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Festival of Isis coinage
Rome, fourth century A.D.

Vota Publica issues



Since 1936, during the London Numismatic Congress, when András Alföldi presented his doctoral dissertation "A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century" (published in 1937), there has been no significant progress in the study of these emissions. The only exceptions are: the brief catalog published by David Vagi (1999) within his book "Coinage and History of the Roman Empire", and the important study of The House of Constantine writen in 2016 by Lars Ramskold: "A die link study of Constantine’s pagan Festival of Isis tokens and affiliated coin-like ‘fractions’: chronology and relation to major imperial events".

Although the theories of Alföldi are not currently fully accepted, his "Preliminary Catalogue" (as he titled it) has not yet been overcome, no one has attempted to complement it with the new coins that have been appeared in these almost 80 years. With this "Visual Catalogue on line", by incorporating new "unedited" pieces and ordering the many coins that Alföldi includes repeated, we have tried to update these interesting roman coinage.

The result is in sight, our new catalog of the VOTE PVBLICA coinage presents more than 300 references, grouped according to the 40 types of reverses we have identified and sorted by size. (Alföldi listed 400 coins, many simple variations of style, sorting them by type of obverse rather than by reverses).

Beginning with the title "Festival of Isis Coinage. Rome, fourth century A.D.". The fact is that it is not clear we can call these pieces as "coins". Also not 100% sure they were issued during the roman Festival of Isis (Navigium Isidis). The name given by Damián Salgado ("VOTA PVBLICA emissions", Vol. III Monedas Romanas, 2004) is more appropriate but less understandable. All authors admit Alföldi’s nomenclature and these series are known as "Festival of Isis Coinage".

The main characteristics and questions of these emissions that we observed in our study were:

  • 1.- These emissions present syncretic Romano-Egyptian deities.
  • 2.- The legend "VOTA PVBLICA" virtually always appears.
  • 3.- There is no mintmark. Are these pieces always from Roma?
  • 4.- Coins are hammered, with generally small size and struck in brass (orichalcum).
  • 5.- Are very limited emissions. Are they really coins?
  • 6.- Minted during IVth Century. At the time of the Isis's Festivals?
  • 1.- Romano-Egyptian deities were represented since I until III century in Roman provincial coins, and especially in Alexandria, but rarely found in imperial coinage and coins minted in Rome. These emissions depict aspects of Romano-Egyptian paganism. Isis, Sarapis, Anubis, Harpocrates, Nephthys, Sothis or Uraeus appear in these issues.

    2.- The second feature of these coinages is the legend "VOTA PVBLICA" that appears in virtually all reverses, and sometimes is repeated on the obverse. The "VOTA or VOT" legends are common during the Roman Empire. Under the Empire, the people assembled on January 3 to offer collective vows for the health of the emperor and the preservation of the Empire. Offerings were made to deities. In Rome, these ceremonies were conducted by the consuls and the pontiffs, and in the provinces probably by governors and local priests and officials. Other vows were made periodically or during special events. Vows were initially (with Augustus) for ten years but in 4th century we can see them for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 or more years.

    3.- At the end of the 3rd century all existing mint offices in the Empire had to adapt to the Diocletian’s monetary reform (286-295) including a mintmark in the exergue of the coins. There is no mintmark in the issues for the Festival of Isis but they present a clear style of the mint of Rome. Also, Alföldi found coins that share obverse die with regular series at Rome. All authors agree these coins were always minted in Rome by official authorities.

    There are similar coinages which also present Sarapis and have the mintmark ALE (Alexandria). We decided to show these coins in a separate division of our catalogue, because authors such as J. Van Heesch (1975 & 1993) associated these emissions from Alexandria to Maximinus Daza (312), as part of the (anti-Christian) religious policy, calling them "Last Civic Coinages".

    4.- These coins were hammered, no cast. The size chosen is certainly small. Their diameters vary between 13 and 20 mm but most of these coins have a module with the lowest values (13-16 mm). This size is unusual for that time. It is also unusual that the vast majority of them were struck in brass (orichalcum), with similar color to gold and more appreciated. There is not information about gold coins but there is evidence of a single silver coin shown above (image 3). This is a coin of Julian the Apostate sold at Müenzhandlung Basel, Auction 3 (1935-03-04), Lot 1012.

    5.- These emissions were limited and probably they had a specific ceremonial function. They were never common in their time and a large percentage of them have holes, indicating that they were appreciated pieces and they were pierced to be lucid as ornament or talisman (image 1). We are not aware of their monetary circulation but their small size and color suggest they were used as amulets instead of currency to trade. We might call them small medallions or tokens because they are similar to contorniates, large medallions issued in the 4th century, sometimes in brass, with pagan iconography.

    6.- All authors date this emissions in the 4th century but we can separate three periods:

    A.- Coins of the Tetrarchies.

    B.- Imperial coinage.

    C.- Anonymous coinage.

    A.- At the end of the tetrarchies (305-307) we find the antecedents of these series, but they are extremely rare coins, only are a few isolated examples that we include in our catalogue, as the coin of Maximian Herculius shown below (image 4).

    B.- The imperial coins show the emperor’s portrait and it is easier to give an approximate date. RIC VIII Rome (1981) lists some emissions ranging from Constantius II to Jovian. Neither RIC VII (1966) nor RIC IX (1951) consider them. Our Visual Catalogue includes emissions ranging from Licinius to Valentinian II and indicates the period of government of each issuer.

    C.- The anonymous coins show a bust of Isis or Sarapis, or both (jugate busts). These emissions have been traditionally assigned to Julian the Apostate and his wife Helena. Sarapis sometimes appears with clear signs of this emperor (image 2). H. Cohen (1982) and Cayón (1985) dated many anonymous coins in this period (361-364) and assigned them to Julian the Apostate (Sarapis) and Helena (Isis). Alföldi dated these coins in a later period, since 379/80 until 394, coinciding with the Christian persecution of paganism under Theodosius I. Vagi (1999) simply says "…probably struck each and every year for the better part of a century". Finally, the authors of RIC VII, VIII and IX (1966, 1981 and 1951) do not study these anonymous coins, perhaps because they considered them as medals or tokens, or at least not imperial coins. We have indicated a vague "mid-fourth century". What else can we do?

    These emissions could be distributed among people at the annual ceremony (imperial vows) of January 3rd and during the Festival of Isis on March 5th. Except for two anepigraph issues, all coins have inscribed the legend "VOTA PVBLICA" (some twice) and have a strong relationship with the cult of Isis. It is difficult to choose a date. Alföldi (1937), not by any stretch of the imagination, placed both celebrations at the beginning of the year, but it is unlikely that the Navigium Isidis (image 5) was celebrated in the middle of the winter, because this ceremony marked the arrival of warm weather and the starting of sailing.

    The questions remain. Were these coins minted to commemorate the Festival of Isis? Were they really coins? One thing is clear: "This is an enigmatic coinage".

    We hope you enjoy our work and this catalogue will become a tool for numismatics and researchers in their study of the coinage of the Late Roman Empire.

    Madrid (Spain), Mars 5th, 2014 (Navigium Isidis)
    (Last update February 2nd, 2019)

    Manuel Pina & Javi




    - The size of each bronze/cooper coin is indicated with AE1 (more than 24 mm of diameter), AE2 (21 to 24 mm), AE3 (16 to 20 mm) and AE4 (less than 16 mm).

    - Instead of the terms Horus-child and Serapis, that are used by most of the authors, we have preferred to use: Harpocrates and Sarapis, respectively.

    - All the information about the 225 images shown, is on the page "Provenance of the coins".







    Types of reverses Anonymous obverses Imperial obverses
    Glossary Sources Bibliography


          M. Pina   -  Javi