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Research Coins: Feature Auction

Sale: Triton V, Lot: 1967. Estimate $5000. 
Closing Date: Wednesday, 16 January 2002. 
Sold For $3500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

TRAJAN. Time of Valentinian I ­ Gratian. Circa 364-383 AD. Æ Contorniate (22.29 gm). TRAIANVS AVG COS IIII P P, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, seen from front / Triumphant procession scene: Bacchus reclining left, himation over legs, holding thyrsus in right hand and dangling bunch of grapes in left hand extended over his head looking left, in draped chariot drawn left by two panthers, the nearer one with head turned back; to right, small Eros flying left holding bunch of grapes; before the panthers, satyr holding pedum; behind panthers, Silenus to front, head looking right and maenad advancing left playing double-flute; in exergue, drinking horn, pedum, Satyr’s mask, bunch of grapes, Silenus’ mask and drinking cup. For obverse, cf. Alföldi 318, pl. 130, 2, and for reverse, cf. Alföldi 259, pl. 111, 4-12 and pl. 251, 3. Fine, glossy green patina, VF. ($5,000)

We hardly know what contorniates were for, but it seems that they were some kind of gaming counter connected, literally, with fun and games, heroes and superstitions, and presumably sold publicly on occasions of popular festivity in the later part of the fourth century in Rome. Many of their obverse types show portraits of Roman emperors and empresses from Caligula to Anthemius, it being significant that Nero, Trajan and Caracalla are the ones who appear most frequently and were the most enthusiastic patrons of the circus.

Dionysus was probably in origin a Thracian deity, son of Zeus and Semele, reared by the nymphs on Mt. Nysa, and god of fertility and wine, also known in both Greek and Latin as Bacchus. Legends concerning him are profuse and contradictory. Having grown to manhood, Dionysus wandered through many lands, teaching men the culture of the vine and the mysteries of his cult. He was followed by an entourage of satyrs, sileni, maenads, and nymphs. Many festivals were held in his honour; most famous were the Lesser or Rural Dionysia (in late December), the Greater or City Dionysia (in late spring), the Anthesteria (in early spring), and the Lenaea (in winter). His characteristic worship was ecstatic and women were prominently involved. Votaries, through music, dancing, and drinking, and through eating flesh and blood of sacrificial animals, attempted to merge their identities with nature. He was variously represented as a full-grown bearded man, as a beast, and -- as on this contorniate -- a delicate, effeminate youth. The Romans identified him with Liber and with Bacchus, who was more properly the god of wine. From the music, singing, and dancing at the festivals of Dionysus developed the dithyrambos and ultimately Greek drama. As knowledge of the world to the east expanded with Alexander's campaigns as far as India, so did the regions from which Dionysus was thought to arrive. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods he was depicted as arriving in triumph from India in a car drawn by panthers, as on this contorniate, almost certainly reproducing an important work of art, statue group or painting.