Rome’s top gods, the Capitoline triad, on coinage: Ancients Today

Romans worshiped many gods, but three were most revered
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 06/19/16
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Most people of the ancient world were deeply religious. Their gods figured prominently into everything from the mundane aspects of their daily lives to the most critical decisions of law, foreign policy, and war. The Romans were no exception: they had a multitude of gods to whom they offered reverence and sacrifice.

The three mightiest gods of the Romans were Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Together they comprised what is known as the “Capitoline Triad.” All three were honored in the most sacred building in the Roman world — the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a large structure high upon the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

Jupiter was the top god

Among these three gods, Jupiter was foremost, being the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. While he assigned the seas to his brother Neptune and the underworld to his brother Pluto, he retained for himself domain over the earth, the sky and the heavens.

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He was often called Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter the best and greatest”). The visible instrument of his power was the lightning bolt, which he often is shown holding, ready to hurl.

Jupiter’s wife, Juno, was the queen of heaven, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. Not only was she Jupiter’s consort, but as the daughter of Saturn — who was Jupiter’s father — she was also his sister.

She was worshipped in many ways, ranging from the goddess who oversaw marriage and childbirth to the one who was responsible for the coining of money. Rome’s empresses were especially prone to identify themselves with Juno, for she was their celestial counterpart.

Ranking only below Jupiter and Juno was Minerva. She was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, after whom she is closely modeled. 

She is said to have been born fully armed and armored, and of mature physique, emerging from the brain of Jupiter.

The fact that Minerva was born of Jupiter’s brain explains her elevated mental capacities, for she was the goddess of wisdom, reason and prudence, and she had special oversight over literature and science, as well as practical skills such as embroidery and weaving.

Each of these divinities had an animal familiar, by which they could be represented. Jupiter’s was the eagle, Juno’s the peacock, and Minerva’s the owl. These birds often appear with their respective divinity in artistic compositions, including on thousands of coin designs.

The association of these deities and their animals was so well understood that in some cases the presence of the deities was not even required. A wonderful example is a copper quadrans of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161), which shows on its reverse Jupiter’s eagle flanked by Minerva’s owl and Juno’s peacock with its feathers in splendor.

Temples 

The great temple dedicated to the triad on the Capitoline Hill, which often was referred to simply as the Capitolium, was the center of political and religious life in Rome. As evidence of this, any triumph held in Rome ended at the temple, and the senate traditionally held its first meeting of the year in the temple.

There were four successive versions of the temple, with the first seemingly being built by Etruscans who held sway over Rome in the early years of the Republic. Its location was ideal considering the Capitoline was the most important of Rome’s seven hills, and was the ancient citadel.

Even in its earliest incarnation, the temple had three enclosed chambers (cellae), with each one being dedicated to an individual member of the triad. Jupiter was situated in center, and he was flanked by Juno and Minerva.

Apparently the earliest temple was tetrastyle (meaning the width of its front was adorned four columns), and was of the Tuscan style. It survived several centuries before it burned in the summer of 83 B.C. It soon was replaced with a hexastyle temple (being six columns wide), which was virtually complete within five years and was ready for dedication in 69 B.C.

That second temple was destroyed by fire in A.D. 69, in the final stages of a terrifying Roman civil war. Construction of a new temple — the third — began in the summer of the next year, and its dedication occurred in A.D. 75. In a sad turn of affairs, however, this new temple was struck by lightning, which caused it to be consumed by fire in A.D. 80.

The fourth incarnation was built quickly, being complete enough for dedication in A.D. 82. It was sturdy enough — and fortunate enough — to survive nearly 400 years before it fell into disuse and disrepair after the triumph of Christianity as the state religion. After it was sacked by the Vandals in A.D. 455 the remaining portions of the temple were repurposed in many ways, including to create new statues and to build churches.

Representations on coins

We are fortunate that all four of these temples are represented on Roman coins. Images of the first two appear on silver denarii of the Roman Republic struck in 78 to 75 B.C. and 43 to 41 B.C. In both cases the depictions are simple, with little decoration and no statues in the interior.

The third temple, which stood for just five years, appears on coins of the rulers Vespasian (A.D. 69 to 79), Titus (A.D. 79 to 81) and Domitian (A.D. 81 to 96). Especially ornate and detailed images of the third incarnation appear on brass sestertii of Vespasian and Titus. Excellent depictions also occur on silver cistophori struck for circulation in Asia.

The fourth and final incarnation is presented on cistophori of Domitian, with clear depictions of the three statues within. It also appears on extremely rare silver denarii struck in the final year of Domitian’s reign as emperor. Due to the small format of the denarius, however, little detail was incorporated on those pieces, to the point of the exclusion of the statues of Juno and Minerva. 

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