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|---------- The Sign Language of Roman Coins ----------|
|Virtus and Her Parazonium|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
irtus: courage, manliness, power, worth, excellence of character. All the manly and soldierly virtues. And you may read (for example, in David Sear's books) that Virtus is a male personification. This does not appear to be correct, or at least, not always correct. The word "virtus" has the feminine gender, and the personification is often female. This becomes more and more clear as you look at coins that show the personification rather than one of the wider cast of characters shown below.
The description in Sear's Roman Coins and Their Values, Vol 3 (ref. 12059) for the antoninianus of Probus on the near right says that it shows "Mars or Virtus." But Mars is definitely male, and this character seems to be clothed more ambiguously than I would expect for Mars. The top goes over one shoulder and appears to leave a bare breast, not usually a Martian thing.
In the centre is an antoninianus of Philip I. Here, valour has resulted in victory (there is a helmet underfoot) and the imposition of peace, symbolised by an olive branch. Virtus wears a helmet and carries a spear, but is this a male? The drapery of the clothing, and the bared breast, suggest otherwise. In fact, Sear (ref. 8974) says this might be Minerva, but Minerva doesn't bare her breast. That would be beneath her dignity, as it would be for Roma at the bottom of this page. Compare also with this image of Minerva.
On the antoninianus of Tetricus I on the far right, there is no question about the breast. Now see the style of the skirt and top. They are identical to the Probus Virtus on the left, even to the pattern of the skirt. So, if this one is female, which does not appear to be in doubt, then so is the figure on the Probus coin. Who is therefore definitely not Mars.
Two more coins that confirm this point. On the far left is an antoninianus of Gallienus. This small, neat representation is typical of the Asian mint coins of Gallienus and Claudius II. Once again, the figure has the martial accoutrements of helmet, spear and shield; and once again, the breast is conspicuously bared.
Next to is is a denarius of Caracalla. This shows another definitely female Virtus, though rendered so crudely that it makes me wonder if the engraver had ever actually seen a woman. This pose, with a miniature Victory offering a victor's wreath, is very similar to the Probus coin.
parazonium is a longish triangular dagger, wide at the hilt end and coming to a point. It is not carried by every version of Virtus, but it is frequent, particularly on earlier representations. It is also sometimes carried by the emperor, or Mars, or Roma, giving them the aura of courage without needing to say the word.
Who's this long-legged soldierette on the near left, with the big weapon? Virtus again, this time carrying her parazonium. In this typical position it looks rather phallic, and it's hard to believe that this is accidental, though the experts assure me it is a pure coincidence. This is a denarius of Trajan from 114-117 CE.
In the centre, from nearly 100 years later, this denarius of Caracala has an almost identical depiction. This time you can see clearly that the parazonium is carried with the point at her thigh and the handle outwards. Virtus is dressed in a definitely feminised way – look at the long drape at the end of the sleeve and compare with Spes. Although she seems to be wearing trousers, such a barbarous garment is unlikely, and the effect is probably caused by a poor interpretation of the fold-over boot-tops shown on several other Virtus coins on this page.
On the far right, a denarius of Antoninus Pius. This is another example with a definite gender, with the same type of skirt as the first and third coins above. This time the parazonium is carried under the left arm.
irtus embodies manly courage and strength of character. There were powerful female figures in Roman culture, but these were generally goddesses like Minerva, not mortals. So, having a female personification of these qualities sometimes presented difficulties to the propagandists. As a result, coins often showed, not Virtus herself, but a soldier or the emperor with a "VIRTVS" legend to indicate that the army, or the emperor, was valorous and manly. In fact, a whole range of characters were brought into play. Here are some.
This character on the right is definitely male, and you'd therefore think that this coin, an antoninianus of Postumus, is the exception that tests the rule. He has the spear, helmet and shield that belong to Virtus. But his lack of clothing suggests that is meant to be Mars. He, too, carries spear and shield, and wears a helmet, and Mars is often shown naked. You can see some of his guises on my Mars, God of War page.
Characters within characters! On the denarius of Severus Alexander on the far left is Romulus, founder of Rome, carrying the attributes of Mars – a spear and a trophy of military victory. He is distinguished from Mars by not wearing a helmet, which Mars aways does.
But in fact this is probably intended to show the Emperor himself, in the role of Romulus. Together with the legend VIRTVS AVG, this is the essence of revered, warlike manhood through Roman eyes, and heaps great praise on the Emperor.
Next to is is a denarius which shows Caracalla posing as Virtus. He is dressed in light military gear but does not wear a helmet like Mars, or carry a trophy like Mars and Romulus. Nor is his breast bared! But he does have the spear and is posing with a parazonium, and he is resting his foot on a helmet.
Two chipped coins with rather similar seated figures. On the near right, a denarius of Severus Alexander with either Virtus or Mars sitting on a cuirass, holding a branch and a sceptre. The crossed strapwork over the breast is unlike other representations of either Mars or Virtus, so I am not clear which one is intended. However, the message is clearly that of peace emerging from strength. There are more examples of this on my "branches" page.
The denarius of Hadrian on the far right, on the other hand, shares the characteristics of Roma and Virtus, and the legend gives no clues. Helmeted, Seated on a cuirass and a shield, holding a spear, with a bared breast and with a parazonium in that phallic position again, the ambiguity is probably intended. The imagery would say that Rome's essence is based on effortless military power and the manly virtues. I deduce "effortless" from the crossed legs - see my Securitas page for more on that subject.
Two versions of Hercules with Virtus legends. On the far left, an antoninianus of Gordian III with VIRTVTI AVGVSTI (dedicated to the Emperor's strength of character); and next to it, an antoninianus of Gallienus with the more straightforward VIRTVS AVGVSTI (the manliness of the Emperors).
Hercules is standing in a relaxed position, with his big knobbly club propped on a rock, resting after his heroic labours. Combining Hercules with the Virtus legend allowed one coin to emphasise the strength as well as the courage of the emperor.
Below left, the mutual admiration of two emperors. Gallienus is on the right, and he is presenting Victory to his father Valerian. Of these two valorous emperors, Gallienus was assassinated and Valerian ended his days as a horse-mounting stool for the Sasanid King of Kings Shahpur the First, leader of a resurgent Persian empire. This was poor luck even for a Roman imperial family.
On the far right, Gallienus again, in his sole reign, being presented with the wreath of victory by Roma, the personification of the city. There is also a version of this coin where the presentation is a miniature of Victory. Roma and Virtus were closely allied, and here the "virtus" of the emperor is shown as on a par with the best Rome had to offer.
On this antoninianus of Probus, VIRTVS has a place in the obverse legend. This is unusual. The obverse legend was usually limited to formal addresses and titles, but this time it celebrates the soldierly qualities of the emperor. He carries a spear and shield, and is in full armour, so much so that the radiate crown has to be shown as worn on top of an ornate helmet. Clearly, he wanted there to be no doubt as to his military capabilities.
The very different image on the right is from the breakaway British empire. Carausius made the break, and Allectus, whose antoninianus this is, was one of his men. Carausius was killed by Allectus, who then took over for three years until Constantius Chlorus regained this outlying province for the empire. This coin shows that Allectus' personal "virtus" resided in his control of the fleet, which was critical to the defence of the island empire. There are more galleys on my Galleys page.
On the far left, the valour of the army (VIRTVS EXERCITI) has led to victory for Arcadius, who stands here holding his spear and resting on his shield (no doubt after the mighty effort of battle), and being crowned with a laurel wreath by Victoria herself.
The last coin on this page is a silver siliqua of Honorius, minted in Ravenna. The seated figure is Roma, the personification of the city of Rome. She is seated on an ornate bench, holds a reversed spear – symbolising power held in check – and holds a globe on which stands a figurine of Victory. There is so much symbology here that there is hardly room for it all. Even the crossed legs are meaningful; they demonstrate that Roma is at ease. Meanwhile, the legend, VIRTVS ROMANORVM, tells of the bravery of the Roman people. They needed it – only a few years after this coin was struck, Rome was sacked by Alaric and his Visigoths, while Honorius stayed in Ravenna, well out of the way.
|The content of this page was last updated on 18 July 2009.|
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