Aug 18, 2011

One of the most beautiful and mysterious coins of the ancient world

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

In 19 BC the monetalis M. Durmius struck one of the most interesting and captivating coins of those produced under the long reign of Emperor Augustus. It was an aureus, a gold coin of nearly 8 grams, the most valuable in the Roman monetary system, equivalent to 25 silver denarii. In the obverse, we see the face of a young Augustus with a crown of oak leaves and the legend CAESAR AUGUSTUS. Nothing surprising there. But the reverse features a stunning crab holding in its claws a graceful butterfly, accompanied by the legend M • III • VIR DVRMIVS designating the magistrate responsible for the minting, the monetalis Durmius. The interpretation of the reverse has been discussed by experts since the times of Joseph Eckhel (1737-1798).

Cassius’ denarius - Crawford 505 / 3

We find a similar representation of a crab in the reverse of a denarius of C. Cassius (one of the Caesar’ murderers), minted in 42 BC, probably in Sardis. The crab holds in its claws an aplustrum (a piece of ornament that was placed in the stern of ancient ships and a common symbol of naval power). Below the crab, we can recognize a diadem and a rose. In this case, however, there is a reliable interpretation of the motif. Cassius had just won a major naval victory against the Rhodian fleet and the crab represented the city of Kos, while the rose symbolized Rhodes. The historian Karl Galinsky sees in the aureus discussed here an example of Augustus’ ability to appropriate motifs used by his predecessors, but his argument is unconvincing. There are significant differences between the aureus of Augustus and this denarius and, at least to me, that makes direct imitation unlikely.

In a paper in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, W. Deonna proposed an astrological interpretation, seeing the crab as a representation of Cancer, the sign of the Zodiac, and an allusion to the concepts of happiness, prosperity, and worldly conquest, while the butterfly symbolizes the immortality of the soul. A complex and unconvincing interpretation.

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

Before the establishment of what might be called "scientific" numismatics by Eckel in the eighteenth century, it was common to interpret Roman coins allegorically. During this period, Durmius’ aureus was seen as a clear reference to the motto festina lente (make haste slowly), that according to Suetonius was one of Augustus’ favorites adages. This can be seen, for example in the emblem book Imprese Heroiche, by Gabriele Simeoni (1509-1575) where the coin and the phrase are expressly connected. In the absence of more convincing answers by modern experts, should we return to this interpretation?

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