23 November 2008

My Money On Zenobia

A new Zenobia coin!

At the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day (which already feels like half a year ago. Oh, it is.... Sorry for the delay), Arjan Senden, a Dutch numismatist -- and specialist in Roman coins and medals -- presented a sensational new find: an addition to the very very limited and always rare coins minted for Zenobia.

Here she is (left), a simple bronze coin, but the title says it all:


That's monetary shorthand for 'Septimia Zenobia Augusta', her brazen claim to the imperial throne. To hammer home the point, the reverse shows the goddess Juno with the text IUNO REGINA, Queen [of the gods] -- as imperial a reverse as she could possibly choose.

The coin was found somewhere in Israel, and its text in Latin (rather than Greek) suggests that it was struck in one of the three small-change mints in the neighbourhood: Berytus, Ptolemais (modern Acco), or Tyre. Although it's not sure that any of these civil mints were still in operation as late as the 270's AD, yet, as Arjan says, the nice black patina of the coin does have the look of these regional coins.

Well, I am willing to bet an equal weight of Euro-change (10.97 grams) that Zenobia's issuer will turn out to be Phoenician Tyre.

First, because the last Empress known to have had coins produced at Tyre with the title of Augusta was Salonina, wife of Gallienus, who died only a few years earlier (empress 253-268 AD). So, even if the local mint had closed for a dozen years or so, it could easily have been reopened. And the coin is made in a rude manner, which is consistent with the work of a secondary or 'auxiliary' mint: the edge shows at one place a rough little piece, cut from a series produced with a mould. This normally happens with coins of an auxiliary mint during a campaign, rapidly producing coins to pay the troops.

Badges of Honour

I would add that there is an interesting link between Tyre and Palmyra. An inscribed marble base found in Tyre may once have held a statue dedicated to Zenobia's husband. It reads (in Greek):
To Septimius Odenathus, the most illustrious (senator?). The Septimian colony of Tyre.
So, the great warrior prince Odenathus had earned public honours at Tyre during his lifetime. Zenobia was certainly sensible enough to have kept up these close ties. The moment that Tyrian coins acknowledged her as Empress might have come when Palmyran troops were moving through the area on their way into Egypt in the years 270-272 AD.

Coins of Honour

The closest parallel for the new coin must be the bronze piece found at Palmyra itself (left) in 1960. It was mistakenly classed as a tesserae, a token, but it is clearly a coin and also produced in an auxiliary mint (my amateur guess is Damascus). It too is in Latin and closely copies the finer, more familiar -- but still very rare -- Zenobia coinage of Antioch (in black & white below).

I don't know why anyone thinks these are real portraits of Zenobia. However many times the Syrian Tourist Office or Palmyran guidebooks reproduce these coins, they remain entirely stereotypical images of a mid-third century empress. Her bust is set on a crescent moon. Her features are youthful and regular. Even though the fleshiness of the nose or the roundness of the chin may change, such changes seem random rather than attempted portraiture. Her head is crowned by a diadem and the very characteristic hairstyle follows the pattern introduced by Tranquillina (empress 241-244), the wife of Gordian III: her wavy hair is divided into bands, leaving the ear free, and gathered into a braid pulled up from the neck to the forehead.

So what did Zenobia look like?

Two coins from Alexandria may hold the clue. The first (below, left) is another typical genre portrait, not much different -- except for language -- from the Antiochene coins: youthful regular features, with little individuality. The hairstyle follows another fixed pattern -- dating back to Julia Mamaea (so possibly a more authentically Syrian style), but also copied in the early Alexandrian coinage of Salonina (so you could argue that it's fashionable and nothing more) -- with longer waves and caught in a soft bun at the neck. In any case, this is another conventional portrait of an empress; the Alexandrian mint surely had no portrait of Zenobia to hand so they seem to have modelled her after a late Severan Syrian empress.

But a second Alexandrian issue (below, right) presents a very different picture. Probably struck not many months after the first, this Zenobia looks like another woman entirely.

Is this the real portrait of Zenobia?

No longer youthful, but early middle-aged (as was likely to be true), the empress has strong, even sharp features, a high forehead, long aquiline nose, strong chin, and large ears. Her expression, too, is changed -- now having something (according to one expert*) of oriental solemnity about her. I'm not sure I'd go that far. But, yes, I otherwise agree: this is another woman, a far more realistic portrayal than the other, off-the-shelf imperial portraits.

Here's another view of the second Alexandrian issue, a modern mould taken from one of the coins (left).

If any picture is the real Zenobia, this is it!

Why else did the Alexandrian mint strike a second, quite distinct series of coins -- so soon after the first -- if they didn't mean to portray the new empress much more as she really was?

Readers, what do you think?

* E. Equini Schneider,
Septimia Zenobia Sebaste (Rome 1993) 96-98, an excellent discussion of Zenobia's (and her son, Waballath's) coin imagery.


  1. I think you have a good argument here, but one faint possibility I might flag up is that the second portrait was being deliberatly modelled on another famous Imperially-inclined rebel queen: have a look at this coin of Cleopatra VII of Egypt and tell me if you don't think the nose is familiar... That said, the hair is completely different, so if it is a reference it's such an obscure one that hardly anyone could have been expected to get it. This makes your theory a lot more likely. But all the same it struck me...

  2. It's certainly an interesting nose (as it was said to be!) but Mark Antony, on the reverse, has the identical nose. Could it be the style of the die-caster? I'm not so sure, anyway, that the tip of Zenobia's nose droops on the coin itself: perhaps a flaw in the mould?

    Obviously, I must plan a trip to Paris to study the Alexandrian coins myself. I do sometimes have to suffer for my blog :-)

  3. Cool. I think the argument is sound, too, but I'm not familiar enough with the subject to be competent.

  4. This all sort of gets into the question of how the molds were made in the first place. I doubt that the mold maker had the subject 'sit' for them while they carved.

    Likely some artist did a quick profile sketch, and then took that to the mold maker who had to sculpt the mold. Stuff gets lost in translation, and so on.

  5. That's a very interesting point, Eric, whenever considering ancient 'portraits' (other than death masks). Did an emperor ever sit for his official portrait, or was it just a quick sketch made by a favoured artist and then transferred to other media?

    I'm not aware of any direct evidence, but - as soon as I have time - I'll look for it!

  6. Anonymous7/3/09 14:56

    I have a big collection of old coins , if somebody can write to me at bush007ad@yahoo.com ,i would send pictures so you can tell me more about these , i need to know origins and values .
    Thanx in advance

  7. Anonymous17/5/10 10:31

    This makes your theory a lot more likely. But all the same it struck me... mold maker

  8. Anonymous21/8/10 20:32

    Rather nice blog you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

    Bella Smith

  9. Anonymous1/9/10 07:51

    Pretty nice blog you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

    Joan Simpson

  10. Ralph Ellis18/5/12 11:32

    In my own humble estimation, she was a descendent of this queen, and therefore there should be a similarity between the two.


  11. Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea she had struck coins, though I do have one with Aurelian on one side and her son Vabalathus on the other. Striking coins were the true sign that you were claiming the throne. For example, a few years later in 280, a General Julius Saturninus during the time of Emperor Probus revolted. Though he only ruled a few weeks, he had coins struck in his name. One nitpicking item. Some of the comments wondered how the coin moulds were made. Coins were not cast. Rather a bronze die had the design engraved into it. Coin blanks were placed between the upper and lower die and then the top die struck with a hammer.

  12. Hi Judith,
    My name is Zeki, I'm in 9th grade and I've been following your blog ever since Daesh captured Palmyra in 2015. I've always been interested in Middle Eastern history and I collect Middle Eastern coins. I know this is an old post, but I wanted to share my insight from a numismatist's point of view.

    There seems to be a bit of a conundrum with noses and coins. Another good example of varying portraits on coins is the coinage of the Seleukid king Antiochos VIII Epiphanes. Antiochos was nicknamed "Grypos" or "Hook Nose" by his subjects and he seemed to be regarded as a Hellenistic Habsburg. However, there are countless different depictions of the king on his coinage. Here are a few:

    From Antioch: https://www.cngcoins.com/photos/big/995857.jpg
    From Sidon (and from my personal collection): https://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=276364
    From Ake-Ptolemaïs: http://emaxbid.com/images/lot/5013/5013_4.jpg
    Also from Sidon: https://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=30436

    As you can see, the issues from Sidon and Ake depict the king with a subtler nose, while the issue from Antioch shows him with a beaklike schnozzola. Antioch was the capital of a then-ailing empire and it's possible that the die-engravers at that city were fed up with the king and wanted to make a caricature of him. In addition, the Antioch issue was minted around a decade after the other issues. The same goes for Zenobia; the uglier portrait came from a later date. Maybe the Palmyrenes of Alexandria were in the same situation as the Seleukid die engravers and wanted to take a bite out of their queen. Just a thought!

    I'm really enjoying your blog. While the terrorists of the world are wreaking havoc in the cultural arteries of the world, it's nice to know that a few of us truly care!
    Thanks so much,
    Zeki Hirsch


Blog Archive