The First Living Roman Woman Depicted on Coinage

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Kohaku

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Newly edited and re-posted Owner's Comments for an ancient bronze depicting Octavia and Marc Antony, part of The Roman Empire, an NGC Ancients Custom Set.

 

The nexus of relationships to Octavia (69 – 11 BC) reads like a who’s who of the early Roman Empire: sister of Octavian (also known as Augustus), adoptive niece of Julius Caesar, grandmother of Emperor Claudius, and great-grandmother of Emperor Caligula, to name a few. Among all of Octavia’s relationships, perhaps most famous – or infamous, rather – was Octavia’s marriage to Marc Anthony, her second and his fourth nuptial, respectively. She accepted the arrangement in 40 BC as part of political deal among the Triumvirs (Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus). The marriage also required Senate approval since Octavia was pregnant at the time with her first husband's child. She was reportedly a loyal and faithful wife to Antony, supporting him during his travels among the various eastern provinces and bearing him two daughters, Antonia Major and Antonia Minor, who, in turn, were forebears to several future Emperors.

This unusual bronze coin dates from the early years of their marriage, ca. 38-37 BC. It was struck in Achaea, situated on the northwestern Peloponnese peninsula. At that time, Antony struck what today hails as his “fleet coinage” comprising varying bronze denominations with interesting portraiture. The series represented a blend of ancient Hellenistic and western Roman numismatic elements, and set a new precedent for imperial nomenclature. For example, the various weights and denominations of the fleet coinage series correspond to Roman standards, whereas each coin comprises a Greek letter denoting the value. This particular coin bears an alpha and was worth one unit of value known as an “as”. Interestingly, this same denomination series was later adopted as part of Octavians’ currency reforms in the early Roman Empire.

The fleet moniker refers to the coin’s reverse. Specifically, the verso depicts a heavy Greek warship known as a quinquereme. These ships were huge and rather slow compared to Roman-evolved designs, and by 1st century AD were relegated to serve as fleet flagships. The reverse also bears the name of M. Oppius Capito, perhaps one of Antony’s admirals.

The obverse portrays the busts of Octavia and Antony. Although depicting living people on Roman coins struck in Italy was relatively new, it was traditional in the eastern territories. In this context, Antony probably intended to promote his authority over the eastern territories wherein these coins circulated. In addition, historians posit that Antony struck such coinage as propaganda, to counter Octavian’s bronze coins produced in the west, and advertise the Triumvir’s bond, as evidenced by Antony’s marriage to Octavia.

Despite the coin’s charming obverse imagery, the marriage between Octavia and Antony, similar to the Triumvirs' bond, was destined for failure. In 37 BC, Antony abandoned Octavia to wed Cleopatra VII of Egypt. In the absence of a formal divorce, the new nuptial was not legally binding in Rome. Octavian implored his sister to file to divorce, but she remained devoted, at least for a while. In 35 BC, Octavia even attempted to parley with Antony, bringing him a fleet laden with supplies. However, Antony refused, barring Octavia’s progress past Athens, and sending her back to Italy.

By 32 BC, Octavia finally divorced Antony, now sworn enemy of Octavian and the State. The following year, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the epic naval Battle of Actium. In the aftermath, the famous lovers committed suicide, and the gracious Octavia assumed responsibility for their three children: Alexander, Ptolemy, and Cleopatra Selene. Octavia raised them in Italy, a testament to her many charitable good deeds.

Octavia died sometime around 11 BC. At her public funeral, she was severely mourned and bestowed much adulation. The epitome of Roman feminine virtues, Octavia also represented one of the Empire’s most prominent women. Among many honors to note, Octavia was the first Roman woman, living or otherwise, unambiguously portrayed on coinage.

Coin Details: ACHAEA, Mark Antony, with Octavia, Summer 37 BC, Æ (15mm, 3.97 g, 9h), Fleet Coinage, Light series, M. Oppius Capito, propraetor and praefectus classis, NGC Grade: VF, Strike: 3/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Jugate bare heads of Antony and Octavia right, M ANT IMP TERT COS DESIG ITER ET TER III VIR, Reverse: Quinquereme sailing right, M OPPIVS CAPITO PRO PR PRAE, A and gorgoneion in exergue, References: Amandry, Bronze II, Series 2C; RPC I 1470; CRI 296.

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Very interesting and obviously a milestone moment. Here is a question which may be very obvious. Would a citizen at the time, seeing the coin for the first time, have immediately known who was depicted?

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thisistheshow,

 

That is a very interesting question, and I actually have wondered about that myself. 

 

I would say it depends on the coin.  For this particular coin, I would say yes.  The side portrait of Marc Antony on this coin is highly distinctive, and Marc Antony was among the most famous Roman men (along with his fellow triumvirs).  Even for a citizen who was not literate (and that was probably ~90% by the way), I would imagine that they would either at least recognize Antony from the portrait, or possibly at least understand that he was associated with the letters M ANT IMP.  That is not to imply that those average citizens would know Antony from seeing him in person, but rather, from his various portrait coinage.  (As an aside, this is why it must have been a really, really big deal when Caesar started the important new trend of portrait coinage, and why it triggered such a response that led to his own demise.) So it probably took a bit of time for people to start recognizing that it was Antony on his coins.  By the time this particular coin as struck, it had been about a decade that Antony had been producing portrait coins.  So, again, I would say yes for this coin, most average Romans knew that was him on this coin.

 

Also, since Octavia was one of, if not the most, famous or all Roman women, and her marriage to Antony was also famous, I would imagine that the average Roman citizen would know that the woman on this particular was Octavia.  I would also imagine that the average Roman would *not* know that it was Octavia if her portrait appeared alone (since her portrait coinage was much rare than Antony's).

 

For the Fulvia coin for the previous Journal Entry ("The First Living Roman Woman Depicted on Coinage?"), I would say no, the average Roman citizen probably would not know it was Fulvia.  It is quite possible that average Roman would not even know that the coin was struck by Antony, unless they were literate, or happened to know the significant of the reverse inscription. Importantly, at the time, it had only been a few years since portrait coinage had been in style, so the average person might not have seen much of Antony's portrait coinage yet.

 

Thanks for your insightful question, it actually has implications about the role that coinage played as propaganda in the history of the Roman Empire.

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