Obverse: Diademed and Draped Bust of the Empress Facing Right
Reverse: Pudicitia Standing to the Left
Vibia Sabina’s parents died when she was young and she was raised by her uncle, the Emperor Trajan, whose fondness for his nephew Hadrian brought about his marriage to Sabina in 100 AD when she was 16. Like the other two women of the Nervo-Trajanic dynasty, she had no children of her own and instead raised two adoptees named Lucius Aelius and Antoninus Pius. She is said to have aborted at least one child, stating that any child of Hadrian’s would “harm the human race”; this was, unfortunately, to be the general tone of their marriage.
She was said to have been exceptionally strong minded and somewhat difficult for Hadrian to control. She also had an affair with one of Hadrian’s slave boys in the 120’s. This said, she was dutiful towards her husband and nation. Her devotion was awarded with the title of Augusta in 128 AD. The marriage endured to her death – arguably by poisoning at Hadrian’s hand, although this is unlikely – in 136/7.
Representations of Sabina follow the general remit of honorific coins produced to commemorate the spouses of famous emperors. Statues show her as being a fairly plain, solidly matriarchal woman, but with a finely moderated face that could be said to reflect the unfortunate circumstances of her time when women were essentially traded like goods. At this time, Roman coiffures were at their most flamboyant, and Sabina seems to have been devoted to her appearance judging from the complexity of her hair in the current case. The triple-tiered look which sometimes appears is known as stephane – tiaras – descended from the Greek word for crown (stephanos).
Pudicitia is the Roman personification of modesty and sexual/marital virtue. Greek and Roman authors were somewhat taken with the idea that one’s essential beauty arose from one’s temperance in matters of the flesh, notably modest self-representation. Needless to say, it was more important for women than for men; high-status women were of necessity univira (once-married women), or else shame would fall upon them, their families and their spouses. The juxtaposition of this symbol with the adulterous Sabina could be seen as ironic or, perhaps, a statement of Sabina’s personal determination in a misogynistic world.