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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|River Gods on Ancient Coins|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Anyone who collects ancient Greek coins will eventually come across some monstrous creatures which appear to be combinations of man and bull. These are river gods. Gods were everywhere to the ancient Greeks, and like other natural forces, oceans and big rivers all had their own deities.
There is plenty of evidence that river gods were conceived as being like bulls, perhaps because of the way they charged ahead with unstoppable momentum. On coins, they were combinations of man and bull. Sometimes the whole creature was shown, and sometimes just the head. These coins often came from towns by the sea, where their river was at its largest.
The coin on the right shows the deity of the longest river in Greece, the Acheloos (anglicised from the Greek Αχελωος). This is the head of a mature, heavily bearded man, with two long, straight, dangerous-looking horns sticking out over his brow.
This coin came from the town of Oiniadai, which gives its name to a modern Greek municipality; but the cult of the deity Acheloos was widespread.
Not all river deities were shown as this ferocious. On the far left is the river-god Gelas, from the town of Gela, a port in Sicily. Here, Gelas is shown as a youth with quite small curved horns that seem to emerge from sockets on his forehead.
There are many other coins from Gela which show the forepart of a man-headed bull that looks much wilder than this. But the coin next to it shows a similarly mild (in comparison) creature, the river-god Tisnaios from the town of Tisna, with quite short curved horns emerging from the top of his youthful head.
The river-god Istros, from the town of the same name on the shore of the Black Sea, is a mature and bearded creature whose horns look quite convincingly bovine. The river Istros is now known as the Danube.
Next to the coin from Istros is one from Neapolis in Campania; modern Naples. This one shows an almost complete man-headed bull, a typical old river deity. The complete creature was on the die, but didn't all make it onto the coin in this example.
The head has a bushy beard and convincingly bull-like horns, and the body is pure bull. The grapes above him sometimes appear on the obverse of this coin, and other coins from Neapolis show Nike (Victory) flying over the deity depositing a wreath.
The exact nature of the horns was not aways consistent. Below are two coins from Olbia which show the river deity Borysthenes, the modern Dneiper. On one coin the delicate horns lie forwards along the skull and point upwards at the end.
On the coin next to it, which is almost the same issue, the horns are quite different. They are much more sturdy. They are attached to the side of the forehead and point outwards, looking much like those on the coin of Istros above.
But this isn't the only way river gods were shown.
The coin below right was produced in Antioch in the time of the Roman emperor Maximinus II Daia. The reverse, shown here, depicts a famous statue made in the 4th century BCE by the sculptor Eutychides. It symbolises the city, with the city's goddess, Tyche of Antioch, seated on rocks.
Below Tyche is the god of the river Orontes, swimming in his river with arms outstretched. This image was so famous that it appears on quite a few coins, for other cities as well as Antioch.
And there was yet another way of showing river gods that became the norm later on. That was to depict the reclining deity with the source of a river, which was represented as a rounded vessel from which water poured. The god would rest casually and in a proprietory manner upon this vessel.
Both of the coins to the left show this style of deity. These are Roman coins from the eastern provinces, in this case Nikopolis ad Istrum in Lower Moesia.
This town, which was founded by the emperor Hadrian soon after 100 CE, was on the confluence of the Iatrus and Rositsa rivers, so river deity coins would be expected; and here they are, under the emperors Macrinus and Septimius Severus.
These deities would normally be accompanied by something that was typical of their local area. They often held examples of local river plants. There is an Alexandrian coin on which the river god is actually resting on a crocodile. These are not so lively! On the far left, the deity is grasping a tree in his right hand and he has a reed in his left.
The god's bunch of reeds is worn off the coin next to it, though the die was carved more aesthetically than the first coin and it still looks good. On both coins, the source vessel and the water pouring from it is clear.
This type of reclining river deity also appears on just a few coins from Rome itself. There is a sestertius of Trajan that shows the gods of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates this way. The design of the coin on the right might have been inspired by Trajan's sestertius. It shows Caracalla, son of the reigning emperor Septimius Severus, with a river god to one side and two captives to the other.
The author of the standard coin reference, The Roman Imperial Coinage, thinks that this represents a scene in Britannia, where Severus and his two sons were planning to go. But the captives are wearing eastern hats, the type we call a Phrygian bonnet, so that cannot be so.
It is more likely that it represents Parthia. There is some evidence that there was fighting there at the time of this coin. If so, the river deity would probably be the Tigris, the river on which the Parthian capital was sited; though it might be the Euphrates, the other major Mesopotamian river, if that's where the fighting was.
Forty years later, on the other side of the empire in Cologne ("Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium"), the secessionist Gallic emperor Postumus produced this last coin. The weak image is normal for this issue. This figure symbolises the Rhine, and the similarity to the eastern river deities is obvious. He has his hand on a typical Rhine boat, a navis lusoria, the sort of vessel used by Postumus to move troops. So, like all Roman Imperial coins, this is sending a message to the populace: the Rhine is mine, and my armies travel fast.
Thanks are due to the members of the Forum Classical Numismatics Discussion Board, particularly Curtis Clay, whose collective wisdom I drew on for some of the information about the coins shown this page.
|The content of this page was last updated on 29 January 2011|
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