NGC Ancients: Flowers

Posted on 6/18/2024

The beauty and symbolism of blossoms have inspired people to preserve floral themes in the metal of coins for more than 2,000 years.

This time of year, much of the world enjoys a time when flowers are in full bloom. The word "flower" itself derives from the Roman goddess Flora, who is a symbol of nature and its blossoms, as well as the goddess of youth.

This month, we're taking a look at flowers on ancient coins, which reflect the fascination that people throughout antiquity found in this annual heartbeat of nature.

This Roman Imperatorial silver denarius issued ca. 43 or 41 B.C. by the moneyer C. Clodius C.f. Vestalis shows a bust of the goddess Flora wearing a wreath of flowers, with a lily to her left. The reverse shows a Vestal virgin. Flora had two festivals in springtime: Floralia, a nearly weeklong affair in late April and early May, and a rose festival in late May.

Another bust of Flora with a wreath of flowers is shown on this Roman Republican silver denarius of the moneyer C. Servilius C.f., struck in 53 B.C. The reverse shows two soldiers facing each other with swords; the shield of one bears a floral pattern.

An ornamental pattern with flowers at the ends of branches is shown on the reverse of this gold aureus struck by Cassius in 42 B.C. Cassius, an ally of Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, is believed to have struck this coin after sacking Rhodes, a Mediterranean island whose symbol was the rose. Cassius and Brutus each died of suicide several months later at the epic Battle of Philippi, in which Marc Antony and Octavian prevailed.

Marc Antony and Octavian's sister Octavia were married in 40 B.C., an arrangement designed to stave off civil war between the two most powerful men of Rome. This silver cistophorus of 39 B.C. shows Marc Antony surrounded by ivy and flowers. Despite the tender theme of this coin, Mark Antony was already simultaneously romantically involved with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII, who bore him twins in 40 B.C.

The uneasy alliance between Marc Antony and Octavian did not last, with civil war erupting in 32 B.C. Marc Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, and the victorious Octavian soon became Rome’s first emperor. His image appears on this silver denarius struck around 19-18 B.C. by the moneyer Lucius Aquillius Florus, who came from a well-respected Roman family. Florus’ name surrounds a six-petaled flower on the reverse.

The Roman Empire was at its maximum extent at the beginning of the rule of Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 117. The obverse of this bronze drachm from the major Egyptian city of Alexandria shows Hadrian. The reverse shows Harpocrates, a figure in the Hellenistic religion practiced in Alexandria that was rooted in the child god Horus. Harpocrates is shown here on a lotus flower and holding a lotus bud. Hadrian, a great admirer of Greek culture, spent a considerable amount of time in Egypt and is believed to have rebuilt a major temple in Alexandria.

A recurring theme on Roman imperial coinage was Spes (the Roman goddess of hope) advancing with a flower. Spes was associated with a divinely granted power that enabled an emperor to provide prosperity to his subjects. The figure is portrayed in much the same way on these coins, representing a nearly 250-year period in the Roman Empire: a brass sestertius of Claudius (A.D. 41-54); a copper as of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161); and a billon double-denarius of the Romano-British emperor Carausius (A.D. 286/7-293).

Flowers have inspired coin designs for a long time. A lotus flower is depicted on the reverse of this silver sixth stater from Idalion on the island of Cyprus, struck around 480-470 B.C.

A lotus flower is seen beneath the bulls on the obverse of this silver tristater of Getas (ca. 492-464), ruler of the Thraco-Macedonian Tribe the Edones. The Edones and the Athenians were rivals in the 5th century B.C.

A floral pattern is shown on the reverse of this Silver Hemiobol of Aeolis, Kyme (on the west coast of modern-day Turkey), that was issued in the 4th century B.C.

The Achaemenid Empire reached its height around 500 B.C., exerting power from Macedonia to the Indus Valley. A century later, the Persians continued to dominate Asia Minor, including Cilicia, which is located in what today is southern Turkey near the Syrian border. The reverse of this silver stater of ca. 388-380 B.C. shows Ahura-Madza, the chief god of the Zoroastrian religion, holding a lotus flower.

Also struck in Cilicia, this silver obol shows a king of Persia holding a lotus flower along with a scepter tipped with a lotus. This coin was struck around 343-332 B.C., just before Macedonian King Alexander III, commonly called “Alexander the Great,” brought the vast Achaemenid Empire to a sudden and stunning end. A key to Alexander’s success was seizing the strategic pass known as the Gates of Cilicia.

This silver didrachm issued in Cyrene ca. 308-277 B.C. shows the silphium plant, which had a stalk topped with a ball of yellow flowers. The fussy and highly valuable plant only grew in a small region in Libya around the Greek colony of Cyrene. The plant was prized for its uses in medicine, as well as a seasoning and aphrodisiac, but it is believed to have gone extinct nearly 2,000 years ago. One ancient account says Emperor Nero was sent the last known silphium plant, which he promptly ate.

A lily is shown on this silver half-gerah of the Achaemenid Province of Judaea, which was struck ca. 375-332 B.C. Lilies are mentioned several places in the Bible, including in the design of King Solomon's Temple.

The lily was an enduring symbol of the region. This bronze prutah was struck at the Jerusalem Mint around 138-129 B.C. At the time, the power that had been exerted in the region for almost two centuries by the Greek successors of Alexander the Great was in decline.

As mentioned earlier, the rose is the symbol of Rhodes, a Greek island off the southwest coast of modern Turkey. This silver tetradrachm of Rhodes struck ca. 229-205 B.C. shows a rose, a flower whose name in ancient Greek sounded like the name of the island.

This bronze coin struck in Aspendus in Pamphylia in Asia Minor also shows a flower. It is dated to the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.

Flowers were appreciated by many ancient cultures well beyond the Mediterranean, of course. This gold stater struck ca. 20 B.C. to A.D. 10 by the Celtic Iceni of ancient England shows a triple-petalled flower.

In modern times, poppy flowers have come to symbolize veterans, thanks to the World War I poem “In Flanders’ Fields.” Because of their use as a painkiller, a related poppy species has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. The seed pod of a poppy is shown on this bronze coin of Ancyra in Phrygia, struck ca. A.D. 54-117.

Floral themes on coins have echoed throughout numismatic history. This billon trachy was struck under John Comnenus Ducas, who ruled the major city of Thessalonica from A.D. 1237 to 1242, a time when it had fallen out of the control of a weakened Byzantine Empire. It shows a 12-rayed star or flower.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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