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Lesser Deity by Joseph Kleinman

Most of us are familiar with the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

We have Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), Apollo, Venus and so on. However, there were other deities that were also part of the ancient pantheon of gods. The Romans were especially adept at maintaining a variety of these lesser deities, which today we call personifications. A personification is simply a quality, condition or state of being that is presented as a human being. For example, in New Your Harbor there is a monument that we call the Statue of Liberty. In the last article I showed an example of that personification on a Silver Denarius. Another example of a personification would be the statue of Justice that often appears on or near a courthouse. The ancients had an abundance of these personifications, which they venerated along with their usual Olympian deities.

On ancient coins personifications were used in order to associate a particular attribute or condition with the person or authority issuing the coin. This was extremely prevalent during the Imperial Period but actually began much earlier in Republican times. Back then there were neither newspapers nor any other means of mass communication. The only medium available to the government was the ability to issue coins. Some of the personifications were male and some female. For example, we have Abundance, Clemency, Concord, Fortune, Joy and Hope shown as female. For the male we have Spirit, Honor, Virtue, Good Outcome and so on. So an emperor wishing to take credit for a victory achieved on the battlefield might place an inscription on the reverse of a coin reading VICTORIAAVG, the victory of the emperor.

Personifications and the study of them can secure for us a deeper understanding of those distant times and make an excellent basis for an ancient coin collection.

The coin illustrated with this opus is a Roman Republican Silver Denarius of the moneyer M. Herennius. This was an issue struck between 108-107 BC. The obverse shows the personification PIETAS (piety). Piety had a different meaning to the Romans then it does for us. To us it might mean a deeply religious man or woman but to the Romans it meant loyalty, faithfulness to ones family or to the state. The reverse of the coin shows one of the Catanaean Brothers running right and bearing his father on his shoulders. This was to rescue his family from an eruption of Mount Etna. However, there is a far more profound meaning to the reverse because it recalls the foundation story of the Roman People, when Aneas rescues his father from the burning City of Troy.

Photo Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Used by permission.
Click on photo to enlarge.