Septimius Severus and the case of RIC321

This week I recorded a coin that I have not seen before and the denarius at this time has an interesting story.

BERK-6C680C Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0

The coin in question is one issued during the reign of Septimius Severus (AD193 – 211). The coin is as follows:

Silver-plated contemporary copy of a denarius of Septimius Severus (AD193 – 211)

Obv: [SEVERVS] PIVS AVG. Bust of Septimius Severus, laureate, right


Date Range of obverse Prototype:AD 202 – AD 210. Reverse prototype of Caracalla dates to AD 201 (RIC IV, pt 1, p 220, no. 54)

RIC IV, pt 1, p. 131, cf. no. 321.

Reece Period 10

Contemporary forgery with an obverse of Severus and reverse of Caracalla.

Sam Moorhead notes: “This type is noted in an Appendix in RIC with other coins which are hybrids or even doubtful. It is quite possible that it is a similar plated coin as this which gives rise to the RIC entry.”

Gazdac (2010: 162) writes “The increase of silver coins and the scarcity of bronze finds in this [Severan] period seem to be a general pattern for most areas of the Roman Empire. As has been argued in the previous chapter, a possible context could be the process of gradual debasement of the silver coinage, which can be combined with the very strong increase of the number of plated silver coins.”

So along with debasement of the denarius, an increase in the number of coins minted we get an increase in forged coins. This sounds rather paradoxical, however, Severus debased the denarius to around 50%. For context, the the Julio-Claudian period it was 90%+. This means it is much easier for people to forge coins. By sight they would have looked very similar. 

Another reason is once people realise what is happening they start to demand more for their goods and in wages as they don’t see the coinage holding its true value. This leads to more coinage being required.

During his reign, Septimius Severus seems to have doubled the army pay (Speidel 2009: 350). This is one reason more coinage was minted during his reign. Debasement of the denarius was needed in order to make the coinage go further. However, it seems that was not enough as forgeries of his coinage is found all across the Empire.

Another type of coin from this period is the so-called Limes Denarius, like this example

BERK-C700D4 Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0

Julia Domna copper-alloy ‘Limes Denarius’ or ‘limesfalsa’

Obv. IVLI[A AVGV]STA, draped bust right

Rev, HILA[RITAS], Hilaritas standing left holding a long branch and cornucopiae.

RIC 639, Limes

These coins copy silver denarii in copper-alloy and could well have been made out of necessity to pay the army – hence the name ‘Limes denarius’ has stuck.

The big question is, were these coins officially or semi-officially sanctioned? Paying the army was important for their loyalty and as Severus had upped their pay he needed to keep up coin production. Whether they were official or not they were likely tolerated in circulation to some extent. Sam Moorhead has said “We need to remember that from AD 197 there was a dearth of base metal coinage until at least the 220s, and it never got to earlier levels. Therefore, plated coins might have served a useful purpose.”

Cassius Dio records his last words as “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”


Gazdac, C. 2010. Monetary circulation in Dacia and the provinces from the
Middle and Lower Danube from Trajan to Constantine I (AD
106-337). Mega Publishing House: Cluj-Napoca.

Speidel, M. 2009. Roman Army Pay Scales. In Heer and Herrschaft. Römischen Reich der Hohen Kaiserzeit. Stuttgart. 349-380.