Monday, January 20, 2014

A Mystery Coin - Allegory or "Selfie"?

Our coin of the day:

A few things were clear from the onset.  This coin is bronze, but too small to be of standard Roman denomination.  This would suggest either a Greek coin or more probably based on style, a local coin minted in the formerly Greek lands under Roman rule. This was quite common during most of the time that the Romans ruled the Eastern Mediterranean.  Perhaps they did not find micro managing the local economies worth while.  Perhaps it was a tip of the hat to former Greek greatness and autonomy. The Romans always admired their Greek mentors.  But for one reason or another it was common practice for several centuries to allow cities in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to make their own low value coins.  They were encouraged to put the current Emperor on the "heads" side.

I think my coin is a very beaten up version of this:

It is described as being a coin from the reign of the Emperor Trajan, from 98 to 117 AD.  It is said to be from Phoenicia/Tyrus and to depict "veiled and turreted head of Tyche" on one side and a date palm on the other.

This appears on first glace to make sense.  Most of the coins from this era showing a palm tree are quite logically from places where they grew and were an important food source.  North Africa, modern day Israel and Syria, less often Sicily.  And Tyche was a very common figure on coinage of this sort.

Tyche was the equivalent to the Roman goddess "Fortuna".  In fact Tyche derives from the Greek word for luck.  She was felt to govern over the fortune and prosperity of a city.  And, because your fortune and prosperity would be much more secure behind fortifications, she is often shown with a headdress that depicts city walls and turrets!

So far so good.  But sometimes the interplay between traditions can be interesting.  And it got me wondering if the female figure on today's mystery coin was intended to be a straight up depiction of Tyche, or perhaps a portrait that intentionally resembled a close relative of Emperor Trajan.

Check out the similar looking hair styles and face on these candidates:

Plotina, wife of Trajan.

Marciana, sister of Trajan.

Matilda, niece of Trajan and mother in law to the Emperor Hadrian.

From coins and sculptures we think we have a decent understanding of Roman hairstyles, and this over the top "turret head" coiffure only seems to turn up in these female relatives of Trajan.  

Of course this begs the question.  Was my mystery coin trying to resemble an Imperial lady?  Or were said ladies trying to affect the looks of "Fortune"?  If the latter it is hard to imagine an Emperor for whom this is less logical, Trajan did not hail from the Eastern Provinces.  He came from modern day Spain, clear at the far end of the Empire.

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