While ancient Roman coins usually display emperors, a surprising number depict female members of the imperial family, particularly empresses.
Coins are powerful propaganda used to advance political ideals and reinforce social mores. Closer observation of these coins reveals a tension between Roman society’s expectations for women and the reality some created for themselves.
In ancient Rome, women had no formal political role and were not allowed to vote or hold public office. They were expected to devote themselves to their family and oversee the domestic sphere. Depictions of goddesses on coins highlight this feminine ideal.
Women who stepped outside gender norms, especially empresses who gained informal power, were seen as a threat to social and political order. Julia Domna is one such woman. She exerted political influence over two consecutive reigning emperors—her husband, Septimius Severus, and son, Caracalla—and jump started a dynasty of influential imperial women from the East.
Clockwise: Enhanced images of Coin of Vesta (reverse), 256–257 C.E.; Coin of Pudicitia (reverse), 249–251 C.E.; Coin of Venus (reverse), 164–166 C.E.; Coin of Juno (reverse), 139–141 C.E., Gifts of Arthur G. and Roswitha Haas: 2015.7.89, 2015.7.77, 2015.7.53, and 2015.7.48.
Tondo of the Severan family Clockwise from top left: Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and a deleted portrait of Geta Original, Roman artwork (Egypt), probably 199 C.E. Photo courtesy of Staatliche Museum of Berlin, inv. 31.329.
Bust of Julia Domna Original, Roman artwork, late 2nd century C.E.–early 3rd century C.E. Photo courtesy of Lyon Museum of Fine Arts, X 482-115.