Saturn, Saturninus


When Saturninus that rascally tribune of the very end of second century was a moneyer he chose types that punned on his name.  A pun that is emphasized by the abbreviation of his cognomen. It’s a rather conservative type for a man we don’t generally think of for his conservatism.  Quadrigas had already been recently revived by L. Conelius Scipo Asiaticus [103 BC Mattingly].

Reverse of RRC 311/1d. 1896.7.44

and puns too were the fashion of the time.  Compare this bull (= taurus) used by L. Thorius Balbus.  Crawford thinks the bull might be a symbol of Juno on the obverse (see p. 719 n. 8 of vol 2 of RRC). Maybe it is both.  [102 BC Mattingly]

Reverse of RRC 316/1. 1937.158.34

Anyway, the interesting thing is the Saturn, Saturninus association. It makes the choice of Saturn for the obverse of the Piso Caepio coin seem a little odd in light of our literary sources:


Here’s the Broughton, MRR entry for them under 100BC, Quaestors:


We might also note the use of Saturn as an obverse in 103BC [Mattingly], the year of Saturninus’ first Tribunate, by L. Memmius Gallus:

Obverse of RRC 313/1b. 1937.158.31

Mattingly has Saturninus’ offices as follows:

104 – Quaestor in charge of Grain Supply from Ostia 

103 – First Tribunate

101 – Moneyership

100 – Second Tribunate

We usually think of moneyerships being held before these other offices, but the dates of the other offices are well fixed.  So perhaps Saturninus had his ‘out of order’.  Otherwise his coins would need to be slipped back into the series earlier that 104 and that is apparently hard to reconcile with all the rest of evidence.

Shaggy Haired Deities


The deity on the obverse of this is always identified as Jupiter.  Based, I suppose, primarily on the reverse which is clearly Jupiter in a quadriga with his lightening bolt and scepter. However, the iconography, especially the three thick locks of hair down the neck, looks an awful lot like typical representations of Saturn from the same period:



Of course, these are all likely to be the work of the same die cutter and that could account for most of the visual similarity.  Nevertheless it strikes me that if that die cutter had wanted to differentiate two different deities on these obverses, he would have done so in a more dramatic fashion.

A Divine Explanation

I just ordered up via ILL a piece of German scholarship which from the abstract seems to redate some early Roman coins (aes grave with a prow and the quadrigati) and connected them with the events of 241BC. I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see the article. However, it also reminded of this portion of Ovid’s Fasti, calendar of the Roman year in poetic form:

I spoke these words to the god [sc. Janus] who holds the key.

‘Indeed I’ve learned much: but why is there a ship’s figure

On one side of the copper As, a twin shape on the other?’

‘You might have recognised me in the double-image’,

He said, ‘if length of days had not worn the coin away.

The reason for the ship is that the god of the sickle

Wandering the globe, by ship, reached the Tuscan river.

I remember how Saturn was welcomed in this land:

Driven by Jupiter from the celestial regions.

From that day the people kept the title, Saturnian,

And the land was Latium, from the god’s hiding (latente) there.

But a pious posterity stamped a ship on the coin,

To commemorate the new god’s arrival.

I myself inhabited the ground on the left

Passed by sandy Tiber’s gentle waves.

Here, where Rome is now, uncut forest thrived,

And all this was pasture for scattered cattle.

My citadel was the hill the people of this age

Call by my name, dubbing it the Janiculum.

Asses did stay in circulation for a very very long time and were minted very sporadically during the late Republic. Ovid’s Augustan age testimony provides evidence that worn base metal coins had become the norm but that the types were generally known. The prow however did not hold a particular meaning for a contemporary viewer. Ovid has the god explain that the prow commemorates Saturn’s arrival. This would have seemed plausible because Saturn was the god of the treasury, even if it is unlikely to have been the original inspiration. Crawford suggests the visual inspiration comes from this beautiful type of Antigonos Doson, c.227 BC (See RRC p. 42 esp. n. 5):

Reverse Image

Naval imagery first appears on Roman coins, unsurprisingly, when they become more adept as a military power. And it has even been argued that naval imagery on aes signatum commemorated the very battle in which the bronze itself was captured in the form of rams, armor, and other spoils from the Carthaginian enemies. However awareness of symbolism slips away as particular images stop resonating with contemporary audience, hence Ovid’s deduced explanation.

Tools for Reaping

Pretty consistently on the Roman Republican Series the attribute of Saturn is identified as the harpa.  In fact the logic is a little circular, if its Saturn it must be the harpa and if there is a harpa with a bearded divinity it must be Saturn.

The harpa is a tool otherwise usually associated with Perseus who used it to cut off the head of Medusa and it is a regular numismatic symbol like Heracles’ club, though not precisely as common.  Here they are together:

My problem looking at the Saturns is that the later ones clearly have the traditional harpa on them.  See above, as well as this slightly earlier type:

But the object behind the heads of the divinity on all of these is clearly something different:

Whatever this implement is it clearly has ‘teeth’ and is a single curved piece, not a blade with a hook or prong, such as we associate with the word harpa.   Of course, at its most basic the word just means sickle or curved blade in Greek, the general equivalent of falx, falxis in Latin.  And yet, surely we can come up with some vocabulary discuss the shift in attributes of Saturn without rounding them all down to a generalization.  The earlier Saturn is clearly associated with something other than the tool of Perseus with which he is bestowed in the imperatorial period.  What is that earlier tool?  At first I saw the teeth and shape quite literally as a jawbone.  There are jawbones on some Greek coins, but they don’t look much like the tool:

My guess is that its some piece of agricultural equipment probably for reaping and that it has a specific name.  At some point Saturn’s agricultural associations perhaps became a little less critical and his attribute took on a more mythological, apotropaic form.

In the interests of completeness I should also mention that there is this other early coin with Saturn not as an obverse type but as a reverse type.  If I’m right, the tool in the hand should be be the toothed one, not the Perseus-style harpa, but frankly I’ve not yet seen one clear enough in that detail to say it looks like much of anything specific:

Saturn as an agricultural god of reaping would certainly have resonance for a number of these earlier moneyers, to say nothing of agrarian issues generally in the Republic.