Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.39

Katia Longo, Donne di potere nella tarda antichità: le Augustae attraverso le immagini monetali. Semata e signa 5.   Reggio Calabria:  Falzea Editore, 2009.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 9788882962975.  €35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gwynaeth McIntyre, Thorneloe University (

Longo’s book, based on cataloging and analysis done during her PhD, examines the images of Augustae and the question of female royalty in Late Antiquity, specifically those of the dynasties of the 4th and 5th centuries CE. This work focuses on examining all the coin types for the Augustae in order to construct a coin lexicon (including a description of the type of coin, discussion of the person represented, and an interpretation of its content). Using a heuristic methodology, Longo aims to illuminate the historical and cultural significance of the image on the coins and to contextualize them in the period in which they were minted. She does this by correlating the coins with literary sources and other contemporary documents and traces the development of different symbols and styles over time (13-14).

The book is divided into three parts: Donne di potere e potere delle donne nella tarda antichità: Ritratti letterari e ritratti monetali; La regalità femminile tra oriente ed occidente: I tipi di rovescio; and Le Augustae tra moneta documenti archeologici e simbolismi cristiani. Longo begins in Part 1 with a chapter outlining the women examined in this study as well as some of the issues relating to propaganda on coins versus the historical accounts. This section addresses the fact that the historical accounts tend to distort the “official” representations of these women on coinage, an insight that is not altogether new.1 Longo’s discussion also makes some comparisons with similar questions regarding historiographical and numismatic representations of the women of the earlier dynasties, including questions about how they were presented and discussed in the ancient sources (and the roles of these women within the dynasties), yet her analysis would benefit from an incorporation of recent research currently being done on these types of questions for the early Imperial period.2 There is an excellent table on pages 55-58 which summarizes the material discussed throughout the rest of the book, including coin types, symbols, legends, mints, metal types, etc. This first part serves to outline the coin types to be discussed as well as the historical context for the analysis.

Part 2 focuses specifically on the coins themselves and is divided into five chapters. The chapters are divided into separate analyses of either the women themselves (Elena, Fausta, Eudoxia, etc.) or the goddesses and virtues displayed on the coins (Salus/Spes, Securitas, Felicitas, etc.). By dividing up the numismatic evidence in this way, Longo is able to address questions of change over time as well as variations between the East and West. Many of the common symbols and legends found on coins throughout the Imperial period persist in the coins of Late Antiquity, and although many followed the tradition of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, the ideas they represented reflected a development in the ideology of the period. One such example, discussed in detail throughout this work, is the representations of the Augustae as mothers, especially within the context of Spes Rei Publicae. The importance of these women as child-bearers and producers of future emperors is highlighted by the images of these women with children (the most telling being the coins of Fausta with two babies in her arms). The role of women in securing the dynasty and thereby ensuring continued peace and prosperity throughout the empire is not new to this period (Faustina II is represented in similar ways in the propaganda of Marcus Aurelius), but a new connection is drawn between the Augustae and the Madonna. The melding of pagan and Christian ideas becomes an important feature of this entire period. These symbols promote the virtues of these women and the prominence of the dynasty, as well as the stability of the empire through the use of traditional symbols such as globes and astrological signs such as the sidus iulium. The discussion draws comparisons with other women of the Imperial family from the 1st and 2nd centuries and the ways in which they were represented, which makes the absence of engagement with current modern scholarship on these women more conspicuous.

The final three chapters of this section address the increased importance of Christian symbols, the different influences on the imagery of the coins, and the way these women were represented. They examine the Concordia of the emperor and his wife and the influences from the eastern monarchy on representations. Longo stresses the importance of Concordia and the fact that both the emperor and his wife played a role in ensuring the continued prosperity and security of the empire, a theme that can be traced back to the early Imperial period. She also discusses the different roles of these women (as mother, wife, etc.) and the development of these roles, which have their foundations in the earlier period (such as Julia Domna as mater castrorum). The increased importance of Victoria, military virtue, and images of triumph on the coins suggests a more developed quasi-military aspect to these roles (179-180), though empresses were not represented in military costumes or with overt military symbols. These Augustae not only secured continued prosperity by overseeing the continuation of the dynasty, but also served as guardians of the city, as highlighted by both the legend of Tyche poleos and the personifications of Rome and Constantinople on their coins.

Part 3 serves as a culmination of the other two parts and examines the interaction between the major symbols and legends found on the coins during this period and the other archaeological evidence (such as statuary, mosaics, paintings, gems, cameos, etc.), with a focus specifically on the Christian symbolism. Throughout these chapters, Longo demonstrates the evolution of the symbolism on coins which ultimately leads to the linking of the salus Rei Publicae with Christos, showing that the continued prosperity of the empire is linked to the Christian religion. Because of their role as child-bearers and guardians of continued stability in the empire, the Augustae thereby serve as the link between the Christian God and the emperor. This connection is made even more explicit through the connections drawn between the Augustae and the Madonna in the iconography.

Overall, this work focuses on the central role of the Augustae in the building of the dynasties of the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The images on coins help promote their position within the Imperial family and the empire, and although they draw on the iconographic tradition of the previous centuries, many important developments take place. Longo argues that the central role of the Augustae (as mother of the emperor or as producer of his heirs) and their prominance on coins helped overcome the symbols of the tetrarchy. These coin styles reflected the new system where the Augusta complemented her husband and helped secure the ruling dynasty. The coins also highlight the mixing of traditional symbols and the addition of Christian ones, promoting the change in ideology and the new position of Christianity within the empire. Although a great deal of the analysis does not present a radically different picture than other scholarship on the subject, the tables and plates provide a helpful catalogue of the evidence . The tables include summaries of the various coin types, mints, events celebrated, symbols, and Augustae. Twenty pages of plates are also included at the end of the book, organized to correspond to the chapter layouts rather than chronologically or by Augustae. This allows the reader to focus on the specific coin types being discussed in each section. Longo’s study provides a helpful resource for readers interested in imperial propaganda, historiography, religious iconography, and the role of women in the creation of imperial dynasties for both the period of Late Antiquity and Roman history more generally.


1.   Longo does not really engage with much of the recent scholarship on this topic. Liz James’ work is one of the most notable absences from the bibliography (James, L. Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium. 2001. London: Leicester University Press). Diehl’s foundational study on Byzantine Empresses is also not included (Diehl, C. Figures byzantines. 1906 (repr.1936) vol. 1. Paris: Librarie Armand Colin).
2.   Many of the works on Roman imperial women published in the last 10 years have used similar methodology and would help contextualize Longo’s argument, such as Boatwright, M.T. “The Imperial Women of the Early Second Century A.C.” American Journal of Philology. 112(1991) 513-40; L’Hoir, F.S. “Tacitus and Women’s Usurpation of Power” Classical World 88(1994) 5-25. Foundational work on images and representations of women in the Roman world which would help contextualize her argument includes Kleiner, D.E.E. and S.B. Matheson (eds). I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome. 1996. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery and Wood, S. Imperial Women: A study in public images 40BC – AD 68. 1999. Leiden: Brill.

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