From Art to Artifact:  Making Sense of Roman Coins

The Coins of Sabina

Who was Sabina?

Historians studying the reign of the emperor Hadrian have long been restricted by a dearth of literary evidence for the period. This is particularly obvious with regard to the emperor’s relationship with his wife, Vibia Sabina. She appears in a few choice lines in both Cassius Dio’s history of Hadrian and the infamous Historia Augusta, the celebrity tabloid of the ancient world. Neither depicted Sabina in a favorable light, and little has been done to examine their assumptions. It has therefore become very important to analyze carefully what survives of her in material evidence: most especially, the coinage issued in her name. Thorough scrutiny of these coins allows us to draw four conclusions about Sabina.

First, we need to disregard the majority of the surviving history on the period. Although the Historia Augusta may occasionally be factually correct, we have no way of evaluating these events based on other evidence. Second, more nuanced parsing of the coins allows us to date them more carefully, which in turns fills in many of the gaps in Sabina’s history caused by rejection of the literary evidence. Third, the reverses of the coins show conscious attempts at political persuasion and a concerted effort to expand the numismatic
“vocabulary” available to an empress. Finally, we must conclude that the careful dovetailing of message between emperor and
empress suggests that Sabina had a close political relationship with Hadrian, although the nuances of their personal relationship are not attested to on the coins. While she probably did not hold the sort of equal relationship with her husband women aspire to have today, she appears to have held her own on her coinage.