The Roman Empire
Ulpia Marciana

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Coin Details

Origin/Country: ANCIENT - ROMAN PROVINCIAL (2nd CENT BC - 3rd CENT BC) LYDIA, SARDES Marciana, c.AD 105-112/4
Design Description: Marciana AE
Item Description: AE21 rv Pelops(?) on horseback
Full Grade: NGC XF Strike: 5/5 Surface: 3/5
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:

According to ancient Greek mythology, the demigod King Tantalus, wishing to probe the gods’ infallibility, butchered his son Pelops and offered up the stewed remains at a divine banquet. Zeus, at least, was not fooled. Subsequently, Tantalus was punished, and by the god’s power Pelops was reassembled and brought back to life. Among the gods taking pity was Poseidon, who took on Pelops as eromenos and apprentice, bestowing the honor of teaching the lad to drive the divine chariot.

When Pelops came of age, he fell in love with a certain princess Hippodamia. The problem, however, was that Hippodamia’s father, King Oenomaus, feared a prophecy that predicted death at his son-in-law’s hands. To avoid the augury coming true, Oenomaus set a rather high bar to marry off his daughter; applicants had to best him at chariot racing upon pain of death. Evidently, the king was a rather formidable charioteer, since all of the eighteen would-be suitors preceding Pelops failed at the attempt. Even so, Pelops had an advantage that the other applicants did not – his connection with former erastes and master Poseidon. The latter provided Pelops a most excellent chariot, drawn by wild winged horses. Pelops managed to control the horses (or perhaps he managed to cheat, at least according to one version of the tale), and won the race against Oenomaus, who indeed perished when his losing chariot broke apart.

The victorious Pelops took Hippodamia as his queen and ruled as king over his Peloponnese subjects. In thanksgiving to the Olympian gods and as a funereal gesture to his deceased father-in-law, Pelops organized festivities including – you might have guessed it – chariot racing. According to at least one ancient myth, the event provided the origin for the great Olympic Games. Those Games, dating back to at least 776 BC, necessitated a remarkable period of an Olympic Truce, so that the best athletes from all Hellas could safety travel to the Olympian sanctuary in Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula. The games also facilitated the spread of Hellenistic culture through the Mediterranean world, and featured not only athletic, but also religious ceremonies, as well as the works of artists such as sculptors and poets. One of the venue’s highlights was the great statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Held every four years, the great Olympiad continued even after Greece came under the influence of the Romans, who were evidently quite avid sports fans themselves.

The meme of Pelops as victorious competitor was propagated on ancient coinage, including this Roman provincial bronze. It was struck in Sardis, the great Lydian capital reportedly founded by the sons of Hercules, and renowned for its extensive gymnasium whose ruins survive to this day. Whereas Pelops is traditionally depicted driving a chariot, this coin’s verso portrays him riding a rearing horse.

On this particular coin, the Pelops verso is paired with the obverse draped bust of Ulpia Marciana (48 -112? AD), elder sister of Augustus Trajan. By all accounts, Marciana was a noblewoman of great virtue who enjoyed a close relationship with her brother as well as her sister-in-law, Pompeia Plotina. When Trajan ascended Rome’s throne in 98 AD, Marciana was offered the Augusta title, but refused it at that time. Even so, Marciana, who was widowed since 78 AD, lived within the imperial household along with her daughter Salonina Matidia. It is interesting to note that Plotina also refused the Augusta title at that time, preferring to earn the honor instead. It may have been the case that neither Marciana nor Plotina wished to upstage the other. In any case, both women were hailed as Empresses in 105 AD.

Marciana died sometime around 112 AD, and, at Trajan’s behest, the Senate deified her. Perhaps all of Marciana’s coins were struck that year and represent posthumous issues. That same year, Plotina also made her numismatic debut; seemingly out of respect, her coinage did not precede Marciana’s. With regards to this particular coin, a very similar issue was contemporaneously struck at Sardis for Plotina, i.e., also featuring Pelops on the verso. Given the numismatic linkage, it is possible that Marciana, like Plotina, may have been an enthusiast supporter of Hellenistic culture.

It is also possible, if not probable, that Marciana and Plotina shared a vision for propagating Rome’s Golden Age, specifically support for Publius Aelius Hadrianus as Trajan’s successor. For her part, Marciana allowed her granddaughter Sabina to marry Hadrian in 100 AD. As for Plotina, she reportedly convinced Trajan upon his deathbed to officially name Hadrian as Rome’s next Augustus.

To the extent Marciana and Plotina were Hellenophiles, Emperor Hadrian was even more so. Hadrian’s patronage of Greek culture included expansion and improvements of the Olympian sanctuary, including enlargement of the stadium, construction of a bath complex, and renovation of the entrance to the Pelopion (Pelop’s tomb). During Hadrian’s reign, the prestige of the Olympiad increased, and the event endured until the fade of paganism and the rise of Christianity some time in late fourth to early fifth century AD. In 1896, the legendary tradition began by Pelops resurfaced in the form of our modern Olympics, even if lacking chariot racing and observance of the Olympic Truce.

COIN DETAILS: LYDIA, Sardis, Ulpia Marciana, Ae (5.86 g, 20 mm), NGC Grade: XF, Strike: 5/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Draped bust right, ΜΑΡΚΙΑ СЄΒΑСΤΗ, Reverse: Pelops, brandishing whip, on horse rearing right, СΑΡΔΙΑΝΩΝ ΠЄΛΟΨ, References: RPC III 2398; BMC 132-3.

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