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Octavia: Model for Empresses


The Triumvirs. Mark Antony and Octavia. Summer-autumn 39 BC. AR Cistophorus (29mm, 11.80 g, 12h). Ephesus mint. Conjoined heads right of Mark Antony, wearing ivy wreath, and Octavia / Dionysus standing left, holding cantharus and thyrsus on cista mystica, flanked by interlaced snakes with heads erect. CRI 263; Sydenham 1198; RSC 3; RPC I 2202. In NGC encapsulation 4934085004, graded VF Star, Strike: 5/5, Surface: 5/5.

Ex Dr. Walter Stoecklin (†1975) Collection (Nomos 14, 17 May 2017), lot 307, purchased from Bank Leu, Zürich.

Octavia Minor was the beloved younger sister of Octavian, who later became the transformative leader known to the world as Augustus. Born into an intensely political family, she was the grand-niece of Julius Caesar and fully involved in the machinations that eventually brought her brother to supreme power. When she was 15, Octavia’s father arranged a marriage to Gaius Claudius Marcellus, an opponent of Caesar, by whom she had at least three children. In 54 BC Caesar pressured the family for her to divorce Marcellus so she could marry Pompey the Great and preserve their partnership, but Octavia refused and remained married to him until his death in 40 BC. By this time, her brother Octavian was increasingly at odds with his triumviral colleague Mark Antony, threatening to plunge Rome into a new civil war. Octavian thus proposed that his recently widowed sister marry Antony as part of an overall settlement. Whether Octavia had any say in this is not known, but Antony accepted even though she was still carrying her late husband’s child. The marriage was celebrated on coins issued in Asia Province, under Antony’s control, including this impressive silver cistophorus, struck in 39 BC, displaying the cojoined portraits of Antony and Octavia. She sports a distinctive “nodus” hairstyle which was also adopted and popularized by Livia, wife of the future Augustus. Within a few years, the restless Antony resumed his liaison with Cleopatra VII of Egypt, leaving Octavia in the lurch. Despite this humiliation, Octavia remained loyal and bore Antony two daughters, Antonias Major and Minor, the latter whose descendants would rule as Roman emperors decades hence. Antony’s abandonment of Octavia sparked the final civil war of the Roman Republic, ending in Antony’s suicide and the age of Augustus. Octavia never remarried and raised Antony’s children by Cleopatra in her own household, becoming a model of Roman matronhood. Along with Livia, she was granted special powers previously available only to the Vestal Virgins, and her statues appeared all over the Roman world. Indeed, Octavia helped to form the paradigm for future empresses to follow.