The Cart Before the Mule: Carpenta on Roman Coinage

Posted by Josh Illingworth, NGC Ancients Grader on 8/16/2011

This month, NGC Ancients examines the image of the carpentum on the brass sestertii of Imperial Rome.

Simply put, the carpentum is a two-wheeled, covered cart. However, to the ancient Romans, the social, political, and spiritual ramifications of this simple vehicle ran much deeper. During the first century A.D., images of carpenta appeared on the reverse of brass sestertii issued posthumously for several noblewomen, most notably the two Agrippinas, who were quite influential in Julio-Claudian politics. As the largest-diameter imperial coin then in circulation, the sestertius provided ample surface area for executing the striking scenes that occur on these issues.

The carpentum figures prominently in the social history of the city of Rome. As far back as the days of the Roman Republic, laws had been passed that forbade the use of any cart, carriage, or wagon on the streets of the city itself. However, exceptions were made from time to time. Members of religious orders (such as the Vestal Virgins) and political figures (empresses, noblewomen) were sometimes granted exemption from the laws that governed the rest of the populace. These carriages could be very plain and functional, or highly ornamented for state occasions. A carpentum was most frequently drawn by mules, but horses and oxen were sometimes employed as well.

The first sestertius to feature the carpentum was an issue of Livia (d. A.D. 29), wife of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), that was struck under her ruling son Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) in A.D. 22/3. At this time, the aged Livia was suffering from a grave illness, and the vehicle on the coin is almost certainly a reference to her subsequent recovery, for which the senate voted a supplicatio – a holiday of thanksgiving. This example depicts the ornamented carpentum of Livia being drawn by a pair of mules on the obverse, along with the two titles she had inherited from Augustus, “IVLIAE AVGVST” (“Julia Augusta”).

One of the most interesting pieces to feature the carpentum is a sestertius of Agrippina Sr. (d. A.D. 33), which was struck under the emperor Caligula (A.D. 37-41). This woman, who was the wife of Germanicus and the mother of Caligula, spent the latter part of her life embroiled in Roman politics, fighting against Tiberius until she was exiled and starved herself to death in A.D. 33. Upon his accession in A.D. 37, Caligula returned his mother’s ashes to Rome and issued a sestertius (bearing a carpentum) in commemoration of her life. Interestingly, when this emperor also held games in honor of his late mother, Agrippina’s carpentum was included in the procession. In this situation, the ornamented cart seems to be associated with death and remembrance rather than recovery from illness, as had been the case with Livia. This illustrates two very different interpretations of the carpentum image in Roman society.

Agrippina’s carpentum is also drawn by a pair of mules, and the inscription leaves no doubt as to the posthumous, commemorative nature of the issue. The exceptional strike of this example also illustrates the wonderful obverse portrait of Agrippina. Some numismatists consider her portraits on the carpentum sestertii to be among the finest artistic achievements of Julio-Claudian coinage.

Agrippina Jr. (d. A.D. 59), like her eponymous mother, did not enjoy a particularly pleasant life in the political firestorm that was ancient Rome. However, she was unbelievably well-connected as the sister of an emperor (Caligula), the niece (later wife) of the succeeding emperor (Claudius, A.D. 41-54), and the mother of still another emperor (Nero, A.D. 54-68). These turbulent and complex relationships would eventually doom her. Indeed, Nero grew so tired of his mother’s overbearing influence on his regime that he expelled her from the palace in A.D. 55 and spent the next four years trying, through various schemes, to murder her. He eventually succeeded in A.D. 59.

This sestertius was issued during the reign of Claudius, between A.D. 50 and 54, when Agrippina Jr. was Augusta. Like the issues of Livia and Agrippina Sr., the coin features a carpentum drawn by a team of mules, although there is no inscription to accompany the image. The lack of even an “SC” inscription indicates that this was an irregular branch mint issue.

Besides Livia and the two Agrippinas, sestertii featuring the carpentum were struck for a number of other individuals as well. A posthumous issue was struck for Domitilla the Elder (d. before A.D. 69) during the reign of her son Titus (A.D. 79-81). This coin, which dates to A.D. 80/1, is similar to the issue of Livia in that no portrait appears on the obverse. Very little is known about the life of Domitilla.

A similar piece was posthumously struck for Julia Titi (d. A.D. 90/1), who was the daughter of Titus and eventually became the common-law wife of her uncle Domitian (A.D. 81-96). She likely died in an attempt to abort a child of that emperor. This coin was issued during the reign of Domitian, after c.A.D. 90.

A later sestertius to feature the carpentum was struck posthumously for Marciana (d. A.D. 112/4), the sister of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117). This issue marked a return to the style of the Agrippina issues, in that a portrait again appears in place of the large “SC.” On this particular example, the carpentum is drawn by a team of elephants rather than mules, a rare variety laden with symbolism. Again, relatively little is known about the life of this woman, but she apparently possessed a strong moral character.

The Marciana issue was the last of the “carpentum sestertii.” There are several features worth noting about this group. All of them honor women with either a portrait or an inscription. With the exceptions of Livia and Agrippina Jr., all were issued as posthumous commemoratives. Finally, this “series” was struck only between A.D. 22 and 114, a relatively small amount of time in the overall history of Roman coinage. The carpentum did appear again from time to time on coins, but never again with the consistency with which it was featured on large bronzes of the first and second centuries. Today, whenever an example makes an appearance on the market, it is avidly sought by collectors for both beauty and rarity.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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