CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
THROUGH A LONG chain of pious frauds and medieval myth-making, the February 14 feast day of St. Valentine, an obscure third-century martyr, became a day for celebrating romantic Love in Western popular culture.
It may be no surprise to the reader that classical numismatics has relatively little to tell us about the meaning of Love, a subject that has challenged both the Wise and the Foolish for millennia.
In the ancient world you generally married whomever you were told to marry; a decision made by parents or clan elders based on property, political alliances, and the probability of begetting healthy sons. Love had little to do with it. But ancients, like moderns, were quite interested in sex, and this sometimes found expression on coins or coin-like objects.
Satyrs on Staters
In Greek mythology, satyrs were lustful woodland spirits, companions of Dionysus the wine god (so they were often portrayed both drunk and aroused). For over a century (c. 525 – 411 BCE) the Aegean island of Thasos, famed for wine, issued coins depicting a satyr behaving inappropriately with a protesting nymph.
A learned auction cataloger writes:
The overtly sexual displays seen on many early Greek coins can be disconcerting to the modern eye, viewing them through the lens of centuries of Christian fulminations against ‘paganism’ and its erotic excesses. These scenes are at their most graphic in northern Greece, for example, on the archaic coins of …Thasos, showing the interplay of nymphs and satyrs. The towns and tribes of this region were only newly introduced to the ‘civilizing’ influences of the south, and were still close to their roots in farming and herding cultures. Their gods were not the Olympian super beings, but the spirits of nature, and the emphasis was on celebrating the fecundity of fields and flocks.
From Eros to Cupid
The Greeks had a word for it; in fact, they had a plethora of words.
Agape (ἀγάπη) means unselfish love, famously in 1 Corinthians, 13 where King James’ translators rendered it as “charity”, perhaps because caritas is the Latin equivalent. Philia (φιλία) means dispassionate or “brotherly” love, hence Philadephia, city of love, and philosophia, love of wisdom. Eros (ἔρως) means physical love, or passion. The Latin equivalent is amor – which, coincidentally, is Roma spelled backwards.
Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, was the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. Her Roman equivalent was Venus. Aphrodite was a popular subject on Greek coins, and even more popular on Roman ones.
Eros, as the divine personification of physical love, was the son of Aphrodite. We see them together on the splendid staters (c. 400 BCE) of Nagidos in Cilicia. Aphrodite is enthroned in majesty, while the small winged figure of Eros crowns her with a wreath. On a tiny electrum 1/24th stater of Kyzikos (fifth or fourth century BCE), they stand on a tunny fish, the badge of the city.
From a single supernatural being, Eros gradually developed into a plurality of erotes, (“little loves”) who accompany the goddess.
The Romans represented Eros as a chubby winged baby, sometimes with a bow and quiver of arrows, the figure we recognize as Cupid. He appears on a variety of Republican denarii, for example an issue of Manius Fonteius, riding on a shaggy goat (perhaps a symbol of lust). The obverse of an issue of Caius Egnatius (75 BCE) shows a classic Cupid with a bow and quiver of arrows. Exceptional examples of this coin go for thousands of dollars, perhaps as upscale Valentine’s Day gifts for fortunate numismatists.
On the reverse of a rare and rather startling provincial bronze of Caracalla (ruled 197-217 CE) from Serdica, we see one Cupid about to penetrate another from behind. The cataloger of SNG Copenhagen coyly described this as “Two playing Erotes, the one walking on his hands.” One can only speculate as to what this erotic image meant to the official who commissioned it, the artist who engraved it, or the Thracians who spent it.
Since the Renaissance, a rare and enigmatic series of erotic Roman brass tokens have delighted and baffled numismatists. Because of the subject, demand has always exceeded supply, and 18th- and 19th-century cast fakes abound (some crude, others of high artistic quality). The obscure Latin word spintria, a derogatory term for homosexuals, was applied to these tokens by early numismatists, either as a sort of in-joke or because it was easier to say than “enigmatic erotic Roman brass token”. Spintriae have been found in Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Croatia, and Israel, but, surprisingly, not in Pompeii or Herculaneum (Campana) where so many other examples of erotic art have been found in domestic contexts.
Securely dated to a short period during the reign of Tiberius (c. 22-37 CE), they show an erotic scene on the obverse and a wreathed Roman numeral between I and XVI on the reverse. Numismatists once imagined that these were “brothel tokens”. Since Roman prostitutes were often slaves and not fluent in Latin, it was thought that customers might purchase such tokens from the house and hand them to a provider to indicate that “number VIII” or “number XI” was the service desired. At the end of a shift, collected tokens could be totaled up by the accounting slave and compared against the sum in the cash box. This theory was thoroughly discredited by Buttrey (1973) in an article that has become the standard reference on the subject. It seems likely that spintriae were gaming pieces for a board game of some kind.
Born about 110 CE in Bithynia (the northwest corner of Asia Minor), Antinous (also spelled Antinoos) was a stunningly handsome young Greek who became the “favourite” of the emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138. The Victorian euphemism “favourite” is generally understood to mean “lover” or “boy toy”. Intimate relations between an older man and a youth were a feature of Greek culture that elite imperial Romans had come to accept, with some ambivalence (Crompton).
On Hadrian’s tour of Egypt in 130, Antinous drowned in the Nile, probably by accident. Heartbroken, Hadrian had him declared a god and ordered the construction of a memorial city, Antinoopolis, at the site of his death.
Over the following centuries, a popular cult of Antinous the love god developed, not only in Egypt but across the empire. Hundreds of statues were carved, many of exquisite artistry. Over 30 cities struck coins or medallions honoring Antinous, in over 140 different types. These are often found pierced and heavily worn, suggesting that they were used as amulets and cherished as heirlooms. Cast copies of famous examples have been produced since the Renaissance. A spectacular large bronze medallion of Antinous sold for over $400,000 in a November 2014 Swiss auction. In 2005, the American Numismatic Society (ANS) acquired a box mirror made in antiquity from two Antinous medallions of Smyrna (Heath).
Hero and Leander
Two Greek cities on opposite sides of the Hellespont commemorated a legendary love story on their Roman provincial coinage.
Hero was a young priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower in Sestos. Her boyfriend Leander lived across the strait in Abydos.
Her parents forbade their love, but every night, Hero lit a lamp in the tower to guide Leander’s swim across the strait so they could be together.
One dark and stormy night, the wind blew out the lamp, and Leander was swept out to sea and drowned. When his lifeless body washed up on shore the next morning, Hero threw herself from the tower and died.
On rare second- and third-century bronzes, we see a charmingly naïve rendering of the story, with Leander naked in the water and Hero atop her tower holding out her lamp. On some versions, Eros flies above the doomed lovers, bearing a torch of love. In a 2014 German auction, an example of this type sold for over $27,000.
According to legend, when the United States 1916 Standing Liberty quarter was released there was a public outcry because sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil (1866-1947) depicted Miss Liberty with a bare right breast. The wardrobe malfunction was corrected in 1917, showing Liberty with a chain mail blouse (which must have chafed terribly). The design change probably had more to do with wartime symbolism than American prudery, but in our culture, the circulating coinage is clearly not considered a proper medium for the display of eroticized imagery. Greco-Roman culture, more comfortable with nudity and more tolerant of sexual diversity, had a different attitude about appropriate coin design.
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Buttrey, Theodore V. “The Spintriae as a Historical Source.” Numismatic Chronicle (1973).
Campana, Alberto. “Le Spintriae: Tessere Romane con Raffigurazioni Erotiche” in La Donna Romana: Immagini e Vita Quotidiana. Roma (2009).
Clarke, John R. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art. Berkeley. (1998).
Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization. Harvard (2003).
Heath, Sebastian. “A box mirror made from two Antinous medallions of Smyrna.” American Journal of Numismatics 18 (2006).
Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. Viking (1984).
Rosenmeyer, T.G. “Eros – Erotes.” Phoenix 5 (1951).
von Mosch, Hans-Christoph. “Die Antinoos-Medallions von Bithynion-Claudiopolis.” Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 80 (2001).
Wlosok, Antonie. “Amor and Cupid.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79. (1975).
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.