Dionysos in Roman Imperial Thrace – What Do the Coins Tell Us about Him?

  • Johannes Nollé Kommission für Alte Geschichte und Epigraphik des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Amalienstraße 73b D-80799 München
Keywords: Caracalla, coins, Dionysos, grape harvest, Hadrianopolis / Edirne, Hermes of Praxiteles, Korybantes, Kuretes, leopard, Mesambria / Nessebar, Neos Dionysos, Nys(s)a, Pautalia / Kyustendil, Philippopolis / Plovdiv, Serdica / Sofia, Strymon / Struma, Thrace, urban identity, viniculture, viticulture


This paper wants to discuss the background of Roman imperial coins from Thrace which depict grapes or the wine god Dionysos in different contexts on their obverses. Such coin images mirror more authentically than other sources essential parts of Thracian cities’ identity. It is clear that already in Antiquity many areas of Thrace were planted with vines and that coins showing grapes allude to both viticulture and viniculture flourishing there. However, these pieces of money should be understood less as a reference to an important economical resource or scenic beauty, but rather more as a praise of Dionysos who, despite the resistance of king Lykourgos, donated vines to Thrace. Local lore links this epiphany of Dionysos with his coming from India and with his birth somewhere in Thrace. The coins discussed here hint at both mythic events by showing the triumphant Dionysos together with Indian animals such as the leopard, and by presenting the infant Dionysos in different sceneries. It is very interesting to see that the thematic area Dionysos and wine became very prominent especially during the sole reign of Caracalla. This should not really come as a surprise, since Caracalla was acclaimed as a New Dionysos and he himself associated his campaign against Parthia with Alexander and Dionysos, as we are told by Cassius Dio.