What Not Online Auctions

HomeAncient CoinsRoman Household Gods on Coins

Roman Household Gods on Coins

Roman House Gods on Coins.
Image: CoinWeek / Adobe Stock / Steve Brenner.

By Dr. Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
 

Most people who are even remotely familiar with the Roman Empire can name some of the gods that they worshipped. The Olympian gods like Jupiter and Mars, etc. are well known by readers, and many of the non-Olympian gods, like Saturn, Bacchus, Janus, and Bellona, etc., are also familiar. I have written several articles about these gods, both Roman and Greek, on coins, but this article is on the gods that were worshipped in the home, the personal gods of the Roman people, and not state gods (Vesta is the exception, being both state and personal).

There were three main types of household divinity: 1) Penates, gods of the larder, 2) Lares, spirits of the familial ancestors and their territory, and 3) Genii, the spirit of the master of the household. I covered Genii in an earlier article, so I will not be covering them here. This article will cover some of the better-known Roman household gods on coins, but it is not comprehensive, especially considering that the Romans worshipped scores of gods (like Verminus, god of cattle worms).

Figure 1: Lararium at the House of the Vettii in Pompei
Figure 1: Lararium at the House of the Vettii in Pompei

Penates/Panes and Lares

The Lares and Penates were considered protectors of the household and were worshipped in a shrine within the home called the lararium (see Figure 1). They are separate entities, but their functions sometimes overlapped, hence my covering them together.

Lares protected homes, neighborhoods, and roads. There were three main groups of Lares: 1) Lares Familiares, which protected a family, and ensured their genealogy; 2) Lares Compitales, who guarded the crossroads and neighborhoods, were worshipped in a special ceremony held in late December every year at the Compitalia, and 3) Lares Praestites, who guarded Rome as a whole. The legendary hero Aeneas was said to have brought his own Lar from Troy.

Penates were the gods of the storeroom and kitchen, which included the food, but eventually their protection expanded to cover the whole house. At mealtime, a piece of food was thrown into the fireplace for the Penates. Each family had two Penates but only one Lar, and it was common for the Lar and the Penates to be worshipped together. The Lar, wearing a toga, was placed between the two Penates, who were shown dancing and drinking from a goblet of joy and plenty. The lararium was usually located near the kitchen in the back of the house.

The Penates also had a temple of their own at Rome on the Velia near the Forum where they were represented by two seated youths holding spears. They were also worshipped in the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Those in the former temple were for Latium (the region of Italy in which Rome is located), and those in latter were for Rome proper. The Lares Praestites were housed in the state Regia, near the Temple of Vesta. Figure 2a shows a Roman Republican coin with the heads of the two Penates on the obverse. Though common during Republican and Imperatorial times, this obverse was apparently not used during Imperial times. The only nice exception I could find was on a Roman colonial coin of Parium in Mysia (Gallienus. 253-268 CE) that had a reverse showing Aeneas’ father Anchises holding the family Penates (Figure 2b).

Figure 2: Penates. a) Sulpicius C.r. Galba. 106 BCE. AR Serrate Denarius (18mm, 3.83). Romemint. Jugate and laureate heads of Dei Penates left / Two male figures standing facing one another, each holding a spear and pointing at sow which lies between, L above Crawford 312/1, b) Mysia, Parium. Gallienus. 253-268 CE. AE 27mm (10.31 g.). Laureate and draped bust right / Aeneas, in military outfit, standing facing, head left, holding with his right hand Ascanius and cradling in his left arm Anchises, who has his right arm around Aeneas neck and holds the Penates in his left, Voetli type 25n.
Figure 2: Penates. a) Sulpicius C.r. Galba. 106 BCE. AR Serrate Denarius (18mm, 3.83). Rome mint. Jugate and laureate heads of Dei Penates left / Two male figures standing facing one another, each holding a spear and pointing at sow which lies between, L above Crawford 312/1, b) Mysia, Parium. Gallienus. 253-268 CE. AE 27mm (10.31 g.). Laureate and draped bust right / Aeneas, in a military outfit, standing facing, head left, holding with his right hand Ascanius and cradling in his left arm Anchises, who has his right arm around Aeneas neck and holds the Penates in his left, Voetli type 25n.

Vesta

I was a little reluctant to include Vesta in this article because she is so well known as a Roman state goddess and not just a personal one, but she was the goddess of the hearth, home, and domestic life. She held a prominent place in both family and state worship, and her worship was observed in every Roman household, along with that of the Penates and the Lares, with her image usually being included in the lararium. She was the daughter of Ops and Saturn and sister to Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, and Ceres. Hestia was her Greek equivalent.

The worship of Vesta probably originated in the port city of Lavinium and became an established state cult during the reign of Rome’s first king Romulus or second king Numa. The priestesses of Vesta, known as Vestal Virgins, administered her round temple and sustained its perpetual sacred fire or hearth. This fire was believed to be indispensable for the preservation and continuity of the Roman State. Her festival, the Vestalia (June 7-15), was one of the most important Roman holidays. During the Vestalia, privileged matrons walked barefoot through the city to the temple, where they presented food-offerings.

There are no myths about Vesta, thought she is identified as one of the oldest of the gods, entitled to veneration and offerings over all the rest. Though Vesta was sometimes depicted as a fully draped woman, she was rarely shown in human form and was symbolized by her flame, the fire stick, and a ritual phallus (the fascinus). The poet Ovid said:

“Vesta is the same as the earth; both have the perennial fire: the Earth and the sacred Fire are both symbolic of home” (Fasti VI, 269–270).

Emperor Augustus strengthened the connection between the pontifex maximus, or head priest of the Roman state religion, and the cult of Vesta. After Augustus, emperors were automatically priests of Vesta, and the pontifices were sometimes referred to as pontifices Vestae (“priests of Vesta”).

Vesta was also invoked at all weddings and sacrifices. As goddess of the hearth fire, she was also the patron of bakers. She is sometime accompanied by a donkey, used by bakers to turn the millstones. Vestalia is still observed in Rome today. Figure 3 shows two coins: a) a Republican denarius with the draped head of Vesta on the obverse, and b) Vesta seated on a throne completely covered, holding a patera and scepter.

Figure 3: a) P. Galba. 69 BCE. AR Denarius (18mm. 4.06 g.). Rome mint. Veiled and draped bustof Vesta right/Emblems of the pontificate: secesoita. simpulum, and secures, Crawford 406/1; b) Gaius Caligula. 37-41 CE. AE As (27mm, 11.12 gm). Rome mint. Struck 37-38 CE, bare head left/Vesta seated left on throne, holding patera and scepter, RIC 38.
Figure 3: a) P. Galba. 69 BCE. AR Denarius (18mm. 4.06 g.). Rome mint. Veiled and draped bust of Vesta right/Emblems of the pontificate: secesoita. simpulum, and secures, Crawford 406/1; b) Gaius Caligula. 37-41 CE. AE As (27mm, 11.12 gm). Rome mint. Struck 37-38 CE, bare head left/Vesta seated left on throne, holding patera and scepter, RIC 38.

Priapus

Priapus, the protector of fertility, vegetables, nature, livestock, fruit, beekeeping, sex, genitals, masculinity, and gardens, was depicted as an ugly, dwarfish man with an oversized erect penis (Figure 4: “Ithyphallic” means having an erect penis). In a famous Pompeiian fresco, he is shown crowned with a peaked Phrygian cap (indicating his origin as a Mysian god), wearing Phrygian boots, and having a Bacchic, cone-tipped thyrsus resting by his side. Sometimes he is shown carrying a sickle in his right hand to threaten thieves with castration.

His cult was imported to Rome from Lampsakos, Mysia, in Asia Minor. He was a very popular figure in Roman art and literature. His parentage is somewhat confused though usually he is known as the son of Aphrodite by Dionysus (but Zeus and Pan are in the running). Hera cursed him with an erect penis that failed when the time came for sexual intercourse. Due to his foul-mindedness and ugliness, the gods threw him off Mt. Olympus, and he landed on a hillside where he was found and raised by shepherds. Ovid said he attempted to rape the goddess Hestia (or Lotis), but the braying of a donkey caused him to lose his erection at the critical moment and woke Hestia. The episode gave him a lasting hatred of asses and a willingness to see them killed in his honor (this must have upset Vesta).

Priapus also became the patron god of merchant sailors and essentially anyone that needed lots of luck. Another attribute was that images of Priapus were used in deflowering rituals of newlywed, virgin brides. The deity was said to impregnate the bride with her firstborn child. Figure 4 shows two Roman bronze colonial coins that depict Priapus on their reverses in all his glory.

Figure 4: Priapus. a) Mysia, Lampsacus. Augustus. 27 BCE - 14 CE. AE 17mm (3.62 g.). Laureatehead right; lituus to right / Ithyphallic Priapus standing left, holding oenochoe, RPC 2276 (same dies). b) 193-211 CE, AE Assarion (2.86 g.). Niconolis ad Istrum in Moesia Inferior. Laureate head right / Ithyphallic Priapus standing left, pointing downward with right hand at his erect phallus, left hand on hip, AMNG 1380.
Figure 4: Priapus. a) Mysia, Lampsacus. Augustus. 27 BCE – 14 CE. AE 17mm (3.62 g.). Laureate head right; lituus to right / Ithyphallic Priapus standing left, holding oenochoe, RPC 2276 (same dies). b) 193-211 CE, AE Assarion (2.86 g.). Niconolis ad Istrum in Moesia Inferior. Laureate head right / Ithyphallic Priapus standing left, pointing downward with right hand at his erect phallus, left hand on hip, AMNG 1380.

Terminus

Terminus was the god who resided in and protected boundary markers, which were used to delineate the borders of properties and communities. His name is, in fact, the Latin word for such a marker. The actual Terminus was a stone pillar with the top half of a man perched on top (see Figure 5). It could have a legend on it, an erect penis halfway down its length (like a herm), and/or two small projections from the shoulders (lift points?).

Terminus was honored on the Terminalia each February 23, when owners of adjacent lands assembled at the common boundary stone and garlanded his own side of the stone with cakes, grain, honey, wine, and a lamb or pig sacrifice. Also, a lamb was sacrificed in the grove of Terminus, which was at the on sixth milestone from Rome on the Via Laurentina and may have marked the border between Rome and Laurentum. Some ancient writers believed that the Terminalia once marked the end of the year.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome was thought to have been built on top of a shrine to Terminus and, when the temple was built, a small opening was left in the vault directly above the shrine. Terminus’ continued presence in the center of the city was seen to be a portent of the potency of Rome, signifying its permanence. Over time, Jupiter was occasionally identified with the Terminus as “Jupiter Terminalis.”

Ancient writers agreed that the worship of Terminus was of Sabine origin, ascribing its introduction to Rome either to Titus Tatius, the Sabine colleague of Rome’s founding king Romulus (traditionally 753–717 BCE) or his successor Numa (trad. 717–673 BCE). The worship of Terminus was meant to prevent violent disputes over property. Some believe worship started as reverence for the boundary marker’s animistic power directed towards spirits associated with specific objects or activities that were only later perceived as gods with independent personal existence.

Since Terminus was so closely associated with an actual object, the god did not have a significant body of mythology. Some scholars say the origin may have been from a proto-Indo-European belief in a god concerned with the division of property. A parallel in Greek religion was the reference for boundary markers, which were called herms (from the god Hermes). Anyone pulling up a boundary stone could be punished by death though this was later changed to paying a fine. The boundary stones could be carved with threats such as “Should any one remove or injure this stone, may he die the last of his race!” Figure 5 shows two denarii: one minted by Pompey the Great in 49 and one by Octavian (Augustus) in 30-29 BCE. The former has the Jupiter Terminus on the obverse and the latter has a reverse with a Terminus sporting Octavian’s head.

Figure 5: Terminus. a) Pompey the Great. 49 BCE. AR Denarius (18mm, 3.88 g.). Mint movingwith Pompey in Greece. Terentius Varro, proquaestor. Diademed herm of Jupiter Terminus right / MAGN • PRO/COS in two lines in exergue, Dolphin downward to right, scepter, and eagle standing left, all on ground line. Crawford 447/1a. b) Octavian. 30-29 BCE. AR Denarius (19mm, 3.08 g.). Italian (Rome?) mint. Bare head right / Ithyphallic boundary stone surmounted by the laureate head of Octavian facing, winged thunderbolt below, RIC I 269a.
Figure 5: Terminus. a) Pompey the Great. 49 BCE. AR Denarius (18mm, 3.88 g.). Mint moving
with Pompey in Greece. Terentius Varro, proquaestor. Diademed herm of Jupiter Terminus right /
MAGN • PRO/COS in two lines in exergue, Dolphin downward to right, scepter, and eagle
standing left, all on ground line. Crawford 447/1a. b) Octavian. 30-29 BCE. AR Denarius (19mm,
3.08 g.). Italian (Rome?) mint. Bare head right / Ithyphallic boundary stone surmounted by the
laureate head of Octavian facing, winged thunderbolt below, RIC I 269a.

Thanatos

Thanatos was the god or personified spirit (daimon) of non-violent death and a minor figure in Greek mythology. His mother was Nyx, the goddess of night, and his twin brother was Hypnos, the god of sleep. Some of his other siblings were Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momus (Blame), Eris (Strife), Nemesis (Retribution) and the Acherousian/Stygian boatman Charon. Violent death was the domain of Thanatos’ blood-craving sisters, the Keres, spirits of slaughter and disease. Some sources have Erebus (Darkness) as his father.

Thanatos worked for Hades and carried souls to the underworld once the Fates decided that their times had expired. His counterpart in Roman mythology is Mors or Letum.

In early Greek vase paintings, Thanatos is depicted as a bearded older man carrying off the body of Sarpedon or Memnon (killed in the Trojan War) but, in later Greek and Roman portrayals, as a winged youth extinguishing a down-turned torch (representing life) and wearing a sword (see Figure 6); a wreath or butterfly could also be included to symbolize the soul of the dead. Initially, Thanatos was considered merciless and indiscriminate, hated by mortals and gods alike, but in the third century BCE, the attitude toward death changed, being regarded as a part of life, and Thanatos became gentler – a kindly and resolute escort with an image of peace and rest. Many Roman reliefs depict him as a winged boy, very much akin to Cupid.

In Greek literature, Thanatos appears in the Iliad of Homer (c. 750 BCE) and the play Alcestis by Euripides (c. 484-407 BCE). In myth, when he was sent to collect the soul of Alcestis to the underworld, Thanatos was driven off by Heracles. In another, he was captured by Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, to avoid death.

Thanatos is sometimes described as a veil, cloud, or mist around the head of the dying individual, and in epic poetry is depicted as a cloud between man and light. Figure 6 shows two Roman colonial coins, both from Thrace, with the youthful winged Thanatos leaning on a torch to extinguish it.

Figure 6: Thanatos. a) Thrace Pautalia, Geta as Caesar, 198-209 CE, AE-Assarion (4.50 g.) Obv:Geta armored and draped bust r. / Thanatos stands facing and leans on a torch, the burning end of which rests on the base, Varbanov I 5465, b) Thrace, Deultum. Philip II. 244-249 CE. AE 18mm (3.67 gm). Laureate head right / Thanatos standing left, leaning on inverted torch, which he extinguishes, Lindgren II & III.
Figure 6: Thanatos. a) Thrace Pautalia, Geta as Caesar, 198-209 CE, AE-Assarion (4.50 g.) Obv: Geta armored and draped bust r. / Thanatos stands facing and leans on a torch, the burning end of which rests on the base, Varbanov I 5465, b) Thrace, Deultum. Philip II. 244-249 CE. AE 18mm (3.67 gm). Laureate head right / Thanatos standing left, leaning on inverted torch, which he extinguishes, Lindgren II & III.

Comments

Unlike previous articles I have written, I didn’t go into the cost and conditions of the coins shown in the figures, since the article was more to familiarize readers with some of the divinities that they may run into on coins with which they may not be familiar. Almost all the coins shown featuring Roman household gods should be easy to find; if not the actual ones shown, then at least similar in type.

* * *

References

Acsearch.info

Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)

Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1998).

Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford University Press, New York & London (1993).

Hornblower, Simon, Spawforth, Antony (ed.). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford (1996).

Madden, F., C.R Smith, and S.W. Stevenson. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1889).

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values I. Spink (2000).

Sofroniew, Alexandra. Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2015).

Sutherland, CHV, and RAG Carson. The Roman Imperial Coinage. Spink and Son, London (various years).

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Coin World, Ohio (1999).

* * *

Steve Benner
Steve Benner
Steve M. Benner earned his Ph.D. in engineering from Ohio State University in 1979 and went to teach at Drexel University for five years. After he left Drexel, he joined NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and retired from there after 28 years. Dr. Benner has been an ancient coin collector for over 50 years and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, the ACCG, and the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, D.C. (ANSW). Dr. Benner has written over 50 articles and two books on ancient Greek and Roman coins.

Related Articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Great Collection Coin Auctions

AU Capital Management US gold Coins

Professional Coin Grading Service