CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
Temples were designed to house a statue of the deity and store votive offerings, and were not intended to provide accommodation for a congregation of worshippers (Adkins, 218).
Two of the most common circulating American coins depict buildings modeled on Greco-Roman temples: the Lincoln Memorial on the cent, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s elegant domed residence, on the nickel. Coinage is conservative! Temples of many different deities adorn the reverses of hundreds of ancient coin types, and collectors have eagerly sought the finest and most historic specimens for centuries. By one estimate, over a thousand different ancient buildings are depicted on coins, and, in many cases, the coins are the only evidence for how the structures appeared (Price and Trell, 11).
To understand descriptions of ancient temples found in coin catalogs, it’s helpful to know some terminology.
Temples are categorized by the number of columns visible on the front. A “tetrastyle” temple has four columns, a “hexastyle” has six, a “decastyle” has 10, and so on. The “pediment” is the triangular panel, often filled with sculpture, above the columns. An “architrave” is the main beam that rests across the top of the columns. A “lintel” is the beam above a doorway.
Egypt became a Roman province after the death of Queen Cleopatra in 30 BCE. Under Roman rule, Egypt maintained its own separate coinage, with Greek inscriptions and occasionally traditional Egyptian themes. An Egyptian-style temple, with an image of the goddess Isis between two tall tapered pylons, appears on a bronze drachma of Emperor Hadrian issued at Alexandria in 134-135 CE.
An example of this coin pedigreed to the famous Dattari collection realized nearly $5,000 in a 2018 London auction.
The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter Best and Greatest”) on Rome’s Capitoline Hill was one of the oldest and most important structures in the city. Over the centuries, it was repeatedly destroyed by fire and rebuilt. The temple appears on the reverse of a denarius issued in 41 BCE by the moneyer Petilius Capitolinus. The obverse bears Jupiter’s emblem: an eagle grasping a thunderbolt.
More than a century later (76 CE), this temple appears in greater detail on the reverse of a large bronze sestertius of the emperor Vespasian. Between the central columns, we see a statue of Jupiter enthroned, flanked by standing figures of goddesses Juno and Minerva.
Mars Ultor (“Mars the Avenger”) was Rome’s war god, and his temple was a repository for the sacred standards (signa in Latin) lost by the legions of Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE and returned by the Parthians 33 years later. Emperor Augustus celebrated this diplomatic achievement on his coinage, including a large silver cistophorus issued at the Eastern city of Pergamum. The reverse of the coin depicts the domed, circular temple with one of the standards visible between the central columns.
Designed and executed by the cleverest masters of the golden age, entirely built of white marble, profusely enriched with masterpieces of the Greek school, the Temple of Concord was one of the finest monuments in the valley of the Forum, and one of the richest museums of Rome (Lanciani, 286).
Concordia was the personification of social harmony – an important concept for Rome, which was often torn by bitter civil conflict. The large Temple of Concordia in the Roman forum was sometimes used for Senate meetings. The building was wider than its six-columned porch, flanked by statues of Mercury and Hercules; more statues adorned the roofline. The temple appears on a bronze sestertius of Tiberius issued in 35 or 36 CE.
Following his death in 14 CE, the Senate declared Augustus to be a god. A temple devoted to his cult was built on the site of his home on the Palatine Hill. It was finally completed in 37 CE, during the reign of Caligula. Draped with a festive garland, it appears as the background to a scene of ritual sacrifice, on the reverse of a magnificent sestertius issued in 39 or 40. The inscription is DIVO AVG (“to Augustus the God.) and the large letters S C (“by Decree of the Senate”) were, by this time a meaningless formula, since the Senate had little power over the coinage.
The enormous Temple of Artemis (Diana to the Romans) at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Like many ancient structures, it was destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly. The third and final version of the temple appears on the reverse of a cistophorus of Ephesus struck in the name of Claudius (ruled 41- 54 CE). The temple front is depicted with four Ionic columns bracketing an image of the goddess, although the actual front had nine columns. Ancient die engravers often simplified the representation of architecture.
The small round Temple of Vesta near the Roman forum housed a sacred fire tended by the Vestal Virgins, young women from elite families living under a strict vow of chastity. The temple was burned down and rebuilt at least six times during its long history, and it appears on many Roman coins; notably, a gold aureus of Titus struck in 73 CE. An example pedigreed to the 1895 Boscoreale hoard (buried in the eruption of Vesuvius) brought over $49,000 in a recent London auction.
Heliopolis (“City of the Sun”), now Baalbek in modern Lebanon, was a center for worship of local Semitic deities that Romans identified with Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, and Bacchus. A vast temple complex constructed during the first century CE is depicted on coins from the time of Nerva (ruled 96-98 CE) down to Gallienus (r. 253-268 CE.)
The Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus was the largest Greco-Roman temple ever built; the massive limestone blocks in its platform are among the heaviest ever quarried–over 800 tons each. The decastyle (“ten-columned”) temple appears on a bronze coin of Septimius Severus (ruled 193-211) in a remarkable “isometric” perspective view, as if seen from above. Damaged by earthquakes in antiquity, the temple was looted for its stones; eight of its great Corinthian columns were transported to Constantinople in 532 CE by Emperor Justinian I for the construction of the church of Hagia Sophia.
Byblos (today Jubayl, Lebanon) is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. A very ancient (2800 BCE) temple of the city’s patron goddess Baalat Gebal (identified by the Greeks as Atargatis or Aphrodite) may be the one depicted on a local coin from the brief reign of Macrinus (217- 218 CE). The Greek inscription IEPAC BΥBΛOΥ proclaims “of Holy Byblos”. The image of the goddess is a tall, conical stone or baetyl within a columned courtyard behind the temple building. “It is the most fantastic piece of architecture ever used as a likeness of a deity (Tameanko, 209).”
The port of Perinthus on the Sea of Marmara was founded by Greek colonists from Samos around 599 BCE. During the reign of Septimius Severus it earned the coveted title of neokoros. A “neocorate” city was granted that status by the Roman Senate as a reward for building a temple to the emperor or establishing a cult dedicated to members of the imperial family.
A pair of facing temples honoring the brotherly love of the emperor’s sons, Caracalla and Geta, appear in perspective on a large bronze medallion. In 211 CE, Caracalla had his brother stabbed to death in their mother’s arms.
Elagabal was a Semitic sun-god worshipped at the Syrian city of Emesa (now Homs) in the form of a conical black meteorite. The stone was said to bear the image of an eagle on one side. Emperor Elagabalus (ruled 218-222), who was a hereditary high priest of this cult, brought the stone to Rome and installed it in a temple on the Palatine Hill. After his murder, the Romans sent it back. During the chaotic third century, an obscure usurper, Uranius Antoninus, known mainly from his rare coinage, depicted the stone in its temple on coins struck at Emesa where he briefly held power, c. 253-254 CE.
The Aegean island of Samos boasted a great temple to the goddess Hera destroyed and rebuilt several times. The cult image of the goddess was moved from the never-finished third temple to a small nearby temple in Roman imperial times. It appears on a series of Samian coins, such as an issue from the reign of Emperor Valerian (ruled 253-260 CE). On the coin, the statue stands in an elegant arched niche flanked by spiral-fluted columns.
The great temple was demolished during the middle ages, but one column was left standing as a navigational landmark for sailors.
Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is the most revered and contested 37 acres on Earth. The First Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by Babylonian invaders in 587 BCE. The Second Temple, completed in 516 BCE, was extensively rebuilt, c. 20 – 10 BCE, by King Herod. Destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it is commemorated on coins issued by Jewish rebels against Roman rule (the “Bar Kochba War”, 132 to 135 CE).
The engravers of the Bar Kochba shekels portraying the Temple had probably never seen the building. Burnt out and razed to the ground, not even one stone remained upon another. Few survivors of the First War were still alive and they would be over 70 years old with only dim childhood memories of its appearance. With faulty recollections, but with some knowledge of what the great temples in the Roman empire looked like, the coin artists produced their idea of a close approximation of the Second Temple… (Tameanko, 49)
There are several variations in the image on the coin. On one variety, a wavy line above the columns is thought to represent a golden grapevine that adorned the temple front. An arched shape outline in dots between the central columns is variously interpreted as the showbread table, the Ark of the Covenant (which was never present in the Second Temple), a cabinet containing Torah scrolls, or simply the door of the Temple.
On the CoinArchives Pro database, which records over 1.8 million ancient coin auction items, a simple search for the word “temple” produced 22,772 hits! These are overwhelmingly Roman and “Greek Imperial” issues (coins of Greek-speaking cities under Roman rule). Buildings very rarely appear on archaic or classic-era Greek coins.
Two professors of architecture who were avid collectors, more than a century apart, have written significant books about buildings on ancient coins. One being the British Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), and the other being the Canadian Marvin Tameanko (1934-2016). Both were gifted illustrators, and their books are enriched by many coin drawings. Another reference often cited in catalog listings is Price and Trell (1977).
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 Giovanni Dattari (1853-1923) was a collector and dealer in Egyptian antiquities. He assembled a collection of 25,000 coins and published a 1901 catalog of Alexandrian coins that is still cited as a standard reference.
 Naville Numismatics Auctionn 38, March 11, 2018, Lot 388. Realized £3,600 (about $4,966 USD; estimate £400).
 It is surprising to read how often ancient stone buildings were destroyed by fire until we remember that the roof beams were invariably made of wood.
 CNG Electronic Auction 477, September 23, 2020, Lot 401. Realized $325 USD (estimate $300).
 NAC Auction 114, May 6, 2019, Lot 1472. Realized CHF 3,000 (about $2,948 USD; estimate CHF 3,000).
 CNG Auction 109, September 12, 2018, Lot 602. Realized $2,100 USD (estimate $2,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 69, June 8, 2005, Lot 1517. Realized $1,750 USD (estimate $1,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction 17, March 29, 2019, Lot 712. Realized £4,000 (about $5,277 USD; estimate £5,000).
 Numismatic Naumann Auction 70, October 7, 2018, Lot 388. Realized €1,200 (about $1,381 USD; estimate €500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 575. Realized £38,000 (about $49,039 USD; estimate £20,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 75, May 23, 2007, Lot 846. Realized $1,075 USD (estimate $300).
 Gemini Auction IX, January 9, 2012, Lot 510. Realized $6,500 USD (estimate $3,000).
 Heritage New York Sale, January 2, 2011, Lot 24719. Realized $7,000 USD (estimate $7-8,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XVI, September 26, 2018, Lot 489. Realized £11,000 (about $14,479 USD; estimate £5,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 58, February 12, 2003, Lot 88. Realized $180 USD (estimate $300).
 CNG Auction 103, September 14, 2016, Lot 380. Realized $7,000 USD (estimate $5,000).
Adkins, Lesley, and Roy Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York (1996)
Donaldson, Thomas. Architectura Numismatica: Ancient Architecture on Greek and Roman Coins. Chicago (1965 reprint of 1859 edition)
Drew-Bear, Thomas. “Representations of Temples on the Greek Imperial Coinage.” American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 19 (1974)
Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th edition. New York (2010)
Lanciani, Rodolfo. The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome. (1967 reprint of 1897 edition)
Price, Martin J. and Bluma Trell. Coins and Their Cities: Architecture on the Ancient Coins of Greece, Rome and Palestine. London (1977)
Rowan, Clare. “Becoming Jupiter: Severus Alexander, The Temple of Jupiter Ultor, and Jovian Iconography on Roman Imperial Coinage.” American Journal of Numismatics 21 (2009)
Tahberer, Bekircan and Ilter Uzel. “The Temples of Asklepios on Ancient Coins.” The Celator 21 (2007)
Tameanko, Marvin. Monumental Coins: Buildings and Structures on Ancient Coins. Iola, WI (1999)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” 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, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.