Roman barbarous coin.*  Bronze, weight 4.2g, maximum diameter 35mm, die axis 0o; c. 80 BC - 14 AD; obverse INVENTORI LVCIS, radiate, head right; reverse SOL INDIGES, sun surrounded by eight rectangles. From the Ancient Cinema exhibition.

The bronze coins featured in “Ancient Cinema,” were discovered in 2011 in Nin, Croatia. They include Latin text, but no date or denomination.

Coins from the late Roman Republic (250 BC - 27 BC) were sometimes produced in bronze, emulating coins of Greek colonies in southern Italy. Coins from this period often included mythological subjects, although from 44 BC - 27 BC, Roman coins briefly featured portraits of wealthy individuals as part of the increasing competition among the Roman elite to enhance their social and political status. More typically, coins from the late Republican and the Roman imperial period (27 BC - 565 AD) were manufactured in precious metals such as gold, silver, brass or copper and, after 27 BC, generally portrayed the emperor on the obverse.

The coins in “Ancient Cinema” are most likely from the tail end of the Roman Republic or very early during the Roman Empire, and were probably made in Zadar (Iader), or a neighboring Roman colony.

The image on the obverse of the coins is of a bearded male figure with a radiate crown—a reference to the sun. The text, INVENTORI LVCIS, “to the creator of light,” supports this interpretation. The figure is most likely a mythological representation of Sol, the Roman sun god.

As the excellent website, Ancient Coins, points out, "Sol is always radiate. Even the tiny head of Sol being carried by Aeternitas [in the Trajan denarius, below] is clearly radiate. The denarius of Trajan, from 111 AD, shows the heads of Sol and Luna being carried by Aeternitas, symbolising that day and night are component parts of eternity. Sometimes these coins were also labelled Oriens, meaning "the rising sun in the east."

Trajan denarius, circa 111 AD.

“Worship of the sun god, Sol, was known in republican Rome, but it was of minor importance.
In imperial Rome, however, in the third century AD (the last century of pagan Rome), the cult of the sun god became a major and, at times, dominant force in Roman religion. [In 274 AD], the emperor Aurelian began a vigorous campaign of propaganda celebrating the sun god as the exclusive protector of Rome's imperial might.” Under the epithet Sol Invictus, “Sol was hailed as ‘the rising sun who dispels the forces of evil,’ as ‘invincible conqueror of Rome's enemies,’ and as the ‘companion and guardian deity of the emperor.’”

“Numismatic iconography, the primary source for this propaganda campaign, portrayed Sol wearing the radiate crown and holding the globe, symbol of world rule, in his hand, while the vanquished enemy cowered at his feet," or riding a chariot pulled by four horses (a quadriga), or with a whip in hand.(2)

Coin of Emperor Probus, circa 280 AD, featuring Sol Invictus on the reverse.
This imagery is clearly derived from Greek mythology, which portrayed Helios as a figure crowned with a radiant halo or aureole, driving a quadriga (or tethrippon) across the sky in order to illuminate the earth (as seen in a 5th-century-BC Athenian red-figure krater from the collection of the British Museum, below).

Detail from a 5th-century-BC Greek krater. Collection of the British Museum. 
The coins featured in “Ancient Cinema” clearly pre-date the reign of Aurelian as they make reference, on the reverse, to SOL INDIGES—the “native sun” or “invoked sun”—an earlier, more agrarian (chthonic) form of sun worship, closer in spirit to the Greek incarnation of Helios.(3)

“The adoration of the heavenly bodies, which serve to mark the seasons and exert so great an influence on agriculture, existed from the beginning in the rustic population of Italy, as in the other branches of the Indo-European family,” writes Sir James Frazer. “In favor of this view it may be noted that Varro, an eminent authority on agriculture as well as on mythology, at the outset of his book on farming tells us that he will invoke the twelve gods, not the city gods, male and female, whose gilded images stand in the Forum at Rome, but the twelve gods who are the best guides of husbandmen,” and among them he mentions the Sun, Sol Indiges, and Moon, Luna, “’whose seasons are observed at seed-time and harvest,’ immediately after Father Jupiter and Mother Earth, and immediately before such genuine Italian deities as Ceres, Liber, Flora, and Robigus, the god of Mildew. So learned an antiquary was not likely to interpolate new-fangled Greek gods in the list of the divinities who were to serve as guides to the Italian farmer. (4)

“In Rome, Sol had an ‘old’ temple in the Circus Maximus according to Tacitus (AD 56 – 117), and this temple remained important in the first three centuries AD. There was also an old shrine for Sol on the Quirinal, where an annual sacrifice was offered to Sol Indiges on August 9th. The Roman ritual calendars or fasti also mention a feast for Sol Indiges on December 11th, and a sacrifice for Sol and Luna on August 28th.” (5)

The reverse on the coins in “Ancient Cinema” has an image of the sun surrounded by eight rectangles. This iconography—which is repeated on a clay lamp and box found in the vicinity of the coins—is unique among Roman currency.

Superficially, the image resembles the circular stone configurations at prehistoric religious, burial or astronomical sites, such as Stonehenge, but there is no other evidence of Roman's incorporating megalith motifs in their art or coins. Could the images on the coins refer, instead, to heavenly bodies orbiting around the sun, or to a Roman lunar calendar or sundial? (The Roman lunar calendar had ten-to-twelve months, and a sundial has twelve hours, not eight.) 

Because of the unique nature of the iconography on the reverse, some have suggested that the coins may have had a commemorative function--although this type of coin, known as a quadran, was typically produced in lead.  "A very large number of Roman leads are coin-like in design," writes David Powell, with depictions of birds, animals, plants, heads, busts or full figures in conjunction with abbreviations or initials. (6) 

Romans also used tokens in exchange for services, such as the theater or sex.

Roman spintria, circa 1st century AD.

Roman coins known as spintria are widely thought to be brothel tokens, exchanged for sex. “Since there were a lot of foreigners coming to the city that did not speak the language, and most of the prostitutes were slaves captured from other places, the coins made the transactions easy and efficient.” (7)

Henry Jesionka suggests that the coins featured in “Ancient Cinema” were manufactured in conjunction with a ceremony dedicated to Sol Indiges. This ceremony may have featured the presentation of images by a device depicted on the coins' reverse—an ancient Roman “film” projector.

Jesionka has constructed a full-scale working model of the device, which is included in the exhibition, “Ancient Cinema.” Jesionka’s projector model is purely speculative: it includes 24 glass slides rotating around a central light source, whereas the coin in the exhibition depicts eight rectangular images circulating around the sun. 

*"Barbarous Roman coins were made by the local inhabitants around the edges of the Empire, perhaps to act as semi-legitimate currency in the absence of an adequate supply of officially minted coins, or perhaps so that the local tribes could maintain a degree of independence." (8)


1. Ancient Coins. "Sol and Oriens - the Rise and Fall of a Superhero," 2012.

2. Sol Invictus. 2012.

3.Sol (mythology), 2012.

4. Frazer, Ian. “The Worship of the Sun Among the Ancient Romans”. From The Golden Bough, 1911.

5. Sol (mythology). op. cit.

6. Powell, David. "Tesserae." Token Corresponding Society, 2006.

7. Ancient Roman coins with sex scenes – sprintia. [sic] 2010.

8. Unique Ancient Coins. 2012.