Art Historian

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Of Wolves and Coins

September 27, 2015TaylorH0 Comments

In an interview last week, I was asked about the piece of art that I had seen most recently that had made a strong impression on me. For me, the answer was not a painting or a movie, but a coin that I had seen days before. The coin, a silver denarius from the reign of Antoninus Pius (fig. 1) depicts the emperor on the obverse without any crowns or adornment on his head. On the reverse is a take on the Roman She-Wolf or Lupa with Romulus and Remus. I found the coin while doing a Google Image Search for coins with the wolf on them. Wait, you mean you don’t spend your off hours looking at coins on the Internet?

Denarius from reign of Antoninus Pius, 138-161 CE.

Fig. 1: Denarius from reign of Antoninus Pius, 138-161 CE.

In order to understand why this particular rendering of the legend reached out and grabbed me, I should probably set the scene a little bit. The legend of Romulus and Remus starts with their birth mother Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin who was “visited” by the god Mars and gave birth to twins. As punishment for breaking her vow of chastity, Rhea Silvia was imprisoned, and the twin boys, Romulus and Remus were to be exposed. Rhea Silvia was no ordinary woman, you see, she was the daughter of Numitor, the rightful king of the Latin city of Alba Longa. Numitor’s brother Amulius ruled instead, killing Numitor’s sons and condemning Rhea Silvia to the honorable position of Vestal Virgin where she would beget no children. It was by far in Amulius’ best interest to make sure the boys were dead, but as always happens in the good legends, they managed to survive the river and were taken in by a wolf who let them suckle from her and protected them until they were taken in by the royal shepherd and his wife.[1]

The legend of Romulus continues as he founds Rome in 753 BCE after killing his brother, and becomes the first King of Rome. The legends of Romulus are many and I recommend reading Livy’s account of the founding of Rome if you are thirsty for more legends about the early days of Rome. The image of the Lupa (Latin for she-wolf) became one of the most popular symbols of Rome. In particular, the Lupa Capitolina (fig. 2) statue is revered as one of the most important examples of early Roman art. Unfortunately, recent scholarship suggests that the statue in the Capitoline Museum is not an original Etruscan bronze, but instead a 12th century copy. Whether or not this particular statue is an original, the symbol was very important to Romans, including those who lived on the edges of the empire (fig. 3). It is still a powerful image in Rome today, showing up in the places you would least expect it, including garbage cans (fig. 4).

Fig 2: The Lupa Capitolina statue.

Fig 2: The Lupa Capitolina statue.


Fig 3: A mosaic featuring Romulus and Remus from Aldborough (UK) c. 300-400 CE. This wolf, with her toothy grin and surprisingly equine hindquarters (not to mention tiny floating babies) is a personal favorite.

Fig 4: A contemporary Roman garbage can featuring the Lupa.

Fig 4: A contemporary Roman garbage can featuring the Lupa.

In most portrayals of the legend, the wolf is out in the open, snarling as she tries to protect the young boys. The Lupa Capitolina is a perfect example of this. Despite her own hunger, shown through her visible ribs, she gives of herself to the twins. She gives them her milk and her fierce protection. The bronze statue is not the most ferocious rendering of the wolf, however. The wolf and twins show up on a number of coins, including this silver didrachem from the Republican period (fig. 5). This wolf is not merely standing over Romulus and Remus, keeping a watchful eye out for predators. She is curled around them, snarling and snapping. She dares predators to get close enough to feel the sharp sting of her teeth. Every hair stands on end, even on the backs of her legs. Even her usually gaunt body is muscular and huge. Even her usually swollen teats are gone in this portrayal. This Lupa did not take in the twins to care for them; she took them in to fight off their attackers.

Fig 5: Didrachem minted in Rome in 265 BCE. Source: http://en.museicapitolini.org/collezioni/percorsi_per_sale/medagliere_capitolino/medagliere_capitolino/moneta_didramma_della_serie_romano_campana_ercole_e_lupa_che_allatta_i_gemelli.

Fig 5: Didrachem minted in Rome in 265 BCE. To those of you who enjoy Game of Thrones, she is a veritable Direwolf.  Source

Looking at these other images of the she-wolf and twins, is it any wonder that the coin from the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) took my breath away? With the addition of one curved line to form a cave, the entire tone of the scene changes. The wolf in this scene is thinner and far less bristly. Her body curves over the twins as well, but this is a gesture of welcome. This she-wolf is bringing Romulus and Remus into her cave and making them a home. In all of the representations of this myth that I have studied, I have never before seen one so tender and nurturing.

Denarius from reign of Antoninus Pius, 138-161 CE.

So why are these two portrayals of the same myth on the same material so completely different? I have a hypothesis. Coins in particular are married to the political climate in which they were minted. The bristly wolf coin was minted in 265 BCE, the year that Rome finished their conquest of the Italian peninsula.[2] After the Pyrrhic War ended in 275 BCE, the Romans had more than proven themselves as a mighty force in the Mediterranean, but their influence did not stretch beyond the boot of Italy. In this case, Rome is the wolf snarling at the rest of the world, showing her teeth and spoiling for a fight. She is also a reminder to the rest of the Italian peninsula that their new rulers were not to be trifled with. This wolf is protecting the twins, but she also owns them. If the wolf is Rome, she is no benevolent master to be ignored. This wolf has teeth.

In contrast, the coin from the reign of Antoninus Pius was minted almost 300 years later, between 138-161 CE. I once had a professor at the American University of Rome who said that if you ever wanted to live in ancient Rome, it would be in the reign of Antoninus Pius. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because things were relatively peaceful during his reign. In fact, the Antonine Age was later considered a golden age in imperial Rome.[3] Antoninus Pius is usually an afterthought. His role in the average textbook is one sentence that says something along the lines of, “There were no major conflicts during this time.” This means that during this time period, the emperor had the luxury of being the nurturer. The relatively peaceful climate during this time could have led to the more positive and charming interpretation of the myth on this coin.

For me, the cute little wolf and twins in the cave remind me of living in Rome. It makes me think of the way the city wrapped around me and surrounded me in the warmth of an adoptive home. All of the symbols of Rome that I had seen seemed to fall short of representing my time there. I see in this coin a scene of love and compassion, the likes of which are rare in ancient art or numismatics. That is why it reached out and touched me from the great coin hoard of Google Images and why it is the most beautiful, meaningful piece of art I have seen recently.


[1] All of this is paraphrased from Livy, whose History of Rome gives a good idea of what the legend was in the reign of Augustus (27 BCE- 14 CE). He also offers some other explanations of what might have actually happened, including that the she-wolf may have been a prostitute who lived near the river instead of an actual wolf. You can read more here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D1

[2] This date came from http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his101/web/t-roman.htm, but most of the subsequent information was pulled from my class notes from Roman Army.

[3] Chris Scarre, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Rome (New York: Penguin, 1995), 67-68.

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