Sestertius signum/quadriga design

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This is a description of the design of the "Quadriga", the second Sestertius Signum issued by Nova Roma.



The obverse "device" (the picture part) shows the Capitolium (Temple of Capitoline Iuppiter) with the Capitoline Triad of Iuno, Iuppiter and Minerva on the porch. This was also done on Roman coins.

The building is topped by a quadriga (as it actually was) that is coming toward the viewer. Only the fronts of the horses are shown. The roof is bordered by seashell antefixi. The pedimental sculpture is a “vajra” lightning bolt. This pedimental decoration was actually shown on Capitolium coins of the Republic (e.g., on denarii of Volteius [1]). It is a very important symbol, appearing in a somewhat altered form on Roman shields. This vajra also figures importantly in Buddhist art, symbolizing power and authority. It is believed that the vajra was taken into Buddhist art at a very early period, under the influence of Hellenistic art, which also transmitted conventions of pose and draping. Thus the vajra, well attested to in Roman art, forms a bridge across continents, cultures and ages, always as a symbol of power. Only we Romans retain it in anything like its original context.

The building shown here is Corinthian order. Note that the fluting is drawn to suggest the roundness of the columns, with the center flute being somewhat wider than the flanking ones. A Capitolium coin from the time of Domitian showed the columns this way, and it is a very dramatic feature, fine and delicate but linear, forming part of the frame around the central figures. The columns and capitals will tax the die-cutter's art to the limit. The architrave is somewhat simplified and the dentils rather over sized, but again, they are still pushing the limit of the die-cutter's skill.

The entire temple sits on a simple base supported by the large legend “NOVA•ROMA”. This symbolically shows that Nova Roma supports the Religio and provides a new home and welcome for the Roman deities.

The figures, as mentioned above, are all based on extant sculptures and the poses are consistent with those on actual Roman coins.

Iuno on the left is shown as a proper and dutiful wife, wearing a stola but crowned with a diadem. She makes an offering from a patera while holding her staff in her hand.

Iuppiter is shown seated, holding his scepter which disappears out of view above. He catches his constant companion Victory in his hand, who offers him a wreath. Next to Iuppiter is a symbol of Terminus, who of all the Gods refused to make way for the Temple of Iuppiter, foreshadowing the stability of the city and the Romans.

On the right is Minerva, a dutiful daughter. She holds her spear and shield, showing, along with her stern look, that she is ready to defend family and home. She wears the aegis, adding to her fearsome look, but it is possible to see that she is still a young woman. Together with Iuno and Iuppiter she forms a family group, showing the central importance of the family to the Romans.

At the base of the coin, curved against the rim is the word “SESTERTIVS”. This word never appeared on Roman coins, but we modern Romans need a bit of help, and it corrects the “SESTERTIUS” of the original coins.


The surrounding legend (FR•APVLO•C•LAENATE•COS) is the consular date for the year MMDCCLVIII AUC.

The central figure is a common one from coins of the Republic, Iuppiter in a quadriga driven by Victory.

Iuppiter again holds his staff, and now wields a vajra thunderbolt in his upraised arm. Victory, wings spread behind her, holds the reins. The horses go forward with energy but with dignity.

Iuppiter, Victory and the vajra tie the reverse image to the obverse, and the seated Iuppiter with Victory on the obverse ties this coin thematically to the previous Sestertius Signum, the "Declaratio".

Design Notes

A word or two about Roman conventions in portrayal of buildings is in order. Roman coins (and other plastic art) did not always attempt to portray well-known buildings realistically. Not only were details left out, major changes could be made in building plan to suit the needs of the designer. A good example is a relief in the Capitoline museum that shows the Capitolium in the background. This relief shows the Capitolium as Corinthian order and tetrastyle (having four columns across the front). This is plainly impossible. Even if in times past the building had been Tuscan order, wooden and tetrastyle, by the time it was rebuilt in the Corinthian order the architrave would have been stone, not wood. Given the known size of the building, spanning the front with a stone architrave supported by only four columns would have been impossible. Indeed, it is also shown elsewhere as Corinthian order and hexastyle (six columns). What we learn from this is that Romans took a lot of liberties when they portrayed buildings in art.

Every aspect of this design is based on features found in Roman coins, either of the Republic or of the early Empire. Later coins were ignored. The figures on the obverse are all based on extant statues.

On the the obverse, we show Iuppiter in a quadriga (four-horse chariot), accompanied by Victoria, brandishing a thunderbolt. This image conveys no particular message – we felt that, for this first issue in what we hope will be a series, it was not appropriate to convey any too specific idea. The quadriga was chosen more because it is a dynamic and exciting image which works well on the relatively large scale of the sestertius (the largest of common Roman coins). Chariot-races are one of the activities most commonly associated with ancient Rome in the popular imagination, and we felt that this image would strike a chord with the wider public.

See also


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