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Identifying Coins that have a Spes Reverse

You can click on any coin image to see the full attribution.

Reverse of a denarius of Severus Alexander showing Spes The reverse of a denarius of Severus Alexander.

Spes was a minor Roman goddess, the personification of Hope. For information and many coin pictures, see my Spes page. That was one of the first pages I made up, and as I did so I thought I would add a section at the end about how to tell if the image on a coin was of Spes, which might be helpful for beginners. This page is that old section, moved and expanded.

So, this page will look at four Spes coins in a sort of small-scale identification exercise. Spes is an easy first step, because she is so recognisable, so to make it more interesting I will also look at identifying the emperor or empress, and use worn or old coins where there are fewer clues than on a pristine example.

The coin on the right is an example of Spes on a denarius of Severus Alexander, to show what we are looking for; a female walking to the left, usually on tiptoe, holding out a flower in her right hand and lifting the hem of her robe clear of the ground with her left.

The two fingers extending from the hand below the flower are presumably intended to show that the grip on its stem is delicate.

Copper as of Vespasian with a Spes reverse A copper as of Vespasian. It is 25mm across and weighs 9.1 grammes.

The first example is a medium-sized coin with lots of green patina, and brown areas exposed where that has worn away. That means it's copper, brass or bronze. The brown areas are not really yellow enough for brass, and the green patina is more common on copper. It's 25mm across and weight 9.1 grammes, so straight away it looks as though it is probably a copper as.

The head on this coin is easily recognisable as being one of the Flavians; either Vespasian or one of his sons Titus and Domitian. That profile is unmistakeable. The legend on that side contains the letters VESP, which confirms this thought. There is no sign of the letter F for FILII, meaning son, which appears on some coins of Titus, so this must be Vespasian himself. With careful examination the legend can be made out as IMP CAESAR VESP AVG COS VI.

The reverse just says S C, so no easy clues. But this is an upright female figure wearing elegant drapery. She is holding out her right hand and with her left, she is lifting the hem of her robe. Only Spes and Aeternitas do both these things, and there is no Aeternitas for Vespasian in this pose. That leaves Spes. Job done!

Silver Denarius of Faustina Junior with a Spes reverse A silver Denarius of Faustina Junior. It is 15mm across and weighs 2.7 grammes.

This very worn coin is clearly silver. It is 15mm across and weighs 2.7 grammes. It is clearly a denarius. On one side is a female bust with eher hair in a bun, and we can make out the letters FAVSTINA. This is an easy identification; there were two Faustinas, but the elder one was shown with her hair in a stiff, elaborate concoction on top of her head. Her daughter was shown with a bun like this, and that's who we have here.

If this coin commemmorated a dead empress, it might have an Aeternitas reverse, but then the obverse legend would start with the word DIVA, meaning Goddess – and the style of the bun would be different too. It is useful to be sure that this is the living younger Faustine, because Diva Faustina Senior has an Aeternitas reverse that looks a lot like this one (there is an example on this Aeternitas page.)

The reverse legend is not at all easy to read, and the figure is not quite the shape that you would normally expect for Spes, but if you look up Spes coins for Faustina Junior you will find one with Spes facing towards you rather than moving to the left. The left hand holding up the drapery, and the other hand holding something out, is enough to identify this as Spes. The legend on that coin would be AVGVSTI PII FIL, "Pious Daughter of the Emperor," and what you can see on this coin would match that perfectly, which confirms the identification.

Billon antoninianus of Tetricus II with a Spes reverse A billon antoninianus of Tetricus II. It is 20mm across and weighs 2.7 grammes.

Next is a light brown coin, 18 by 20mm across, weighing 2.7 grammes. The shape is pretty irregular, and the figure on the reverse does not look very well engraved either, though it has a certain style of its own. By now you should be able to look at that reverse and immediately think "Spes." Female, lifting robe, holding something out .. nothing else fits so well.

The material of the coin looks like bronze, but is maybe a little light in tone. This is typical of billon, a mixture of bronze with a little silver. The head on the obverse has a radiate crown, and you can make out the letters "...ICVS CAES." That is quite enough to identify Tetricus II, the young son of the ruler of a breakaway Gaulish "Roman" empire. The fact that he is beardless confirms this identification. the full legend was most likely C PIV ESV TETRICVS CAES

On the reverse, the legend is "..VBLICA". The full legend can therefore only be SPES PVBLICA, "Hope of the People." ). You might think that this Spes looks very busty, but actually this is a short flaring top.

Bronze or billon barbarous radiate with a Spes reverse type A fourth century bronze or billon "barbarous radiate." It is 15mm across and weighs 2.0 grammes.

It is not always easy to be sure whether coins of that period are genuine of a locally made imitation. Many such were made, and some were quite good imitations of the real thing. That Tetricus II coin above looks genuine enough. But here's one of which there can be no doubt.

The coin looks like bronze, but the patina is rather unsusual and I would not like to make any pronouncements about this material. It's not like the official coins, though. It is 15mm across and weight 2 grammes. The style of both the obverse and reverse is not at all like an official coin; and the legends are not right.

On the obvserse, we can read C PIVI ... VS. Tetricus I has legends vaguely similar to this; for example, IMP C P ESV TETRICVS AVG. The legend on this coin might have been an attempt to copy the middle part of this, or a confusion with a Tetricus II legend like the one above. The bearded features are vaguely like Tetricus I. So we can say this is a barbarous radiate (so named after the style of the crown), probably imitating a coin of Tetricus I.

The legend on the reverse is complete nonsense, with two Is and a backwards N, an X higher up and a star on the right. But even though not much of the image is visible, it's clear enough who it is supposed to be!

The content of this page was last updated on 14 August 2009

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