Versión en espańol 


Visual Catalogue:
Isis Festivals Tokens. Rome, fourth century A.D.




The Egyptian cult of Serapis and Isis enjoyed great popularity in Rome. The Romans -as the Greeks and Persians had done before them- were fascinated with the culture and monuments of ancient Egypt. The emperors were not content to be the foreign rulers of Egypt, but wanted to be seen as the legitimate successors of the pharaohs. (The Egyptian concept of the pharaoh as a god was certainly attractive to the Roman emperors).

The Festival of Isis was an important annual festival in the Roman world of the 3rd and 4th centuries that was celebrated on March 5 (according to Apuleius, who witnessed it in Corinth). With the ceremony of the "Navigium Isidis" (the ship of Isis), a boat with the image of Isis was launched into the waters after being perfumed and decorated, making various offerings. This goddess was considered "mistress of the sea", protectress of fishermen and merchants. With these celebrations the nautical season was also inaugurated.

The main characteristics of these coinages and the main questions that their study raises for us -as Lars Ramskold rightly pointed out in the prologue- are the following.

  • 1.- The vast majority represent divinities from the Alexandrian pantheon. Were they exclusively religious coinage?
  • 2.- They practically always show the legend "VOTA PVBLICA" on the back. Were they also minted in January?
  • 3.- They do not have any mint mark. Are they always mintages from Rome or were other mints involved?
  • 4.- Are they always minted in bronze or orichalcum? Are they also in gold or silver?
  • 5.- They seem to be very small issues, but... were they really coins?
  • 6.- They were issued during the 4th century. Was it always on the occasion of the Festivals of Isis?
  • Throughout this same page we will try to answer all these questions, let us now go back to the beginning, to the 4th century BC.

    From the foundation of Alexandria by Alexander the Great (331 BC), the Greek gods mixed with the Egyptian ones, giving rise to the so-called "Alexandrian pantheon". Three centuries later, Octavian conquered Egypt and on the Roman coins of Alexandria, and also on other provincial coinage, these oriental divinities were represented for more than three centuries. The imperial coins were not alien to the Alexandrian gods either, but it would be to a much lesser extent.


    Image 1.- Divinities that we can see in the tokens of the Festivals of Isis

    Throughout the 4th century, thanks to these tokens of the Festivals of Isis, we can see a large part of the ancient Alexandrian pantheon coined in Rome. Specifically, we see: Isis, Isis Faria, Isis-Thermouthis, Serapis, Sol-Serapis, Serapis-Agathodaemon, Harpocrates, Anubis, Sotis, Uraeus, Nephthys and the River-god Nile, to which Neptune should be added. (See glossary and coins of the Alexandrian pantheon).

    At the end of the 4th century (391-392) Theodosius declared pagan cults illegal. During the 5th century some of these divinities would be Christianized and of course we would no longer see them on Roman or Byzantine coins (much less on Islamic ones).

    A. Alföldi in his thesis: "A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century. London, 1937") proposes that the festival associated with the boat of Isis that was celebrated in the Middle Ages (also known as " Carrus Navalis"), became the naval car or carnival, thus enduring the Carnival festivity to this day. What is evident is that the ritual of the boat of Isis was Christianized on the festivity of the Virgen del Carmen (July 15) and is currently celebrated in many Mediterranean fishing villages, carrying out a procession with the image of a Virgin (christianized Isis) on a small boat.

    Already in the 21st century, if we observe the processions by boat of the Virgin of Carmen we will no longer have remedy to remember the Navigium Isidis and see the goddess on her sailboat. In the same way, seeing the images of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in arms, we will think without hesitation of the tokens/tesserae with the reverse of Isis seated nursing little Harpocrates.

    But... let's go back to the 4th century and the questions raised before.

    1.- Egyptian divinities were represented throughout the 1st-3rd centuries on Roman provincial coins, and above all on the special coinage of Alexandria, but we rarely find them on imperial coins, and even less so on the mint in Rome. It is evident that the main characteristic of these emissions of the Festivals of Isis is precisely their broad representation of the Alexandrian divinities [1]. Among them Isis and Serapis stand out, but we also find Anubis, Harpocrates, Nephthys, Sothis or Uraeus.

    2.- The second characteristic of these coins is the legend "VOTA PVBLICA" which appears on practically all the reverses, and is even repeated on the obverse. The legends "VOTA or VOT" are well known throughout the Roman Empire. In Rome it was customary to make "public votes" for the safety of the Empire and the preservation of the emperors. They were held on the kalendas of January, when the consuls were elected, and two days before the nonas of the same month. Other types of vows were made periodically or on the occasion of special events. Initially, with Augustus, they were decennial vows, but in the period that concerns us (4th century), we can see them every 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 or more years.

    Image 2.- Radiated bust of Julian II with the legend "DEO SARAPIDI".

    The legend "VOTA PVBLICA" led some researchers to believe that the most probable date for these mintings was at the beginning of January of each year, coinciding with the imperial votes, but there is currently a consensus among scholars and it is understood that this type of token were minted exclusively during the Festivals of Isis, always throughout the 4th century AD.

    With the exception of a couple of issues, all the tokens are marked “VOTA PVBLICA” (some even twice), but it seems unlikely that the Navigium Isidis (images 2 and 5) could have been held during the annual public votes in early January, in the central part of winter, since precisely this ceremony marked the arrival of good weather, the beginning of the sailing season. Therefore, all these emissions were distributed among the population during the Isis Festival celebrations on March 5 of each year. (It really wasn't every year, political or religious reasons prevented it).

    3.- The absence of a mint mark is certainly relevant. From the reform of Diocletian (286-295) all the mints unify their coinage and include in the exergue of the coins some initials identifying the place of minting. The clear style of the mint of Rome, the quality of the engravings and Alföldi's finding of tokens that shared the obverse stamp with the official series of Rome - a fact recently corroborated by L. Ramskold - mean that today all scholars agree. The Isis Festival tokens were always issued at the official mint in Rome, by its usual authorities and engravers.

    4.- Another notable characteristic is that they were always minted pieces, not cast. In addition, they do not present any trace of silver, as the coins of the time did, which gave them a clear distinction.

    The size chosen for these issues is generally small. Although their diameters can vary between 13 and 20 mm [2], the truth is that most of the time their size is in the lowest values (13-16 mm), a size that is unusual for the time. It is also unusual that some pieces (mainly from from last periods) were minted in brass or orichalcum (orichalcum), a more expensive and appreciated metal alloy than bronze, which gave the pieces more value by presenting a color similar to gold.

    No gold minted piece is known and there is only evidence of the silver specimen that we show here (image 3). It is a careful mintage in the name of Julian II that was part of the Prince Waldeck's collection (18th century) and was sold in lot 1012 of auction no. 3 at Müenzhandlung Basel (1935-03-04). Since then, it has been deposited in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, Reino Unido).

    Image 3.- Only known silver specimen.
    Click to see obverse and reverse in higher resolution.

    5.- These issues were punctual, very small and with a clear religious character, surely ceremonial. Based on the few specimens that have survived to this day, we can assume that they were also rare in their time. An important aspect is that the percentage of perforated tokens in these issues is higher than usual, which indicates that at the time they were prized pieces and that they were perforated to be worn as an ornament or talisman. But in turn, when they were distributed among the population, they did not stop being a clear imperial propaganda.

    We do not know the circulation of these coins, but given their small size and their special iconography, it seems clear that they must have been used more as a souvenir or amulet than as coins for trade. They must have been distributed annually in small numbers among the population. No treasure is known from a concealment at the time, it seems that all the findings are specific and are distributed throughout the entire Empire, since they are described from England to Israel.

    The name "token" or "tessera" seems equally adequate to us for these curious mintages, but we have opted to call them tokens. In fact, we have titled this Visual Catalog as: "Isis Festivals Tokens - Rome, IV century AD". In any case, what we cannot do is call them "coins". Certainly, the few series issued during the Tetrarchies (305-306) are similar in size to the follis of the time and show the titles and effigies of the emperors, but their extraordinary rarity has meant that they were traditionally called medals, not coins.

    For all these reasons, we can perfectly call them small medallions, tokens or tesserae. In fact, they show a certain similarity with the contorniates, those large medallions that were issued in the same fourth century, sometimes made of brass and with pagan iconography.

    6.- All the authors assign these emissions throughout the fourth century and can be divided into three clear sections::

    • A.- Issues from the period of the Tetrarchies (305-306).

    • B.- Imperial issues between Constantine I (313) and Valentinian II (392).

    • C.- Anonymous issues of mid-4th century, (period between the 30s and 80s of the 4th century).

    A.- At the end of the Tetrarchies (305-307) we find the antecedents of these series, but they are extremely rare tokens, only a few isolated specimens that we show in our catalog are known, such as that of Maximian Herculius shown below (image 4).

    Image 4.- Syncretism of Neptune and Isis on the reverse

    B.- The imperial coinages present the effigy of the emperor, so it is easier to date them, at least in an approximate way. RIC VIII Rome (1981) catalogs some of the issues between Constantius II and Joviano indicating quite specific dates, but many issues are missing. Furthermore, neither RIC VII (1966) nor RIC IX (1951) include these mintages. We contemplate in this catalog the emissions from Licinius to Valentinian II, indicating the government period of each issuer, with the exception of the period of the Constantinian dynasty, where we indicate the most exact dates recently proposed by L. Ramskold.

    C.- We denominate as anonymous coinages those that do not present the bust of the emperor, but those of Sol-Serapis, Serapis or Isis, alone, confronted, or jugated. These series are the most problematic to date and there are clear controversies.

    Traditionally they have been attributed to Julian II "the Apostate" and his wife Helena, since on some occasions we can distinguish the bust of Serapis with clear features of this emperor (image 2). H. Cohen (1892) and Cayón (1985) catalog an appreciable number of these anonymous tokens at that time (361-364), assigning them to Juliano II (Serapis) and Helena (Isis). On the other hand, Alföldi dates them in a later period, from 379/80 to 394, coinciding with the power struggle between the defenders of paganism present in Rome and the rise of Christianity promoted by Theodosius. Vagi (1999) does not clarify anything, simply states: "... probably struck each and every year for the better part of a century". And finally, the authors of the RIC VII, VIII and IX (1966, 1981 and 1951) do not pronounce themselves, they do not even contemplate these anonymous coinages, surely because they consider them medals or tokens, that is, non-monetary pieces. For all this, we have indicated a vague: "mid-fourth century" (period between the years 30 and 80 of the fourth century).

    In eny case, it seems clear that the period of maximum production was during the reign of Julian II (360-363), when they tried to revive the pagan cults.

    Image 5.- Detailed representation of the boat of Isis ("Navigium Isidis")

    Finally, we must point out that there are similar coinages that present Serapis and have the mintmark ALE (Alexandria) that we show in a separate study within this same catalogue. They are autonomous coinage from Alexandria, Nicomedia and Antioquia, from the times of Maximinus Daza.

    Since Alföldi mentioned them in his catalogue, they are currently advertised as "Festival of Isis coins" (in an attempt to increase their price, no doubt), but have nothing to do with Festival minting in Rome. Recent authors such as J. Van Heesch (1975 and 1993) have proposed a somewhat earlier coinage, from the time of Maximinus Daza (c. 312), naming them as: "Last Civic Coinage".

    We hope you find our work interesting, we will try to update it regularly and we trust that this visual catalog constitutes, both for numismatists and historians, one more tool that contributes to the investigation and study of the coinage of the Late Roman Empire [3].

    Madrid (Spain), Mars 5th, 2014 (Navigium Isidis)
    Manuel Pina & Javi


    ADDENDUM - June, 2023

    In recent years (2016-2021), the project: "Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean" of the University of Warwick (United Kingdom), has been developing an interesting and extensive "Data Base" of tokens and tesserae. I hope that soon we will be able to see in it all the tokens of the Festivals of Isis. (Currently only some are accessible).

    See: "Tokens of the Ancient Mediterranean" - "University of Warwick", United Kingdom.

    In 2022 a project was started at the University of Messina (Italy) with Dr. Cristian Mondello as a researcher, entitled: "The 'Vota Publica' Tokens from late antique Rome: Isiac and Egyptian Cults within a Christianizing Roman Empire". (That is: tokens of the Festivals of Isis throughout the 4th century).

    See: "The Vota Publica Tokens" - "Universitá degli studi di Messina", Italy.

    In addition, It is expected that by during the year 2024, Cristian Mondello ("Universitá degli studi di Messina") and Laurent Bricault ("Université Toulouse II Jean Jaurčs") will publish the first volume of the catalog at the "Royal Numismatic Society" in London: "The Vota Publica Tokens from late antique Rome". A second volume is still undated.

    Imagen 6.- Típica representación de Anubis con sistro y caduceo.

    Finally, almost 100 years later, András Alföldi's "Preliminary Catalogue" (as he himself called it) is going to be fully updated in a printed work. The summary catalog that David Vagi included in 1999 in his book: "Coinage and History of the Roman Empire" has also been widely surpassed.

    The next books by Bricault and Mondello will undoubtedly be the reference printed work.

    Our work is only available online, constituting a catalog -in our opinion- very complete and, above all, accessible and free. Certainly it is not the typical academic work but more of a divulgation work. Our main objective has been to order the "VOTA PVBLICA" series, providing a simple cataloging, a clear reference mainly through drawings and photographs.

     Present on the Internet since March 2014, we have regularly updated our visual catalog and hope to continue doing so in the future.

    Last update: February 20th, 2024 - Manuel Pina




    [1] - Instead of the term Horus child, which is used by some authors, we have preferred to indicate Harpocrates.

    [2] - Following Alföldi's nomenclature, who differentiates AE. I, AE. II, AE. III, AE. III/IV y AE. IV, we understand as AE1 the copper or bronze tokens greater than 24 mm in diameter, AE2 those between 21-24 mm, AE3 between 16-20 mm and AE4 those smaller than 16 mm.

    [3] - All information about the tokens shown can be found on the page: "Origin of the specimens and their images".




    Introduction Sources 1 - 2 - 3


          M. Pina   -  Javi