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Conversion of the Elagabalium into the Temple of Jupiter Ultor

Triton XVI, Lot: 1109. Estimate $50000.
Sold for $47500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Severus Alexander. AD 222-235. Æ Medallion (37mm, 55.76 g, 12h). Rome mint. Special Emission of AD 224. IMP CAES M AVREL SEV ALEXANDER AVG, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right / IOVI VLTORI P M TR P III, COS P P in exergue, aerial view of the Temple of Jupiter Ultor: Jupiter, holding globe (or patera) and scepter, seated left within hexastyle temple façade set on four tiered base; figures in pediment; triumphal quadriga and trophies in acroteria; all within single story peristyle; front of temple complex composed of triple-bayed arch surmounted by figures; on either side, barrel vaulted porch. Gnecchi 7 = Cohen 102 var.; Banti 23 var.; BMCRE 208 var. (all are bimetallic). Good VF, green and brown patina, gently smoothed. Extremely rare issue, and the sole example in bronze.

According to the Historia Augusta (Heliogab. 1.6), the Elagabalium was founded on the site of an earlier shrine to Orcus, a native Italic god of the underworld and a punisher of broken oaths. Topographical studies and archaeological evidence, however, have been unable to confirm the biography’s claim, suggesting that this statement was a literary device designed to create a sense of irony and make the temple’s construction and existence ill-omened. A portion of a capital from the Elagabalium, found in the Forum Romanum within the vicinity of the Palatine, makes its location on that hill much more probable (R. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 10th ed. [2008], p. 181, pl. 21). This capital confirms the appearance of the cult image and includes images of Minerva and Juno, providing important clues to the claims of Herodian (5.6) and Dio (80.12) that the emperor transported the Palladium to the Palatine in order to wed her to El-Gabal and later included a second spouse by bringing the cult statue of Juno Caelestis, the Punic Tanit, from Carthage. By doing so, Elagabalus was recreating at Rome the Emesene triad consisting of El-Gabal, Atargatis (Minerva), and Astarte (Juno Caelestis), thereby superseding the traditional Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

By the beginning of AD 222, Elagabalus became increasingly erratic. He refused to perform the traditional New Year’s rites at the Capitolium, the site of the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the supreme Roman god, leaving them to be completed by the urban praetor. The mention of the Capitolium in this context is significant, for it emphasizes the emperor’s attempt to subordinate Jupiter to El-Gabal, to promote the latter god’s rites, and emphasize the emperor’s unique connection with his god. Herodian’s statement (5.5) that Elagabalus demanded the Senate to honor El-Gabal before all other gods when performing their traditional sacrifices, provides further evidence of Elagabalus’ promotion of his god. And, the Elagabalium was to be the new center of this worship where, as mentioned earlier, the cult figures of other divinities were to be deposited and set up as competing triad to that of Jupiter. When Elagabalus became increasingly distrustful of Alexander, going so far as to order the murder of his successor, the emperor was himself murdered by the soldiers. Once in power, Alexander wasted little time in undoing the work of Elagabalus. In AD 224, he restored and rededicated the Elagabalium to Jupiter (Herodian 6.1, SHA, Heliogab. 17.8), and returned the baetyl to Emesa, where it appears on later coins of that city, including issues of the usurper Uranius Antoninus.

The temple complex depicted on the reverse of the bronze medallions of Elagabalus and Severus Alexander are the only known representations of the appearance of the Elagabalium and its conversion into the Temple of Jupiter Ultor. The type of temple varies according to the medallion: the medallion of Severus Alexander shows a hexastyle temple, while that of Elagabalus shows only a tetrastyle one. Both temples, however, are richly decorated and are surrounded by ornately decorated, multi-story distyle wings of a peristyle seen in perspective with a triumphal entrance consisting of three epistyla, each with closed doors and double intercolumnation between them. The decoration along the roof line of this triumphal entrance originally displayed four quadrigas facing, each bearing a replica of the baetyl – these were removed and replaced with other statuary when the whole complex was renovated. The smaller medallion has an eagle on the summit of each wing flanking the entrance, while the large medallion has an eagle on the left wing only. A long staircase approached the precinct and at the base was a protective fencing that separated the sacred enclosure.

Where on the Palatine the Elagabalium/Temple of Jupiter Ultor was located has been a matter of speculation. In his discussion of the excavations on the Palatine, published in 1888, the Italian archaeologist, Rodolfo Lanciani related the 1730 discovery and possible destruction there of a large, brown, lava-like stone found among the ruins of what appeared to be an imperial chapel (Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries [1888], p. 128). The Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, begun by the British archaeologist Samuel Ball Platner and completed by Thomas Ashby (published posthumously in 1929), suggested that, because of the significant amount of pre-Severan monumental remains on the site, the Elagabalium was an earlier temple on the site that was renovated and rededicated to the new god. The similarity of the Elagabalium to the Temple of Jupiter Ultor that appears on the reverse of a medallion of Severus Alexander (BMCRE 207-9), and its similarity to an earlier temple dedicated to Jupiter Victor, which also sat on the Palatine, supports such a hypothesis. Although some discrepancies exist between the various depictions of the Temple of Jupiter Victor, they may be explained by one of the site’s restorations, possibly when the cult-statue was either removed or restored, at which time the decoration would have been altered or removed for reuse elsewhere. Whether triumphal entry to the sanctuary, possibly the same structure known as the pentapylum in the mid-fourth century AD Notitia urbis Romae regionum, was present at this time is uncertain. It is highly plausible that it was added at the time of the rededication by Elagabalus as part of the rededication to El-Gabal, as the fifth century AD Vita S. Sebastiani decscribes that saint addressing the emperor Diocletian from the “Steps of Heliogabalus” (Hill, op. cit. p. 35; in the tenth century, this saint had a church dedicated to him on a portion of the site.

Philip V. Hill, in his discussion of the topic (The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types [1989], s.v. Templum Iovis Victoris), offers evidence from various later literary sources to conclude that the Elagabalium and the Temple of Jupiter Ultor were one and the same edifice and was situated on the northeast corner of the Palatine, and suggests the these two structures were originally the Temple of Jupiter Victor. Given Elagabalus’s desire to supplant Jupiter with El-Gabal, the appropriation of a temple nearby the palace which was already dedicated to Jupiter Victor would be an ironically fitting act, while its reappropriation by Severus Alexander for Jupiter in AD 224, now in the guise of Ultor (the Avenger) would be a fitting act of vengeance and a way to placate Jupiter Victor.