“Founder” Coins and Rome’s Ritual Boundary

In this post Maria Kneafsey, Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, celebrates the anniversary of the foundation of Rome (21st April 753 BC) by examining a coin from the PAS database. 

A silver denarius linked to the foundation of Rome, WILT-E5BA8D (Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, License: CC-BY).

WILT-E5BA8D (RIC I, Augustus, 272) is one of the rarer coin types on the PAS database at present, with only two examples recorded. It is a silver denarius issued between c.29-27 BC by Augustus, perhaps even while he was still known as Octavian. On the obverse we see the laureate bust of Apollo, Octavian’s adopted patron deity, whose temple he constructed next to his home on the Palatine Hill in 28 BC (Wiseman, 2019: 101). The reverse shows Octavian veiled in priestly garb, ploughing a furrow with a yoke of oxen. It is this latter image that I’d like to focus on here; this motif is a prototype of Augustan visual language, weaving together tradition and ambition to cast the man who would become Rome’s first emperor not only as the true leader of the city and the empire, but as a second Romulus, a second founder.

The ploughing ritual depicted here is the creation of a boundary known as the sulcus primigenius, the first furrow, which in turn marked out the line of the pomerium, The pomerium was a city’s ritual boundary, which separated the sacred space of the city from the profane world outside. The creation of this line was the first step in the foundation of a new city and its most famous iteration was the legendary ritual that took place on the 21st April 753 BC on the banks of the River Tiber.

Rome’s Servian Wall (red) and pomerium (original in green, extended in yellow). (Image: Heinrich Kiepert, Wikimedia Commons).

The story of Rome’s pomerium and its ritual creation by the legendary figure Romulus is a crucial component of the city’s foundation myth, which was recorded by a number of ancient authors: Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 1. 88), Plutarch (Rom. 11. 1-4), Tacitus (Ann. 12. 23-24), Aulus Gellius (NA 13. 14), and Festus (Lexicon 295L s.v. Posimerium), amongst others. The stories recorded by these authors were all very minor variations on the following sequence of events: the pomerium of Rome was believed to have been ploughed originally by Romulus around the Palatine Hill according to the instructions of a priest, breaking the furrow at the points of entry and exit from the city. This line was the first furrow (the sulcus primigenius), and it set out the line for not only the first pomerium, but also the first city wall. The ritual took place on an auspicious day, and was celebrated each year thereafter with the Parilia festival in the fields, and after the time of Hadrian, the Romaea festival in the streets of Rome. To this day, the natale di Roma is celebrated in the city, and thousands of people turn out to walk the ancient via Sacra and congregate in the Circus Maximus

So where did this ritual come from? In antiquity it was commonly accepted that the ploughing ritual was based on an Etruscan rite that was adopted for the creation of the city, as recorded by Varro in the first century BC:

Many founded towns in Latium by the Etruscan ritual; that is, with a team of cattle, a bull and a cow on the inside, they ran a furrow around with a plough (for reasons of religion they did this on an auspicious day), that they might be fortified by a ditch and a wall (Ling. 5. 143).

It was further echoed by his contemporary, Livy:

This word [pomerium] is interpreted by those who look only at its etymology as meaning “the tract behind the wall,” but it signifies rather “the tract on both sides of the wall,” the space which the Etruscans used formerly to consecrate with augural ceremonies when they proposed to erect their wall (1. 44).

The only surviving source that mentioned the foundation ritual prior to the first century BC is Cato’s Origines, written in the early second century BC and which survives only in fragments. The Origines was the first history written in Latin prose, and the first of its seven books was concerned with the origo populi Romani (Cornell, 1995: 6). His account of the creation of a pomerium included the first written record of the ritual, suggesting a Latin origin, not a specifically Etruscan one:

Founders of a city used to yoke a bull on the right, and a cow on the inside [the left]; then, clad in the Gabine manner – that is, with part of the toga covering the head and the rest tucked up – they would hold the plough-handle bent in so that all the clods fell inwards, and ploughing a furrow in this manner they would describe the course of the walls, lifting the plough over the gateways (1. 18a = fr 18 P).It is perhaps true to say that in antiquity it was largely irrelevant whether or not the connection between the pomerium and the foundation of Rome by Romulus was based on fact; by the late republic and early imperial periods the link was firmly established in visual and literary culture, as the yoked bull and cow ploughing the pomerial furrow had become symbols of colony foundation. This can be seen in the first century AD relief from Aquileia, possibly the only complete, surviving sculptural representation of the pomerium ritual, associated with the founding of the Italian colony (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia: inv. 1171). Similarly, a cast statuette in the British Museum found in County Durham depicts the same pomerial ritual (1879,0710.1).

DUR-EFD631 – a denarius of Vespasian showing the yoked oxen on the reverse (RIC II 2nd edition, Vespasian, 944). Copyright: Durham County Council, License: CC-BY).

Many emperors employed this image in the material culture produced during their reign, demonstrated by the existence of “the founder” coin type seen above (figs. 1 & 3), with examples surviving from the coinage of Augustus, Vespasian (RIC II 2nd edn., Vespasian 943-5; 951-2), Trajan (RIC II, Trajan 567-8), Hadrian (Mershorer 2; Hendin 810) and Commodus (RIC III, Commodus, 247; 560; 570), amongst many others, minted in numerous provinces across the Empire. Though the most famous version of this ancient ritual took place at Rome, there is evidence to suggest that many other Roman towns had a pomerium that was created in this way, notably Capua, Pompeii, and Herculaneum in Italy (Senatore, 1999: 100-2), Aelia Capitolina at Jerusalem (Ben-Eliyahu, 2016), Iulia Genetiva in southern Spain (CIL 2.5.439), and Colchester, Lincoln, and Gloucester in England (Wacher, 1997; Pearce, 2011). The coin illustrated in figure 1 has been linked to the foundation of Nicopolis by Octavian in c. 29 BC after his victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC (RIC I: 60-1, fn. 272; BMCRE I, cxxiv; Calomino, 2012: 103-4). This brings additional meaning: the reverse of this coin not only references the ritual foundation of Rome and hints at the emerging political prominence of Octavian, but it also commemorates the foundation of a new city inextricably connected to his greatest military victory to date, hidden behind the imagery of tradition and piety that would become hallmarks of the Augustan visual programme. Coins such as WILT-E5BA8D help us to understand the mechanisms by which these powerful and simple images were transmitted across the empire. Though this coin was almost certainly minted in Italy, its arrival in Britain demonstrates the vast distances these images could travel and the populations they could reach. The inhabitants of Nicopolis may never have seen Augustus, but they could hold his coinage, see the image of Apollo and the founder of their home, and learn a little about the man who ruled the Eternal City.

Further reading:

Beard, M., North, J., and Price, S. 1998. Religions of Rome, (2 vols). Cambridge.

Galinsky, K. 2012. Augustus: introduction to the life of an emperor. Cambridge.

Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor.

Stevens, S. 2017. City Boundaries and Urban Development in Roman Italy. Leuven.


Ben-Eliyahu, E. 2016. ‘“Cities surrounded by a wall from the time of Joshua Son of Nun” as a Rabbinic Response to the Roman Pomerium,’ The Jewish Quarterly Review 106: 1-20.

Calomino, D. 2012. ‘Actia Nicopolis. Coinage, Currency and Civic Identity (27 BC-AD 268),’ in F. L. Sanchez (ed.) The City and the Coin in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds. BAR International Series 2402. Oxford. 103-115.

Cornell, T. J. 1995. The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). London.

Pearce, J. 2011. ‘Making the dead: tombs and topography in the Roman provinces,’ in M. Carroll & J. Rempel (eds.) Living with the dead: burial and commemoration in the classical world. Oxford. 134-159.

Senatore, F. 1999. ‘Necropoli e società nell’antica Pompei: considerazioni su un sepolcreto di poveri,’ in F. Senatore (ed.) Pompei, Il Vesuvio, e La Penisola Sorrentina. Rome. 91-112.

Wacher, J. 1997. The Towns of Roman Britain. London.

Wiseman, T. P. 2019. The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story. Princeton.

All translations of ancient texts are from the Loeb editions, unless otherwise stated:

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romanae Antiquitates (Roman Antiquities)

Plutarch, Βίοι Παράλληλοι (Parallel Lives)

Tacitus, Annales (The Annals)

Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights)  

Festus, De Verborum Significatu (or, The Lexicon, trans. by the Festus Lexicon Project, University College London)

Varro, De Lingua Latina (On the Latin Language)

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita (or, The History of Rome)Cato, Origines (Origins)

Post written by Maria Kneafsey, Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.