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Research Coins: Feature Auction

 
84001017

Trajan’s Bridge Over the Danube

CNG 84, Lot: 1017. Estimate $750.
Sold for $2200. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Trajan. AD 98-117. Æ Sestertius (33mm, 23.76 g, 7h). Rome mint. Struck circa AD 104-107. Laureate bust right, slight drapery / Arched, single-span bridge with six posts across Danube River; single-bay arches at either end, surmounted by statues; boat sailing left in river below. RIC II 569; Banti 261. VF, dark green patina, some pitting on obverse, smoothing.


The bridge depicted on the reverse of this coin has been generally thought to be that constructed across the Danube by Trajan’s architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in AD 104, while the emperor was in Moesia preparing to launch the Second Dacian War (AD 105-106). There is good circumstantial evidence for associating the bridges with one another. First, the date range for this coin’s issue is closely contemporary with the date of the bridge’s construction, and would fit in well programmatically with those war-related issues of the same time frame. Second, the statuary displayed along the roof line of the attic of the arches situated at either end of the structure – one of which is clearly a trophy – suggests that these arches are triumphal in nature and that the bridge should be associated with some war-related construction. Finally, there is no literary or epigraphic evidence describing the construction or restoration of another bridge during Trajan’s reign. Consequently, the only plausible structure is the bridge across the Danube.

Philip V. Hill (The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types [London, 1989], pp. 105-6), however, posited a possible alternative attribution for the bridge depicted here. Based on the tenuous assumption that all architectural types on Roman sestertii must depict structures located within the civic boundaries of Rome, he suggests that the bridge may be the ancient wooden Pons Sublicius. Built by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, it was the first bridge to span the Tiber, connecting the city environs with the region of Janiculum. It was also the site of the heroic defensive stand of Horatius Cocles against the invading Etruscan army of Lars Porsena around 506/5 BC. Hill based his attribution largely on the dissimilarity in the depiction of the coin’s bridge with that of the bridge on the Column of Trajan, a fact which, Hill states, “alone is sufficient to cast doubt upon it.” Such a dissimilarity, however, can be reasonably explained by the fact that the construction of Trajan’s Column and its decoration was not completed until AD 113 – long after this coin was issued – and, since Apollodorus of Damascus was the architect of both Trajan’s Forum (including the Column) and the bridge across the Danube, the more-accurate rendition of the bridge on the Column would have been the result of the architect’s own input.

Strack (Untersuchungen zur römischen Reichsprägung des zweiten Jahrhunderts. Teil 2: Die Reichsprägung zur Zeit des Traian [Stuttgart, 1931], p. 129) argued for the Danube bridge: it was not meant to be an exact representation of the actual structure, but it was contrived so as to provide an overall general appearance of the structure, or to emphasize specific prominent features. As evidence, Strack noted that Trajan’s sestertius issue which featured the Circus Maximus on the reverse was oriented in such a way as to emphasize those features of the complex which the emperor had restored, rather than to provide a strict representation of the Circus itself. Mattingly, who, prior to the publication of Strack’s findings, initially entertained the possibility that the bridge depicted was the Pons Sublicius (RIC II, p. 239), completely reversed his view a decade later when, now armed with Strack’s evidence, he stated categorically (BMCRE p. ci) that the bridge “can hardly be anything but the great bridge over the Danube near Dobretae.”

Hill’s evidence for maintaining Mattingly’s abandoned theory that the bridge might be be the Pons Sublicius is insupportable. First, he chose to ignore Strack’s argument regarding the attribution to the Danube bridge, even though Mattingly does note it in his own discussion in BMCRE – something of which Hill should have been aware, especially since he does point out Mattingly’s change of opinion. Hill suggests his awareness of Strack’s views about the orientation of the Circus Maximus on Trajan's coins concludes that it was done “undoubtedly to show its monuments more clearly,” and such a practice was not that unusual in other mediums, as well. If the engraver of the Circus Maximus was allowed to exercise a certain amount of artistic license in his depiction, then why couldn’t the engraver of the bridge do the same?

To support his own attribution of the bridge as the Pons Sublicius, Hill also cites a portion of his correspondence with Lino Rossi, an important scholar of Trajan’s Column. In an article in the 1968 issue of Antiquaries Journal (p. 42), Rossi fancifully mused that while the coin was struck in celebration of the building of the Danube bridge, the depiction was “probably reminiscent of the famous Pons Sublicius, thus linking the work of Trajan with ancient tradition.” Ironically, though, Rossi (like Strack) discounted the argument of the dissimilarity of the bridge on the coin to the depiction of the bridge on the Column, noting a mosaic at Ostia that represented the twenty-spanned bridge across the Rhône at Arelate, depicted it with only one span. Hill also undercuts his own argument by noting that even the depiction of the bridge on the Column is not exact in its proportions, but is a "simplified representation" (p. 106). In light of the contradictory evidence, Hill’s main arguments, that the bridge on the coin is not an exact representation of the Danube bridge and does not resemble the depiction on Trajan's Column, collapse.

Historical evidence also provides evidence against the bridge being identified as the Pons Sublicius. Being a wooden bridge built on wooden pilings, the Pons Sublicius was frequently damaged or swept away when the Tiber flooded. As noted by Hill (pp. 105-6), the bridge was always rebuilt by the Romans as a matter of religious practice (cf. Pliny the Elder, NH 36.23.100). Considering the bridge’s ancient origin, built during Rome’s initial civic expansion beyond its original seven hills, as well as the religious requirements regarding its reconstruction or rebuilding, it would seem highly unlikely that triumphal arches with war-related statuary would have ever been included. Likewise, the frequent nature of this religiously significant rebuilding, especially with its association with the heroism of Horatius Cocles, would certainly have been commemorated by other emperors, as such an event would have provided the emperor an opportunity to promote his pietas. Only one other issue in the Imperial series is known to depict a bridge, a sestertius of Septimius Severus dated to AD 208. The bridge on that issue is of a style similar to that on Trajan’s, but with highly decorated, triple-bayed triumphal arches on either end. It must not have been a restoration or rebuilding of the Pons Sublicius, and Hill does not attempt to link it to that bridge, instead associating it with the Milvian Bridge. That no other imperial issue, in any denomination, is known to commemorate the restoration of the Pons Sublicius, something one would expect considering its susceptibility to frequent damage, one must conclude that Hill’s argument that the Pons Sublicius be considered a possible candidate for the bridge on the reverse of this sestertius be rejected completely, and that the bridge is none other than that constructed across the Danube.

Moreover, Hill’s statement that when the Pons Sublicius, being a wooden bridge built on wooden pilings, was frequently damaged or swept away when the Tiber flooded periodically, it was always restored or rebuilt in the manner of the original structure – something done as a matter of religious practice and unusual enough to catch the attention of Pliny the Elder (NH. 36.23.100) – provides further contradictory evidence against the bridge being the Pons Sublicius. Considering the bridge’s ancient origin, built during Rome’s initial civic expansion beyond its original seven hills, as well as the religious requirements regarding its reconstruction or rebuilding, it would seem highly unlikely that triumphal arches with war-related statuary would have ever been included. Likewise, the religious nature of the reconstruction or rebuilding of such a venerable structure and its association with the heroism of Horatius Cocles, would certainly have been commemorated by other emperors, given that the bridge must have been damaged or destroyed at times other that this issue of Trajan, and that the rebuilding or reconstruction of the bridge would have provided the emperor an opportunity to promote his pietas. Only one other imperial sestertius issue is known with a bridge reverse (no issues in gold or silver are known): that of Septimius Severus and dated to AD 208. It is of a style similar to that of Trajan’s issue, but with highly decorated, triple-bayed triumphal arches on either end. It must not have been a restoration or rebuilding of the Pons Sublicius and Hill does not attempt to link it to that bridge, instead trying to associate it with the Milvian Bridge. That no other imperial issue is known to commemorate the restoration of the Pons Sublicius, something one would expect considering its susceptibility to frequent damage, one must conclude that Hill’s argument that the Pons Sublicius be considered a possible candidate for the bridge on the reverse of this sestertius be rejected completely and that the bridge is none other than that constructed across the Danube.