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Coin of the Month

August 2023: Impressive Fountain Structures

The Coin of this Month is presented by Ulrike Peter


It is summer, it is hot and we have not had a coin of the month featuring an architectural depiction for a long time. That is why the choice for August 2023 fell on depicting a nymphaeum on the coins of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

Fountains enjoyed great popularity in many cities, especially in the Roman Imperial period. However, depictions of large fountain complexes on provincial coins are relatively rare. In their 1977 monograph "Coins and their Cities: Architecture on the Ancient Coins of Greece, Rome, and Palestine" (London, p. 44), Martin Jessop Price and Bluma L. Trell pointed out, "Five coin buildings have been termed monumental nymphaea, at Rome, Hadrianopolis, Nicopolis, Neocaesarea, and, in Syria, Pella.” They also mentioned Ptolemais Ace and Alexandria (see also B.L. Trell, "Epigraphica numismatica. Monumental nymphea on ancient coins", Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 15, 1-2, 1978, p. 147-161). Currently, the RPC project online (https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/) lists 11 types with nymphea and adds Argos to the list. With the inclusion of coins from Septimius Severus and his family, the number of types in the RPC will increase (for example, Tarsus under Caracalla could be added), but compared to other depictions, a nymphaeum is a relatively rare coin motif.

The type minted here during the reign of Septimius Severus, under the governorship of Lucius Aurelius Gallus, features the portrait of the emperor with a laurel wreath (cn type 20228). On the reverse, it displays a two-story semi-circular column facade on a three-tiered base, framed by rectangular aediculae on both floors. The first floor is marked by a row of columns, in the second the columns are arranged in pairs and crowned by a triangular pediment. The lateral aediculae are each formed by four columns with an architrave. The roof entablature extends over the entire building.

Between the base of the columned façade and the steps, a series of smaller niches is visible, from which the water flowed. The water spouts can be seen even more clearly on the coins with this depiction, which was reintroduced during the reign of Macrinus under the governor Marcius Claudius Agrippa. These coins show the laurel-crowned bust of the emperor seen from behind with cuirass on the obverse (cn type 21504). Simultaneously, another type depicting the Nymphaeum under the same governor was issued, featuring the laurel-crowned head of the emperor on the obverse (cn type 19775). A distinctive difference here is the presence of an arch in the center of the lower row of columns, which B. L. Trell (1978, p. 156) interprets as the entrance to the colonnades of the Nymphaeum.

The embellished facade and its depiction on coins attest to the "desire for magnificent presentation and decorative elaboration," as noted by C. Dorl-Klingenschmid ("Prunkbrunnen in kleinasiatischen Städten. Funktion im Kontext", München 2001, p. 59) for the fountains with facades in Asia Minor. Whereby tabernacle facades, risalites, portals and apses appeared also at architectures of different purposes.

R. Tölle-Kastenbein ("Antike Wasserkultur", München 1990, p. 190) refers to these facade nymphs accordingly as "display walls for water channels, their design reminiscent of multi-story stage buildings, library fronts, or richly articulated interior walls." Each of these walls has its own face: multiple stories, variations of water outlets and basins, aedicules and statue pedestals. Remarkably, for Nicopolis, there is no figurative decoration visible in the coin image.

Nicopolis ad Istrum, which unlike the "City of Victory" of the same name on the Nestos was given the epithet of the Istros (h. Danube) running a good 50 km to the north, was supplied by three aqueducts and had several fountains, many of which have been uncovered in the archaeological excavations that have been going on for over 100 years. The Nymphaeum, to the best of our knowledge, has not yet been identified.



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