalium on the Palatine hill (on this temple, see Coarelli, “Heliogabalus templum”).  
If this type was actually minted in 218/219 CE, it would thus advertise the departure of the emperor with the Syrian god of the Sun from the Eastern part of the Empire and their imminent or ongoing trip to Rome. Finally, it is important to note that aurei of the same type as the one presented here and bearing the same legend had been also minted in Rome; yet these coins cannot be dated with certainty (RIC IV/2, Elagabalus, no. 143, p. 37). The fact that coins of this type were minted both in Antioch and in Rome shows how it had been important for Elagabalus to communicate about his adventus and that of the Syrian god in the Urbs. During his reign, other coins bearing a representation of the betyl continued to be minted as the antoniniani bearing the legend CONSERVATOR AUG, the minting of which has been dated between 220 and 222 CE (BMCRE V, Elagabalus, no. 197-198; see 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)). In this issue, the Syrian solar god is presented as the main protector of the emperor. However, as rightly recalled by Erika Manders, the coins minted under Elagabalus’s reign that have been preserved suggest that the types bearing representations of the betyl were far less numerous than the coins staging the emperor sacrificing and representing him as a priest-emperor (Manders, Coining Images, p. 148-149). 

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

"Heliogabalus, Templum; Heliogabalium"

Coarelli, Filippoarticle-in-a-bookLexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae IIIEva Margareta Steinby10-11"Heliogabalus, Templum; Heliogabalium"Edizioni Quasar1996
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