This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 11, No. 11, November 1997, p. 21.
If Athena was a Greek deity, why does she appear on Roman coins?
Well, in actuality, she doesn't! The similarity of Athena and Minerva
is often a point of confusion among collectors trying to familiarize
themselves with the panoply of gods and goddesses on ancient coins.
Minerva, one of the great Roman divinities, was known to the
Etruscans (Pre-Romans) as Menfra. She was the personification of thinking power,
or wisdom. The Greek goddess Athena was likewise considered the
personification of wisdom. Both she and Minerva were daughters of the the
supreme sky godZeus in the case of Greek mythology and Jupiter in
the case of Roman. Both were maidens.
It is easy enough to confuse the two, and it is often thought that the Roman deity was simply a
renamed Greek goddess. This was not really the case. It may be that in the
dark reaches of prehistory, there lies a common origin of these parallel myths,
but in the cultures that we know numismatically as Greek and Roman
they were independent. One promontory near Sorrento in Campania bore
a temple to Minerva which was said to have been built by Odysseus.
This would imply that at least the Roman perception of Minerva's
antiquity reached back to Mycenaean times.
Part of the confusion between the two stems from the tendancy of the Romans to adopt Greek imagery.
Each Greek deity was bestowed with identifiable features or accouterments.
We commonly refer to these elements as "attributes". The attributes of
Athena were the owl, the aegis, and the armor of war. Since Minerva was
very similar in concept to Athena, the Romans found it easy to depict
Minerva with these same attributesand, of course, we see these attributes on
the coinage of each culture. Both Athena and Minerva were given a
variety of epithets heralding their powers, and the affairs of man over which they
exerted influence. These epithets are often included in coin inscriptions.
Minerva was entreated by those who wished to excell in the fields
of art, music or artistic trades like weaving or teaching. The other nature
of Minerva was warlike. She was the patroness of soldiers and the
protectress of cities. Every year a festival to Minerva was celebrated from the 19th to the 23rd of March. The Greeks also held many festivals in honor of Athena, the most important of which was the Panatheatic festival. It was at games held during this feast, that coveted amphorae were given as prizes.
In spite of the similarities from our perspective, Athena and Minerva were products of two very different cultures. It is easy enough to see common ground in their attributes, supposed powers and virtues, but it would be an oversimplification to think of them as one and the same.