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




For century after century, the Romans produced large amounts of official coinage to cater for the needs of the population. The mints primarily produced regular coinage but also various kinds of donatives and tokens. One such kind of tokens were the so-called "Festival of Isis tokens".

The late 3 rd century saw the emergence of coin-like bronze tokens with egyptianising themes. The first series of such tokens were struck in 306 AD to the standards of the regular coinage. The style shows that these tokens were produced in Rome. The obverses showed the four emperors at the time, and the reverses show Isis on the ship and related themes. After a break during the reign of Maxentius, the Festival of Isis tokens re-appeared under Constantine I. A study by Ramskold (2016) indicated that Constantine’s tokens were first produced in early 313 AD soon after he had taken Rome. Tokens were then struck on seven occasions between 314 and 331 AD, in particular for Constantine’s regnal jubilee years beginning with his decennalia and then for the 15, 20 and 25 year jubilees.

Most or all of these early Festival of Isis tokens were struck in bronze. The obverses were coin-like, showing the emperor or Caesar within a legend giving his name and title. However, unlike the regular bronze coins, the tokens were not silvered and at the time they would have looked different from coins. Their lack of silver content gave them a lower metal value than similar sized regular coins. Some tokens are holed, indicating that they were used as amulets or personal decoration. The find spots span the entire empire, from England and Wales to Israel. Perhaps tokens were brought home by Rome visitors, or perhaps tokens entered the coin circulation.

The production of Festival of Isis tokens continued after the reign of Constantine I. Small emissions were struck under his sons, but it was under the reign of Julian that the production peaked. Large numbers of tokens bearing Julian’s likeness, although rarely his name, were struck in several sizes. Most or all of these were struck in brass, called orichalcum by the Romans. When new, they would have looked golden and could not have been confused with regular coins. The reason for the peaked production under Julian could be that he tried to revive the traditional Roman religion. The Egyptian gods on the tokens fit well in his ideology. The last Festival of Isis tokens were struck under Valentinian II (375-392). In. 391/392, Theodosius I made all pagan cults illegal, ending the Festival of Isis tradition.

We do not know the purpose of the Festival of Isis tokens. The Festival itself – the Navigium Isidis - took place 5 th March each year, celebrating the arrival of the season’s first grain ships from Egypt. Most tokens carry the legend VOTA PVBLICA, indicating the public vows taken by the emperor annually on the 3 rd January. Both dates are suitable for the production of the tokens and both have been suggested in different studies.

Since András Alföldi presented his doctoral thesis: "A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century", published in 1937, if we except the summarized catalog that David Vagi included in 1999 in his book: "Coinage and History of the Roman Empire", only Manuel Pina has attempted to update Alföldi's old catalogue. This new Visual Catalog is very interesting, it has been on the Internet since March 2014 (, it includes valuable images of unpublished pieces and is regularly updated. And best of all, it's fully accessible and free.

We hope that the forthcoming study "The Vota Publica Tokens" by Bricault & Mondello can provide more insight into the fascinating Isis Festival tokens. His next books will undoubtedly be the reference printed catalogs.

Dr. Lars Ramskold
Stockholm (Sweden), 31 July 2023




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      M. Pina   -  Javi