Michael Bugeja is assembling a short set of two powerful women who shaped a Roman dynasty, depicted in coins.
History enhances the allure of ancient coin collecting, which typically features male emperors who distinguished themselves in battle. Often, powerful women ruled behind the scenes.
So was the case with Julia Domna and her older sister, Julia Maesa. They could be as ruthless as any male presumptive heir. Both have been immortalized with coins in their honor.
In a recent estate auction, I won denarii of Domna and Maesa, along with other coins, and am assembling a short set to highlight the dynasty of Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from 193-211.
Domna, the second wife of Severus, was the mother of two emperors, Caracalla and Geta.
Caracalla, the elder son, was emperor from 198 to 217 and co-ruled with his father and later with his brother, Geta, from 209-211. Geta was murdered by the Praetorian Guard, supposedly on orders from Caracalla. He himself was murdered by a disgruntled soldier, Justin Martialis, who was passed over for the title of centurion.
During his rule, Caracalla left the administration of the empire to his mother, Julia.
In “Coins of Julia Domna,” on the website “Forum Ancient Coins,” Domna was described as an “intelligent, talented and beautiful woman” who may have committed suicide upon learning of the death of Caracalla.
Many at the time believed the Severus dynasty had ended.
Julia Maesa, the older sister of Julia Domna, had other ideas. She nurtured her grandsons Elagabalus and Severus Alexander with a singular goal: To reclaim power.
Marcus Macrinus had recruited Martialis, the soldier who slew Caracalla, and became the new emperor. Maesa used her riches to raise an army, elevating the 14-year-old Elagabalus to principate. Macrinus was defeated in battle and later executed, enabling Elagabalus to proclaim himself emperor.
Elagabalus’ rule was scandalous. He married four women, replaced the god Jupiter with an Arab-Roman sun god, and neglected the Praetorian Guard.
In “Coins of Julia Maesa,” she was described as conniving, convincing Elagabalus to adopt her other grandson Alexander as his heir:
Shortly after the adoption, Elagabalus and his mother were murdered by the Praetorian Guard, dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber. Through it all, Maesa held the power behind the throne.
Severus Alexander ruled from 222-235, resurrecting the Severus dynasty. Behind the royal curtain were sisters Julia Domna and Julia Maesa.
My incomplete short set features this sharply struck denarius of Domna:
I won this coin with a $35 bid, and it looks to be Almost Uncirculated. The reverse is symbolic of her power, with a crowned Isis holding the god Horus symbolizing stamina (which she had in abundance). Behind her, you can see a rudder as if Domna is navigating rule.
This is one of the scarcer coins in her honor. For instance, the website Wildwinds lists one “Good”-graded example.
I won two more Domna coins. My $48 bid secured the one below celebrating her union with Septimius Severus. I especially liked the confronted busts on the obverse. Apollo is featured on the reverse with a bow.
The coin below, won with a $35 bid, features the confronted bust of Caracalla and Domna. The reverse is particularly alluring, featuring a temple with a peaked roof and statue of Apollo, hand over head, and by a serpent-entwined tree stump.
Here is my Julia Maesa denarius, which also won with a $35 bid:
The coin’s surface is not as sharp as I would have liked. The reverse features the icon of Felicitas, auguring happiness, and fertility. The Severus dynasty, which may have been fertile, was decidedly unhappy.
You can sense that displeasure in the next coin, won with a $30 bid, and featuring the confronted busts of Elagabalus and Maesa. It looks more like a stare-down than a stately depiction.
The reverse indicates the hope Maesa had for her grandson, depicting Hermes, the god of trade, holding a purse. That economic boom was not to be.
With a $27 bid, I won a variety of the above coins, in better condition, with a sharp reverse featuring Hermes again but this time with a rooster in the lower-left field.
The rooster augurs the dawn of a new age, but again, that was not to be until Severus Alexander ascended the throne.
I did not win a coin featuring that relationship with Maesa, although you can see an example on the Wildwinds website.
You can also find a Domna obverse with Caracalla and Geta on the reverse.
Assembling a short set of family dynasties in ancient coins has particular appeal for hobbyists who want to share their numismatic love with family and friends. The histories of Roman dynasties are especially dramatic and sure to hold everyone’s interest.
If you are interested in women on coins, why not check out Whitman’s 100 Greatest Women on Coins, featuring some ancients, too, as in Cleopatra, as well as goddesses such as Athena, Demeter, and Nike.