Who Is That Woman Anyway?Depictions of Minerva's cult statues on Domitian's denarii

February 3, 2019


Παλλάδ' Ἀθηναίην, κυδρὴν θεόν, ἄρχομ' ἀείδειν

γλαυκῶπιν, πολύμητιν, ἀμείλιχον τορ ἔχουσαν,

παρθένον αἰδοίην, ἐπυσίπτολιν, ἀλκήεσσαν,


We start to sing of gleaming eyes, Forehead-born Pallas Athena, a noble goddess possessing a relentless heart, a modest virgin but a mighty and ever-ready ravager.

Homeric Hymns, Hymn 28 to Athena


Si sine uxore pati possemus, Quirites, omnes ea molestia careremus; set quoniam ita natura tradidit, ut nec cum illis satis commode, nec sine illis ullo modo vivi possit, saluti perpetuae potius quam brevi voluptati consulendum est.

Women!  Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

The Censor Metellus Numidicus, as quoted by Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, I,vi.2


UPPOSE I WAKE from a coma ten years from now.  My cell phone dead, I write actual letters on paper to my loved ones, telling them I'm awake and feeling fine.  I need stamps though, so I buy a block of them at the post office and as I'm pasting the postage stamps onto the envelopes I note that the stamps appear to comprise a collectors' series of iconic American art.  Here are the engraver's selections--



          "Whistler's Mother," Washington Crossing the Delaware, American Gothic, and a T-shirt bearing the image of American Gothic.

          It's the fourth one that intrigues me.  Why include an obvious reproduction of a painting already included in the series?  Why waste the slot on a T-shirt instead of choosing a fourth iconic American painting?  Why not this one by Edward Hopper for instance, Nighthawks--



          The mind reels and tries to find the explanation.  Is this T-shirt famous in its own right?  Was it, I don't know, the last item manufactured in America?  Did it, for whatever reason, realize a record sum on eBay?  Was it worn by somebody famous during a noteworthy event, a famous discoverer of something important? a famous assassin? perhaps an incredible new pop superstar at her premier performance?  I might even cynically surmise that the reason for creating the series in the first place was to highlight this particular improbably-famous T-shirt.

          See, the thing is, I just wouldn’t be able to know for sure without asking somebody, which would be a very easy thing to do because everybody else ten years from now would already know the answer.  It wouldn't be a mystery to them.  They'd already be in on the joke.
          Today we're faced with similar questions about a series issued nearly two millennia ago, four reverses of the goddess Minerva on denarii struck by the emperor Domitian throughout most of his 15-year reign, three famous cult statues and an obvious reproduction of one of them; in his final year a fifth reverse was added to the series, a fifth Minerva, a fourth cult statue.  Unfortunately there's nobody left alive whom we can ask about this series of coins.  All we can do is speculate.
          In 83 under Domitian's personal direction, the Roman mint initiated a series of four Minerva reverses on regular issues of silver denarii, which would continue to be struck until the end of his reign in 96.  Commonly referred to as M1, M2, M3, and M4, after the order of their appearance in the British Museum catalog, these reverses (below RIC 563, RIC 576 var, RIC 519, and RIC 339) reveal the Roman goddess Minerva in four different aspects--


          And the fifth reverse, introduced in the year 95--
          On the first Sunday of the month over the next five months I will be writing about these reverses, placing them in historical context, identifying the temples to which the cult statues belong, and speculating why these particular cult statues were chosen from among many.  In 83 there were over a dozen noteworthy public statues of Minerva in the city of Rome, including at least five temple cult statues (by 96 there would be at least eight).  In the ordinary weeks during the next five months I will be writing about Coins of the Week, as usual, but I will most likely be adding some exceptional Minerva denarii into the mix ;)
Next week:  Something provincial.
Next month:  M3, the Flavian Minerva.

© Jim Hazelton, 2019
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