SYRIA, Seleucis and Pieria. Emesa
Antoninus Pius, AD 138-161
Æ24, 12.06 gm, 11h
Obv: Laureate head right
Rev: Eagle, holding wreath in beak, standing right, head left, on baetyl of El-Gabal
Ref: SNG Copenhagen 309 (Γ in right field of rev.); SNG München 811 var. (Є in right field of rev.); BMC 1-7 (various letters on rev.)
Emesa was the major cult center for the deity El-Gabal, who was worshipped there in the form of a baetyl (an aniconic stone idol; in the case of El-Gabal, a large black conical stone, often interpreted as a meteorite).
Some sixty years after Pius’ death, a teenage priest of the god, Varius Avitus Bassianus, was declared emperor and took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, although he is more commonly known as Elagabalus for his devotion to El-Gabal. Elagabalus moved the baetyl to Rome upon his accession and, for a brief period, it seemed that El-Gabal might become the principle deity in the Roman pantheon. Wishing to distance himself from Elagabalus’ unpopular religious practices, his successor Severus Alexander sent the baetyl back to Emesa.
The cult of El-Gabal saw a resurgence in Rome under Aurelian, who wisely promoted the worship of the deity in an iconic form more acceptable to westerners.