Today’s post was written by Shoshana Hereld, discussing a rare Roman sestertius commemorating the deification of Faustina I.
Some people write poetry, some leave roses on a grave…and others mint coins for two decades. Faustina the Elder died at age 36, only three years into the reign of her husband, the “good” emperor Antoninus Pius (Stevenson, et al., 373). Yet, he continued to produce coins in her honor throughout his entire reign (Mattingly, 147). Coin 30 in the O.J. Todd Collection is one of these many tokens.
The obverse of the coin bears Faustina’s portrait, and the reverse a consecrated altar with the legend “PIETAS AVG,” representing “Pietas Augusta.” The particular specimen in our collection has been worn down over its life, so determining details is challenging. According to A Dictionary of Roman Coins, the reverse of this coin depicts a consecrated altar with a flame rising from the center. Though frequently assumed to be horns, the shapes on the top corners of the altar are likely birds instead. According to Stevenson and Madden, these “objects, similar to each other yet both so different in conformation from the usual horns of a Roman altar, and so decidedly bird-like, as to induce the compiler…to class, in his own mind, their appearance there, with the foregoing examples of doves delineated on coins of empresses” (Stevenson et al., 242). The authors’ friend was “fully impressed with the belief that the two little objects alluded to , are the figures of birds, and probably meant for doves” (Stevenson et al., 242).
Portrayals of Faustina
How did the devoted husband portray Faustina? A division can be placed between her living and posthumous portrayals on coinage, with this coin belonging to the latter category, but the “general coiffure of Faustina varied little over time, and this fact, along with the inconsistencies of the dies and poor preservation, often makes it difficult to discern the details of the portrait types on the coinage” (Meyers, 20). This particular coin is one of those poorly preserved ones, and her profile is quite worn. Meyers’ description of Faustina’s portraits, however, can help us visualize her as she was forged 1900 years ago:
The main elements of the portrait of Faustina I on the coins are as follows. The hair is pulled back in small waves, with a large bun on the top of the head. Several braids, starting at different points of the head from the base of the neck until about the level of the forehead, are twisted up into the large, flat bun. Usually small curls or tufts of hair are shown loose at the nape of the neck (Meyers, 21).
Why would Antoninus go above and beyond the usual measures for the consecration of Roman women? Mattingly offers several explanations, ranging from the selfish to the romantic. Perhaps, he remarks, it was to counteract “vicious gossip” from people seeking to hurt Antoninus’ reputation through attacks on his wife (Mattingly, 149). As well, Antoninus, although he was one of the “good” emperors, “did nevertheless take pains that Rome should not forget the authority and importance of his house” (Mattingly, 151). One of the purposes of these coins therefore may have been imperial propaganda, with Antoninus using the image of his dead wife to improve the family’s reputation. The reverse of the coin, inscribed “PIETAS AVG,” may have been written simply to honor Faustina as the deity Pietas, associating her with various virtues including the obvious piety. But is more likely to have been a political move of Antoninus, using his relationship to Faustina to associate positive attributes to his house (Yarrow, 435). In this manner, Antoninus rather bluntly encouraged the Roman populace to show him their favor.
Alternatively, Antoninus’ departure from the established ritual following the death of an important woman could have been to “keep her memory alive in the hearts of the Roman people. She was to be as real — more real, perhaps — than Juno, Ceres or Vesta” (Mattingly, 149). Antoninus’ consecration moved beyond the “formal care” into “the realm of personal religion” (Mattingly, 150). By inundating the population with images of his wife, Faustina could become a living ghost, a woman who could still travel the streets of Rome, albeit in someone’s hand. As a hopeless romantic, I would like to believe that Antoninus “loved his wife and mourned her sincerely… Antoninus himself believed that his wife was still a living and powerful personality; he certainly meant the Roman citizen to believe it’ (Mattingly, 150). The succession of coins in her image demonstrate her partner’s devotion and provided him with a means of expressing his grief. He fought to keep her alive in his life and in the life of Rome.
Mattingly, Harold. “The Consecration of Faustina the Elder and Her Daughter.” The Harvard Theological Review. 41.2 (1948): 147-151. Accessed from <www.jstor.org>.
Meyers, R. L. 26 March 2006. Visual Representations of the Antonine Empresses (Doctoral dissertation, Duke University).
Stevenson, Seth W., Charles R. Smith, and Frederic W. Madden. A Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: Seaby, 1964. Accessed from <www.books.google.com>.
Yarrow, Liv Mariah. “Antonine Coinage.” In The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. Ed. William E. Metcalf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Accessed from <www.academia.edu>.
For Further Reading
Beckmann, M. “Intra-family Die Links in the Antonine Mint at Rome.” Numismatic Chronicle. 169 (2009): 205-211. Accessed from <www.jstor.org>.
Rowan, C. “Imaging the Golden Age: the Coinage of Antoninus Pius.” Papers of the British School at Rome. 81 (2013): 211-246. Accessed from <www.journals.cambridge.org>.
Shoshana Hereld is in the first year of her MA at the University of British Columbia, studying Ancient Culture, Religion, and Ethnicity. She started volunteering with From Stone to Screen this summer, researching for the O. J. Todd Coin Collection, and would like to work with Near Eastern artifacts in the future. In the spare time she can scrounge up, she sings in an early music choir, dabbles in various art projects, and skims through feminist articles on social media.