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Make Haste Slowly

Today's coin of interest starts with a symbol that takes on new meaning as we move from a mosaic in the Trident House in Delos, Greece (late 2nd to early 1st century BC) to the 20th century.

The coin is a denarius of Titus from the year that the Colosseum opened, AD 80. It was just after Vesuvius erupted, on August 24th of AD 79, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny the Younger witnessed the event and wrote to historian Tacitus:

"We could hear women shrieking, children crying and men shouting. Some were calling for their parents, their children, or their wives, and trying to recognize them by their voices. Some people were so frightened of dying that they actually prayed for death. Many begged for the help of the gods, but even more imagined that there were no gods left and that the last eternal night had fallen on the world."
-Pliny the Younger, 2nd Letter to Tacitus

Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl witnessed an eruption Christmas 1820 and made an oil sketch which became the basis for this 1824 painting given to the Prince of Denmark (future King Christian VIII).

Vesuvius erupted within a year of the death of Vespasian. This coin issued in the last, partial year, of Vespasian's reign.

This is not a particular rare coin, rated C2 in Roman Imperial Coins II. While this type was thought to have been from a series that honored the gods after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, recent scholarship leans to a new theory that it is connected to religious ceremonies for the opening games of the Colosseum.

Titus, AD 79-81, AR denarius, Rome, AD 80 (1-Jan to 30-Jun 80)

Obv: IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate head of Titus right

Rev: TR P IX IMP XV COS VIII P P, dolphin coiled around anchor

"In AD 80, the year in which Titus' Colosseum coin type was produced, a series of 'pulvinaria type' coins was struck, which depicted couches of the gods. It was generally assumed in the past that the couches were voted by the Senate and the coins issued in the wake of the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius and the fire which damaged much of Rome (Suetonius, Titus 8; Dio 66.24.2; Aur. Vict., De Caes. 9), but Dámsky has suggested instead that the couches were voted and the coin types issued in conjunction with the inaugural games of the Colosseum." - ELKINS, N. (2004). Locating the Imperial Box in the Flavian Amphitheatre: The Numismatic Evidence. The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), 164, 147-157​

The 1995 SNG article referenced above: B. Damsky "The throne and curule chair types of Titus and Domitian" SNR 74 1995, can be read here. For similar and rarer coins from Domitian, who finished the top level of the Colosseum, see this blog (Hazelton Collection).

In reading about these coins, "pulvinar" was a new word/concept for me; the neurobiology reference didn't help: the the largest nucleus in the thalamus whose function is related to the visual system. The Colosseum context: the box seats (or couches) where the images of the gods and deified emperors were placed to see circuses and spectacles. In the Circus Maximus, Augustus enjoyed the view from the "pulvinar" (Seutonius Aug. 45.1).

Augustus, was also known to use a phrase "festina lente" for "make haste slowly". In his long essay on "Festina lente", Erasmus writes of the links to Emperors Augustus and Titus.

"Augustus was so greatly delighted with this saying — as Aulus Gellius relates in the eleventh chapter of the tenth book of his Attic Nights (whom Macrobius follows in the sixth book of his Saturnalia) — that he not only used it very often in his daily conversation, but also frequently inserted it into the language of his official letters, advising by these two words that his ministers in carrying out their duties should employ both the dispatch of efficient business, and the slowness of careful reflection."
-Erasmus Adagia II.1.1 (translated in English)

"From the ancient coins minted by Titus Vespasian we can easily gather that this same proverb pleased him, too. Aldus Manutius showed me a specimen, a silver piece of old and clearly Roman workmanship, which he said was sent to him as a gift by the Venetian nobleman Pietro Bembo, who honored the youthful Aldus as an example of the foremost students and diligent investigators of literary antiquities in his time."
-Erasmus Adagia II.1.8 (translated in English)​

The ancient coin referred to is one of Titus with the dolphin and anchor, the dolfin a symbol of speed (haste) and the anchor (slow). Erasmus' publisher was Aldus Manutius, AD 1449-1515, Venetian publisher during the Renaissance. Erasmus, wrote of Aldus, his publisher: "Aldus, making haste slowly, has acquired as much gold as he has reputation, and richly deserves both."

The Romans would have seen this as a symbol of Neptune. While I am not aware of evidence that links the adage and oxymoron, "festina lente", to this image before the Renaissance, the link stuck from that time. The connection was publicized by Aldus as he made the image his printers mark - and subsequent publishers followed in the use of this ancient reference:

So, this 3 gram silver denarius is a reminder of the eruption of Vesuvius, a symbol of Neptune, a souvenir from the opening games of the Colosseum, a reminder of the words of the first Emperor, Augustus, an inspiration to book publishers over centuries, and perhaps more than anything token of the long lasting influence of the Roman empire.


Deonna, W. (1954). The Crab and the Butterfly: A Study in Animal Symbolism. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 17(1/2), 47–86. Deonna makes a link between crab & butterfly as expressions of mortal and immortal.

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