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The Imperial Physician: Asclepius and Roman Coinage

Caroline Wazer

In this paper I argue that an increase in the frequency and geographic range of Roman imperial Asclepius coins, begun by Domitian and continuing until the Third Century Crisis, is a rich example of Wallace-Hadrill’s (2008) “circulation” model of Hellenization and Romanization, a process that continued in waves long after the Roman subjugation of the Greek world. In particular, I draw connections between the appearance of Asclepius on imperial coins and a resurgence of Roman interest in Greek Asclepius sanctuaries after a lengthy period of neglect. This resurgence of interest is well attested by epigraphic and textual evidence. Further, I argue that by the second century C.E., due primarily to political and cultural developments in Rome, Asclepius was no longer seen as a Greek god of medicine with strong regional ties, relatively unimportant in the pantheon except to the sick. Rather, because of the development of ideas connecting the emperor and health, Asclepius’ cult took on a political meaning that was transmitted back to Greek cities through a variety of media, the most consistent of which was coinage.

Although Roman interaction with Asclepius dates from at least the early third century B.C.E., when the Senate formally imported his cult to Rome following an epidemic, the god, like ancient medicine as a discipline, was always considered Greek in nature. While certain Roman gods and goddesses, most prominently Salus, took on some of his characteristics on coinage and in other media (Marwood 1988, Winkler 1995), Asclepius himself never appeared on Republican or Julio-Claudian coins. Starting in the late first century C.E., however, Asclepius became a mainstay on Roman coinage. The first emperor to mint an Asclepius coin was Domitian; after him, nearly every emperor until the Third Century Crisis, eighteen in all, minted at least one issue of coins bearing an image of Asclepius.

Many Asclepius issues were provincial. Coinage bearing the image of Asclepius had a long tradition, in some cases dating back to the fifth century B.C.E., in a small number of Greek cities with important sanctuaries of the god, such as Pergamon and Kos. Under the Roman Empire, however, the number of provincial cities minting Asclepius coins grew dramatically. The British Museum’s collection includes Asclepian coins from 162 different cities across the Mediterranean, most of which had no significant historic ties to the god. 

While the dramatic geographic expansion of Asclepius coins suggests a broad cultural shift leading to a popularization of the Asclepian cult, the iconography of certain coins hints at the important role Roman emperors took in the god’s empire-wide growth in profile. A striking Pergamene issue from the reign of Commodus, which depicts the emperor in military dress hailing Asclepius, sacrificing to him, and eventually being worshipped alongside him as a synnaos theos, reveals an intimate relationship between emperor and god. On other provincial coins, empresses including Faustina and Julia Domna are iconographically associated with female figures closely related to Asclepius, namely his mother Coronis and his daughter Hygieia. Such coins emphasized the connection between the imperial family and the family of Asclepius.

Asclepius coins minted at Rome are fewer in number, but also historically significant. While Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla both minted coins with images of the god in Rome, one example from the capital particularly underlines the importance of Asclepius in imperial ideology. In 195 C.E., shortly before they declared war on each other, Septimius Severus and Clodius Albinus (then co-consuls) each minted a series of coins with his own portrait on the obverse and one of several deities on the reverse. The deities chosen include Roma, Victoria, Minerva, and Felicitas, all of which evoke imperial power and foreshadow the coming civil war. The only apparent outlier is Asclepius, who appears on a denarius and an as of Albinus. I argue that in the context of the previous century of numismatic history, Asclepius too must be read as a symbol of the emperor.

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Minting an Empire: Negotiating Roman Hegemony through Coinage

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