144 out of 410 days: Missing Cybele


Returning to the book has been a jarring experience today. I managed to exhibit huge internal resistance.  For example, it seemed very important today to refine my file and image backup system and clear my hard drive of duplicate files using the latest search software.   Anyway.  Not knowing where to start or even which chapter I wanted to tackle next, I opened the very first item in my file of scholarship to be reviewed and incorporated as relevant.

Alföldi, A. (1976). “The giant Argus and a miracle of Apollo in the coin-propaganda of Cinna and Carbo.” In In Memoriam Otto J. Brendel: Essays in Archaeology and the Humanities, 115-119. Mainz.

This is mostly on the bronzes of L. Rubrius Dossenus (RRC 348).  However, very confusingly he says “Another reference to this function [sc. Rubrius’ theoretical aedileship] is given hy the representations on his quadrans: the head of Kybele on the obverse and her lion on the reverse announce the ludi Megalenses, celebrated in honor of the Magna Mater.”   No such coin is listed by Crawford for this money and I can find no other reference to such a quadrans.  How did Alföldi come to think one existed?

My searches led me a reference to the type above on this website.  The anonymous author of that website is certain the image represents Cybele and to be sure the iconography is be close. The author even wants to go so far as to down date the coin (and the rest of the series?!) from Crawford’s suggested 217-215 BC to 204 BC when the cult of the Magna Mater was introduced to Rome. [See my earlier post with links and also Bowden, H. (2012). “Rome, Pessinous, and Battakes: Religious Encounters with the East.” In C. Smith and L. M. Yarrow (Eds.), Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, 252-62. Oxford.]

Crawford simply identifies the observe as “Female bust, r., draped and wearing turreted crown” but on p. 719 of his second volume he suggests that the head may be the personification of the city of Rome herself.  He seems to be imagining something along the lines of the Tyche of Antioch.

This struck me as a rather radical suggestion regarding a means of representing Rome, in contrast to the iconography of Roma or the Genius of Rome.  The underlying assumption of both the website and RRC is that the mural or turreted crown represents a specific thing: Cybele or Tyche or a City Goddess.  All of these are right and there is some decent scholarship explaining how they connect one to another. Reading up on this I was struck by this passage in the article just linked:

As “turrita” (with the mural crown) in Virgil’s Aeneid (6.785), the Magna Mater stands for the rule of the urbs Roma over the entire world (orbis).

Here’s the Vergil passage with Anchises in the underworld prophesying to Aeneas:

Behold, my son, under Romulus’ command glorious Rome

will match earth’s power and heaven’s will, and encircle

seven hills with a single wall, happy in her race of men:

as Cybele, the Berecynthian ‘Great Mother’, crowned

with turrets, rides through the Phrygian cities, delighting

in her divine children, clasping a hundred descendants,

all gods, all dwelling in the heights above.

en huius, nate, auspiciis illa incluta Roma
imperium terris, animos aequabit Olympo,
septemque una sibi muro circumdabit arces,
felix prole uirum: qualis Berecyntia mater
inuehitur curru Phrygias turrita per urbes               
laeta deum partu, centum complexa nepotes,
omnis caelicolas, omnis supera alta tenentis.
huc geminas nunc flecte acies, hanc aspice gentem
Romanosque tuos. 

Vergil’s metaphor certainly equates Rome’s walls with Cybele’s turreted crown, thus drawing the two together.  I’m not sure we can push this back into the late 3rd century, but the goddess on the coin may very well have recalled more than one association in the minds of its earliest viewers.

Update 17/1/2014, just adding a finer specimen: 

This specimen also makes me wonder about reverse figure.  Is this a ludic scene recalling riding competitions at religious festivals?  The figure seems to have a whip but no other weapons.  Is this an early precursor of the desultor and rider types seen later in the republic?  The whole series has unusual types…  Best image of the series as a whole.

Update 31/1/2014:

A nice parallel to the Virgil Passage:


Part of the fresco narrative the origins of Rome from the family tomb of T. Statilius Taurus on the Esquiline.  Now on display in Palazzo Massimo.

Update 27 February 2014: Note this turreted goddess on Sicilian coinage, Acra (SNGANS 902):


52 out of 410 Days: Syncretism

Kinda looks like a Christmas wreath, doesn’t it?  This occurred to me yesterday when I was in a local boutique buying bangles as Eidi for the young people who invited me to celebrate with their family today. [I’m really excited.]  The woman in the shop suggested an up-sell: gold cloth bags to hold each bangle set.  My first reaction was “ooo …nice! well-worth 2 bucks” and then she pulled them out of the cupboard and they had a holly leaf and berry design over them.  I quickly back pedalled.  I can’t exactly bring gifts looking like I used left over Christmas wrapping.  I was worried about being perceived as uncouth or insensitive.   At the same time it was Muslim woman in a muslim shop advising me on my purchase.   I took them home and wrapped them myself.   

And then when I got home I find myself reading about the reception of the cult of Cybele, a.k.a. the Magna Mater, in Rome.  This is the first coin at Rome to depict the goddess.  


Her cult object was originally an aniconic (non-figurative) black stone.  That got set inside a silver statue.  And, all the Roman representations follow the Greek model.  I’m not going to go on about this as there is an award winning book on the subject.  Most intriguingly in the earliest archaeological layers of her temple at Rome terracotta plaques representing Juno Sospita were found.  This is not one of those finds, but gives a visual point of reference as to what Juno Sospita’s iconography looked like in the early period.


What’s my take away?  I know that Eid isn’t Christmas, and I also know there is nothing inappropriate about borrowing one set of traditions to augment the celebrations of a different religion.  The elisions are more comfortably made by insiders, than outsiders.  I find the phenomenon bemusing, but not confusing.    After all the holly and the ivy and the presents and many other festive trappings all entered Christian celebrations from earlier pre-existing religious traditions.

I don’t want to stretch the parallels with ancient worship too far.  Monotheism and polytheism often work very differently, so too communally versus individually driven worship.   And, yet.  I think my understanding of Cybele is just a little more nuanced for having gone present shopping.