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Old Feb 12, 2009, 08:41 AM   #1
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Festival of Isis coinage

For those not familiar with this incredibly interesting series of Roman Imperial coinage, here is an excerpt from my December 2007 Celator column:

Coinage from the Festival of Isis series is far more varied and was minted from the reigns of the first Tetrarchy through Valentinian II. Struck in silver, bronze or orichalcum, the purpose of this issue was to commemorate the annual Navigium Isidis in Rome, on January 3, and was probably distributed at the festival. Many examples extant today are pierced, possibly having been worn as an amulet at the festival. There are main two types – “imperial”, which have a portrait of the emperor, and “anonymous” which have a deity instead. The known silver issue is a medallion module under Julian II and the base-metal issues occur as AE2 through AE4 modules in both the imperial and anonymous types. Vagi’s book lists all of the coins, the foundation of his listing being Andreas Alföldi’s doctoral dissertation of 1937, “A Festival of Isis in Rome Under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century”. It’s not too surprising to find a pagan festival based on an Egyptian deity, even during the rise of Christianity, considering the importance of Egypt’s grain supply to the Roman populus.

The Tetrarchic issues are the most rare of the imperial types. So rare, Vagi doesn’t even list them and instead begins with the sole known type of Licinius I. Most of the issues from the entire series do feature Isis herself, however, some other Egyptian and Roman deities can be found as well – Sol-Serapis, Serapis, Anubis, Harpocrates, Nilus, sphinx, Cupid and Neptune.

The anonymous issue obverses are usually inscribed ISIS FARIA, but some have DEO SARAPIDI (or similar), VOTA PVBLICA, DE ISIDI or DEA ISIS FARIA. The imperial issues usually have the emperor with their regular inscriptions and portrayed laureate, draped and/or cuirassed bust right. Most have the reverse legend VOTA PVBLICA, but some have no legend and one issue has DEO SARAPIDI. The reverses are really what make this series so spectacular. Pagan coinage is usually limited to Roman Provincials, but this series is quite exceptional. Isis is found in many forms and portrayals:

· as a mummy advancing left, holding a scepter
· in a cart pulled by mules and accompanied by Anubis holding a branch
· in a cart pulled by sphinxes and accompanied by Horus and the Sothis dog
· accompanied by Nephtis and each wearing elephant headdresses
· holding sistrum and scepter and seated on the back of the Sothis dog
· accompanied by Osiris, both with lower bodies of serpents and raising snake basket

Reverses without Isis as the main theme are no less interesting. One example has Cupid brandishing a whip, standing on the back of a sea-monster with the upper body of a bull and tail of a fish. Some have a sphinx with a raised forepaw. Others have a devotee of Isis holding various objects.

Unfortunately, the coinage as a whole is rare and a collection containing even just a few examples is an accomplishment. Slight surface porosity is to be expected in general.

The reason I'm bringing the topic up in the first place is because I was extremely fortunate in recently adding a second example to my collection - a specimen with jugate busts.

Anonymous Issue for the Festival of Isis, AE3, 4th Century, Rome
Jugate, draped busts of Serapis right wearing modius and Isis wearing hem-hem crown
Isis standing facing, head right, sistrum upward in right hand, situla downward in left
20mm, 2.51g
RIC VI-IX, --; Vagi 3417
Ex Gert Boersema Coins, VCoins, February 2009

This wonderful piece is a companion to an example I was extremely fortunate to acquire from Harlan Berk years ago:

Anonymous Issue for the Festival of Isis, AE4, 4th Century, Rome
Draped bust of Isis right wearing hem-hem crown surmounted by lotus flower
Anubis standing facing, head left, wearing military dress, chlamys spread behind, sistrum in right hand, caduceus in left
13mm x 14mm, 1.04g
RIC VI-IX, --; Vagi 3393

I would be very grateful to see examples of pieces other members have in their collections (and would be very happy to add them to my Festival page if allowed!)

Thanks and I hope you enjoyed the two coins! I hope one day to have a much more complete collection of this series.

--Zach Beasley
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