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Revisting the Collection: Domitian Triumphal Arch Sestertius

David Atherton

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This is hands down one of my favourite coins. A big bronze with an architectural theme ... well, that's my cup of tea!





Æ Sestertius, 22.99g
Rome mint, 95-96 AD
Obv: IMP CAES DOMIT AVG GERM COS XVII CENS PER P P; Bust of Domitian, laureate, r., draped and cuirassed
Rev: S C in exergue; Triumphal arch, showing two archways, surmounted by two elephant quadrigae
RIC 796 (R2). BMC -. BNC 509.
Acquired from Romae Aeternae Numismatics, October 2020.

'He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: "enough!" '- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 13.2.

Thus we begin with a pun. Some nameless wag scrawled ARCI on one of Domitian’s many arches, punning on the similarity between arcus (‘arch’) and the Greek arkei (‘enough’). Suetonius thought it clever enough to pass it along in his Life of Domitian. Domitian was a builder and he did indeed erect many arches throughout the city of Rome. This rare sestertius struck during Domitian's last year as emperor depicts one of them, but which one? The clue actually resides with another ancient author- Martial.

'Here where the dazzling temple of Fortuna Redux shines broadly, recently was till now an open space. Here Caesar stood, beautiful with the dust of northern war, pouring out purple radiance from his face. Here Rome, dressed in white and hair wreathed in laurel, greeted the leader with voice and hand. And other grand gifts testify to the merit of the place. A sacred arch standing exultant over subjected nations. Here twin chariots numbering many an elephant. Himself golden, he stands up to the immense yokes. A gate worthy of the emperor's triumphs. It is suitable to have these entrances to the city of Mars.' - Martial, 8.65.

Martial describes an arch erected by Domitian near the Temple of Fortuna Redux. The arch is topped by a pair of bigas pulled by elephants, which is exactly what the coin depicts. The coin shows a quadrifrontal arch seen from one of the corners, with two of the archways visible. Apparently it stood at a crossroads - the Via Flaminia and the Vicus Pallacinae being the prime candidates. Mary Beard in her book 'The Roman Triumph' conjectures the arch is a porta triumphalis. The triumph in question is unknown. Martial says Domitian has returned from a 'northern war', we do not know which one. It is tempting to speculate the arch was erected for one of Domitian's German triumphs, but the term 'northern war' could fit almost any of the numerous northern border conflicts that were waged in the late 80s and early 90s AD. Melanie Grunow Sobocinski plausibly speculates the arch could be connected to Domitian's January 93 triumph over the Sarmatians.

The elephant arch sestertii are extremely rare and were perhaps minted as presentation pieces, judging by their monumental nature and the fact they were part of a special issue of sestertii depicting several of Domitian's monuments (the imperial palace and Equus Maximus). Ian Carradice wrote of them 'All the coins of this special series lack reverse legends (they include only S C), and the sestertii are further distinguished by two exceptional portraits of Domitian, one with drapery representing a military cloak, and one in which the aegis reappears. The nature of the types, their style and their great rarity all suggest that these coins perhaps formed a special commemorative issue.' (Coinage and Finances in the Reign of Domitian, p. 123) The arch is long gone, but the coins still remain as a testament to Domitian's megalomania.

No specimens of the type are in the BM. The above coin is a double die match with the Paris specimen. A truly remarkable piece struck in very fine style!


Superb in hand.



As always, thank you for looking!

Edited by David Atherton
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