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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Leaning on that Handy Column|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Today, "security" conjures images of burglar alarm systems, locks and bars, maybe even armed guards. There is a "security" firm called Securitas. In the USA there is a department of "Homeland Security" and everywhere you can hear about "security levels being tightened." The word has become associated with state control in the name of protection and safety. But in the Roman Empire, Securitas was at the other end of this process – it meant freedom from care, and the attitude of relaxed confidence that resulted from "good" government. Of course the state control was still there, but that wasn't what the word meant.
On Roman coins, Securitas was usually shown as a personification either seated, or standing in a relaxed pose, legs crossed, leaning one elbow on a conveniently placed column. Where all these handy columns came from is not very apparent. I can't really imagine people building unoccupied columns so that passers-by could lounge around on them. Still, here they are .. these columns, and the casual poses – sometimes looking rather forced – are what I like about these coins.
Top right is a denarius of Macrinus from 217 CE. It shows Securitas in what is probably the most easily recognisable pose. The column, the crossed legs and the casual air are all present. This Securitas is holding a tall sceptre and the legend is SECVRITAS TEMPORVM, The Security of the Times. The way propaganda works means that you can bet that the most nervous and least secure Emperors are very likely to put out confidence-inspiring messages. Certainly Macrinus can't have felt very secure, and rightly so. He lasted just over a year. But you'd never guess it from this coin, with its message that the populace that despite the unorthodox succession from Caracalla (who was murdered) everyone can still feel safe.
On the far left is an antoninianus of Gordian III from 243-244 CE with an identical image, but with the legend SECVRITAS PERPETVA, Perpetual Security. The antoninianus of Probus from 281 CE next to it has a similar legend, SECVRIT PERP. The pace of regime change over this period makes this more of a hopeful wish, or an "official truth," than an established fact.
The stance of Securitas on the Probus coin is probably my favorite. The flat of the hand on top of the head, perhaps patting down her hair; and the way the column is leaning slightly under her weight, as happens on many Securitas coins, is far from the sort of stiff pose you can see on many Roman coins. That tilting colum reminds me of the way some people can tilt back a chair they are sitting on as a mark of confident ease.
Two more standing Securitas coins. On the near right, a follis of Helena, wife of Constantius I and mother of Constantine the Great, dating from 328-329 CE. This is unusual in that Securitas is holding a branch, in a sweeping gesture almost like Apollo on his coins on my "Branches on Roman Coins" page. The way she is holding up a fold of her robe is also unlike most Securitas poses.
On the far right, a small bronze of Constans from 337-340 CE, in the first few years of his reign as Augustus. This one is more recognisable, but if possible Securitas is even more relaxed than on the earlier coins; she is almost slumped over her column. The use of any personification at all was exceptional by the time this coin was made. Both these coins have a legend which means "the Security of the Republic;" it must have been an important message to send.
Securitas didn't always stand; here she is seated. On the left, an antoninianus of Philip I from 244-245 C. Securitas is casually propping her head on her hand, with her arm resting on the back of her throne. The angle doesn't actually look all that casual, but the signal is more important than the practicalities.
Her short sceptre is also held in a casual grip, the end tucked into the crook of her elbow, almost like a cane ready to be twirled. The legend this time speaks of peace of mind for the whole world.
On the far right is a denarius of Caracalla from 199 CE with a very similar pose, but this time accompanied by a garlanded altar with lively flames.
On the far left below is a denarius of Geta from 202 CE. Its legend, SECVRIT IMPERII, means "Security for the Empire." On this coin, the top half of Securitas is posed more naturally, with her left arm leaning on the arm, rather than the top, of her ornate throne.
The globe she is holding is normally interpreted as representing the cosmos, presumably meant to be the subject of the legend. There is still a little stiffness about the pose of her legs, though, in an attempt to incorporate two symbols. They are crossed, and in addition, one foot rests casually on a footstool.
Next to that coin is a denarius of Commodus on which the legend, starting SECVR ORB, refers specifically to the security of the world, as on the antoninianus of Philip I above. Perhaps the globe on this coin stands for that world, rather than the whole cosmos.
Securitas is in the same pose as on the denarius of Geta, except that the footstool is missing; but an odd thing about this coin is that she seems to be leaning on a carving or statuette of a sphinx.
This does not appear on all specimens of this coin, and this variation does not seem to be mentioned in the literature. The only reference is a footnote in the British Musem Catalogue agains the sestertius of the same type, which, however, does not attempt to explain the presence of this unusual device.
It might be taken as just a decoration of the throne, but it is so large and conspicuous that it is hard to think that it does not have some significance, unknown though that may be.
It wasn't only Securitas who liked to lean on a nearby column. The image of insouciance was too good to waste, and a host of other personifications used the same way of putting over a message of casual confidence.
Here is Felicitas on a denarius of Julia Mamaea on the left, and an antoninianus of Trebonianus Gallus on the right. On both, the legend FELICITAS PVBLICA, "The happiness of the people," is illustrated by a personification holding a caduceus, symbol of trade and prosperity, and making good use of one of those mysterious columns to show just how relaxed everyone can be. On the antoninianus, she also has a long sceptre. The column is quite slim, and on the denarius it's seriously tilted – it actually doesn't look very secure to me, especially with her legs crossed like that. But Felicitas doesn't care. (There are more Felicitas coins on my "Happiness, Cheerfulness and Joy on Roman Coins" page.)
Even back in the Republic, these columns appeared on coins. Here are two republican denarii. On the left, Q Pomponius Musa, from 66 BCE; and on the right, Mn. Acilius Glabrio, from 49 BCE.
The left-hand coin is worn and broken, but its excuse is that it came in a lot of 20 coins, most of them in much better condition. It sat unregarded for months until I noticed that it is actually quite interesting, both for its subject matter and the coin's internal structure. It shows Clio, the muse of history, scanning an open scroll and, of course, leaning on a column to demonstrate a casual mastery of her subject. Q Pomponius Musa issued coins showing all seven muses, and they are highly collectible if they are in rather better condition than this one.
The denarius on the right shows Valetudo, a rare personification of personal health, closely related to Salus, who usually symbolised the welfare of the Empire and its people rather than personal well-being. There's also another column-leaning snake bearer on my "Salus and her Snake" page which might be an imitation of this image.
This is what happens when you try to say too much with a single image. On this denarius of Domitian from 79 CE, Salus is holding a dish of snake food in one hand, a snake in the other, and leaning on a column with legs crossed. The result must be the most awkward pose on any coin of this period. She's almost certainly going to spill that snake food. The legend, PRINCEPS IVVENTVTIS, states that Domitian is the first or leader of the young men of his time, and was issued with a range of inspirational images on a series of different coins.
Two personifications with very similar meanings. On the far left, a denarius of the late and deified Faustina Junior with the legend AETERNITAS, a sentiment which we would understand completely in modern times, although these days, deceased members of rulers' families do not become gods.
On the near left, a denarius of Severus Alexander with the much more scarce legend PERPETVITATI AVG, dedicated to the continuity of his reign. Aeternitas is holding a phoenix on a globe, symbols of dominion and rebirth. Perpetuitas is also holding a globe, which usually represents the cosmos. Her long sceptre does not prevent her from leaning on her column. Both of these personifications are more formally posed than, for example, Felicitas; their legs are not crossed and their columns are sturdy and upright.
On the near right is a rather worn denarius of Sabina, Hadrian's wife, with the legend CONCORDIA AVG; harmony with the Emperor. She is holding a patera for piety, has a cornucopia in her arm for an abundance of good things, AND is leaning on a rather rickety column with her legs crossed to indicate complete confidence in the whole concept.
Next to it is a larger bronze coin, a five-assarion piece of Elagabalus and his grandmother Julian Maesa minted in Markianopolis. This provincial coin shows Hermes, the Greek equivalent of Roman Mercury, holding his purse and caduceus, and with his elbow placed on top of a column. His pose hardly seems to acknowledge that he is leaning.
On the far right above, Eros is resting on a slim column with foldd arms, while at the same time holding a lighted torch downwards. There are several varieties of Eros coin types from the provinces, but very few have the column; more often, he just rests on his torch, as shown at the bottom of this page.
To the left are two coins showing Venus, the goddess of physical love. On the denarius of Julia Domna on the far left, she is holding a palm frond and an apple, and leaning casually. Unusually for leaners, she's facing away from us, and this is so that she can show off her beautiful back and bottom while still retaining some modesty. There's a coin with the same theme on my "Unique Ancient Coins" page.
The column serves a double purpose on this coin. As well as being an object to lean on, Venus' robe has caught on it and is being pulled away to expose her body.
If Venus were facing towards us, the engraver would have had some difficulty showing how she is holding that palm. As it is, we are left to imagine how it is supported.
To its right, another denarius of Julia Domna from a few years later. Venus is facing towards us, and is (therefore) better dressed. It looks as though it wasn't easy to reach that column with her elbow.
Both coins have a legend meaning Venus the Victor, and that is the meaning of the palm frond they carry. On this one, she also carries the spoils of war; a captured helmet in her hand, and a shield at her feet.
The last coins in this section are two supremely casual leaners. On the left, a denarius of Julia Domna showing Cybele, the Mother Goddess. Her lion is at her feet and she is holding out her drum. You would expect a revered goddess to appear much more regal, as shown on some of the other coins on my Cybele page.
You can see that the tilting of the column on this coin is a purposeful feature, and not just careless carving, by the angle of her head and the way the hem of her sleeve falls straight down.
The denarius of Elagabalus on the right shows Providentia, the foresight of the Gods. This is associated with a casual and easy-going attitude. It's no problem for the gods to provide for what they foresee – a mere trifle. So Providence carries a cornucopia, permanently overflowing with fruit, and casually waves a wand over a globe. And has also managed to find a column. There is a very different view of the Providence of the Gods here, on my Sol page.
Three coins which are not Securitas but which use her "seated and leaning" pose.
On the left, an antoninianus of Gordian III showing Apollo. His arm rests on a lyre which, in turn, rests on the arm of his chair. In the centre, Salus on an antoninianus of Probus. She is leaning back with crossed legs, while at the same time reaching forward to feed her snake. On the right, a denarius of Lucilla showing Concordia, who is leaning back on a statuette of Spes, the personification of hope.
None of these three look really at ease, but that is what the symbology says they are.
There are many late Roman bronze coins showing soldiers leaning on their shields. These are more interesting.
On the far left is an antoninianus of Probus from 281 CE. It shows Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena. Spear and shield to one side, raising a branch, capable of war but coming this time with peaceful intent, this coin is dedicated to the companions of the emperor Probus. This is also a pointed reminder to those who do not reckon themselves as his companions.
Although Egypt belonged to Rome, their coins were in a local tradition, using Greek symbolism, and were not legal currency outside the borders. The Alexandrian tetradrachm of Diocletian above right therefore shows Athena rather than Minerva. The time for battle is over, and this time she is bringing victory, symbolised by a statuette of Nike who is raising a wreath towards her.
On the right is a denarius of Faustina Junior from 157-161 CE. Venus, looking very well dressed this time, has one hand on a shield which rests on a helmet. Like Athena, she is holding a miniature figure of Victory.
Victory is holding her wreath away from Venus – so if Venus represents an aspect of Faustina, she is celebrating someone else's victory. That would be her father, Antoninus Pius, under whom this coin was struck, or her husband, the emperor-to-be Marcus Aurelius.
The coin on the left shows Minerva again, one hand on her shield and the other holding her inverted spear in a resting position.
The legend is SECVRITAS PERPETVA, everlasting security, so here Minerva, with her helmet, weapons, and scaly aegis, is guarding Rome. This is a close as Roman coins get to the modern concept of security as something that has to be enforced.
Although on these coins Athena, Minerva and Venus are resting a hand on their shields, they are not leaning as conspicuously as the others on this page, and are really holding their shields up where they can clearly be seen.
Hercules, the demi-god, was renowned for his strength and was often shown leaning on his preferred weapon, a large and knobbly club.
On the left of this row is an antoninianus of Gordian III. Hercules leans on his club, the handle tucked into his armpit. Because his club doesn't reach the ground when he does that, he has found a convenient rock.
This pose looks a bit awkward to me. If I were leaning on something that was poking into my armpit, I would be inclined to be cautious. A sudden movement could be painful. In other versions of this pose, it is clear that Hercules has his lion-skin tucked into his armpit to soften the probing effect of the club's handle.
Hercules is a different case from the other leaners. He rests on his club to show that he is weary after his mighty labours. In the centre is an antoninianus of Gallienus. Here, he has just recovered the apples of the Hesperides, which he holds in his left hand. He leans elegantly on his club with the heel of his right hand, and his lion skin is draped from his left arm. The legend of both this and the left-hand coin tells us that he embodies the Emperor's spirit of bravery and powerful soldierly virtue. This is the most convincingly casual pose of the three.
On the right is a denarius of Septimius Severus showing Hercules with both club and bow. The club appears to be digging into Hercules' kidney, but he is ignoring any discomfort. In his left hand is a bow, which he has just been using to shoot the Stymphalian birds, which is why he needs a rest this time. On this coin it's very clear that the draped garment is the skin of a lion; in fact this is the hide of the Nemean lion, which he killed in an earlier labour. Its head is inset on the left.
Apollo, the shining one, the far-shooter with the silver bow, was also musical. On the antoninianus of Valerian on the near right, he has a rock like Hercules. He has placed his lyre on it, and reaches down with his hand to rest on the lyre. But he has to stretch, and this doesn't really look as relaxed as it should. These rocks aren't really very tall. (This coin also features on my colourful patinas page.)
On the far right is an antoninianus of Gallienus. This time the engraver has placed a convenient tripod. A tripod can be any height, and now Apollo can lean properly on his elbow with a bent arm, a much more relaxed pose. He is carrying a laurel branch in his right hand. There is more about this, and another example of this coin, on my Branches on Roman Coins page.
There are quite a few coins which show a fully reclining figure, but individually, they tend to be scarce and expensive. The reclining figures lean on a variety of objects which express the symbolism of the particular type.
On this denarius of Geta, Fortuna is resting on a wheel which symbolises travel, particularly by land. In fact, Geta and his brother Caracalla had just returned from Britain, where their father Septimius Severus had died in York, leaving his two sons to inherit the empire. But this was not a fortunate situation for Geta, as it turned out; Caracalla killed him later that same year.
There are some portraits of this pair on my "Publius and Lucius were Brothers" page.
Finally, an interesting bronze coin of Septimius Severus from Serdica in the province of Thrace. There are two contradictory interpretations of this playful winged creature. The standard one is that this is Thanatos, a personification of Death, leaning on the torch of life and extinguishing it, in a casual crossed-legs pose that will by now be quite familiar to you.
But there are good reasons to suppose that it is actually Eros, weary after a long day's work. He seems relaxed rather than sinister, and the torch does not seem to be going out. For lots of interesting detail on Eros, see the article Eros, by Francis Jarman with an introductory piece by Patricia Lawrence.
So, to summarise, the leaning pose is crucial to Securitas and shows a casual and confident air. Leaning, and sometimes crossed legs, are used with other deities and personifications for a similar effect, even when this makes the composition rather awkward.
Hercules, however, leans because he is weary; Eros may do the same; and various warrior women hold shields for display rather than support. Given these exceptions, the use and meaning of this symbology is pretty consistent.
|The content of this page was last updated on 23 December 2010|
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