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The Rape of Proserpina and the Story of Winter


David Atherton

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One of the more iconic scenes from ancient mythology is depicted on the reverse of this Vespasianic provincial bronze. A most appropriate coin in the midst of winter. I couldn't resist it!

 

 

RPC1311.jpg.c7d214f570544d1bec4f0e55b35d0307.jpgVespasian
Æ27, 8.24g
Sardis (Lydia) mint, Titus Flavius Eisigonos (strategos)
Obv: ΑΥΤΟΚ ΚΑΙϹ ΟΥΕϹΠΑϹΙΑΝΩ; Head of Vespasian, laureate, r.
Rev: ΕΠΙ (Τ) ΦΛ ΕΙϹΙΓΟΝΟΥ ϹΑΡΔΙΑΝΩΝ; Pluto and Persephone in quadriga, r.
RPC 1311 (6 spec.).
Acquired from Tom Vossen, November 2023.

The rape, or more accurately abduction, of Prospernia (Persephone in Greek) depicted on the reverse of this Sardian provincial bronze is an infamous scene from Greco-Roman mythology. Here we see Pluto carrying away Prospernia in his chariot. The story of Proserpina explains why there is winter:

'One day, when Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, was gathering flowers in the fields, she was abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld, and carried off to his kingdom. Ceres was consumed with grief and in anger she scorched the earth, preventing grain from growing and the earth from producing fruit. Forced to intervene, Jupiter negotiated a compromise that provided Proserpina had not eaten anything while in the underworld she would be set free. Pluto however had offered Proserpina part of a pomegranate, which she accepted. The Fates would not allow Proserpina to be fully released, but a settlement was agreed upon by which she would spend part of the year with Pluto in the underworld (winter) and part of the year with her mother Ceres (summer). When Proserpina is with Pluto the earth is barren and cold and when she returns to her mother, Ceres pours forth the blessings of spring to welcome her beloved daughter home.'

The story has been told in paintings and sculpture throughout the ages. During the Renaissance a large Baroque marble group sculpture by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini titled 'The Rape of Proserpina' most famously immortalised the tale for a modern audience.

 

the_rape_of_proserpine_detail__2-large.jpg.c3cc48d6c1e48e9fc069538427df7baf.jpg

 

This Sardian bronze coin struck under Vespasian, while not exceedingly rare, is seldom encountered in trade.

 

In hand.

 

Hopefully Proserpina returns soon!

As always, thank you for looking/watching!

 

Edited by David Atherton
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  • David Atherton changed the title to The Rape of Proserpina and the Story of Winter

Nice acquisition, @David Atherton, and an important addition to any collection of mythological scenes on coins. A big coin, too! Here's my example of the abduction of Persephone type. Sadly, much of it is off the dumpy little flan:

[IMG]
Julia Soaemias, AD 218-222
Roman provincial Æ 21.4 mm, 10.97 g
Samaria, Sebaste, AD 218-222
Obv: SVAMIAS AVGVSTA SEB, bare-headed and draped bust right
Rev: COL L SEBAS-TE, Hades in galloping quadriga right abducting Persephone, Eros above
Refs: Rosenberger 34; BMC 18.

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Very nice example and write up! That Tom Vossen is so nice to work with. Always great coins and great service.

Here is my abduction coin:

4027616_1681751521.l-removebg-preview.png.5a9a6a76403540a49c37587f24677014.png.541a58151602d45052203cbfc529cd7a.png

PHRYGIA, Hierapolis. Civic issue. Circa 2nd century AD. Æ 27mm (10.56 g). Head of youthful Dionysos right / Rape of Persephone: Hades in galloping quadriga right, carrying Persephone. SNG von Aulock -; SNG Copenhagen 428; BMC -. Fine, dark grey-brown patina. Rare. Purchased from Savoca April 2023

NGS1959.jpg.ffb68abbf14dd81b2727672f75763ceb.jpg.597dfbebaf8b5350b72917136ca5ee43.jpg

And here is mom searching for her daughter:

4027608_1681751513.l-removebg-preview.png.babf40fd008d5d6997e84721cd3c7ec6.png.cf6a322de3935b22d6b564eaa16393c3.png

Maximus

(Caesar, 235/6-238). PHRYGIA. Bruzus. Ae. 5.94 g. 24 mm.

Obv: Γ IOY OYH MAΞIMOC K.

Bareheaded and cuirassed bust right.

Rev: ΒΡΟVΖΗΝΩΝ.

Demeter, holding torch in each hand, in biga right drawn by winged serpents searching for daughter Persephone.

RPC 5626; SNG von Aulock 3526.

Very fine. From the Tareq Hani collection. Purchased from Savoca April 2023

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Here's Persephone as the Maiden,  Kore in a ~305BC tetradrachm of Agathokles from Syracuse.

image02003_origfff.jpg.0d6ef7ad06aec37d204c56dc37116431.jpg

Fun fact - the  legend as co-opted by the dastardly  Romans and assorted  hangers on said that  Hades emerged from the  earth near Enna in Sicily to  drag her down. Specifically at Lake Pergusa up  in the beautiful Heraean mountains. The only surviving  lake in Sicily.  Images  promote it like this (not my  photo).

Cover_photo-700x400.png.dbfcfe21e428ac5ebcd88dbb51850214.png

 

In fact, you weep from sorrow when there as it is literally surrounded  by a bleeping car racing track and  the litter and debris is shockingly bad. No wonder she  hides half the year.

https://www.autodromopergusa.it/it-it/autodromo/rubriche/il-circuito-planimetria-2604-1-089973b902cd4412ddfe4f67a969d002

 

 

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A wonderful coin, @David Atherton!

This coin -- now my only aureus -- depicts Ceres and Proserpina (probably representing Faustina II and her daughter Faustina III):

Antoninus Pius AV aureus, ca. AD 151 [see fn], Rome Mint. Obv. Laureate head right, ANTONINVS AVG – PIUS P P TR P XIIII / Rev. On left, Ceres [probably representing Faustina II] standing three-quarters facing, head right, holding two grain ears in right hand; on right, Proserpina standing facing, head left, next to her mother, holding pomegranate in extended left hand, the two gazing at and embracing each other [probably celebrating birth of Faustina III in AD 150/151; hence the reverse inscription naming Laetitia, the personification of joy], LAETITIA – COS IIII.  19 mm., 6.89 g., 6 h. RIC III 199c [“Scarce”] (see http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.3.ant.199C ); Cohen 476; Sear RCV II 4008; BMCRE IV Antoninus Pius 725 & Pl. 15 No. 14; Strack 224 [Strack, Paul L., Untersuchungen zur römischen Reichsprägung des zweiten Jahrhunderts, Teil III: Die Reichsprägung zur Zeit Antoninus Pius (Stuttgart, 1937)]; Calicó 1556 [Calicó, E. Xavier, The Roman Avrei, Vol. I: From the Republic to Pertinax, 196 BC - 193 AD (Barcelona, 2003)]; Dinsdale 037180 [Dinsdale, Paul H, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius Caesar AD 138-161: Antonine Coinage (2nd Rev. ed., Leeds 2021) Ch. 18 at p. 421; photo at same page, indicating a probable obverse die match to my specimen] [see http://romanpaulus.x10host.com/Antoninus/old/18 - Antoninus Pius - TR POT XIIII Period - 150-151 (med_res).pdf.]* Purchased from Arete Coins [George Matev], Seattle, WA, Feb. 2022; ex Classical Numismatic Group [CNG] E-Auction 360, Sep. 30, 2015, Lot 458 (from “Group SGF” Collection); ex Jesús Vico, S.A., Auction 141, Mar. 5, 2015, Lot 121.** [Footnote omitted.]

image.png.f5fa4759b447b178a68bf1ecf53a65d9.png

And here is Ceres searching for her daughter after the kidnapping by Pluto:

Roman Republic, M. [Marcus] Volteius, AR Denarius, 78 BCE (Crawford) or 75 BCE (Harlan). Obv. Head of Liber [Crawford, Harlan, Yarrow] or young Bacchus [see BMCRR, Sear] right, wearing ivy wreath / Rev. Ceres standing in biga of snakes right, holding torch in each hand, searching for her daughter Proserpina; behind, control symbol of thyrsus; in exergue, M•VOLTEI•M[•F]. 17 mm., 3.87 g. Crawford 385/3; RSC I Volteia 3 (ill. p. 100); BMCRR I 3160; RBW Collection 1416 (ill. p. 291); Harlan RRM I Ch. 12 pp. 66-68 [Michael Harlan, Roman Republican Moneyers and their Coins, 81 BCE-64 BCE (Vol. I) (2012)]; Yarrow pp. 168-169 & ill. p. 170 fig. 4.8 [Liv Mariah Yarrow, The Roman Republic to 49 BCE: Using Coins as Sources (2021)]. Purchased 8 Aug 2022 from Lucernae Numismatics, Alcala la Real, Spain.* 

 image.png.706e0282cc1da13acaa03f300f89502a.png

* This coin, depicting Liber (or Bacchus) on the obverse and Ceres in a biga of snakes on the reverse, searching for Proserpina -- one of five coins issued by M. Volteius as moneyer during that year -- relates, like the other four Volteius coins, to one of the five principal agonistic festivals which were celebrated annually at Rome. This one relates specifically to the Ludi Cereales, the games of the goddess of grain, held from 12 to 19 April each year. See Harlan RRM I p. 62 (citing Mommsen); see also Yarrow pp. 168-169:

 “Crawford suggests [Vol. I p. 402] that the issue is anticipating the moneyer’s campaign for an aedileship and encodes a promise of largitones, or generosity, in his potential staging of the games. Yet, different magistrates oversaw each of these games: the ludi Cereales fell under the purview of the plebeian aediles; the ludi Romani under the curule aediles; and the ludi Apollinares under the praetor urbanes. The moneyer cannot be campaigning for all simultaneously. Instead, we might want to think about this series as a miniature fasti (calendar) or symbolic representation of the religious year.”

Regarding the design of this type, the identification of the obverse head as Bacchus or Liber would ordinarily be immaterial. See Jones, John Melville, A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins (Seaby, London, 1990) at p. 33 (entry for “Bacchus”): “For the Romans . . . . [Bacchus] was generally identified with the Italian deity Liber, whose name is probably derived from the same root as the word ‘libation,’ suggesting that in Italy he was an earth or vegetation spirit who could be worshipped by pouring offerings upon the ground. . . . Bacchus appears rarely upon Roman imperial coins (and when he is given a name, he is called Liber). He is shown as a youthful male figure, nude or partly draped, perhaps with a wreath of ivy leaves.” On this type, however, given the reverse design of Ceres searching for her daughter Proserpina (see below), a specific identification of the obverse as Liber is important because of the play on words with “Libera”: see Jones, op. cit. at pp. 167-168 (entry for “Libera”), explaining that Libera “is an alternative name for Proserpina the daughter of Ceres,” noting “the building of a temple to Ceres, Liber and Libera after the city had been saved from famine in the 4th century BC.” See also Harlan RRM I pp. 67-68, stating that the ivy wreathed head of Liber “was intended to recall the dedication of the temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera built at the foot of the Aventine near the Circus Maximus where the games of Ceres were held. The temple was dedicated in 493 on 19 April, which in Republican times was the closing day of the festival.”

The reverse design, depicting Ceres in a biga of snakes holding two torches, evokes “the well-known story of the abduction of Ceres’ daughter Proserpina by Pluto and the world-wide search made by Ceres to recover her,” a myth that “explains the yearly cycle of food production” and was originally an ancient Greek myth “adopted by the Romans when they assimilated the Greek Demeter with their native Ceres.” Id. p. 67. The story is recounted by many ancient authors, in both its Greek and Roman versions. See the quotations collected by @Roman Collector at https://www.numisforums.com/topic/1193-faustina-friday-%E2%80%93-snake-biga-edition/#comment-20720. Thus, I will limit myself to a quotation from Ovid, Fasti, Book IV, April 12: The Games of Ceres (A.S. Kline verse translation, 2004, at https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php#anchor_Toc69367858 ). This portion recounts the beginning of Ceres’ search, as she leaves her home of Sicily, flying over the waves in a chariot drawn by two yoked serpents, holding two torches in her hands to light the dark:

“Like the bird mourning for her lost Itys.

Alternately she cried: ‘Persephone!’ and ‘My daughter’,

Calling and shouting both the names in turn,

But Persephone heard not Ceres, nor the daughter

Her mother, and both names by turns died away:

If she spied a shepherd or farmer at work,

Her cry was: ‘Has a girl passed this way?’

Now the colours faded, and the darkness hid

Everything. Now the wakeful dogs fell silent.

High Etna stands above vast Typhoeus’ mouth,

Who scorches the earth with his fiery breath:

There the goddess lit twin pine branches as torches:

And since then there are torches handed out at her rites.

There’s a cave, its interior carved from sharp pumice,

A place not to be approached by man or beast:

Reaching it she yoked serpents to her chariot,

And roamed the ocean waves above the spray.”

Harlan suggests that a reenactment of this story was probably a part of the ceremonies of the Ludi Cereales, which (as Ovid mentions in the quotation above) included the passing out of torches to the populace as they entered the Circus Maximus. Harlan RRM I at p. 67. [Remainder of footnote omitted.]

 

Edited by DonnaML
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6 hours ago, DonnaML said:

A wonderful coin, @David Atherton!

This coin -- now my only aureus -- depicts Ceres and Proserpina (probably representing Faustina II and her daughter Faustina III):

Antoninus Pius AV aureus, ca. AD 151 [see fn], Rome Mint. Obv. Laureate head right, ANTONINVS AVG – PIUS P P TR P XIIII / Rev. On left, Ceres [probably representing Faustina II] standing three-quarters facing, head right, holding two grain ears in right hand; on right, Proserpina standing facing, head left, next to her mother, holding pomegranate in extended left hand, the two gazing at and embracing each other [probably celebrating birth of Faustina III in AD 150/151, and, as a result, the restoration of a granddaughter to the Imperial family; hence the reverse inscription naming Laetitia, the personification of joy], LAETITIA – COS IIII.  19 mm., 6.89 g., 6 h. RIC III 199c [“Scarce”] (see http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.3.ant.199C ); Cohen 476; Sear RCV II 4008; BMCRE IV Antoninus Pius 725 & Pl. 15 No. 14; Strack 224 [Strack, Paul L., Untersuchungen zur römischen Reichsprägung des zweiten Jahrhunderts, Teil III: Die Reichsprägung zur Zeit Antoninus Pius (Stuttgart, 1937)]; Calicó 1556 [Calicó, E. Xavier, The Roman Avrei, Vol. I: From the Republic to Pertinax, 196 BC - 193 AD (Barcelona, 2003)]; Dinsdale 037180 [Dinsdale, Paul H, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius Caesar AD 138-161: Antonine Coinage (2nd Rev. ed., Leeds 2021) Ch. 18 at p. 421; photo at same page, indicating a probable obverse die match to my specimen] [see http://romanpaulus.x10host.com/Antoninus/old/18 - Antoninus Pius - TR POT XIIII Period - 150-151 (med_res).pdf.]* Purchased from Arete Coins [George Matev], Seattle, WA, Feb. 2022; ex Classical Numismatic Group [CNG] E-Auction 360, Sep. 30, 2015, Lot 458 (from “Group SGF” Collection); ex Jesús Vico, S.A., Auction 141, Mar. 5, 2015, Lot 121.** [Footnote omitted.]

image.png.f5fa4759b447b178a68bf1ecf53a65d9.png

And here is Ceres searching for her daughter after the kidnapping by Pluto:

Roman Republic, M. [Marcus] Volteius, AR Denarius, 78 BCE (Crawford) or 75 BCE (Harlan). Obv. Head of Liber [Crawford, Harlan, Yarrow] or young Bacchus [see BMCRR, Sear] right, wearing ivy wreath / Rev. Ceres standing in biga of snakes right, holding torch in each hand, searching for her daughter Proserpina; behind, control symbol of thyrsus; in exergue, M•VOLTEI•M[•F]. 17 mm., 3.87 g. Crawford 385/3; RSC I Volteia 3 (ill. p. 100); BMCRR I 3160; RBW Collection 1416 (ill. p. 291); Harlan RRM I Ch. 12 pp. 66-68 [Michael Harlan, Roman Republican Moneyers and their Coins, 81 BCE-64 BCE (Vol. I) (2012)]; Yarrow pp. 168-169 & ill. p. 170 fig. 4.8 [Liv Mariah Yarrow, The Roman Republic to 49 BCE: Using Coins as Sources (2021)]. Purchased 8 Aug 2022 from Lucernae Numismatics, Alcala la Real, Spain.* 

 image.png.706e0282cc1da13acaa03f300f89502a.png

* This coin, depicting Liber (or Bacchus) on the obverse and Ceres in a biga of snakes on the reverse, searching for Proserpina -- one of five coins issued by M. Volteius as moneyer during that year -- relates, like the other four Volteius coins, to one of the five principal agonistic festivals which were celebrated annually at Rome. This one relates specifically to the Ludi Cereales, the games of the goddess of grain, held from 12 to 19 April each year. See Harlan RRM I p. 62 (citing Mommsen); see also Yarrow pp. 168-169:

 “Crawford suggests [Vol. I p. 402] that the issue is anticipating the moneyer’s campaign for an aedileship and encodes a promise of largitones, or generosity, in his potential staging of the games. Yet, different magistrates oversaw each of these games: the ludi Cereales fell under the purview of the plebeian aediles; the ludi Romani under the curule aediles; and the ludi Apollinares under the praetor urbanes. The moneyer cannot be campaigning for all simultaneously. Instead, we might want to think about this series as a miniature fasti (calendar) or symbolic representation of the religious year.”

Regarding the design of this type, the identification of the obverse head as Bacchus or Liber would ordinarily be immaterial. See Jones, John Melville, A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins (Seaby, London, 1990) at p. 33 (entry for “Bacchus”): “For the Romans . . . . [Bacchus] was generally identified with the Italian deity Liber, whose name is probably derived from the same root as the word ‘libation,’ suggesting that in Italy he was an earth or vegetation spirit who could be worshipped by pouring offerings upon the ground. . . . Bacchus appears rarely upon Roman imperial coins (and when he is given a name, he is called Liber). He is shown as a youthful male figure, nude or partly draped, perhaps with a wreath of ivy leaves.” On this type, however, given the reverse design of Ceres searching for her daughter Proserpina (see below), a specific identification of the obverse as Liber is important because of the play on words with “Libera”: see Jones, op. cit. at pp. 167-168 (entry for “Libera”), explaining that Libera “is an alternative name for Proserpina the daughter of Ceres,” noting “the building of a temple to Ceres, Liber and Libera after the city had been saved from famine in the 4th century BC.” See also Harlan RRM I pp. 67-68, stating that the ivy wreathed head of Liber “was intended to recall the dedication of the temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera built at the foot of the Aventine near the Circus Maximus where the games of Ceres were held. The temple was dedicated in 493 on 19 April, which in Republican times was the closing day of the festival.”

The reverse design, depicting Ceres in a biga of snakes holding two torches, evokes “the well-known story of the abduction of Ceres’ daughter Proserpina by Pluto and the world-wide search made by Ceres to recover her,” a myth that “explains the yearly cycle of food production” and was originally an ancient Greek myth “adopted by the Romans when they assimilated the Greek Demeter with their native Ceres.” Id. p. 67. The story is recounted by many ancient authors, in both its Greek and Roman versions. See the quotations collected by @Roman Collector at https://www.numisforums.com/topic/1193-faustina-friday-%E2%80%93-snake-biga-edition/#comment-20720. Thus, I will limit myself to a quotation from Ovid, Fasti, Book IV, April 12: The Games of Ceres (A.S. Kline verse translation, 2004, at https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php#anchor_Toc69367858 ). This portion recounts the beginning of Ceres’ search, as she leaves her home of Sicily, flying over the waves in a chariot drawn by two yoked serpents, holding two torches in her hands to light the dark:

“Like the bird mourning for her lost Itys.

Alternately she cried: ‘Persephone!’ and ‘My daughter’,

Calling and shouting both the names in turn,

But Persephone heard not Ceres, nor the daughter

Her mother, and both names by turns died away:

If she spied a shepherd or farmer at work,

Her cry was: ‘Has a girl passed this way?’

Now the colours faded, and the darkness hid

Everything. Now the wakeful dogs fell silent.

High Etna stands above vast Typhoeus’ mouth,

Who scorches the earth with his fiery breath:

There the goddess lit twin pine branches as torches:

And since then there are torches handed out at her rites.

There’s a cave, its interior carved from sharp pumice,

A place not to be approached by man or beast:

Reaching it she yoked serpents to her chariot,

And roamed the ocean waves above the spray.”

Harlan suggests that a reenactment of this story was probably a part of the ceremonies of the Ludi Cereales, which (as Ovid mentions in the quotation above) included the passing out of torches to the populace as they entered the Circus Maximus. Harlan RRM I at p. 67. [Remainder of footnote omitted.]

 

Thank you so much for including these write-ups!

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