Healing Powers of an Antique Goddess with Football? How Caracalla found Relief from his Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and dedicated coins to Asclepius of Pergamum


Do you know, what Asklepios the Greek god of healing has to do with a football? Nothing at all. Nevertheless you will find a ball next to his foot on coins. The reason for it you will get to know in this podcast.


Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Rome. We are in the year AD 215.


Wait a minute, what is this? Next to Asclepius’ foot, there is a football! Of course, I agree with you. This can’t be right! But today I am going to tell you why there is a ball lying next to the left foot of a god.


Let’s go back to the year 211. This is the year when the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus died. He had two sons with his wife Julia Domna: the 22 year old Caracalla and his brother Geta, who was only one year younger.


And you know how it is with same-aged brothers: they could not stand each other. On top of that, their father even encouraged their rivalry. This didn’t go well. Caracalla had Geta murdered. Why? If we are to believe some historians, from pure malice. But even Roman emperors should be granted more complexity of character than the historians of former times and modern Hollywood producers like to ascribe them.


In all likelihood Caracalla’s fratricide prevented a civil war. And historical sources indicate that it didn’t leave Caracalla unaffected. The Historia Augusta reports that Caracalla was unable to look at a picture of his brother without breaking out into tears. Herodian writes about nightmares of Caracalla being haunted by Geta, covered in blood and carrying a sword.


It seems as if Caracalla suffered from what we would call a post-traumatic stress syndrome today. And suffer he did. He set off to search for a cure. He went on pilgrimage to the shrines of all healing gods that he came across on his travels. And thus, he also made it to the Asclepeion of Pergamon in 214.


This Asclepeion was renowned. Its priests were specialists for tormented souls. Part of the therapy was a deep healing sleep which brought powerful dreams over the patients. They were led through a long, dark hallway into a magnificent rotunda, where Asclepius himself appeared in their dreams sometimes. And if he did not then maybe Telesphoros would appear instead – Telesphoros, whose name means “he who is the end”. The end of suffering? The end of life? Only the gods could tell.


Their messenger, however, was closely linked to the Pergamenian cult. The little man is easy to identify by his floor-length cloak and tight cap. So Caracalla took part in the ceremonies. He had long, in-depth talks with the priests, walked the dark aisle into the rotunda and had a dream in which he found redemption.


We know that the cure was a success because Caracalla honoured Asclepius of Pergamon in a way that only very few gods in the history of Roman coinage were. The emperor dedicated a large coin series to the Pergamenian Asclepius, celebrating his powers in the whole of the Roman Empire.


The portrait of Asclepius on the coins resembled that of him in the temple of Pergamon: a bearded man resting with his armpit on the serpent-entwined staff. To his right, you can see Telesphoros, the little man with the cap and the long cloak. But what about the football? Why is that in the picture? Is that, too, supposed to be typical of Asclepius of Pergamon?


Yes indeed, the small ball is a typical attribute, although of course it is not a real football. It represents the Omphalos, not the navel of the world (a common misrepresentation), but a typical attribute of Greek heroes which evolved from the depiction of burial mounds. And this was also represented in Pergamon together with the healing god and his serpent.


Some statues of Asclepius also depict this small feature in great detail.

And as the die-cutters had the task to transfer the portrait of Asclepius of Pergamon onto the coin design, they depicted it with all its details, although apparently they didn’t know what an omphalos really looked like. So their omphalos turned out to look more like a football than anything else.


Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.


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