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Roman Republican Sphinx

My coin of interest today is a Roman Republic denarius with a sphinx on the reverse, the style of the sphinx is similar to this 1st century glass relief from The Met in New York. The obverse of the coin is a riddle which has been variously attributed as Venus or Sibyl Herophile, the "Trojan Sibyl" who, according to Roman legend, is the source of the Sibylline books that eventually made their way to Rome and were consulted by Romans from the Republic through the Imperial times. (See post: Sibylline Books)

Imperial Rome 1st Century AD, a relief plaque with figure of a Greek sphinx, from The Met Fifth Avenue, NY in Gallery 137.

The female bust on the obverse of this denarius from 46BC, is often on this coins is usually described as "Head of Sibyl Herophile", Venus (Sappho type) has also been suggested. Sometimes the simplest solution is easily overlooked - with no legend on this coin and others in the series having closely connected obverse and reverse, and a unusual non-Roman hair style - it seems simplest to attribute the obverse as "Head of Sphinx", connecting obverse and reverse. A link to coins of Gergis in the Troad seems tenuous. This link suggested as a reference to Caesar's Trojan ancestry.

This is the proposal, made convincingly, by D. Woods in his 2013 article on the subject: Woods, D. (2013). Carisius, Acisculus, and the Riddle of the Sphinx. American Journal of Numismatics (1989-), 25, 243–257.

T. Carisius, AR Denarius (17mm, 3.54g, 3h), Rome, 46 BC Obv: Head of Sphinx (or perhaps Sibyl Herophile or perhaps Venus, Sappho type) to right, hair elaborately decorated with jewels and enclosed in a sling and tied with bands Rev: Sphinx seated to right; T•CARISIVS above, III•VIR in exergue Ref: Crawford 464/1; Carisia 10

for comparison here is a coin of Troas from Gergis - the only thing they have in common is : female on obverse and sphinx on reverse.

Troas, Gergis, circa 350-300 BC, Æ (12mm, 1.72g, 6h)

Obv: Head of Sibyl Herophile facing slightly right, wearing laurel wreath and pendant necklace

Rev: Sphinx seated right, ΓEP downwards to right

Ref: Corpus Num 24374; Traite des Monnaies Plate CLXVI.14

Octavian/Augustus used a sphinx as a personal seal and Woods speculates that the sphinx could have been a word-play on Balbus (father to Octavian and husband to Julius Caesar's sister Julia Minor, mother to Octavian) and that Carisius, cognomen unknown, was a Balbus. The wordplay is balbus (adjective) -> balbutio (verb meaning speak obscurely) -> sphinx posing obscure riddles.

"In passports, dispatches, and private letters he used as his seal at first a sphinx, later an image of Alexander the Great, and finally his own, carved by the hand of Dioscurides; and this his successors continued to use as their seal. He always attached to all letters the exact hour, not only of the day, but even of the night, to indicate precisely when they were written."
-Suetonius, Augustus, 50 

"He [Octavian] also gave to Agrippa and to Maecenas so great authority in all matters that they might even read beforehand the letters which he wrote to the senate and to others and then change whatever they wished in them. To this end they also received from him a ring, so that they might be able to seal the letters again. For he had caused to be made in duplicate the seal which he used most at that time, the design being a sphinx, the same on each copy; since it was not till later that he had his own likeness engraved upon his seal and sealed everything with that then."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 51.3.5-6

The sphinx also appears again (RIC 487 27-26 BC) in a coin of Octavian/Augustus on this beautiful Cistophorus from Pergamum sold by Numismatik Naumann for more than 7000 EUR in Auction 69 Lot 334 2-9-2018. (not my coin)

Woods (2013) also makes a connection to conflict between east and west and Julius Caesar's campaign against Parthia to the imagery on the coins of Carisius, which is interesting, and more speculative than the question of the obverse female bust's identity.


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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Apr 23, 2022

Sulla, Excellent article & illustrations 🙂. Your denarius is fascinating especially with the exotic hairdo on the female head. I like the suggestion of a Sappho portrait on the obverse; it has the appearance of the famous marble head in the Istanbul Museum, see the attached photo.

SAPPHO. Marble head, Roman, 2nd century AD. Copied from a Hellenistic original.

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