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:
S. ZENOBIA AUG
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.