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Goddess Flora

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Goddess Flora

Apart from some provincial coinage depicting palm trees and palm fronds there is a notable absence of plants on Roman coins, especially considering their frequent use on the coins of Greece. This is perhaps surprising since Roman horticulture clearly took advantage of careful design and floral beauty, and Romans identified strongly with their farming heritage.

One significant exception to this avoidance of plants is the appearance of the Roman goddess Flora on silver denarius coins during the later years of the Roman Republic.

Goddess Flora

Silver denarius 57 BCE – 3.44 g/17.78 mm
Obverse depicts the goddess Flora.
Reverse shown two facing soldiers with short swords (parazonia)
A worn die
Ref: Servilia 15 – VF – $350

Historical context

This silver denarius coin was minted in one of the most important periods of Roman history, a time when Julius Caesar was a pre-eminent Roman statesman.

In 60 BCE Caesar was one of a triumvirate of senators that dominated Rome for several years, the other two being Pompey and Cassius. He established a strong reputation by his victories in the Gallic Wars which he concluded in 51 BCE. He had penetrated further west than any other general, extend Roman territory by crossing both the English Channel and Rhine River. Ordered back to Rome to face charges of waging unsanctioned wars, and with considerable military power, he now threatened Pompey and the Senate. Crassus had died in 53 BCE.

Caesar decided to advance on Rome with his army, crossing the Rubicon river to begin a civil war which he won in 45 BCE. This gave him supreme power which he used to introduce social and governmental reforms – he centralized the bureaucracy, introduced the Julian calendar, enacted land reforms and support for veterans, and offered Roman citizenship to distant residents of the Roman Republic.

Proclaimed ‘dictator for life’ (dictator perpetuo) his popularity drew the anger of the wealthy elite who planned his demise. On 15 March (the Ides of March) in 44 BCE he was stabbed to death by a assassinated , Caesar was assassinated by a group of seditious senators including former friend Decimus Junius Brutus. Entering a new period of civil war hope of regaining a constitutional Republican government were lost and Caesar’s successor Octavian, being victorious in the civil war, assumed the name Augustus and with total power began the period of the Roman empire.

The coin

The coin weighs 3.94g, is 18.5mm wide and was minted sometime between 57 and 52 BCE.

Obverse – Flora

The obverse face of the coin shows the head of the goddess Flora facing right and wearing a wreath of flowers, the engraver is unknown. Behind her is an astrologers staff or lituus. The legend reads FLOR(AL) PRI(MV)S. The brackets I have included are not on the coin itself but indicate ligatures, that is the fusion or joining of letters.

Flora’s name is derived from the Latin word ‘flos’ or ‘flower’, a word that in modern English, and usually used with a capital letter, refers to the plants of a particular region or time period.

In Roman mythology, Flora (Latin, Flōra) is a goddess symbolising nature, the spring, and its flowers, especially the may-flower. Springtime being the start of a new year she is also perceived as a goddess of youth. She was married to Favonius, the wind god also known as Zephyr, and Hercules was her friend.

She was said to be of Sabine origin, the Sabines being an Italic people from the central Apennine Mountains of ancient Italy who also lived in Latium north of the Anio river before the founding of Rome. She is a minor goddess, being one of several fertility goddesses.

She was one of 15 deities during the Roman Republican period that had a dedicated flamen or official priest. There were three major priests, the flamines maiores who served the most important Roman gods Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, while the remaining lesser priests or flamines minores, her personal priesthood called the Flamen Florialis. We do not know a couple of the minor deities while others are known in name only.

During the Imperial era it was conventional to deify the emperor as a divus who also had a flamen minor.

There are now monuments of Flora in the Capitoline Museums of Rome, also in Valencia (Spain) and Szczecin (Poland). Although it seems that she was more popular among Renaissance humanists in the neo-pagan revival than she was in Ancient Rome.

In Greek mythology the nature deity Chloris was a nymph or goddess believed to dwelt in the Elysian Fields. She was associated with spring, flowers and new growth and was abducted by Zephyrus, the god of the west wind who, after they were married, transformed her into a deity known as Flora. Their son was named Karpos. Chloris is believed to have transformed Adonis, Attis, Crocus, Hyacinthus and Narcissus into flowers.

Reverse – two soldiers

The reverse face shows two soldiers facing each other with short swords and each holding a shield. In the space below (numismatically known as the exergue) are the names of the magistrate who released the coin, C SERVEIL CF, (RVE in ligature and the C.F. directed upwards on the right hand side) in Latin Caius Serveilius Caii Filius (Caius Servilius son of Caius).

C. Servilius C.f. was a Roman moneyer[1] who served briefly as a moneyer in the year 57 BCE. During the Roman Republic, moneyers were men appointed to oversee the striking of bronze, silver and gold coins including their design. For clarity we might better call them mint magistrates as ‘moneyer’ implies that they strike the coins themselves like the monetarii or coin workers. Since the magistrate controlled the legend on the coins this was a great opportunity for political propaganda. These magistrates may have been introduced at the time when Romans first began producing silver coinage in 269 BCE although none are known for certain until c. 150 BCE. Originally there were only three magistrates although a fourth was added at the time of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE in preparation for a war against Parthia.

Floralia

Each year between April 28 and May 3 a festival was held in honour of Flora and called the Floralia which celebrated the renewal of life and flowers, including much drinking. During the festival men would be festooned in flowers and the women wore licentious costumes in five days of farces and mimes, sometimes naked. This was followed by a sixth day for hunting goats and hares and then on May 23 another festival, this time a rose festival, was held in her honor. The first Floralia was in 241 BCE so the inscription is presumed to commemorate the first regular Floralia – Floralia (or Floralis) primus annua fecit (Made for the first annual Floralia). However, this festival was probably first instituted in 240 BCE.

A temple was dedicated to her in 238 BCE as indicated in the Sibylline books. These books were the sayings of oracles arranged in Greek hexameters and, according to legend, purchased from a sibyl by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. They were later consulted during various crises that occurred during the history of both the Republic and Empire. Small fragments have survived but most is lost or destroyed. The Sibylline Books should not be confused with the so-called Sibylline Oracles which are prophecies relating to the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. From 173 BCE games were celebrated on May 23 each year in her honour, and this may be what is being referred to in the obverse legend.

Greek & Roman mythology

Early Renaissance accounts of Greek mythology were mostly written in Latin, so much of what we know of them, including illustrations of its characters, has come to us from Roman authors like Ovid and his Metamorphoses. Romans wove the gods of Greek mythology into their own polytheistic belief system, aligning their gods with those of the Greeks – so the Greek god Jove became the Roman god Jupiter, and so on. Roman gods were also aligned with those of the former Etruscans and there are also many similarities between the gods of Roman polytheism and those of Hindu religion.

In contrast with the gods of the ancient Greeks which were often concerned with matters of meaning, such as stories of Creation, the Roman gods were more down-to-Earth giving us narratives of heroism, politics, responsibility to the state, augury and ritual. As the Romans conquered new territories the local gods were absorbed into their own pantheon and granted similar honours as their own.

Flora in Art

Flora has proved a popular subject for painters: a selection of her portraits by eminent painters can be seen on Youtube accompanied by Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons.

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First published on the internet – 8 April 2020

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