Two intriguing aspects of this coin stand out upon first viewing. By far the most dramatic and alluring of the two is the crocodile and palm tree on the reverse. One’s curiosity is peaked: how did a crocodile end up on a coin minted in the south of France?
The second, less immediate yet still fascinating aspect is the double portraiture on the obverse. Not only is someone else depicted alongside the emperor on the politically-important front of the coin, but they are also portrayed back to back when one might otherwise expect them to be looking in the same direction or, as is the case with later Byzantine coinage, head-on at the viewer.
Augustus & Agrippa
The impressive bronze coin was struck sometime near the end of the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (ruled 27 BCE-14 CE). Formerly known as Octavian, Augustus was the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, the famed Roman dictator. With Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Octavian and his allies (including Marc Antony fought a civil war against the anti-Caesar faction. Once the assassins were defeated and power consolidated in the hands of Octavian, Antony and the like, it wasn’t long before ambition and political intrigue took hold yet again and another civil war was fought between the victorious allies.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was at Octavian’s side the entire time. Indeed, the two men had been close friends since childhood. Both Agrippa and Octavian served under Julius Caesar in his civil war against Pompey, and both were held in high esteem by the famous general. During the war that followed Caesar’s death, Agrippa’s defense of Italy was critical in Octavian’s ultimate success. After serving as governor in Gaul and invading Germany, Agrippa crushed the remaining anti-Caesar forces in key naval battles. For this Octavian awarded him a unique gold rostral crown, decorated with the beakheads of ships to commemorate the importance of his victories.
Later it was Agrippa who secured Octavian’s victory at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, wresting control of Egypt and the Roman East from Marc Antony.
In 27 BCE Octavian adopted the name and title Augustus, meaning “noble” or “exalted one”, as conferred upon him by the Senate. This is traditionally accepted as the official start of the Roman Empire. And throughout his reign, Agrippa served as a loyal general and ally, marrying Augustus’ daughter Julia and eventually coming to hold almost as much power as Augustus himself.
But beyond his military and political achievements, Agrippa is just as well-known for building the original Pantheon, which later became perhaps the most famous work of ancient architecture in Rome besides the Colosseum.
Named after a Celtic god who was worshipped there (or perhaps the god was named for the sacred site dedicated to him, it’s hard to tell), the city of Nemausus–modern-day Nîmes in southern France near the Mediterranean coast–was the capital of a local Gallic tribe. The Romans came to dominate the area after their victory over Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE).
In 27 BCE, the first year of his reign, Emperor Augustus established Nemausus as a Roman colonia. Coloniae were cities, originally located in recently conquered territory, where military veterans were settled and given land. This was done not only to reward loyal soldiers but also to make the region where the colony was located more Roman – not to mention the strategic value of having a large garrison of seasoned troops nearby in case the locals decided to rebel.
This was not necessarily the case with Nemausus. Nevertheless, Augustus chose to honor the city with the title “colonia” and granted parcels of land to veterans of his Egyptian campaign (32-30 BCE) against Marc Antony and Cleopatra, which ended with Octavian becoming the sole power in Rome and the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. The symbol–“mascot”, if you will–of the veterans was a Nile crocodile chained to a palm tree, as depicted on the reverse of this coin. The image is still used on the coat of arms of the modern French city.
Over time, Augustus built many improvements to the city, and later emperors continued to invest in it until around 300 CE. In 473, Nemausus fell to the Visigoths shortly before the fall of Rome itself.
The Latin word for “weight” is pondus, so the large bronze coin known as a dupondius was meant to be twice the weight of a standard coin. In fact, the dupondius was the equivalent of two bronze asses (pronounced how it looks; singular as), the oldest coin type produced by the Romans. The dupondius was introduced around 23 BCE, the year that Emperor Augustus initiated several important coin reforms. Originally made by the casting method, the coins consisted of a golden alloy of copper referred to as orichalcum, though it is unknown whether this is the metal that the Athenian philosopher Plato wrote about in his Critias or simply a borrowing of the name. Later dupondii were made of copper or a copper-orichalcum mixture.
Two dupondii were worth one bronze sesteritius, eight dupondii were worth one silver denarius, and a whopping 200 dupondii were worth one gold aureus.
The following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Atlas Numismatics
Facing left, Agrippa is portrayed wearing the rostral crown while behind him and facing right is the emperor Augustus, who appears to be wearing a laurel wreath of victory but the condition of the coin is such that he may not be wearing any kind of wreath or crown. Some types of this coinage do portray Augustus with a laurel wreath.
The abbreviation IMP (short for Imperator or “Emperor”) is at the top of the coin. One letter “P” is located on the left side of the coin in front of Agrippa, while another is found on the right side in front of Augustus. The inscription DIVI F is located below.
Dots or beads encircle the whole design.
Most conspicuously, a large crocodile is chained to what is either a palm tree, a palm shoot or a palm branch; different strikings present greater or lesser versions. The chain attaches to a collar around the reptile’s neck, which reminds one of a dog on a leash and lends the piece an almost whimsical effect. It isn’t hard to imagine that the image depicts an actual animal or event that is looked back upon fondly by the veterans of this particular military campaign.
Besides its bulk, the most striking element of the crocodile is its sharp, pointy teeth, quite emphasized for effect and still relatively “sharp” to this day. Its large eye, apparent grimace and the angle of its head all suggest a roused or angry beast. On this coin the viewer can still make out the pattern of the creature’s scales on its back, though other specimens have greater surviving detail. All four feet are present, though the back feet are considerably more worn.
The sun is depicted in the upper left. It consists of a hollow circle and dots to represent rays of sunlight. At the same level and on the other side of the palm is a somewhat soft, bulbous pattern that represents a cloud. Divided by the trunk of the palm tree is the inscription COL / NEM, which is an abbreviation for Colonia Augusta Nemausus, or “Augustan Colony Nemausus”.
As with the obverse, a ring of dots or beads surrounds the scene.
It is difficult to described the edges of hammer-struck coins with great precision, but since reeding technology was not in use, it is safest to say that the edge of this coin is smooth and plain.
|Issuing Authority:||Augustus Caesar|
|Date:||ca. 10-14 CE|
|Weight:||approx. 12-13 g|
|Diameter:||approx. 25-27 mm|
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