Guardian Gods and Monsters - The Denarii of Lucius Papius
Little is known about the moneyer Lucius Papius but during his tenure running the Roman mint in 79 BC, he issued one of the most extensive and interesting series of Late Republican coins. As this denarius makes clear, Lucius traced his lineage through a known branch of the Papia gens that originated in the town of Lanuvium (modern Lanuvio), around 20 miles southeast of Rome. Lanuvium was famed as the cult centre for worship of the goddess Juno Sospita and Romans came from far and wide to make offerings at the town's temple-sanctuary, a scenic portico of which still stands today. Revered patron goddess of the Roman state, Juno Sospita 'The Saviour’ is seen on a number of artworks from this region of Latium wearing her distinctive goatskin headdress with protruding horns.
As the dictator Sulla prepared to retire, and Quintus Sertorius established his short-lived rebel republic in Spain, Lucius Papius struck this coin in Rome with an image of the saviour goddess of his hometown. Papius would follow the example of other moneyers in this era by issuing his coinage with serrated flans. The toothed edge of 'serrati' coins functioned as an anti-counterfeiting measure, showing the pure silver interior of the coin while also cleverly guarding against coin clipping; any coin that had part of its edges cut away was made immediately obvious my missing serrations.
Experimental archaeology has shown that to achieve these serrated edges the blank coin flan was struck with a sharp tool whilst being rolled along a surface with pliers. Mint workers likely got this technique down to a fine art, yet even if it only took an extra few seconds per coin, this would have added another link in the chain of the coin minting process that cumulatively slowed the rate of production to an unacceptable degree. The denarius-serratus style would appear at intervals in the Late Republic but would soon disappear from Roman coinage altogether, likely judged too impractical and inefficient to speedy minting operations.
The obverse of the denarius bears the portrait of Juno Sospita wearing her horned goatskin cap; as well as her cult sanctuary in Lanuvium, rites were also offered to the saviour goddess at her temple in Rome’s Forum Holitorium dedicated in 197 BC – especially on her festival day of February 1st. In the field behind Juno’s portrait, we can see another object that makes this coin series a particularly intriguing one to numismatists. Again, following minting trends of the time, Papius has incorporated a wide range of ‘mint marks’ or ‘control marks’ in his extensive issue. To differentiate every single die used to strike the coins, engravers included a small, unique symbol on both obverse and reverse. The symbols on each side of the coin are different but thematically connected – and only intended for use together.
In this way, control marks functioned as a quality-control measure that allowed for efficient monitoring of each engraver’s work, clearer organisation of which paired dies were being used at any one time, and tracking of their progressive wear. When one of the paired dies had cracked or worn down unacceptably, both were destroyed and striking commenced with the next pair. Die engravers were likely given creative freedom to come up with their own imaginatively paired symbols drawn from daily life; elsewhere in this series we see an oil lamp and the oil jug used to refill it, a column and its crowning capital, a bow and quiver, as well as shears and brushes used in animal care. My own variant presents an enigmatic pairing apparently showing a baton or whip with strap, and on the reverse a ninepin skittle. Exactly how these items are thematically linked is still unclear pending more confident identification.
Ongoing study of control marks used in the series has so far identified 246 paired combinations. These can provide evidence towards prevailing numismatic questions around how many coins were struck within each issue, how long did coin dies last – and how much more rapidly did the handheld reverse die that took the hammer-blow deteriorate? How many engravers were employed at the mint and how much artistic variation was allowed? Such investigations are always continuing.
The reverse of the denarius carries an outstanding representation of a mythical griffin, leaping to attack any that approach its nest. The protective nature of Juno, guardian goddess of Rome, was epitomised in the fierce creature with the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle. The 3rd century writer Aelian describes the amazing beast in his treatise ‘On the Nature of Animals’:
‘The Gryphon, I hear is a four-legged Indian animal like the lion and it has especially strong claws most nearly resembling the lion. They say that it is winged and the colour of feathers along the back is black, and the front feathers are red, while the wings are neither such colour but white. It has an eagle-like beak and head just like artisans paint and shape them. Its eyes are like flames. It makes its nest in the mountains. Full grown gryphons are impossible to capture, but the young are captured. The Bactrians, who are neighbours of the Indians, say the gryphons are the guardians of the gold there, and they say that they dig it from the ground and weave nests from it and the Indians take what falls off.’
A remarkable Roman fresco survival from Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries shows a ferocious griffin attacking a hooded, one-eyed Arimaspian who protects himself with a shield. Herodotus described battles between this legendary one-eyed Scythian tribe and the fantastical creatures and such scenes had long been a popular theme for Greek vase painters.
With hundreds of interesting die combinations, the denarii of Lucius Papius offer a fruitful area of study for enthusiasts of Republican coinage; particularly courageous collectors might even set out to create a sub-collection of as many variants of the coin as they can find! As a wide-ranging series struck in substantial numbers, Papius coins are a common feature in numismatic auctions. For now, I only have a couple of examples but would certainly like to add more of these diverse denarii in future.