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The only surviving depiction of the temple of Mercury: a sestertius of Marcus Aurelius


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This year started off with a bang! I’ve already been able to add four coins, including not one, but two grail coins that I will post at a later date. This one might not be a ‘grail coin’, but ever since Andres (is he a member of this board?) showed his a while ago on cointalk, I’ve been on the hunt for a specimen myself. And I’m a sucker for coins with a building on it, and this sure is a special one!


This sestertius of Marcus Aurelius is special for several reasons. First, the reverse shows the temple of Mercury, which makes it the only remaining image of the temple, as no remains of the temple itself have been dug up. The temple of Mercury once stood on the slope of the Avantine hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus. Founded in 495 BC, it was one of the oldest temples in Rome and it is known that it still existed in the 3rd century. The reverse of the sestertius shows the temple, but what’s particularly interesting is that its nothing like the ‘usual’ Roman temple. One can see pillars (on better specimens than my coin, this is even more clear) in what looks like the shape of a body with heads on top. And the roof is not triangular in shape, but a half circle. The pediment shows several objects, which are the attributes of Mercury (from left to right): a tortoise, a cock with the head turned right, a ram, the petasus, the caduceus, and a purse. Overall, the structure has a sort of Egyptian feel to it, which may have been done deliberately to pay tribute to the Egyptian origin of Mercury. The unusual pillars reminded me of the telamons we saw in Sicily, Agrigento, when we were there for our honeymoon in 2012.


RIC identifies the columns as ‘telamones’ (I don’t have this RIC volume however, so I used OCRE), which is the Roman term for Atlases. In his book Monumental Coins, Marvin Tameanko puts forwards several theories to identify the columns. Besides telamones, he makes a stronger case that the columns are actually ‘herms’: stone idols related to Hermes, which had several functions, such as a good luck charm, but also protectors of travellers and traders. Not learned in this matter in any way, I do think the identification used by Marvin Tameanko makes more sense due to a directer link with Mercury. Also, as you can see from the photo from Sicily, one would think that the imagery of the telamones would include them raising their arms to hold the roof. (Or then again, maybe a more generalistic imagery was used, or maybe there was no room to make the arms...?) What do you think?

Although I’ve always thought it’s tricky to make assertions on what a building may have looked like or what its seize could have been, based on merely a coin, Marvin Tameanko does put forward an interesting idea in his abovementioned book, following his identification of the columns as herms. He states that the peculiar shape and size of the temple may indicate that the ‘temple’ shown on the coin is actually not a temple, but a shrine placed inside a temple. The temple itself may have had a more familiar shape and size, and the shrine would constitute the sacellum. This also corresponds with the herms shown on the coin, which were used on small scale monuments. As long as no remains are found, it’s impossible to know for certain how the temple looked like, but it is an interesting idea nevertheless.

The second thing that makes this coin interesting, is that it refers to the miraculous event that happened to the Roman legions of Marcus Aurelius, during their war with the Quadi. About this even,  Cassius Dio writes: “The Quadi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the Romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing and the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them.” There’s some debate going on between ancient (and modern) authors whether the “Egyptian magician who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air” or that “a division of soldiers (...) from Melitene when they had prayed, their God immediately gave ear and smote the enemy with a thunderbolt and comforted the Romans with a shower of rain” were responsible. But I wont go into this discussion. I'm just simply amazed by the fact that an event that took place almost 2000 years ago is brought to us via a writing, a column that still stand today, and my coin! Just let that sink in...! And I'm able to hold a piece of that history in hand! 

Here's the display of the miraculous event on the column of Marcus Aurelius. To me, the bearded guy does not look like Mercury at all! I wonder what the sculpters tried to recreate here. 


I’m very happy to have added this coin to my collection. And although it will not win a beauty contest, the history behind it, the design, and the story it tells me (I even went through our old photos from Sicily!), makes me enjoy it. The coin shows some honest wear, and has quite a few hard green deposits. In hand it’s nevertheless an attractive piece in my opinion, with interesting details on the reverse. Thanks for reading and share anything you want.

For more photos of the column itself, see this beautiful album on flickr!
For more info on the miraculous event, see https://www.livius.org/sources/content/cassius-dio/dio-on-the-rain-miracle/. See also the article by Péter Kovács, 'Marcus Aurelius’ rain miracle: When and Where?', in the archaeological institute of the Slovak academy oy sciences, 2017, available here: https://www.academia.edu/35239210/Marcus_Aurelius_rain_miracle_when_and_where 

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Terrific catch, @Limes - I'm hoping a Temple of Mercury comes my way some day.  In the meantime, here is Mercury sans temple on a denarius of Marcus Aurelius, also presumed to be connected to the "Rain Miracle": 


Marcus Aurelius        Denarius (173-174 A.D.) Rome Mint M ANTONINVS AVG TR P XXVIII, laureate head right / RELIG AVG IMP VI COS III Mercury standing left holding patera and caduceus. RIC 298; RSC 530e (3.05 grams / 19 mm) Quadi "Rain Miracle" comm. eBay Mar. 2019 $21.60 BIN


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23 hours ago, Deinomenid said:

What a place to go  on  honeymoon too!  The Valley of Temples is  truly special. (Though the parts of the other telemons lying scattered around on the ground at Akragas/Agrigento drove me to distraction!

thanks! And yes, I think that Sicily is a magnificent place to visit. The variety of things to see and all within a good travel distance is amazing. Sicily also offers some of the best ancient temples and other monuments. I was really surprised by the excellent state of preservation. A must see! Here's another photo the beautiful temple of Segesta, just sitting there in the middle of the country side. 


And of course the magnificent mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale, and the fresh water spring Arethusa in Syracuse. Too much to mention here! 

And thanks for sharing your miracle coin @Marsyas Mike!  

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Here is a depiction of Mercury from a slightly early denarius of Octavian.

The Triumvirs. Octavian, Autumn 31-summer 30 BC. AR Denarius (20mm, 3.57g, 9h). Italian (Rome?) mint. Obv: Bare head right. Rev: CAESAR-DIVI F; Mercury seated right on rock, playing lyre; petasos around neck. Ref: RIC I 257; CRI 401; RSC 61. Good Fine, old collection toning, minor banker's marks. Ex CNG Web Auction, Feb 2000.


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On 1/30/2023 at 9:29 PM, Limes said:

What do you think?

You'd think that a temple that old would be highly influenced by the Greeks. The figurine-columns makes me think of the Greek temple / Caryatid Porch at the Acropolis in Athens (ca. 421-405 BCE). With this example I think the image on your coin could represent real figurine-like columns (temple facade). Not 100% proof of course, but it could be. I've been on the Acropolis myself some 20 years ago. 🙂

The image on the column of Traian is the river god of the Danube if I'm not mistaken.


Edited by Coinmaster
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This is is a great coin.  It combines my two favorite types of reverses, one that can be tied to a specific historical event, and architectural.  Here's my example.  It won't win any beauty contests either, but it is still one of my favorites.  It's a pity I didn't get to see the Column of Marcus Aurelius when I was in Rome 15 years ago.  From what I have read online, the bearded guy is a rain god.


Marcus Aurelius, AD 161-180.
AE Sestertius, 27.3 g, 31.5 mm, 6 h.
Rome mint, AD 172-173.
Obv: M ANTON[INUS] AVG TR P XXVII; Head of Marcus Aurelius, laureate, right.
Rev: [I]MP VI [COS III] S C, [R]ELIG AV[G] in exergue; Statue of Mercury, wearing petasus and short robe, standing front, head left, on base, holding purse in right hand and caduceus in left hand, within a tetrastyle temple; columns are telamons; the pediment is semicircular and contains, from left to right, tortoise, cock, ram, petasus, winged caduceus, and purse.
Ref: RIC III 1075, Sear RCV 4996.
Acquired from Incitatus Coins and Antiquities, 17 October 2020.

Photo credit: Incitatus Coins and Antiquities

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