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Titus: The First Games of the Colosseum


Curtisimo

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Titus_Den_Elephant.jpeg.b399aa1305f5070a8569b88d68e29524.jpeg
Roman Empire
TITUS (79-81)
AR Denarius, Rome mint, struck AD 80
(3.36 g, 17 mm)
Obv.: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, Laureate head left
Rev.: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, Elephant advancing left
Ref.: RIC 116
Ex Numismatik Naumann Auction 131, lot 658 (August 6, 2023)

This article is part of a series where I document my ongoing project to collect a representative set of Roman Imperial denarii from the time of Julius Caesar to the death of Severus Alexander. Please feel free to review all the articles at the link below:

Curtisimo’s Imperial Denarii

A Spectacle to Remember

“Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids, nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for the Temple of Diana; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar's Amphitheater.” - Martial [1]

Martial’s opening lines of “On the Spectacles” is one of the most amusing examples I know of to illustrate the boundless self confidence of the Romans. Despite the hyperbole, Martial was right that the Colosseum almost immediately claimed a place among the wonders of the world.

The opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 was accompanied by extravagant spectacles put on by Titus, which lasted for 100 days. At the time, Rome was still reeling from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and a plague that hit the city in AD 79. Martial is the only contemporary source for details on the games. 

Why an Elephant?
Thousands of animals were imported for the inaugural games, but as far as I am aware, the elephant type is the only animal themed design used to commemorate the event. It isn’t clear why this would be the case. Elephants feature in Martial’s epigrams but not to a greater degree than other animals such as rhinos, tigers, bulls or bears. Even so, elephants held a popular mystique in the Roman imagination dating back to the times of Pyrrhus and Hannibal, so perhaps the choice can be attributed to nothing more complicated than that.

One particularly interesting epigram describes how an elephant defeated a bull during the games and then bowed to the emperor Titus. Martial assures us that this was not a staged event and that the elephant did this without being trained… suuurre Martial.

“In that, loyal and suppliant, the elephant adores thee which here but now was so fearful a foe to a bull, this it does unbidden, at the teaching of no master; believe me, it too feels the presence of our God!” [1]

It is tempting to wonder whether this brown nosing elephant is the same animal depicted on the coin. My research suggests that answering that question would take a better understanding of the timeline of the games and coin issue than is currently possible.

Armor or Skin?
I have seen the hatching on the body of the elephant referred to as armor. However, it has been discussed at length on other forums that the hatching should be understood to show wrinkled skin, not armor.

When I had the opportunity to visit the Ghetty Museum, I was able to examine artistic evidence for the wrinkled skin theory in person. The below photo shows a relief sculpture of an African elephant dated to AD 80-100. The elephant is clearly not wearing armor, but if you zoom into the picture you can clearly see the same type of hatching that appears on the coins. Comparing this to a photo of a real elephant shows how this hatch pattern might have developed as artistic shorthand to evoke the unique skin texture.

IMG_6493.jpeg.95ce5b75b72ebaa00e9ca754a8a505c0.jpeg

IMG_6535.jpeg.c25051dd17fefdf1c306adf3717d977b.jpeg
Top: African elephant relief at the Ghetty Villa (ca. AD 80-100). Bottom: Elephant

Some Photos of the Colosseum
Below are a few photos I took at the Colosseum on two separate visits. 

IMG_6502.jpeg.342381285d7cdc6cdb0e310eb3377060.jpeg
Panorama of the Colosseum interior

IMG_6503.jpeg.5ea0f51ddec8094b005c54b9694962a1.jpeg
The Colosseum

IMG_6504.jpeg.5838c9f8c8758a64e104cd517a985c34.jpeg
View from the top section looking toward the Palatine Hill. 

IMG_6505.jpeg.30432eb565f80953d7c2b08a9b1b23ec.jpeg
View of the staging area under the arena.

References 
[1] https://resources.warburg.sas.ac.uk/pdf/eph325b2400650v1.pdf

[2] https://www.forumancientcoins.com/board/index.php?topic=113238.0

Please post your:

  • Coins of Titus
  • Coins related to Roman games
  • Coins showing an elephant
  • Anything you think is relevant
  • Coins related to the Colosseum 
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Great coin and post @Curtisimo! As some of you may know, I like collecting coins with animals in general and elephants in particular:

One of my earliest elephant coins:

JuliusCaesardenariuselephant.jpg.a45674dfb56dc6a5257ac5559cb57d79.jpg

JULIUS CAESAR
AR Denarius (19.53mm, 3.60g, 3h)
Struck April-August 49 BC. Military mint traveling with Caesar.
Obverse: Elephant advancing right, trampling on horned serpent; CAESAR in exergue
Reverse: Emblems of the pontificate: simpulum, aspergillum, securis, and apex
References: RCV 1399, Crawford 433/1

Obverse die strike on reverse (off-center, 3h). Struck for Caesar's soldiers as he advanced across the Rubicon into Italy.

 

A Colosseum-related issue for Titus:

Titusdenariusthrone.jpg.a075a69f3d0f9ee5dd4e7609718a4189.jpg

TITUS, AD 79-81
AR Denarius (18.55mm, 3.00g, 5h)
Struck AD 80. Rome mint
Obverse: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate head of Titus right
Reverse: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, throne with semi-circular back, drapery with tassels, and ornamented with three palmettes
References: OCRE II 122, RCV 2514

Light toning with some gouges on reverse. Strong portrait of Titus.
This type is part of a series commemorating the religious ceremonies accompanying the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater in AD 80.

 

Another Colosseum-related denarius of Titus, with an animal this time:

Titusdenariusdolphin-anchor.jpg.48a8b484c3690c88bdabe0747935a7f4.jpg

TITUS, AD 79-81
AR Denarius (20.38mm, 2.93g, 6h)
Struck AD 80. Rome mint
Obverse: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate head of Titus right
Reverse: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, dolphin entwined about anchor
References: OCRE II 112, RCV 2517

This coin is part of a series commemorating the opening of the Colosseum. The reverse scene is likely a reference to the pulvinar of Neptune, god of the sea - one of the gods honored during the religious ceremonies accompanying the opening games.

My favorite Colosseum coin - highlighting an actual individual animal that wowed the Roman audiences at the time, and was mentioned by Martial in a panegyric:

DomitianquadransRhinoceros.jpg.8698b000d3bc4de962699f973fc9f25a.jpg

DOMITIAN, AD 81-96
AE Quadrans (17.62mm, 2.58g, 6h)
Struck AD 84/5. Rome mint
Obverse: African rhinoceros, head down, charging left
Reverse: IMP DOMIT AVG GERM around large S C
References: OCRE II 250, RCV 2835

A choice specimen, perfectly centered and well-struck from artistic dies. This type recalls a rhinoceros which fought in the Colosseum during Domitian's reign; these coins were likely distributed as largesse to the crowds in attendance on that occasion.

 

My best elephant coin in terms of artistry:

AntoninusPiusaselephant.jpg.70151645be8c211c5a25a5b6c6185d6b.jpg

ANTONINUS PIUS, AD 138-161
AE As (28.12mm, 13.73g, 11h)
Struck AD 148/9. Rome mint
Obverse: ANTONINVS AVG PIVS P P TR P XII, laureate head of Antoninus Pius right
Reverse: MVNIFICENTIA AVG, African elephant walking left, COS IIII S C in exergue
References: OCRE III 863, RCV 4308 var.

Struck on a heavy flan. Superbly styled elephant. Commemorating the public games held in celebration of the 900th anniversary of the founding of Rome.

Edited by CPK
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Way to go, Curtis! Another astounding denarius! 🤩and very intriguing evidence with the cross hatching being the wrinkly skin!

One more coin for the need to get list. Best I can do is split the dif. Here's a Titass and an elephant:

 

2117874_1629211160.l-removebg-preview.png.8d17b417cc6de28f92fce4b692404f3e.png

2021722_1624896226.l.jpg

Edited by Ryro
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7 hours ago, Curtisimo said:

Titus_Den_Elephant.jpeg.b399aa1305f5070a8569b88d68e29524.jpeg
Roman Empire
TITUS (79-81)
AR Denarius, Rome mint, struck AD 80
(3.36 g, 17 mm)
Obv.: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, Laureate head left
Rev.: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, Elephant advancing left
Ref.: RIC 116
Ex Numismatik Naumann Auction 131, lot 658 (August 6, 2023)

This article is part of a series where I document my ongoing project to collect a representative set of Roman Imperial denarii from the time of Julius Caesar to the death of Severus Alexander. Please feel free to review all the articles at the link below:

Curtisimo’s Imperial Denarii

A Spectacle to Remember

“Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids, nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for the Temple of Diana; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar's Amphitheater.” - Martial [1]

Martial’s opening lines of “On the Spectacles” is one of the most amusing examples I know of to illustrate the boundless self confidence of the Romans. Despite the hyperbole, Martial was right that the Colosseum almost immediately claimed a place among the wonders of the world.

The opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 was accompanied by extravagant spectacles put on by Titus, which lasted for 100 days. At the time, Rome was still reeling from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and a plague that hit the city in AD 79. Martial is the only contemporary source for details on the games. 

Why an Elephant?
Thousands of animals were imported for the inaugural games, but as far as I am aware, the elephant type is the only animal themed design used to commemorate the event. It isn’t clear why this would be the case. Elephants feature in Martial’s epigrams but not to a greater degree than other animals such as rhinos, tigers, bulls or bears. Even so, elephants held a popular mystique in the Roman imagination dating back to the times of Pyrrhus and Hannibal, so perhaps the choice can be attributed to nothing more complicated than that.

One particularly interesting epigram describes how an elephant defeated a bull during the games and then bowed to the emperor Titus. Martial assures us that this was not a staged event and that the elephant did this without being trained… suuurre Martial.

“In that, loyal and suppliant, the elephant adores thee which here but now was so fearful a foe to a bull, this it does unbidden, at the teaching of no master; believe me, it too feels the presence of our God!” [1]

It is tempting to wonder whether this brown nosing elephant is the same animal depicted on the coin. My research suggests that answering that question would take a better understanding of the timeline of the games and coin issue than is currently possible.

Armor or Skin?
I have seen the hatching on the body of the elephant referred to as armor. However, it has been discussed at length on other forums that the hatching should be understood to show wrinkled skin, not armor.

When I had the opportunity to visit the Ghetty Museum, I was able to examine artistic evidence for the wrinkled skin theory in person. The below photo shows a relief sculpture of an African elephant dated to AD 80-100. The elephant is clearly not wearing armor, but if you zoom into the picture you can clearly see the same type of hatching that appears on the coins. Comparing this to a photo of a real elephant shows how this hatch pattern might have developed as artistic shorthand to evoke the unique skin texture.

IMG_6493.jpeg.95ce5b75b72ebaa00e9ca754a8a505c0.jpeg

IMG_6535.jpeg.c25051dd17fefdf1c306adf3717d977b.jpeg
Top: African elephant relief at the Ghetty Villa (ca. AD 80-100). Bottom: Elephant

Some Photos of the Colosseum
Below are a few photos I took at the Colosseum on two separate visits. 

IMG_6502.jpeg.342381285d7cdc6cdb0e310eb3377060.jpeg
Panorama of the Colosseum interior

IMG_6503.jpeg.5ea0f51ddec8094b005c54b9694962a1.jpeg
The Colosseum

IMG_6504.jpeg.5838c9f8c8758a64e104cd517a985c34.jpeg
View from the top section looking toward the Palatine Hill. 

IMG_6505.jpeg.30432eb565f80953d7c2b08a9b1b23ec.jpeg
View of the staging area under the arena.

References 
[1] https://resources.warburg.sas.ac.uk/pdf/eph325b2400650v1.pdf

[2] https://www.forumancientcoins.com/board/index.php?topic=113238.0

Please post your:

  • Coins of Titus
  • Coins related to Roman games
  • Coins showing an elephant
  • Anything you think is relevant
  • Coins related to the Colosseum 

Super coin and excellent write-up! The left facing portrait variety is rarer than the standard right facing one.

Here's mine, ex Sneh Collection:

https://www.forumancientcoins.com/gallery/displayimage.php?pid=48413

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27 minutes ago, CPK said:

Another Colosseum-related denarius of Titus, with an animal this time:

Titusdenariusdolphin-anchor.jpg.48a8b484c3690c88bdabe0747935a7f4.jpg

TITUS, AD 79-81
AR Denarius (20.38mm, 2.93g, 6h)
Struck AD 80. Rome mint
Obverse: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate head of Titus right
Reverse: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, dolphin entwined about anchor
References: OCRE II 112, RCV 2517

This coin is part of a series commemorating the opening of the Colosseum. The nautical theme of the reverse likely recalls the pitched naval battles held in the new ampitheater, which was purposefully flooded for the occasion.

I think more likely this type refers to the pulvinar of Neptune, undoubtedly one of the gods honoured at the opening games.

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I love this series of thread @Curtisimo, and this one is no exception with a beautifully rendered and strong portrait of Titus

My best elephant

7a480e37bf9a484ebbdee95683fbcaee.jpg

Julius Caesar, Denarius minted in Italy, c.49 BCE
CAESAR, elephant walking rigth, trampling on snake
No legend, Simpulum, sprinkler, axe and apex
4.05 gr
Ref : Crawford # 443/1, HCRI # 9, RCV #1399, Cohen #49

Q

Edited by Qcumbor
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  • Benefactor

Great post on one of my favorite coins Wow the Colosseum gets busy!

331A2491-Edit.jpg.02fe6cd51282b1b8ee33b3d874294dc7.jpg

Titus. 79-81 CE
AR Denarius 17.5mm, 3.29 g, 6h
Rome mint. Struck 1 January-30 June AD 80
Laureate head right
Elephant, with skin texture, walking left on exergual line
RIC II.1 115; RSC 303

 

331A3166-Edit.jpg.91ca4d73dd007e978e390a38a70b5433.jpg

Julius Caesar AR Denarius.
Military mint travelling with Caesar, 49-48 BCE
Elephant advancing to right, trampling on serpent; CAESAR in exergue / Emblems of the pontificate: simpulum, aspergillum, securis (surmounted by wolf's head), and apex. Crawford 443/1; CRI 9; BMCRR Gaul 27-30; RSC 49. 3.26g, 20mm, 2h. 

 

331A4614-Edit.jpg.e7b80ac506d7459a8dabdb524454e807.jpg

Seleukid Kings of Syria: Seleukos I Nikator
Apameia on the Axios
circa 300-281 BCE
AE 20 mm, 7.69g
Obv: Elephant standing right
Rev. ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΕΛΕΥΚΟΥ Horned and bridled horse's head to left; below, anchor to left.
HGC 9, 79. SC 35. WSM 1128

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9 hours ago, Ryro said:

very intriguing evidence with the cross hatching being the wrinkly skin!

I think the cross-hatching is armor. If the elephant is in a parade, armor would be unnecessary, but if intended to be a war-elephant it would have some armor, wouldn't it?

A Seleucid elephant quadriga, Drachm.
17 mm. 4.16 grams.  Hoover 9.32, page 13.
Sear Greek 6836.
Too worn to tell if had armor. 

image.jpeg.b42410cb446dfd6e03f0877cf3d10121.jpeg
 

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Wonderful elephant examples @Limes!

@CPK,
I think all of your coins are great. I agree that the artistry shown on your A-Pi elephant is superb. 🙂 

@Ryro
You crack me up brother. Your Septimius elephant is great. It almost looks like they were going for a 3/4 facing. I also like the clear hatching.

@David Atherton
Thanks for the kind words, David. I recall seeing you post about this example and mentioning that the left facing portrait was less common. It’s one of the reasons I was happy to score this example.

@expat,
Thank you expat. Great elephant!

8 hours ago, Qcumbor said:

love this series of thread @Curtisimo, and this one is no exception with a beautifully rendered and strong portrait of Titus

Thanks Q! I have a long list of imperial denarii to write up so this will be a long running series. 🙂 Love the JC elephant!

@LONGINUS
Thank you for the kind words. I love your poster as always.

7 hours ago, kirispupis said:

Great post on one of my favorite coins Wow the Colosseum gets busy!

Thanks Kiris. Yes, the Colosseum can get very busy. The panorama photo was taken the first time I went to Rome which was in the month of Nov. At that time of year the crowds were very minimal. The next three photos were all taken in late April when it was MUCH more crowded. 

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19 hours ago, Valentinian said:

I think the cross-hatching is armor. If the elephant is in a parade, armor would be unnecessary, but if intended to be a war-elephant it would have some armor, wouldn't it?

A Seleucid elephant quadriga, Drachm.
17 mm. 4.16 grams.  Hoover 9.32, page 13.
Sear Greek 6836.
Too worn to tell if had armor. 

image.jpeg.b42410cb446dfd6e03f0877cf3d10121.jpeg
 

Fantastic Seleucid elephant, Warren!

I originally thought the hatching was armor as well (which would be a very interesting detail). After looking closely at the contemporaneous relief sculptures and other coins showing elephants I changed my mind.

For instance if you look closely at the relief you can see the skin wrinkles through the hatching. This seems more likely if the hatching is skin texture. I would assume you wouldn’t be able to see skin wrinkles through armor, especially plate armor.

IMG_6493.jpeg.8cacb3f2a6e76f3d6b7510147738a2ff.jpeg

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10 minutes ago, Curtisimo said:

For instance if you look closely at the relief you can see the skin wrinkles through the hatching. This seems more likely if the hatching is skin texture. I would assume you wouldn’t be able to see skin wrinkles through armor, especially plate armor.

I can see the wrinkles, but surely we don't think the rectangular pattern is natural? Maybe something like a quilt or leather blanket to take the power out an arrow or spear? Delbrück, in Warfare in Antiquity, has a short chapter on elephants which says, "According to these works [all ancient testimony] the elephant is not at all invulnerable but even has a rather sensitive hide, and even if spears and arrows do not kill him outright, they still penetrate so deeply that they remain imbedded in his body, and the pain makes the animals uncontrollable and causes them to shy away."

A web site on world history,
https://www.worldhistory.org/article/876/elephants-in-greek--roman-warfare/
"Elephants in Greek and Roman Warfare" says: 

Armour & Battlefield Strategies

Elephants were dressed for battle in armour which protected their heads and sometimes front. A thick sacking or leather cover could also be hung over the elephant's back to protect its sides. Sword blades or iron points were added to the tusks and bells hung from the body to create as much noise as possible. Early use of elephants in battle by Alexander's successors involved only a rider (mahout) and perhaps a spearman. The rider was crucial as he had trained the animal for years and it would obey only his commands. He controlled the direction the elephant took by applying pressure behinds the animal's ears with his toes. He also had an ankush or hooked stick for this purpose.

Here is an elephant on an as issued for Rome's 900th anniversary under Antoninus Pius (138-161):

AntoninusPius3asMVNIFICENTIA1378.jpg.847c0e525f0d21f7353036b803b91178.jpg

Struck 148 = TRP XII at Rome
26 mm. 10.96 grams.
MVNIFICENTIA AVG
elephant right (I think, not a war elephant and not armored) 
COS IIII
   SC
Sear II 4308. RIC 862. BMC 1840

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I am extremely glad that you brought up the case for armor and put it so well, Warren. I think it is important to have both theories presented thoroughly enough for future readers to understand the topic.

16 minutes ago, Valentinian said:

surely we don't think the rectangular pattern is natural?

I certainly agree with you that it doesn’t look natural. My assumption was that the effect can be thought of as a type of artistic shorthand. For example, if we look closely at an elephant’s skin:

IMG_6535.jpeg.9128daadc7fc65d1e7ded705fd9bb1a4.jpeg

The texture is complicated and would be incredibly difficult to render in stone or on a coin die. However, if we allow ourselves to abstract the texture we are seeing, it is just possible to conceptualize it roughly as a diamond pattern. Utilizing a standard shorthand such as this would allow the artist to convey the idea of textured skin without the daunting task of trying to recreate it with naturalistic fidelity.

29 minutes ago, Valentinian said:

Maybe something like a quilt or leather blanket to take the power out an arrow or spear? Delbrück, in Warfare in Antiquity, has a short chapter on elephants which says, "According to these works [all ancient testimony] the elephant is not at all invulnerable but even has a rather sensitive hide, and even if spears and arrows do not kill him outright, they still penetrate so deeply that they remain imbedded in his body, and the pain makes the animals uncontrollable and causes them to shy away."

This is a good point and some type of a fabric or leather covering is absolutely plausible. In fact, I think this type of armament is the strongest counter-theory to the skin hypothesis. As much as the shape of the hatching intuitively suggests plate armor, the distribution of the hatching and the way it blends with the wrinkles makes plate armor less likely in my view.

32 minutes ago, Valentinian said:

Armour & Battlefield Strategies

Elephants were dressed for battle in armour which protected their heads and sometimes front. A thick sacking or leather cover could also be hung over the elephant's back to protect its sides. Sword blades or iron points were added to the tusks and bells hung from the body to create as much noise as possible. Early use of elephants in battle by Alexander's successors involved only a rider (mahout) and perhaps a spearman. The rider was crucial as he had trained the animal for years and it would obey only his commands. He controlled the direction the elephant took by applying pressure behinds the animal's ears with his toes. He also had an ankush or hooked stick for this purpose.

Fascinating information, Warren. One thing I would point out though, is that the context of this coin type is the games in the arena. It is not clear to me that the elephants would have been provided with armor for the purposes of the games. If they were, that would have been inconsistent with other animals. For instance, bulls, rhinos and lions were not given armor as far as I am aware. In the animal contests the Romans probably presented the animals in their natural state.

There are epigrams that talk about mock battles using elephants in the games. In those circumstances the elephants may have been armored. If that is what we are seeing on the coin, I would have expected a rider or some other indication. As far as I can tell the relief sculpture is not in a battle context and it still has the hatching.

I wonder if there are any coins or ancient pieces of art that show an elephant unambiguously armored for combat?

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