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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Mars, the God of War|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
ars was one of the chief gods of Rome from the earliest times; the god of war, both aggressor and defender, and protector of the farmers' crops. In myth, Mars was the father of Romulus, the founder of Rome. The month of March was named after him, and there were several Roman festivals for him in that month; the third day of the week was, and still is, named after him. Later in the year, a horse was sacrificed to him in the ritual of equus October.
Mars was one of the "old triad" of Roman deities, together with Jupiter and Quirinus, and so one of the three most important priests of Rome – the Flamen Martialis – was dedicated to him. Even though the newer trio of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva became Rome's chief deities, with their temple on the Capitoline Hill, the older priesthood still maintained its supremacy. On the right is a Republican denarius of Q. Minucius M.f. Thermus from 103 BCE, showing a youthful head of Mars, wearing an ornate and crested helmet.
he most common representation of Mars on coins of the early Empire was as shown on the far left, a heroically nude figure wearing a crested helmet and hefting a military trophy over his shoulder, carrying his spear and walking – almost strutting – in a godlike manner. A chlamys wafts about his hips, but does not obscure his muscular form in any way. There is a straight line through his body, down his right leg and his extended foot, which barely needs to touch the ground. That is a denarius of Trajan, from a period when the coinage was notable for the quality of its artwork.
The figure on the other coin, a denarius of Marcus Aurelius, is the same in most respects, but unusually, Mars is striding out in a more businesslike and perhaps a more human way, with his left leg fully bent at the knee.
Neither of these coins specifies which aspect of Mars is depicted, so we can assume that the generalised God of War is intended, just as on the Republican denarius at the top of the page – which in fact has a battle scene on its reverse.
The denarius of Vespasian on the right also has a non-specific legend, but the image is very clear; instead of striding out in an abstracted way, Mars stands with a sword in his hand, ready to defend the crops shown behind him (apparently wheat). This probably symbolised the role of the emperor and his army in maintaining a stable grain supply, which was the subject of several of Vespasian's coins.
Actually, this example is a contemporary fake, with a base metal core under the layer of silver we can see.
n the religious life of Rome, Mars had a great number of different epithets, and some of them appeared on the Empire's coins. The imagery varied according to the type, and all of them make a statement of imperial power and authority.
Mars the Victor was shown in the same pose as the early Mars above. The left-hand coin is an antoninianus of Probus from 278-279 CE with the straightforward legend MARS VICTOR. Next to it, a denarius of Geta from 202 CE; MARTI VICTORI says the coin is dedicated to Mars the winner.
The antoninanus is partly silvered. The silver coating that was applied to these coins is worn off on most of the specimens found today, leaving the appearance of a bronze or billon coin; though it is still possible to find one that looks almost as shiny as new. This one is in a half-way state.
"They make a wilderness and call it peace" (words attributed by Tacitus the historian to the British leader Calgacus). On the antoninianus of Probus on the left, dedicated to Mars the Bringer of Peace, the god is dressed as a soldier. He holds his spear and shield in his left hand so that he can lean forward and brandish an olive branch with his right.
Would you accept an offer of peace from this deity? Only with extreme caution, I would suggest. Though I do not think you would have had a choice. That olive branch is brandished just as forcefully as a weapon might be.
Below on the right are three coins of Septimius Severus and his family. The coin on the near right, a denarius of his son Caracalla from 205 CE, is, in its way, even more alarming than the antoninianus of Probus.
Mars is heroically nude, with his unconcealing chlamys draped from his shoulder this time. His spear is behind him, and he rests his foot on the helmet of a defeated enemy. He is gesturing downwards with his olive branch, as though to someone who is on the ground but just out of sight.
This seems to equate peace with a field of dead enemies.
On the denarius of Septimius Severus in the middle right, with the legend MARS PACATOR, once again a nude Mars is standing with his spear behind him, but this time he looks uncharacteristicaly effete and rather badly drawn.
You can see clearly that his spear is pointing downwards. Such a reversed spear was the equivalent of a sheathed weapon. His olive branch is extended forwards, but without much energy.
MARS PACATOR is not just a bringer of peace; he is a peacemaker because he subdues the enemy. The spear might point downwards, but you see he still has it right there in his hand. And it has a big sharp point.
On the far right is another denarius of Caracalla. This has the legend MARTI PACATORI, dedicated to Mars the subduer. This time, Mars has a shield as well as a reversed spear, and is not heroically nude, but has drapery around his lower body. His branch is held upright, for all to see.
hese two antoniniani are of Gordian III, from 243-244 CE. They were issued during a war with Persia, and both show Mars Propugnator, the defender and champion of Rome; literally, the one who fights for the Romans. He is dressed as a soldier and carries a spear and shield.
The legends differ slightly; one is MARS PROPVG and the other is MARTEM PROPVGNATOREM. The latter wording is unusual. It is in the accusative, and says that Mars is the subject of the coin. It was more common to see either a plain naming of the deity in the nominative, or a statement in the dative that the coin was dedicated to him.
The muscular character on the left strikes his pose on a much later coin of Constantine the Great, with the legend MARTI PATRI PROPVGNATORI, dedicated to Father Mars who Fights for Us. This coin was struck in Trier in 307 or 308 CE. Constantine "the Great" was an aggressive conqueror who struck several coins showing Mars – there are two more at the bottom of this page.
This Mars, like the Peacemaker, is not carrying a trophy. For the peacemaker, it might have been thought inappropriate; in this case, presumably it would be acquired later, after the battle.
ars Ultor, the Avenger, is shown on the denarius of Severus Alexander on the far left, from 232 CE. He is equipped as a soldier, like the Defender, but the legend tells us that this time he is striding out not to defend, but to wreak revenge.
The other coin, a denarius of Augustus from 19-18 BCE, shows the temple of Mars Ultor which he dedicated in 2 BCE, primarily as thanks for vengeance on the assassins of his adoptive father Julius Caesar. It was the first temple to Mars within the Pomerium (the formal and ritual boundary of the city of Rome), and it formed the centrepiece of the new forum he built next to Caesar's.
But it also served to remind the citizens that in 20 BCE, he had taken revenge on the Parthians who captured and killed the greedy goldhunter Crassus. The standards you can see are those of Crassus, recovered from the Parthians and placed in the temple's innermost shrine. A number of military ceremonies were diverted to be held there, such as the departure of military commanders, and the Senate's voting to award military triumphs.
The grouping shown in this temple, the legionary eagle surrounded by two standards, has a very specific allusion on this coin, but was also a quite usual way to dedicate a coin to the army. It can be seen on legionary coins such as those minted by Mark Antony and Marcus Aurelius, and pairs of standards can be seen on many later small bronzes.
This coin was minted in Spain, in Córdoba, at about the time the last northern part of Spain was conquered in the Cantabrian Wars. Córdoba, then called Colonia Patricia, was further south, and already Roman.
n this antoninianus of Gallienus from 256-260 CE is the plain legend DEO MARTI, dedicated to Mars the god. The coin shows an outline of Mars in a standing pose, spear point-down behind him, resting his hand on a shield which is grounded in front. He stands in a four-columned temple with a decorated pediment.
This is one of a small group of coins showing deities in their temples issued in the names of Gallienus, his father Valerian, and his wife Salonina. The others are DEO VOLKANO or VOLCANO, dedicated to the god Vulcan, issued for Valerian; and DEAE SEGETIAE, dedicated to a minor agricultural goddess, issued for Salonina.
he coin on the left shows two invincible gods in the reign of Aurelian. On this antoninianus are Invincible Sol on the right, with his distinctive radiate crown and whip, handing a globe to Invincible Mars. Aurelian promoted the worship of the Invincible Sun, and showed him on many coins. A globe like this usually represented dominion over the entire cosmos. There was nothing half-hearted about Aurelian's coins!
The legend is simply MARS INVICTVS. This was an old aspect; a temple of Mars Invictus in the Circus Flaminius (outside the pomerium) was dedicated by D. Junius Brutus Callaicus during his consulship in 133 BCE.
The coin next to it, also from Aurelian at around the same time, shows Mars, still on the left, presenting what is probably the same globe to the emperor Aurelian. The legend, RESTITVTOR EXERCITI, states that Aurelian is the restorer of the army; and in fact he was a capable general, and had great success in rebuilding a fragmented empire.
inally, two coins of Constantine the Great, both dedicated to Mars the Preserver, MARTI CONSERVATORI. They date from 316 CE (left) and 317 CE (right). The right-hand coin shows a fully clothed Mars standing at ease, leaning on his spear and shield, awaiting the call to action.
On the left, with the same legend, is just the deity's bust with an ornate crested helmet, echoing the first coin on this page, the Republican denarius struck 420 years earlier.
|The content of this page was last updated on 25 August 2010|
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