Ancient Coin Insights: Real Roman Women on Coins
By Mike Markowitz for Coinweek…..
Ancient Coin Series
Much like Americans, Republican Romans had a deep-rooted prejudice against depicting living people on their money. It was something that pretentious Greek kings and tyrants did. When Julius Caesar violated this taboo, his assassins claimed that he was trying to make himself a king. And yet, within a few years, Brutus struck his own portrait on coins to pay his army – the famous “Ides of March” denarius.
The civil wars that tore the Republic apart (49-30 BCE) saw dramatic social change, including changes in gender roles. Female figures had appeared on Roman coinage for centuries, but these were goddesses, personifications, or legendary figures like the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, who appeared on a denarius in 89 BCE.
Written by men, Roman history reflects the values of a rigidly patriarchal society. But all those men had mothers, and most had sisters, wives, and daughters. These women are mostly invisible; we hear their voices only in brief passages men thought it appropriate–or politically correct–to record. Coins are one place where a few elite women show their faces. With some imagination (and much digging through books), we can try to recover their stories.
“…a woman not born for spinning or housewifery, nor one that could be content with ruling a private husband, but prepared to govern a first magistrate, or give orders to a commander-in-chief.” -Plutarch, Life of Antony
Born about 83 BCE, Fulvia Flacca Bambula married three powerful politicians who all died violently. About age 20, she married Publius Clodius Pulcher, who fathered a son and a daughter before he was murdered in a street brawl (52 BCE). After the prescribed mourning period, she married Gaius Scribonius Curio, a wealthy supporter of Julius Caesar’s faction. Curio was killed in action in 49 BCE, leading Roman troops in North Africa. About 46 BCE, she married Marcus Antonius (the famous Mark Antony), a reckless young officer rising quickly in Caesar’s army. According to malicious rumor (Roman politics were much like our own), Antony and Fulvia had an affair during her previous marriages. Chronically in debt, he was suspected of marrying for her money. They were a popular power couple, and Fulvia bore Antony two more sons.
In the civil war that followed Caesar’s assassination, Fulvia found herself in charge of Italy as the men went off to build empires and fight in the East. This brought her into conflict with Octavian, Antony’s rival for power.
Around this time, the Roman mint at Lugdunum (now Lyon, France) struck silver coins depicting the goddess of Victory with the features of Fulvia. She became the first living Roman woman to appear on a coin. Possibly to flatter Antony, the small Greek city of Eumeneia (now Çivril, Turkey) renamed itself “Fulvia” and issued bronze coins with her image.
Octavian had married Fulvia’s young daughter, Clodia Pulchra, to cement a political alliance. Then, in 41 BCE, he divorced her. Fulvia raised eight legions to fight Octavian, but was surrounded in Perugia and starved into surrender (February, 40 BCE). Escaping to Greece, she reunited briefly with Antony in Athens, then fell ill and died.
Octavia the Younger, Sister of Augustus
“Octavia was dearly loved by the Romans, who admired her humanity, and her undying loyalty, even to those who betrayed her.” – David Vagi
Born in 69 BCE, Octavia was the daughter of a Roman senator and Atia Balbia Caesonia, Julius Caesar’s niece. She was the older sister of Octavian (born 63 BCE – Roman families were stubbornly consistent about personal names). About age 15 she married an aristocratic opponent of Caesar, Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor (88 – May, 40 BCE). She bore him two daughters and a son.
After Fulvia‘s death, Antony and Octavian patched up an agreement sealed by Antony’s marriage to Octavia (October, 40 BCE). The wedding was commemorated with a special issue of gold aurei; only about seven examples are known. Some Greek cities in the East, eager to please their Roman masters, issued coins with the joint portraits of Antony and Octavia.
Despite her beauty and strong character, Octavia lost the competition for Antony’s heart to the Queen of Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra had been together since 41 BCE. Cleopatra bore Antony a daughter and two sons. Antony finally divorced Octavia in 32 BCE. Following Antony and Cleopatra’s suicide (30 BCE), Octavia became guardian to all of his children. Living in honored retirement, she never remarried. She died around 11 BCE, and her remains were placed in the Mausoleum of Augustus.
Livia Drusilla, The Survivor
“When someone asked her how she had obtained such a commanding influence over Augustus, she answered that it was by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear nor to notice the favorites of his passion.” — Cassius Dio, 58.2.5.
Born about 58 BCE, daughter of a distinguished senator who fought on the side of Brutus in the civil war, Livia was married, about the age of 15, to her cousin, a Senator rather confusingly named Tiberius Claudius Nero. She bore him a son of the same name, the future emperor Tiberius. When Octavian fell madly in love with Livia, he divorced his wife, Scribonia, and forced the elder Tiberius to divorce Livia so that he could marry her (38 BCE). Livia and Octavian remained, by all accounts, happily married for the next 52 years.
Livia’s portrait, never explicitly identified by an inscription, appears on the coinage of Tiberius. On the reverse of the denarius, she sits enthroned as Pax, the personification of peace, holding an olive branch. On some dupondii, she is identified as SALVS, or Salus (“welfare” or “safety”).
Livia was the first Roman woman granted the title of Augusta (empress). She ruthlessly eliminated every relative who was a possible threat or competitor to her son for the imperial throne.
She reached the extraordinary age of 87, outliving every other elite Roman of her generation.
When she died in 29 CE, Tiberius refused to make her a goddess, something she had dearly hoped for, believing it would cancel any punishment in the afterlife for her crimes. She was finally deified by Claudius, her grandson (42 CE).
Antonia the Younger
Born in 36 BCE, Antonia (Antonia Minor or “the Younger” to distinguish her from an elder sister) was the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia. She was said to be the favorite niece of Augustus. About the age of 18 she married Livia’s son, Nero Claudius Drusus, who led Roman armies in Germany. She bore him two sons, Germanicus and Claudius (the future emperor), and a daughter, Livilla. In 9 CE Drusus died from injuries sustained in a fall from his horse. Antonia never remarried, despite pressure from Augustus.
In 31 CE Antonia discovered that her daughter Livilla was involved in a conspiracy with her lover Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, to murder Tiberius and his heir Caligula. Cassius Dio reports Tiberius would have spared Livilla, but:
“Antonia herself of her own accord killed her daughter by starving her.”
When Caligula became emperor, he offered Antonia the title of Augusta, an honor only Livia had previously received. She refused. Disgusted by Caligula’s increasingly erratic and murderous behavior, she committed suicide in protest. Suetonius suggests Caligula had her poisoned at the age of 72, in 37 CE.
The image of Antonia appears on coins struck by her son, Claudius, who posthumously granted her the title of Augusta.
Agrippina the Elder, Mother of Caligula
Vipsania Agrippina was born in Athens (14 BCE). Her brilliant father, Marcus Agrippa, engineered Octavian’s rise to rule the empire. Her mother was Julia the Elder, only daughter of Octavian. Sometime after 5 BCE, Agrippina married Germanicus, her second cousin and a victorious young commander adored by his troops and the Roman people. She bore him nine children; three sons and three daughters survived to adulthood. She accompanied Germanicus on campaign, raising her children in the Spartan environment of legionary camps and forts. Traditionalists considered this un-feminine, as Roman mothers were expected to stay home when their men went to war.
The growing popularity of Germanicus was a threat to Tiberius, who had him poisoned (probably) on a visit to Antioch (19 CE). For a decade, Tiberius waged a bitter campaign of accusation and slander against Agrippina, even as he adopted her son Caligula as his heir. In 29 CE, she was beaten so severely she lost an eye. Exiled to a remote island, she starved herself to death or was murdered (33 CE).
When Caligula came to power after the death of Tiberius in 37 CE, his first act was to bring his mother’s ashes back to Rome. He struck a series of coins with her portrait, including superb sestertii that numismatist David Vagi described as the “height in Julio-Claudian coin artistry.”
Sources for Real Roman Women on Coins:
Plutarch (46 – 120 CE) is often our best source for this period, particularly Life of Antony, and Life of Caesar. The English text can be found here.
The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (69 – 122 CE) is also valuable, despite the author’s delight in scandalous gossip. Here you will find a good translation.
The text of Cassius Dio (155 – 235 CE) can be found at the University of Chicago’s website.
Among modern numismatic works, some I found particularly useful include:
Clive Foss, Roman Historical Coins, London (1990)
J.P.C. Kent, Roman Coins, New York (1978)
David Vagi, Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, Sidney, OH (1999)
Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious cllector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for best pre-WWII wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
In addition, Mike presents his expert insights on three numismatic video features shot by CoinWeek’s David Lisot. They are: Ancient Roman Coins for Beginners, Mike Markowitz, WHIT14-001, 70:00m; Introduction to Collecting Ancient Coins, Michael Markowitz, WHIT13-003, 69:57; and Coins in the Bible, Michael Markowitz, WHIT13-009, 44:26. Mike’s videos are available for purchase at $25 each plus $4 per order for S/H at: www.coinvideo.com or by emailing David directly.