The Roman Empire
Drusilla, with Agrippina Jr, Julia Livilla, and Caligula

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Coin Details

Origin/Country: ANCIENT - ROMAN EMPIRE (1st CENT BC - 5th CENT AD) ROMAN EMPIRE Caligula, AD 37-41
Design Description: Three Sisters Caligula Sestertius
Item Description: AE Sestertius ROMAN EMPIRE Drusilla & Julia Livilla rv sisters Agrippina Jr.,
Full Grade: NGC Ch F Strike: 4/5 Surface: 2/5
Owner: Kohaku

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Roman Empire
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

This ancient bronze bears the obverse bust of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known to history as Caligula, who, despite - or perhaps owing to – infamy remains a very popular Roman Emperor, at least among ancient coin hobbyists. This particular issue is noteworthy since the reverse features Caligula’s three sisters: Agrippina Sr. as the goddess Securitas, Julia Livilla as the goddess Fortuna, and Julia Drusilla (16 – 38 AD) as the goddess Concordia. Apocryphal or not, ancient histories describe Caligula’s incestuous escapades with his sistren. Given the combination of rarity, fascination, and historical significance, it is no wonder that this particular sestertius ranks among the most notorious of all Roman imperial issues.

This coin was struck in Rome, early in Caligula’s reign (circa 37-38 AD) concurrently with other issues wherein Rome’s youngest-ever Augustus honored various family members. In this fashion, Caligula advertised not only his personal pietas (devotion to relatives, and by extension, to his fellow Romans), but also his roots to the powerful Julian and Claudian clans. Beyond coinage, Caligula also decreed religious celebrations honoring his relatives, including the birthdays of each of his three sisters featured on this coin. These actions set Caligula apart from his predecessor Tiberius, who earned criticism for not properly honoring the domus divina (the imperial family). Caligula’s public display of devotion to his sisters, as well as other female family members, was particularly unusual.

Among Caligula’s unparalleled actions was striking this coin, the first imperial issue to feature and identify living Roman women by name. Given the dynastic struggles resulting in Caligula’s succession, the numismatic depiction of the sisters is particularly striking. Specifically, the three women form a harmonious triad, their complementary, contrapposto forms donning similar if not identical trappings (drapery, coiffure, etc.). Each sister/goddess holds a cornucopia. While the grouping invites comparisons to male triumvirates of previous generations, more appropriate analogies are drawn with the Parcae (the Fates) or the Gratiae (the Graces). In any case, the imagery on this coin - similarly to inclusion of the sisters’ names in public oaths and religious ceremonies – served as a reminder of the sibling’s standing within the imperial dynasty and their role in securing the Empire’s future.

Among the three sisters, Drusilla is widely described as Caligula’s favorite. According to at least one historical source, whose negative bias must be carefully considered, Caligula violated Drusilla even before she came of age. Reportedly, their incestuous relationship continued even after Drusilla wedded her first husband, Lucius Cassius Longinus. That marriage was arranged for Drusilla by her adoptive grandfather, Emperor Tiberius, in 33 AD. Caligula disapproved that union, dissolving it in 37 AD after ascending Rome’s throne. For a time, Drusilla became a regular member of the imperial household and she exclusively held the female position of honor at the Emperor’s banquet table. Understandably, such treatment further fueled the rumors of incest. While it is possible that Caligula’s actions were driven by lust, an alternative theory cites the Emperor’s desire to pattern his relationship with Drusilla and his other sisters after the Ptolemaic dynasts, wherein the union between jointly ruling brothers and sisters was tradition rather than turpitude.

Caligula, childless and in failing health at the time, arranged for Drusilla’s second marriage to Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Caligula also revised his imperial will designating Drusilla as heir, the first time a woman was thus named. Presumably, Caligula intended to propagate his dynasty through any children borne by Drusilla. Although history did not record Drusilla’s opinion, marital re-arrangement for the perceived benefit of the Empire’s future was standard practice (for instance, Augustus carried out this strategy more than once, regardless of the marital preferences held by the involved parties).

As it turned out, Caligula recovered, and it was Drusilla who fell ill, and died in 38 AD. The loss devastated Caligula, both emotionally and dynastically. He deified Drusilla, providing her the posthumous title of Panthea, akin to denoting her as Rome’s universal goddess. It was the first time that a Roman woman had ever been deified (despite popular public opinion, Tiberius declined to honor his mother Livia in such a fashion). Caligula’s consecration of his sister probably stemmed from an unwillingness to accept the finality of her death, and/or an attempt at dynastic damage control. Consequently, Drusilla’s name and visage endured as Diva Drusilla Panthea. The latter epithet also afforded association with other deities. In particular, celebrations of Drusilla’s birthday took the same form as the orgiastic Megalesia honoring Cybele, the ancient Phrygian Mother of the Gods conscripted to protect Rome during the Second Punic War.

Regrettably, Drusilla’s legacy suffers collateral damage with her brother’s. Owing to the strong negative bias of ancient accounts, modern-day books and films tend to focus on her as the object of Caligula’s purported sexual perversions. A more complex - if not more favorable - view of Drusilla emerges when one contemplates all the surviving evidence. Such artifacts include this notorious “3-sisters Caligula sestertius”, a poignant reminder of the honor and respect that Drusilla garnered during her lifetime, even if it was primarily based on her potential to propagate the imperial bloodline.

Additional Reading: “Diva Drusilla Panthea and the Sisters of Caligula,” S. Wood, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Jul., 1995), pp. 457-482.

Coin Details: ROMAN EMPIRE, Gaius (Caligula), AD 37-41, Æ Sestertius (33mm, 23.83 g, 6h), Rome mint, Struck AD 37-38, NGC Grade: Ch F, Strike = 4/5, Surface = 2/5, Obverse: Laureate head left, C CAESAR AVG GERMANICVS PON M TR POT, Reverse: Caligula's three sisters standing facing: Agrippina (as Securitas), Drusilla (as Concordia), and Julia (as Fortuna), AGRIPPINA DRVSILLA IVLIA S C, References: RIC I 33, from the RJM Collection, Ex Classical Numismatic Group 51 (15 September 1999), lot 1204.

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