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Constantine and the festival of Isis


Heliodromus

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I posted about the rapid shipping of my recent Sol Numismatik win, but the coin itself deserves a mention too! I'm sure many of you may have recognized the reverse type...

image.png.e2ff84f129eb2c0c02bf5e77b258182c.png

Isis sails left, looking backwards

Obv: IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG
Rev: VOTA PVBLICA

This is a festival of Isis type issued by Constantine in 317 AD. The date can be ascertained by the very distinctive bust style, comparing to the regular Rome coinage. It's a double die match to the two other specimens of this type that I am aware of in Berlin and Oxford.

The festival of Isis coinage provides a fascinating window into this period of history when the religio romana was being slowly displaced by Christianity, the old gods were disappearing from Constantine's coinage, yet the cult of Isis remained popular and supported by the emperors. Festival of Isis types with imperial obverses continued until Valentinan II c.379 AD, then were replaced by the more common "anonymous" ones with Isis (ISIS FARIA) and Serapis (DEO SARAPIDI) obverses before finally ending c.395 AD under Theodosius I. An inscription records the temple of Isis in Ostia having been restored by Valens, Gratian and Valentinian.

The date of the first festival of Isis coins, featuring Diocletian and Maximianus seems a bit uncertain, especially since there are no known corresponding coins for their caesars. There is a single reverse type known depicting Isis holding a sistrum facing Neptune with his foot on a prow, an allusion to the seafaring aspect of Isis, Isis Faria, and the Navigium Isidis festival, being celebrated on these coins.

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(Alfoldi, Stacks 10-2020)

Following this first issue(s), or conceivably at the same time, there was an issue by Constantius I at time of Diocletian & Maximianus's abdication, of the same type for himself and Galerius, plus a new type for the retiring emperors of Isis sailing right in a ship steered by Serapis.

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(Alfoldi, Gnecchi)

The reverse legend of all the festival of Isis types is VOTA PVBLICA, referring to the emperor's annual vows held in January each year, with the Navigium Isidis itself held in March. However these initial issues appear to have been one-off, not annual, although they are scarce enough that new coins could change the picture.

Following this 2nd tetrarchy issue we have Maxentius' usurpation and multi-year control of Rome until 312 AD, but no festival of Isis types for him, so it doesn't appear to have been regarded as a tradition at that time, at least not the sort of thing that Maxentius saw fit to continue. We can therefore perhaps take it as an indicator of Constantine's religious views at the time (and/or the relationship between the cult of Isis and Christianity c.313 AD) that he saw fit to restart the festival of Isis coinage after his victory over Maxentius, issuing two types in that year for himself, similar to those issued by his father 7 years prior.

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(Berlin, Vienna)

Perhaps more surprising than Constantine issuing these types initially upon gaining control of Rome, is that he then appears to have done so annually (with changing reverse types) until 317 or 318 AD, and then after that on his 5-year anniversaries in 320, 325 and 330 AD, thereby being the one to establish this as a tradition that other emperors then followed. This dating has been established by Lars Ramskold in his "A die link study of Constantine’s pagan Festival of Isis tokens .." in JNG 66 (2016).

Other than Lars's die link study, the classic reference for these coins is Andreas Alfoldi's "A festival of Isis in Rome" from 1937.

 

Edited by Heliodromus
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Yes, understandably she doesn't really appear much on the coinage outside of an Egyptian context. Caracalla also used Isis a couple of times - once presenting grain (corn?) to the emperor, which perhaps gives the reason. After that I think it was only Claudius II that depicted Isis, from the mint of Antioch.

Here's another Isis + Horus on a Hadrian diobol, from my earlier less focused collecting years!

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Interesting coin type and great article explaining its historical background and purpose! Very informative! Coingratulations on the new acquisition!

Here's an Isis Pharia. This is the only such coin in my collection.

.

FaustinaJrAlexandriaIsisPhariatetradrachmAthena.jpg.03944a9aea941abc554ce80f4584d0c4.jpg

Faustina II, 147-175 CE.
Roman provincial billon tetradrachm, 13.70 g, 21.4 mm, 11 h.
Egypt, Alexandria, 153/4 CE.
Obv: ΦΑVϹΤΙΝΑ ϹЄΒΑϹϹΤΗ, bare-headed and draped bust, right.
Rev: Isis Pharia right, wearing horned disk crown and plumes, chiton, and peplos which flies behind her, holding an inflated sail with both hands and left foot; in right hand, a sistrum. L I-Z (=regnal year 17) in fields.
Refs: RPC IV.4,
13787 (temporary); BMCG xv.162,1326; Dattari 3250; RIC 4743; Emmett 1949.17; Milne 2213.

 

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Thanks for your excellent thread, @Heliodromus! I've always found these Festival issues to be extremely interesting, so I'm always happy to read more about them. I hope you will be lucky enough to acquire more of them in the future for your collection.

I think you are right in saying that Claudius II was the last emperor to feature Isis on a non-Festival issue, but it's worth mentioning that, before him, Gallienus had used an Isis and infant Horus reverse on an extremely rare antoninianus from Siscia:

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(Image courtesy of CNG)

As for Claudius II, he has two different reverses featuring Isis at Antioch: the first one simply shows Isis standing left, accompanied by the legend SALVS AVG; it was struck by the fifth officina in large quantities, and it was introduced all the way back in the very first emission of Claudius II at the mint, with the long obverse legend IMP C M AVR CLAVDIVS P F AVG. The second, far rarer type belongs to the last group of Claudius II antoniniani struck at Antioch, and the meaning and the circumstances behind this emission are still uncertain. On this coin Serapis and Isis are shown facing, a depiction which I think was never used on any other Roman coin, provincial or otherwise, and are named "Preservers of the Emperor". Clearly in this period the Antioch mint considered Isis and Serapis very important, but unfortunately we do not know enough to understand why.

IMPCCLAVDIVSAVG-SALVSAVG(2).jpg.8a9d7b0e642bd7f8e38e68b786eabf7e.jpg

Roman Empire, Claudius II (268-270), Antoninianus, Antioch mint, 1st emission, 5th officina.

Obverse: IMP C CLAVDIVS AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right, seen from behind;

Reverse: SALV-S AVG, Isis standing left, holding sistrum in right hand and situla in left hand, ∈ in exergue;

RIC V 217; RIC V Online 1024; Huvelin 1990, 10;

IMPCCAVDIVSAVG(sic)-CONSERAVG.jpg.266e9055ba8b02d808cfdb738fd26457.jpg

Roman Empire, Claudius II (268-270), Antoninianus, Antioch mint, 4th emission.

Obverse: IMP C CAVDIVS AVG (sic), radiate head left;

Reverse: CONS-ER AVG, Serapis standing right, raising right hand and holding transverse sceptre in left hand, facing Isis standing left, holding sistrum in right hand and situla in left hand;

RIC V 202; RIC V Online 1080; Huvelin 1990, 56;

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1 hour ago, Claudius_Gothicus said:

On this coin Serapis and Isis are shown facing, a depiction which I think was never used on any other Roman coin, provincial or otherwise, and are named "Preservers of the Emperor".

Very interesting design to show up in Antioch. FYI, though, RPC Online lists more than 80 different types issued in Roman Alexandria depicting Isis and Sarapis together on the reverse, some facing front but quite a few facing each other. You won't find them by searching for "Serapis," only "Sarapis"!

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1 hour ago, Claudius_Gothicus said:

Thanks for your excellent thread, @Heliodromus! I've always found these Festival issues to be extremely interesting, so I'm always happy to read more about them. I hope you will be lucky enough to acquire more of them in the future for your collection.

Thanks!

1 hour ago, Claudius_Gothicus said:

but it's worth mentioning that, before him, Gallienus had used an Isis and infant Horus reverse on an extremely rare antoninianus from Siscia

Ah - interesting! I wasn't aware of this type.

I just found an article discussing it here:

https://www.academia.edu/49361329/Isis_and_Horus_a_recently_recognised_reverse_type_for_Gallienus

The author suggests an occasion/reason for the type in Gallienus' dispatch of Aurelius Theodotus to Egypt to put down a revolt by Aemilianus, with this Isis Faria type appropriate either to Theodotus' safe passage by sea, or having re-secured the grain supply (by ship) from Egypt.

 

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On 10/26/2023 at 6:39 PM, DonnaML said:

Very interesting design to show up in Antioch. FYI, though, RPC Online lists more than 80 different types issued in Roman Alexandria depicting Isis and Sarapis together on the reverse, some facing front but quite a few facing each other. You won't find them by searching for "Serapis," only "Sarapis"!

Thanks for letting me know - now I understand why I was not getting any results! There are indeed a few with similar reverses, but none that is exactly identical, so it seems like the Antioch engravers didn't simply copy the reverse from a provincial.

On 10/26/2023 at 6:51 PM, Heliodromus said:

Thanks!

Ah - interesting! I wasn't aware of this type.

I just found an article discussing it here:

https://www.academia.edu/49361329/Isis_and_Horus_a_recently_recognised_reverse_type_for_Gallienus

The author suggests an occasion/reason for the type in Gallienus' dispatch of Aurelius Theodotus to Egypt to put down a revolt by Aemilianus, with this Isis Faria type appropriate either to Theodotus' safe passage by sea, or having re-secured the grain supply (by ship) from Egypt.

 

I too have read that article and, while undoubtedly interesting, the Egyptian theory doesn't seem particularly strong to me, since the events there don't strike me as warranting such a small issue, only at Siscia and with a reverse appropriate for an Empress; we mustn't forget that in its early years, the Siscia mint had a tendency of copying old reverse types, often of different mints, as the author himself points out with the Salonina LVNA LVCIF (This also took place during the reign of Claudius II, and one day I hope I'll be able to write about his "legacy" types), so maybe not every single reverse type carries a deeper meaning.

However, if the theory is true, then one has to wonder what Isis was meant to represent on the Antioch issues of Claudius II - should we seek an Egyptian connection there, too?

Finally, I wanted to correct my earlier post - Claudius II might have been the last one to feature Isis on his Imperial non-Festival coinage, but Diocletian was actually the last one to use her on Provincial coins, since she appears on a rare Alexandrian undated tetradrachm.

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(Image courtesy of CNG)

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image.png.f70698405aea0a5e66c690c92249a4b6.png

(Custom graphic generated by DALL-E)

So, there's something we didn't talk about yet ... 🙂

But first let's talk about shipping again, but this time Roman shipping.

The Roman empire had a voracious appetite, and need, for overseas goods such as grain from Egypt and olive oil from Spain, with these goods of necessity being transported by sea. Unfortunately passage by sea was a treacherous business as attested by the numerous shipwrecks that have been found.

One classic study from 1992 recorded almost 1200 wrecks in the Mediterranean dating to before 1500 AD, with a subsequent 600 wrecks already discovered since that time. Per dating of wrecks this comes to at least one shipwreck per year during the 3rd/4th century time period, with the true/total number likely being some multiple of that.

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https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236157707_Developments_in_Mediterranean_shipping_and_maritime_trade_from_200_BC_to_AD_1000

http://oxrep.classics.ox.ac.uk/databases/shipwrecks_database/

Sailing during the winter months was avoided whenever possible due to a combination of factors from unpredictable weather, adverse winds, obscured skies (preventing navigation by stars), not to mention the temperature. The trip from Rome to Alexandria would take 3-4 weeks in favorable conditions, maybe twice that in bad - not much fun in freezing temperatures. Occasionally during food shortages, or for other reasons, winter passage was undertaken regardless, but was normally avoided.

There was therefore a well defined sailing season that was usually kept to. Here's what Vegetius, writing in the 4thC had to say about it:

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As always the Romans looked to the gods for protection, and with the port of Alexandria as one of their frequent destinations, had come to look for protection at sea from Isis Pharia, that aspect of Isis guarding over such matters.

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There were a number of holidays thoughout the year dedicated to the cult of Isis in general, but one in particular to that of Isis Pharia, the Navigium Isidis on March 5th, which marked the beginning of the sailing season after the winter months, and was celebrated with a parade including a ceremonial ship that was carried though the streets. In his novel "The Golden Ass" (The Metamorphoses of Apuleius), Apuleius gives a detailed account of the Navigium Isidis, including these key extracts:

image.png.fce5821a4684cc01892d2db2a8780dce.png

(Ramskold, "A die link study of Constantine’s pagan Festival of Isis tokens ..")

While the Navigium Isidis was primarily about the start of the sailing season, and an appeal to Isis Pharia to protect the sailors, we see that it also included (a later addition, perhaps?) prayers given by the priests of Isis for the protection of the emperor and roman people in general. From this description it's not clear whether the VOTA PVBLICA of the "festival of isis" tokens refers to the emperors's imperial vows held in January (and depicted elsewhere on coins with the emperor himself sacrificing at an altar), or maybe to these prayers/vows that were made as part of the ceremony itself. In any case the numismatic evidence strongly suggests that the tokens were produced for March 5th, not January.

So, with this background as to the nature of the holiday (i.e. start of sailing season, under protection of Isis Pharia) being celebrated, what of the "coins" themselves ?

The first thing to note is that these were really not coins at all, and are better regarded as tokens or perhaps amulets. Unlike the regular coinage, the "festival of isis" pieces were made of orichcalcum, and were mostly of a variety of sub-nummus "fractional" weights/sizes, which would have had no obvious value (denomination). Confirming the token vs coinage nature of these pieces are the facts that they are never to be found in hoards, and that it is extremely common to find them pierced for wearing ...

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While regular coins can be found pierced too, some types notably more so than others, the number of festival of isis pieces that are pierced is remarkable... In Alfoldi's "A Festival of Isis in Rome" dissertation he illustrates an impressive 5-600 specimens (rough count via tokens per plate and number of plates), of which 135 (my count) are pierced - roughly 20% of them! This piercing started immediatly with the imperial pieces under Constantine, and continued all the way to the end of the later anonymous series. What this piercing tells us (and why I like pierced coins, especially so where there is a pattern - they do tell us something) is that people liked these pieces and that they commonly wore them; given the nature of the occasion it seems reasonable to say they these tokens were treated as amulets providing the wearer with protection by Isis Pharia. One might speculate that some could also have been used as votive offerings - thown in the sea perhaps.

It's interesting to note that while piercing of these pieces is common, it is *REALLY* common for one specific type - Isis sitting on Sothis dog, where the majority of specimens I have seen are pierced! One can only speculate why this particular type (initiated by Julian II) was so popular. Perhaps people just liked the motif, or perhaps it's because of an additional special meaning to those at sea, with the Sothis dog representing the dog star Sirius, which would have been used for navigation.

image.png.55a9c61e14dda289f522bb04e7f32143.png

In conclusion, it seems misleading to refer to these pieces as "festival of isis coins" since a) they are not generically celebrating Isis (but rather Isis Pharia, and specifically the Navigium Isidis start of the sailing season), and b) nor are they coins. "Navigium Isidis amulets" would be more accurate. There's also, I say, no shame in having one with a big hole bang in the middle of it, since that is intimately part of how they were used. I trust that whoever wore mine for protection was graced by Isis Pharia since presumably it was found on land, not in some watery grave!

 

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