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Children on Roman Coins

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Reverse of a follis of Constantine showing wolf and twins In the early 330s CE, Constantine the Great issued coins to celebrate both his new Eastern capital Constantinopolis, and the original Western capital, Rome. VRBS ROMA, the City of Rome, was the legend on those, and on their reverse was the old symbol of a wolf nurturing twins, from the story of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of the city. This famous image is what most people would think of if asked what depictions of children appeared in a Roman context.

The coin on the right is one such, struck at Trier. The two stars above the wolf, one for each child, are to indicate their divinity.

In fact, children appeared on many Roman coins. Sometimes this was just because one or more children belonged with the type, and sometimes it was to illustrate an imperial family or to celebrate the production of an heir to the empire. We don't have full records of many imperial families, so sometimes it is not easy to work out whether such an illustration was intended. But with other coins, it is easy.

The reverses of Roman Imperial coins usually showed a deity or personification that was supposed to illustrate some aspect of the personality of the emperor or empress. There were a limited number of types thught suitable for an empress, and of these, the one that was most often used to illustrate family was for ths purpose was Fecunditas, Fruitfulness.

Reverse of a brass sestertius of Faustina Junior showing Fecunditas holding a child Reverse of a copper as of Faustina Junior showing Fecunditas with four children Reverse of a silver denarius of Faustina Junior showing Fecunditas with six children Here are three coins of Faustina Junior, sometimes called Faustina the Younger. She was the daughter of Antoninus Pius and the elder Faustina, and the wife of Antoninus Pius' successor, Marcus Aurelius. Faustina is one of the best examples of the way these coins reflected the actual membership of the family. These are just a representative sample. Faustina had 13 children, 7 of whom died young, so it is not so easy to name most of them, even the single child on the first coin. On the second coin there are two girls of different ages standing, and two girl children in arms. (Girls were shown clothed, boy children were shown naked.)

Reverse of a silver denarius of Faustina Junior showing two children on a throne The third, right-hand coin shows six children, the four girls standing and twin boys held in Fecunditas' arms. The boys are the twins Commodus and Antoninus, born on 31st August 161 CE. The twins apparently justified a more specific response too, as on the coin just below, where they are shown on a throne. The legend on this coin, SAECVLI FELICI, means "the good fortune of the age." Commodus did indeed become the next emperor, though whether this was actually good fortune was open to doubt.

Reverse of a silver denarius of Septimius Severus showing Jupiter with two children Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Hilaritas with two children It is easy to put names to the two children on these next coins. On the near right is a denarius of Julia Domna, and on the far right is a denarius of her husband, the emperor Septimius Severus. This pair had two boys, Caracalla and Geta, destined to be Septimius' successors. Julia's coin shows Hilaritas, the personification of gaiety and rejoicing, and Septimius' shows Jupiter, the most powerful of the gods. The children are naked, so boys, and both are turned towards the central figure, which represents a parent as well as a deity. You can see that one boy is a little taller; that one is Caracalla.

Coins of Julia Domna like the three below show one boy, and this would represent Caracalla, the elder, who was treated as the designated heir and received significant honours long before Geta. (There are some portraits of the brothers on my Publius and Lucius page.)

Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Fortuna with a child Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Isis and Horus Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Domna showing Venus and possibly Cupid The left-hand coin shows Fortuna, in this pose a goddess of safe voyaging, with a legend that means "happy return." She is holding a rudder to signify voyaging by sea, and a cornucopia for an abundance of good things.

In the middle is a denarius showing the goddess Isis holding her child Horus to her breast. The background is a little lopsided, typical of this coin type, but is supposed to be a galley or similar sea vessel. Isis' foot rests on the prow, and behind her is the stern with a rudder leaning against it. The engravers at the Rome mint seem not to have fully understood the design, and on coins like this one they often made the prow too small, and the rear of this ship more like an altar. Isis was the goddess in charge of shipping and navigation at Alexandria. It's likely that this coin was issued around the time that Septimius Severus entered Alexandria with his sons to consolidate the loyalty of the inhabitants.

The rightmost of those three coins is a contemporary fake of a denarius showing Conquering Venus with a child representing her son Cupid. It looks rather a crude copy, but presumably it passed. The silvery surface is now partly worn away, revealing the base metal core.

All these mothers with children suggested that Domna and Caracalla were like these deities, sharing the same attributes and characteristics.

Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Soaemias showing Venus and possibly Cupid Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Maesa showing Fecunditas with a child Many coins showing children have a message which is not so clear. Here are two from the same family as Julia Domna. On the near right is a denarius of Julia Maesa, Domna's sister. This Fecunditas has one clothed child, so a female. This coin was struck at the start of the reign of Elagabalus, Maesa's grandson, so it might be a belated recognition of Maesa's daughter Julias Soaemias, his mother. Maesa had another girl, Julia Mamaea, but perhaps Elagabalus did not want to show a mere aunt on his coinage. But all this is just theorising.

On the far right is a denarius of that first daughter, Julia Soaemias. It shows Heavenly Venus with a child who represents Cupid, Venus' son, and also perhaps Soaemias son Elagabalus.

Reverse of a silver denarius of Julia Mamaea showing Juno Lucina with a swaddled baby This coin on the left is interesting in that it is usually more specific about what it represents. It shows a version of the goddess Juno who helps in childbirth, Juno Lucina. She holds a flower of hope and a swaddled baby. This is often a clear reference to a new child for the Imperial family. The puzzle is that there wasn't any such child, so in this case the baby must be appropriate for the type, and have no ulterior message.

The coin is a denarius of Julia Mamaea, Maesa's other daughter and the mother of the emperor Severus Alexander. She would have been in her 50s when the coin was struck. Her son had recently been married, but this brief liaison had been over for a few years by this time. So the coin does no more than associate Mamaea with support for Roman motherhood.

Reverse of a silver antoninianus of Otacilia Severa showing Pietas with a child Sometimes coins can give interesting hints. This antoninianus of Otacilia Severa on the right shows Pietas, representing pious religious observance. One of the ways an empress could demonstrate piety was to produce an heir for the dynasty.

Otacilia Severa was the wife of the emperor Philip the Arab, and the coin was struck in 244-245 CE. The child is clothed, so female. We know of Severa's son, Philip II, so this female might be thought to be just appropriate for the type, like the Juno Lucina shown above, except that there is other evidence, in the form of a medallion struck at the same time which showed Pudicitia and Felicitas with two children. That is much more specific. Coins like this are the only evidence of a daughter for Otacilia Severa.

Reverse of a billon antoninianus of Salonina showing Fecunditas with one child Reverse of a billon antoninianus of Salonina showing Pietas with three children On the left are two antoniniani of Salonina, the wife of the emperor Gallienus. These are another slight mystery. It is not completely clear how many children Salonina had. There are definite mentions of two sons and a daughter, but the third boy might instead have been a cousin or nephew. However, it seems likely that the third boy was born several years after these coins were struck, so there was at that time a family of three.

The coin on the far left might therefore refer to the birth of the girl, and next to it is a coin showing all three of the children.

Reverse of a silver denarius of Plautilla showing Pietas carrying a child Plautilla was not on good terms with her husband Caracalla. Yet, when they married, there were several coin types suggesting the possibility of children, some in anticipation, and one type, shown on the right, with Pietas holding a plump baby. So it seems likely that however much they disliked each other, there was after all some fruitful contact. Notice that the legend ends AVGG, in the plural, so that both Caracalla and Plautilla are being commended for their piety in this matter.

Reverse of a silver antoninianus of Valerian II showing the child Zeus riding the goat Amalthea Reverse of a silver tridrachm of Aigeai showing the nymph Amalthea with a baby This antoninianus of the young Valerian II, on the far left, shows the boy Jupiter seated on a goat. This refers to the legend that the goat, Amalthea, cared for and fed the young Jupiter. The legend means "Jupiter is growing," and is a clear reference to the status of the young Valerian, who was the son of the emperor Gallienus and grandson of Valerian I.

On the near left is a tridrachm of Hadrian from the Greek provincial town of Aigeai. This shows Amalthea as a nymph, holding the baby Jupiter. Unlike the previous coin, this one had no dynastic significance. This was the period of the adoptive emperors. The goat on this coin is a pun on the name of the town, which is probably the reason for this type being used in the first place.

Reverse of a follis of Constantine showing Fausta and two babies Reverse of a follis of Theodora showing Pietas with a child to her breast Finally, two much later coins which do have a dynastic message. On the near right is a bronze coin of Theodora, wife of the emperor Constantius Chlorus. This coin shows Pietas with a rather large baby held to her breast. Theodora had six childen with Constantius Chlorus; it is not clear which child this represents.

Next to it is a bronze coin of Fausta, wife of Constantine the Great. Fausta herself is shown on this coin, holding two babies who later became the emperors Constantine II and Constantius II. They were actually aged 9 and 10, so showing them as babes in arms was symbolic. This coin was struck in 326 CE, when Fausta actually had three boys, including Constans, another future emperor; but only Constantine and Constantius had been appointed Caesars at that time. Constans was made Caesar in 333 CE.

————————  Acknowledgements  ————————

Some of the information on this page came from discussions on the Forum Classical Numismatics Discussion Board. Thanks in particular to Curtis Clay for information about Plautilla and Julia Mamaea, and Jochen for information about Cornelia Salonina.

The content of this page was last updated on 30 April 2009

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