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Hadrian's Stable Earth

It seems that the uptick in interest in Rome is having an effect on the popularity of my musings on what has, up until now, felt like an obscure hobby. This week's denarius issued by Hadrian has an unusual reverse "TELLVS STABIL" (Tellus stabilita) or "stable Earth", not only is it unique to the coins of Hadrian, but also a type that one is not likely to find easily at auction (only 75 over the last 20 years on ACSearch).


The small number of coins also makes it easy to confirm that the source of this coin is not one of the auctions that appear in the ACSearch archive or the SixBid archive. Both of these can be useful sources for adding provenance to a coin which is either lost by the collector or the auction houses. Today we will explore the various interpretations of the reverse from AD 133-135, starting first with an introduction to Tellus.


The Goddess Tellus


This Mosaic gives a 3rd century view of Tellus, an ancient Roman goddess.

"Central part of a large floor mosaic, from a Roman villa in Sentinum (now known as Sassoferrato, in Marche, Italy), ca. 200–250 CE. Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs. Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) reclining with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons." Public Domain image of a mosaic in the Glyptothech Museum in Munich, via Wikimedia Commons.


We know that Tellus was no minor deity in the Roman Pantheon:

"Fabius Pictor enumerates these lesser gods, who the flamen Cerealis invokes when offering sacrifice to Tellus and Ceres: Vervactor, Reparator, Imporcitor, Insitor, Obarator, Occator, Sarritor, Subruncinator, Messor, Convector, Conditor, and Promitor."
- Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Georgics of Vergil

The "Dictionary of Roman Religion" by Lesley Adkins (1996) describes Tellus this way:

The Temple of Tellus

There is a temple to Tellus Mater on the Esquiline Hill that dates from about 268BC. There are no remains of the Temple of Tellus but it's location is convincingly supported by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and a Severan era map in marble.

351- Tellus, Aedes (Ref.: Tellus, Aedes by Elisha Ann Dumser, at Digital Augustan Rome.)

In the first place, after the death of Cassius his house was razed to the ground and to this day its site remains vacant, except for thatpart of it on which the state afterwards built the temple of Tellus, which stands in the street leading to the Carinae; and again, his goods were confiscated by the state, which dedicated first offerings for them in various temples, especially the bronze statues to Ceres, which by their inscriptions​ show of whose possessions they are the first-offerings.
-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. VIII.79.3 

The "Dictionary of Roman Religion" by Lesley Adkins (1996) describes the Temple of Tellus:

Single Emperor Reverse


Warren Esty has an excellent educational website with 6 pages of coins in the broad category of: "Ancient Roman coin reverse types that are unique to a particular emperor." This type shows up on page 4.

Hadrian, AD 117-138, AR Denarius (18mm, 3.1g, 6h), Rome mint, struck AD 133-circa 135

Obv: HADRIANVS AVG COS III PP, laureate head right

Rev: TELLVS STABIL(ita), Tellus standing left, holding plow and hoe (or rake); two stalks of grain growing to right


There are various interpretations and connections made for this reverse:


Does it refer to Roman desire for Italian agricultural self-sufficiency? Is it a welcoming coin as Hadrian returns to Rome? Is it a reference to the many provinces of Rome and the expanse of Rome's peaceful territory? Does it recognize Hadrian's generosity in his travels in the Roman provinces? Is there an earthquake connection? Could it be a 20th Anniversary Coin?


Does it recognize Hadrian's largess in his travels in the Provinces?


In my older copy of RIC (1926) Mattingly and Sydenham summarize as: issued between his return to Rome in 134 and his death in 138, "Tellus Stabilita sums up the results of his beneficient activities in the Empire".


Does it refer to Roman desire for Italian agricultural self-sufficiency?


A Sutherland review published in 1937 of the Mattingly Volume III of "Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum" published in 1936 comments:

"Hadrian's twofold Tellus Stabilita type (vol. iii, p. cxlviii) might refer to the desired role of Italy as a self-sufficient corn-growing area, within which viticulture was, nevertheless, not to be neglected (if Domitian's edict is correctly interpreted thus)"
-Sutherland, JRS Book Review, 1938 

The reference to Domitian's edict on viticulture is explained by Suetonius:

"Once upon the occasion of a plenti­ful wine crop, attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or but half of them at most be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure.​"
-Suetonius, The Life of Domitian, 7.2

Is there an earthquake connection ?


There is certainly a possibility that the type of this coin is influenced by earthquakes in Rome and in the provinces and Hadrian's generous rebuilding programs. Trajan and Hadrian were together in a destructive earthquake in AD 115 in Antioch, during Trajan's reign (AD 112-117). The excellent and well researched blog, "Following Hadrian", mentions :

"On 13 December AD 115, Hadrian survived a violent and devastating earthquake while wintering in Antioch during Trajan’s campaign in the east. Hadrian had been in Syria since January AD 114 as imperial legate (envoy to the emperor) and, as such, had taken up residence in Antiochia ad Orontem (Antioch on the Orontes). The city served as headquarters for the Parthian wars. Trajan had returned from a campaign in Armenia when disaster struck on the morning of 13 December AD 115."
-Carole Raddato, Following Hadrian 

One ancient source is Cassius Dio:

While the emperor was tarrying in Antioch a terrible earthquake occurred; many cities suffered injury, but Antioch was the most unfortunate of all. Since Trajan was passing the winter there and many soldiers and many civilians had flocked thither from all sides in connection with law-suits, embassies, business or sightseeing, there was no nation or people that went unscathed; and thus in Antioch the whole world under Roman sway suffered disaster.
-Cassius Dio Roman History, 24.1 

There were also at least 3 substantial earthquakes during the reign of Hadrian that are documented in the well documented catalog of major earthquakes edited by Emmanuela Guidaboni:

  • (Catalog #111 ) AD 117-138 Italy - supported only by a vague reference by Cassius Dio

During his (Hadrian's) reign there were famines, pestilence, and earthquakes. The distress caused by all these calamities he relieved to the best of his ability, and also he aided many communities which had been devastated by them. 6 There was also an overflow of the Tiber. To many communities he gave Latin citizen­ship,​ and to many others he remitted their tribute.
-Historia Augusta, Life of Hadrian, 21.5 
  • (Catalog # 112) AD 120/128 Aoria, Cyzicus, Nicea, Nicomedia

Eusebius is again a source along with other inscriptions:

"There was an earthquake, Nicomedia collapsed in ruins, and many parts of the city of Nicea were destroyed. For their restoration, Hadrian gave generously from the public purse."

#112 is also documented by a rare coin, a large bronze sestertius reading RESTITVTOR NICOMEDIAE (restorer or Nicomedia). This exceptional example was sold by Nomos in Auction 14 Lot 358 in 2017.

  • (Catalog # 113 ) c.127-130 Caesarea (Palestine), Nicopolis (Palestine) reported by Eusebius in his Chronicle (written in the 4th century) : "Nicopolis and Caesarea were destroyed in an earthquake"


Could it be a 20th Anniversary Coin?


Foss in Roman Historical Coins, 1990 connects this coin with Hadrian's 20th anniversary of reign (AD 137, coin # 126, page 121):

Is it a welcoming coin as Hadrian returns to Rome?


Mattingly (1936) makes a connection to Annona and classifies this coin as an "Adventus Augusti" type, celebrating Hadrian's return to Rome (by 5 May AD 134).

"We might think of "Tellus" as a presentation of that "re-established Earth" of which Hadrian boasts in a later issue. But, as the attributes of Tellus there are quite distinct, it seems better to regard this as a specialized type of Annona. The meaning will be much the same. The good government of Hadrian ensures that the earth gives freely of her increase. Pagan antiquity made little cleavage between spiritual and material blessings. ’The blessing of heaven on good government was expected to reveal itself in good harvests and fertile flows.'
-Mattingly, Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum v.3 p. cxxxv 

There is another "TELLVS STABIL" coin of Hadrian with a reclining Tellus like the one in the mosaic. A coin from Gorney and Mosch auction 134 in 2004 (not my coin).


Mattingly makes a connection with this coin (AEGYPTOS) as another "Tellus type"

Hadrian, AD 117-138, AR Denarius (18mm, 3.11 g, 6h), "Travel series" issue ("Provinces cycle"), Rome mint, circa AD 130-133

Obv: HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, Laureate head right

Rev: AEGYPTOS, Egypt reclining left, holding sistrum and resting arm on basket; at feet to left, ibis standing right on column.

"Aegyptos is represented exclusively as a "Tellus" type, leaning on a basket full of the wealth of her earth; the snake that is sometimes seen may be the snake of Isis. She holds the sistrum of that great goddess, and has before her the ibis—a good type of the animal worship that characterizes her land. Alexandria enjoys a peculiar privilege in receiving a place among the provinces. She is shown as an Earth goddess reclining, holding corn-ear and vine-branch, resting on a basket, with corn-ears at her side. "
-Mattingly, Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum v.3 p. clxxvii 

Mary Beard's book "How do we look" gives a valuable perspective on understanding ancient art. The following comment comes to mind as we try to imagine how an ancient Roman would see the figure of Tellus represented by Hadrian or whether a reclining figure of Mother Earth would be recognizable as Tellus-type to an ancient Roman. How was the goddess of fertile mother Earth recognized in the eyes of a second century CE Roman?

"So much depends on who is looking, from ancient master or ancient slave to eighteenth-century connoisseur or twenty-first-century tourist. And so much depends on the context in which they look, whether ancient cemetery or temple, English stately home, or modern museum. I am not sure that is is ever possible entirely to recreate the views of those who first saw classical art, I am not sure it is the be all end all of our understanding (the changing ways these objects have been see through the centuries is an important part of their history too)."
-Mary Beard, How do we look 

We can try to piece together bits of the context from their times and look at how contemporaries described - this for me is the fascination of reading for myself contemporary authors and not just their interpreters over the centuries. And even there we have the writings of so few - can we fully know their position in society and how that might have reflected "How they look" at the people and society around them.


Mattingly's "Tellus type" applied to the reclining provincial images of Aegyptos and Africa and Alexandria recalls "Mother Earth" with attributes aligned and given the bountiful agricultural needs served by these provinces, that would perhaps not be surprising to Roman's. Mattingly also references often Toynbee's monograph which describes the Hadrianic personification of provinces in a very different way than the many "captured" provinces under Vespasian and Trajan:

- The Hadrianic School: a chapter in the History of Greek Art. By Jocelyn M. C. Toynbee. Cambridge University Press, 1934.


Tellus linking to the death of Julius Caesar?

It is interesting to add that the Temple of Tellus was where the Roman leadership gathered after the assassination of Julius Caesar - 17 March 44, the first meeting after Julius Caesar's assassination. The Republic was about to come apart at the seams. Would this connection be in the minds of Roman citizens? A striking link between the stability of the Republic and Tellus.

 "Hoping, as I did, that the Republic had at last been restored to your guidance and authority, I took the view that I ought to stay on a vigil, so to speak, of the sort that befits a consular and a senator. In fact, from that day on which we were summoned to the Temple of Tellus, neither did I withdraw anywhere from, nor did I take my eyes off public affairs. In that temple, so far as was in my power, I laid the foundations of peace and revived the ancient Athenian precedent, even adopting the Greek term [amnestia] that was used by that community in laying their quarrels to rest at that time; that is, I proposed that all recollection of disputes should be obliterated and forgotten for all time."
-Cicero, Philippic I

Tellus and agriculture?

From the time of Augustus, Virgil calls to Tellus - there is an association with hard work and the plowman:

"0 fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, agricolas, quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis fundit humo facilem victum iustissima Tellus!"
"Earth is a hard mistress, but still she is the justest of all created beings"
- VIrgil, Georgics, 2.458ff 

Perhaps many if not "all of the above", this coin could recognize Hadrian's return to Rome (in 5 May AD 134), the stability of the Roman Empire, the "Earth" that he made through his broad travels, and recognize Hadrian's impact across the wide-reaching Roman provinces.


For me, there could intention in associating Hadrian with a more ancient and enduring goddess - reinforcing long lasting security and stability. Mattingly sums up this coin nicely:

"True prosperity has been secured, public credit stands high, justice rules the state, and citizens and Empire are secure. Rome stands blessed in her ruler, rising above the wrecks of time, and the whole world, established in its foundations, shares in the blessings of the reign" 

The search for true understanding (omniscience?) is infinite - in the mean time added evidence is always appreciated.


References: in addition to those referenced and linked above




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