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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Galleys — Safe Journeys and Sea Power|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
When people think of the spread of the Roman empire, it is the armies that come to mind. Well organised, well trained, using efficient methods, they drove all before them (with a few exceptions, of course!). But just as important for a Mediterranean empire was sea power. It was the battle of Actium - a sea battle - that sealed the fate of Anthony and Cleopatra. Well built and well armed galleys, swift liburnians, these kept the seas open and kept down the numbers of pirates; and massive cargo ships fed Rome with African grain.
Naturally, galleys and other types of ship made an appearance on many coins. These two chunky bronze coins are from the Roman republic, an as on the left (169-157 BCE) and a semis on the right (135-125 BCE). The front of a galley in a rather skeletal or diagrammatic form was a standard design on Republican bronzes.
Below left is a famous denarius, probably the best known Roman "galley" coin. It was made at Patrae in 32-31 BCE by Mark Antony for use by his troops in the east. There were a whole series of coins with this galley on the obverse, and legionary standards on the reverse. This one honours Legio VII Paterna. It is clear that the coins were appreciated by the legions, because although many remain, they are almost all very worn from 100 years of use, some right down to a plain silver disk.
Of course, this also means that they were not of a high enough grade of silver to be worth hoarding!
This galley has six rowers and nine oars, plus a steersman with an oar. At the prow is a standard, suggesting that it is carrying an important personage. This is a Praetorian galley, and on this coin it represents the whole navy of the Roman Republic. Antony's fleet did not do too well; it was defeated in the Battle of Actium by Octavian's admiral, Agrippa.
The stern has a fancy decoration known as an aplustre, which is even more elaborate on he denarius to its right, from Marcus Aurelius in 268-269 CE, almost 200 years later. Unlike most Roman imperial coins, this one does not show the emperor on its obverse. This is because it is a "restoration" of Mark Anthony's type. In those Imperatorial times, there was no emperor, and no custom of placing a ruler's head on the coinage; though Mark Antony did show his name in the legend. On the original, it is abbreviated as ANT AVG, but in 168 CE, that abbreviation might cause confusion with the normal abbreviation for the title AVGVSTVS, and that would not be allowed! So the later coin spelled it out in full as ANTONIVS AVGVR.
Like the coins it was made to resemble, this one names a specific legion on the reverse (click on the image to see the full coin). On that side you will also find the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, and that of his co-emperor Lucius Verus. Legio VI Victrix was the only legion they honoured on this restoration.
The leftmost of these two is a denarius of Hadrian. This galley is a little worn, but shows all the detail present in the original state. The bow with its ram; the sloping square-rigged mast with a furled sail; the cabin at the rear; the curved stern post; the row of oars; and the large steering oar. On this coin, there seem to be no rowers or passengers.
To its right is a denarius of Elagabalus. This very nicely detailed craft has seven rowers and a pilot. Six rowing oars and a steering oar can be seen. This sort of mismatch is common on coins, and we can't take the number of rowers or oars as an indication of literal fact.
Between the rowers and the pilot is a round cabin, which would have contained the emperor. There is a central mast with a "crow's nest" which served as a lookout point and a vantage for throwing missiles if it came to a battle. The galley is travelling to the right.
The high curving object on the stern is an acrostolium. This coin comes from an eastern mint. It is possible that the legend FELICITAS TEMP, "happiness of the times" might refer to Elagabalus becoming emperor, and his journey to Rome. There are more Felicitas coins on my "Happiness, Cheerfulness and Joy" page.
On the left, an antoninianus of Postumus. Postumus was emperor of a breakaway "Roman" empire consisting of Britain and part of the mainland. This coin was struck in his capital city, Cologne (or Köln, or Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium as the Romans called it.) The galley is traveling to the left and you can see four rowers, six oars, and the steersman sheltered by the tall, curved acrostolium. No cabin for a VIP is shown (even though the captain might have had one), so this rather unrealistic image was probably intended as a warship. As Postumus' empire included the English Channel, sea power was important to him. The legend, LAETITIA AVG, means the rejoicing of the emperor.
And on the right, the forepart of a galley is shown on this striking denarius of Vespasian, which uses a design seen earlier on a denarius of the Triumvir Mark Antony. It is somewhat stylised, but the cruel triple beak can be clearly seen.
All Roman coins had a secondary role as official propaganda, setting out a message which should shape the way the citizens thought about their emperors. Galley coins were no exception. Two common messages they sent were to inform the people about the travels of their rulers, and to make it clear where their power lay.
On the near right is a rough old denarius, corroded and damaged, but you can see some useful details on it all the same. The legend is ADVENT AVGG – the Arrival of the Emperors – so we know from the start that this coin celebrates a safe voyage to Rome. There is a legionary flag at the prow, and legionary standards at the stern, so we can guess that this has been a military expedition. In fact, Caracalla's father, the emperor Septimius Severus, had undertaken long campaigns in the East after declaring himself emperor, and this coin celebrates his delayed arrival in Rome in the year 202 CE with his two sons Caracalla and Geta. Normally, you would see them in a cabin just in front of the pilot, in the same position as the round cabin on the Elagabalus coin above, but on this coin they are obscured by corrosion and damage. But you can clearly see this galley's double-beaked ram, another sign of its military origin.
The coin next to it is a copper as of Marcus Aurelius. Where the steersman would normally stand is Neptune, in a typical pose with one foot resting on something and a dolphin held in his outstretched hand. (That's easier to make out if you click through to the larger picture.) This coin was issued following the emperor's return from the east, a voyage on which he encountered a dangerous storm, and Neptune is being credited with safely guiding Marcus back to Rome.
The coins on the left are both billon quinarii of Allectus from 293-296 CE. Postumus (whose coin is shown above) wasn't the only one to break the remote north-western edge of the empire away from central control. In 287, Carausius did the same thing, but his empire consisted only of Britain, and for part of the time the area around Bologne just across the channel. But he was defeated on the continent by Constantius Chlorus and lost control of Bologne, whereupon his chief minister and treasurer Allectus killed him (probably; facts are thin on the ground) and took control of Britain. Control of the English Channel was critical for Allectus, so here are two of his galleys, on coins minted in London.
The details vary from coin to coin, probably according to the skill and whim of the engraver. All show a central mast with stays rigged fore and aft, an array of rowing oars, and a steering oar; and these galleys very clearly had some sort of criss-cross railing structure along the side. This would have been the parados, a structure that projected out sideways and served both to protect the oars and act as a fighting platform. Through this on one of these coins can be seen the heads of six people. I have been calling people in this position "oarsmen," but in this case at least, and possibly the others too, they are more likely to have been the fighting marines who crewed the galley. The oarsmen would have been hidden under the deck. The legend, VIRTVS AVG, relates to Allectus' strength and courage, which the galley embodies. There is more about this concept on my Virtus page.
It is also worth mentioning that in real life none of these galleys would have been this high out of the water. On coins, they are almost invariably shown high up so that their rams can be depicted. It's pretty obvious that these rams would not have worked unless they were under the waterline.
The galleys on the coins so far have been full-scale, real ships, carrying real people and rowed by real seamen. But Roman imperial coins used symbolism a great deal, and galleys were not excluded from this. Many coins used galleys out of scale, to represent the full thing.
These representations ranged from whole galleys to small, but recognisable, parts of them. In this section (which is not a chronological sequence, but arranged for effect) the galleys get smaller and smaller ...
On the right, a small bronze coin of Constantine the Great from 327-328 CE. The figure of Victory is shown very much enlarged, dominating the scene. But the galley is still very detailed, and in fact you can clearly see the rear cabin, the structure of the steering oar, and the decorative additions at bow and stern that look rather like lanterns, though they probably are not. The enlargement shows the stern of the galley.
On the far left is a centenionalis of Constans from 348-350 CE. The coin is a little encrusted, but the details are still quite clear. Galleys, or parts of galleys, were often shown in an unrealistically small scale, so as to represent their presence but still allow important characters to occupy the largest part of the design.
This time, the emperor stands proudly in the bow, and is much more important than Victory, who has been relegated to the role of steersperson. The structure of the galley is faithfully represented, with the ram, the ports for he oars, and the three-part rudder all clearly shown.
Next to it, on the far right, is a centenionalis of Constantius Gallus from 351-354 CE with ostensibly the same design. The galley is still clearly delineated, and five rowing oars can be seen, but it is smaller, and more simplified and stylised than before.
Below left is a denarius of Domitian from 92-93 CE. Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, is shown in an aggressive posture standing, not directly on a galley, but on a rostral column which celebrates naval victory, with the prow of a galley to the left.
Rostral columns were decorated with prows jutting out in all directions. She holds a shield and her snakey aegis hangs down her back, and she is in the act of throwing a thunderbolt. In front of her stands her companion owl. Domitian was much attached to Minerva and showed her on many of his coins.
On the far right is an antoninianus of Philip I from 244-245 CE. This is about the smallest a galley can get on a coin. Laetitia, the personification of joy, is shown holding a rudder and a patera (used in sacrifices), and with one foot on a miniature prow. The intention is to show that joy, based on sea power and piety, is well founded. (More about this on my "Happiness, Cheerfulness and Joy" page.)
The same sort of "foot on prow" image occurred frequently on coins showing Annona and Isis, both of whom were associated with the transport of grain from Egypt. So this might not even be a galley in the ordinary sense; rather, a cargo boat.
The denarius of Vespasian on the far left shows a ship fit to carry an emperor. It depicts a deity of quite specific good fortune, the Fortuna of a return journey, grasping a prow. This coin was struck in Lugdunum (modern Lyons) in 70 CE, the year that Vespasian returned to Rome from his successful campaign in Egypt. The trip had been delayed by bad weather, according to Tacitus, and news of its success was spread in the west by this coinage.
The denarius of Nerva next to it, from 97 CE, shows a war galley. On this coin, the slightly insecure emperor Nerva is stating that he and the army (and navy) are in full agreement with each other. The message of the clasped hands is obvious. They are clasped around a legionary standard, and the standard rests on a galley's prow in miniature. The ram is clearly visible.
You can see that the sequence of examples in the last section is not chronological, so it's not as though galleys on Roman coins were reduced in size over time. It's more a case of a constant need to put across messages that are sometimes quite complex in a very small space, so that although coins were sometimes quite representational, they also often used compressed symbols as a language. Which is what half of this web site is about!
To show how well Roman coin designs resonate down through history, here is the reverse of a florin (two-shilling coin) of Edward VII of Britain, a design that was used from 1902 to 1910 CE. Britannia, with her trident and the flag of the United Kingdom on her shield, is posed in exactly the same way as those ancient Roman triumphal figures, standing on the prow of a galley that had hot been in use for two millennia. What's more, the coin is the same design in many other respects, even down to the use of Latin abbreviations and plurals on the obverse.
|The content of this page was last updated on 14 August 2009|
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