Cistophorus depicting the head of Hadrian and the provincial imperial temple in Nicomedia (between 128 and 137 CE)

128 CE to 137 CE
Koinon of Bithynia
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
CNG 88, 14 Sep. 2011, lot 1328
Name of Ruler: 
Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Laureate bust of Hadrian looking right

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Octastyle temple on podium of three steps
Inscription: COM - BIT (in field), ROM S P AVG (in entablature)

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

Metcalf, The Cistophori, type B1, p. 130; RPC III, no. 968, p. 120.

This cistophorus is one of a large group of silver cistophori produced under the reign of Hadrian, in the name of the Commune Bithyniae, or Koinon of Bithynia, as mentioned in the legend COM – BIT appearing on the reverse of these coins (RPC III, no. 968-984). This large group of cistophori should be distinguished from another group whose obverse also represents Hadrian with the legend IMP CAES TRA HADRIANO AUG P P, but whose reverse bears the legend COS III and does not represent a temple like the first group (on these details about the types see RPC III, p. 119). Finally one should note that bronze coins bearing on their reverse a representation of a temple (most of the time an octastyle temple as on the reverse of the coin presented here), with a legend written in Greek and referring also to the Koinon of Bithynia are also attested. For William Metcalf there is no doubt that these bronzes and the cistophori were “coordinated issues” (Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 138). As Nicomedia was the koinon centre of Bithynia, the various silver and bronze emissions mentioned above must have been struck in that very city (see Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 130; Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 147-152; RPC III, p. 132). Concerning the dating of the minting of these silver cistophori, a terminus post quem can be established thanks to the mention of pater patriae in the obverse legend, as Hadrian received this title in 128 CE. A terminus ante quem has been also fixed in 137 CE, the year of the death of Hadrian’s wife, Sabina, as she is represented on the reverse of one type of cistophori (see RPC III, p. 119 and coin no. 962, p. 120; we follow here the dating proposed by Birley concerning Sabrina’s date of death, see Birley, Hadrian, p. 294). Many scholars have also proposed connecting the production of these cistophori with a special event, namely when C. Iulius Severus had been sent to Bithynia as diorthōtes and logistes, corrector and curator at a date that has been debated as being between 134/135 CE and 137 CE, that is after the military operations he led in order to tame the Bar Kokhba revolt (for 134 CE see RPC III, p. 119; for 136/137 CE, see RE 10.1, “Iulius (Severus),” col. 817-818; for 136 CE, Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 139-140; the charge of C. Iulius Severus is mentioned in an inscription, see Iulius Severus, Hellenistic descendant, and Roman Governor in the Bar Kokhba Revolt). C. Iulius Severus was sent to Bithynia by the emperor Hadrian. Pontus-Bithynia was then a senatorial province, but due to some internal difficulties, the emperor may have decided to send a corrector in order to control its administration through him for a period of time (Guerber, “Les correctores,” p. 238).

On the reverse of the coin presented here is depicted an octastyle temple whose entablature bears the inscription ROM(ae) S(enatui) P(opulo) AVG(usto), “To Rome, the Senate, the people and Augustus.” This temple can be identified with the temple of Rome and Augustus at Nicomedia, even if the legend appearing on the entablature of the temple shows that the cult included also the Roman Senate and the Roman people. This is confirmed when one looks at the other silver and bronze types that also bear on their reverse a representation of the temple, between the columns of which also appear five kinds of statues. Two of them represent a male figure with Victory; on one of them he is half-draped, on the other cuirassed. They can both be identified with the emperor. Another one represents Roma as a helmeted woman with a cornucopia crowning the male figure (i.e. the emperor). The last two represent a female with a sceptre and a male in short outfit with phiale and sceptre whose identification has been debated. The first one may be identified with a goddess of the province of Bithynia, and the other with the Roman Senate (on these statues, see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 148-151).
The legend referring to the koinon of Bithynia and also the dedication on the entablature of the temple show that it must have been a provincial temple dedicated to the imperial cult (Bosch, Die kleinasiatischen Münzen, p. 194;Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 137-138). It is important to recall that a koinon, or “commonality,” was “an association of cities of similar ethnic background within a region,” yet its borders were not necessarily those of a Roman province (quotation taken from Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 344; Deininger, Die Provinziallandtage remains a key study about koina). Generally, the cities were bound together because they had convergent interests, especially in terms of representing the interests of local communities to Rome. They also had in common the practice of a particular cult, most of the time that of the Roman emperor, which is why koina were often headed by chief priests who were in charge of presiding over the provincial imperial temples (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 346-349). However, no trace of this provincial imperial shrine of Nicomedia has been discovered. Its architectural appearance is only known through these cistophori and bronze coins produced under the name of the koinon of Bithynia.
The question of the dating of its initial construction remains debated and is highly dependent on the interpretation of one passage of Cassius Dio’s Roman History: “In the meantime Caesar, besides taking care of affairs generally, gave permission that there be established sacred areas to Rome and his father Caesar, whom he named the hero Julius, in Ephesos and in Nikaia; for these were at that time the preeminent cities in Asia and in Bithynia respectively. He commanded that the Romans resident there honor those divinities, but he permitted the foreigners, whom he called Hellenes, to consecrate precincts to himself, the Asians in Pergamon and the Bithynians in Nikomedia. From that beginning, the latter practice has been carried on under other emperors, not only in the Greek provinces but in the others as well, insofar as they obey the Romans” (Cassius Dio, Roman History LI.20.6-7; translation by Barbara Burrell in Neokoroi, p. 17). This text of Cassius Dio is very important as it documents the earliest establishments of provincial imperial cult, allowed by Octavian in 29 BCE, in the provinces of Asia and of Bithynia (for the province of Asia see Friesen, Twice Neokoros, p. 7-15). Cassius Dio thus narrates that the two most important cities of the province of Bithynia, Nicaea and Nicomedia, had been granted two different privileges. The city of Nicaea, presented as being the most important of the province at that time, received the privilege of building a temple to Rome and Julius Caesar, a temple that was for the use of the Roman residents in the province. The city of Nicomedia received what may have been a greater prize: it became for the first time neokoros (i.e. a city warden of a temple dedicated to provincial imperial cult) as it was granted the privilege of receiving a temple to the living Caesar for the use of the provincial Hellenes themselves (on these privileges, see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 147). For William Metcalf, however, this text of Cassius Dio does not prove that the temple to the living Caesar mentioned by Cassius Dio was built at Nicomedia at the same time as its equivalent at Pergamum. As a consequence, for the scholar, it is not possible to assert that the temple to the living Caesar at Nicomedia mentioned by Cassius Dio was the same monument than the one appearing on the Hadrianic cistophori. Metcalf recalls that the silver cistophori and the bronze coins minted under Hadrian’s reign at Nicomedia are the first coins confirming the existence of that temple and this fact contrasts with the coinage produced at Pergamum during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Trajan, which refers constantly to the temple of Rome and Augustus in that city. William Metcalf thus concludes about the temple to Rome and Augustus at Nicomedia: “It is at least arguable that the temple was not constructed until Hadrian’s day; or perhaps that it was begun under Augustus, destroyed in some natural disaster, and then restored by Hadrian” (Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 138). To justify this idea, he even adds that there is no attestation of the koinon of Bithynia and of its officers before the time of Hadrian. As these series of coins are the first sources that attest the existence of that koinon, William Metcalf thus suggests that the building or restoration of that temple to Rome and Augustus would have been contemporary with the appearance of the koinon of Bithynia (Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 139-140). Some of William Metcalf’s interpretations have been criticized by Barbara Burrell, who recalls that some sources attest the existence of officials of the koinon of Bithynia under Domitian (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 147, n. 5). According to Burrell, all that can be said about the date of construction of the temple attested on these silver cistophori is that the temple actually existed at the date of the terminus post quem of their production, that is in 128 CE (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 147).

It is also important to question the message conveyed by these emissions. Unlike the koinon of Asia that produced silver cistophori with the legends ROM(AE) ET AUGUST(O) and COM(MUNE) ASIA from the time of Augustus to the reign of Trajan, the silver cistophori bearing the legend COM(MUNE) BI(THYNIAE) and representing the provincial imperial temple are first attested under Hadrian. As rightly recalled by Barbara Burrell, the appearance of this type should not be necessarily interpreted as conveying the message that this provincial imperial temple was built or even restored at that time, nor proving that the koinon of Bithynia was not active before that date (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 147-148). The idea that the issuing of these coins may have contributed to the rivalries between the koinon of Bithynia and the koinon of Asia to show their loyalty towards the emperor Hadrian has also to be dismissed. Actually, this argument is primarily based upon the erroneous assessment that from the time the koina of Asia and of Bithynia and respectively the cities of Pergamum and Nicomedia had been granted their first provincial imperial shrine by Octavian (as attested by Cassius Dio’s testimony), these temples continued to have a common history, and these two cities competed with each other (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 151). Nevertheless the destiny of the koina of Asia and of Bithynia between the reigns of Augustus and Hadrian was very different. For instance, during that period the Asian koinon built other imperial temples in Smyrna under Tiberius (see Tacitus, Annals IV.55-56) and possibly in Miletus under Caligula; whereas the only other imperial temple attested in Bithynia – aside from that of Nicomedia – is in Nicaea and it was built under Hadrian (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 151). As a consequence, the rivalries must have been particularly intense, not so much between the province of Bithynia and Asia, but rather inside Bithynia itself and in particular between Nicaea, the city in the inland which is considered by some as being the headquarters of the provincial governor (in that perspective see RPC III, p. 118), and Nicomedia, the harbour that had been an important centre of pre-Roman administration and was the centre of the koinon of Bithynia (on the debate related to which city was the actual seat of the governor see Haensch, Capita, p. 282-290). If under Augustus, Nicaea was considered to be the most important city in the province, it lost progressively its pre-eminence during the imperial period in favour of Nicomedia. This phenomenon manifested itself by a lengthy rivalry between the two cities for titles such as those of “metropolis”, “first of the province” or “neokoros” (about the competition between Nicomedia and Nicaea related to the use of honorific titles, see Robert, “La Titulature de Nicée”). Regarding the title of “metropolis” of the province of Bithynia, it was monopolised from the beginning of the imperial period by Nicomedia, even if Nicaea seems to have been temporarily promoted to metropolis of the province of Bithynia under Hadrian, a newly granted status that was then removed to the city by Hadrian himself or his successor Antoninus (on this question see Heller, Les bêtises des grecs, p. 291-294). Regarding the title of “first of the province,” Anna Heller has convincingly demonstrated that from Domitian up to Hadrian or Antoninus Pius’s reigns, Nicaea would have been the only city in the province of Bithynia bearing this title officially until it probably lost it under Hadrian or Antoninus. Nicomedia used it later on in order to assert its superiority over all the cities of the province (Heller, Les bêtises des grecs, p. 314-324). Finally, Nicomedia became a city neokoros when it was granted the temple of Rome and Augustus in 29 BCE. Yet, as a consequence of the fact fact that the title of neokoros started to be granted to cities which were wardens of a temple dedicated to provincial imperial cult only from Domitian’s reign onwards, there is an important chronological gap between the moment when Nicomedia became a neokoros city and the moment the city started to celebrate this status through the exhibition of the title on inscriptions or on coins. For Nicomedia, the title appears for the first time on coins produced by the city under Antoninus Pius, that is after that her rival city in the province, Nicaea, started to call itself neokoros under Hadrian, even if the fact that there is no other posterior attestation of that title gives the impression that the neokoria of Nicaea must have been short-lived and must have been suppressed under Hadrian or Antoninus’s reigns (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 152, 351-354; Heller, Les bêtises des grecs, p. 351). The coin presented here should thus be understood as fitting in a story of long-running competition between the two main cities of Bithynia under Hadrian’s reign to obtain provincial pre-eminence, a story that was marked by the temporary generosity of the emperor Hadrian towards the city of Nicaea that then provoked a reaction from Nicomedia (Heller, Les bêtises des grecs, p. 351).

Finally, to try to understand the message conveyed by the coin presented here one should ask a very uncertain question: who actually authorised the minting of these silver cistophori? On this point, Christian Marek writes: “Masters of mints (monetarii) at the provincial level are not known to us. The koina seem to have had the power not only to authorize the minting of coins in the name of the league, but also to set or recommend certain standards for the poleis’s coinage” (Marek, In the Land of a Thousand, p. 422). As a consequence, if the coin presented here had actually been minted following the authorisation of the koinon of Bithynia, it is possible to suggest that the koinon may have wanted to exhort its main cities to stop their inter-rivalries. Thus, to exhort cities of the same koinon to concord, there was no better strategy than to recall the celebration of the provincial imperial cult, which perfectly embodied their association as this cult was constitutive of the meetings that gathered the representatives of all the Greek cities of the province when they met to discuss common issues (on imperial cult in Asia Minor, see Price, Rituals and power, for the provincial assemblies see p. 56). In a similar perspective, William Metcalf has proposed connecting these emissions with C. Iulius Severus’s mission that had consisted of administering the province of Bithynia, and especially controlling the expenses of its cities. For him, these cistophori and bronze coins may have been minted to convey the message that the koinon would take part in that policy of the control of the expenses and of control of the civic rivalries that often led to edilitarian competitions and thus to financial collapses of these communities. As stated by William Metcalf: “... the imperial cult provided a focus for the energies of the individual cities: some kind of unifying element was necessary to excise the root of financial irresponsibility, civic rivalry” (Metcalf, The Cistophori, p. 140).

Bibliographical references: 

The Cistophori of Hadrian

Metcalf, William E.bookThe Cistophori of HadrianNumismatic Studies 15New YorkThe American Numismatic Society1980
Realized by: 

How to quote this page

Cistophorus depicting the head of Hadrian and the provincial imperial temple in Nicomedia (between 128 and 137 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 09/24/2018 - 10:20
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 20:24

Copyright ©2014-2019, All rights reserved About the project - ERC Team - Conditions of Use