Julia Mamaea, Augusta, 222-235.
Medallion (Gilt Silver, 31 mm, 21.94 g, 1 h), Rome, 228. IVLIA MAMAEA•AVGVSTA Diademed and draped bust of Julia Mamaea to right. Rev.
AEQVITAS PVBLICA The three Monetae standing front, their heads to left, each holding cornucopiae in her left hand and scale over pile of coins in her right; the Monetae on the left and right both holding balance scales with a short handle (for weighing silver and aes); the central Moneta holding a small balance scale with a very long handle (for weighing gold). BMC 555 = Gnecchi I, p. 47, 1. Boston -. Cohen -. Dressel -. Froehner -. Tocci -. Toynbee -. Of the highest rarity, apparently the second known example. An exceptionally impressive imperial silver medallion with remnants of original gilding, boldly struck in high relief and with a wonderful portrait. Minor traces of corrosion and with light cleaning scratches on the reverse, otherwise,
nearly extremely fine.
From a Swiss collection, privately acquired in the early 2000s.
In the tradition of powerful earlier Severan women, most notably her aunt, Julia Domna, Julia Mamaea held great sway over her son, Bassianus Alexianus, who was only fourteen when he succeeded, as Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, his cousin, Elagabalus, to the throne in 222. However, their position remained precarious throughout the emperor's thirteen-year long reign, not least since Caracalla's despotic rule, the usurpation of Macrinus, and the extravagance and eventual murder of Elagabalus at the hands of the Praetorians had greatly shaken Severan authority. Caught between powerful influences at the court and in the military, Julia Mamaea navigated the treacherous waters of Roman politics successfully for many years, and the handing out of medallions such as this wonderful piece may have been intended to strengthen the bonds between the imperial domus
and their recipients.
By this time, the emission of imperial medallions had a long tradition in Rome. The Adoptive Emperors in particular expanded on early precursors by the Julio-Claudians and Flavians, and under Commodus (177-192), the production of these impressive pieces, often coming with elaborate titles, bust types, and reverse images, reached new heights. The Severans were no different, and although the overall number of medallions seems to have decreased somewhat compared to the output of Commodus, they continued to be issued occasionally in gold, silver, and aes. The exact purpose of Roman medallions remains a hotly debated topic, with suggestions ranging from New Year presents within the Roman elite to military donativa, usually depending on the presumed recipients. Also, defining the characteristics of Roman medallions is not as straightforward as one might think, but the general consensus is to identify coin-like objects of unusual metal, sizes, weights, iconography and, when struck in aes, lacking the S(enatus) C(onsultum) designation, as medallions.
Fortunately, no ambiguity exists with the present, highly impressive medallion of Julia Mamaea, Severus Alexander's mother. The size of a sestertius, it was struck in gilt silver rather than bronze, making it obvious to any recipient that he was given a special and particularly precious piece of imperial recognition. Equalling about seven contemporary denarii in weight, its value lay less in its bullion and more in its symbolic meaning, for although we do not know the exact background of the distribution of such pieces, their extreme rarity and elaborate iconography is a clear indication of how few of them were produced and awarded. With its receipt undoubtedly came imperial recognition and gratitude, perhaps also financial or honorary benefits, and it thus comes as no surprise that many medallions were set in mounts and proudly worn as jewelry by their respective owners. Of course, the production and distribution of medallions in the name of the emperor's mother only highlighted her crucial position at the court, and related medallions even call her 'MATER AVG(usti)', 'mother of the emperor', most prominently below the portraits of herself and her son (Jameson II, 219).
As for the reverse of our medallion, it extends the much more common rendering of a single Moneta, the personification of coin production, on Roman coins, to a group of three
Monetae, referring to the production of gold, silver, and bronze coinage in the Roman Empire, an impressive economic feat, as few ancient states managed to maintain a stable trimetallic system over a long time period. It was probably the collapse of the Roman currency system in the third century which made the three Monetae a popular motif on medallions during this time (see also lot 240 below), meant to bolster confidence in a currency which was continually under assault from progressive bouts of weight reduction and debasement. A curious detail of this depiction is that the middle Moneta, the one responsible for gold, holds a different scale than the other two, perhaps reflecting the stricter control exercised over this metal. The reverse legend, which translates as 'public just conduct', refers to the upholding of a sound monetary system by the emperor and the mint workers. The latter were regularly suspected of tampering with the coinage (a suspicion shared across many societies throughout history), which could have calamitous effects for economic life as individuals started to distrust the currency. All in all, the three Monetae type is a fascinatingly self-referential design, expressing the hope that all would be well in the Empire, at least as far as its coins went. This is further underlined by related medallions showing both Severus Alexander and his mother on the obverse, and the emperor seated between Victory, Felicitas and another woman on the reverse. Here, the reverse inscription reads 'FELICITAS TEMPORVM', or 'fortunate times', proclaiming the stability and bright future of a dynasty long past its prime.