Coin Relief 37 – Commodus

Welcome to the latest edition of Coin Relief! In this issue Sam Moorhead looks at the coinage of Commodus, both as Caesar and as Augustus with Marcus Aurelius.

The coinage of Commodus (c.AD 175-192)

Commodus was born in AD 161 and made Caesar by Marcus Aurelius in AD 162. However, it appears that no coins were struck for him until AD 175 (although RIC III dates some to AD 172-6). This article follows the dating in
BMC IV which dates his first issues to AD 175.

Commodus was made Augustus alongside his father in AD 177 and an increasing number of coins were struck for him in the last years of Marcus Aurelius’ reign. Commodus married Bruttia Crispina in AD 178, but the dating of her coinage is highly problematic and her coinage will be dealt with in a separate piece. For his coinage with Marcus Aurelius, dating to c. AD 175-80, there are around 50 coins on the PAS Database. These comprise 12 silver denarii, 28 base-metal sestertii, 4 dupondii and 6 asses. On the Database, these coins have the ruler dropdown ‘Commodus under Marcus Aurelius’ which places the coins in Reece Period 8.

Coinage as Caesar, c.AD 175-77

Left to right: Silver denarii of Commodus as Caesar (DENO-839F0E, LANCUM-A587C3, both Portable Antiquities Scheme, License CC-BY-SA). Copper-alloy as of Commodus as Caesar (DENO-D3ACE6, Derby Museums Trust, License CC-BY-SA).

Commodus as joint Augustus with Marcus Aurelius, AD 177-80

Left to right: Copper alloy dupondius of Commodus as Augustus with Marcus Aurelius (BUC-2CD010, Buckinghamshire County Museum, License CC-BY-SA). Silver denarii of Commodus as Augustus with Marcus Aurelius (LVPL-8690C2, National Museums Liverpool, HAMP-FBE581, Winchester Museums Service, both License CC-BY-SA).

Commodus as sole Augustus, AD 180-92

Upon Marcus Aurelius’ death in AD 180, Commodus assumed power as sole Augustus. However, this occurred midway within an issue so it is not possible to date some coins to his joint or sole reign. However, we include these coins under the ruler
dropdown for Commodus, linking to Reece Period 9. His reign is marked by considerable intrigue and increasing turmoil in Rome. The following outline loosely follows some of the major events and themes of his reign. A few other coins, not related to the specific topics discussed, are included in their chronological position.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 179-80. This issue began to be struck before Marcus Aurelius died in AD 180, but continued after his death. Record ID WILT-EB82E1 (Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, License CC-BY-SA).

Excluding the IARCW Welsh data, there are 1065 coins for Commodus as sole Augustus on the PAS Database. They comprise 269 silver denarii, 718 base-metal sestertii, 43 dupondii, 39 asses and 22 dupondii or asses. We witness a major predominance of base-metal coins, notably the sestertius which outnumbers the denarius by over 2.5 to 1. This dominance of the sestertius over the denarius is to suddenly be reversed in the Severan Period when for Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) the denarius (1,449 specimens, including copies) massively outnumbers sestertii (153 specimens) by almost 9.5 to 1! It should also be noted that the
silver denarius was debased by Marcus Aurelius around AD 170 and twice subsequently by Commodus in the AD 180s; this heralds the increasing debasement of the denarius in the
Severan period.

Liberalitas and Donatives

Commodus struck a large number of coins, showing Liberalitas, which celebrate donations of money made to the populace of Rome. Each Liberalitas is numbered, I and II occurring when he was ruling with Marcus Aurelius (in c. AD 175 and in AD 177). During his sole reign, there were seven such donations, Liberalitas III to VIIII, spanning his whole reign from AD 180 to AD 192. Liberalitas III was in AD 180 and is celebrated on a sestertius which shows the full scene of Commdodus handing out largesse to the people. However, the clearest Liberalitas coins on the PAS Database tend to be silver denarii which just show the personification of Liberalitas.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 181-182 with personification of Liberalitas on the reverse. Record ID SWYOR-50A748 (West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, License CC-BY).

The Conspiracy of Lucilla

n 181/2, Commodus’ sister (and widow of Lucius Verus, AD 161-9), Lucilla, led a conspiracy against Commodus. It failed and Lucilla was exiled to Capri. It has been suggested (BMC IV, p. clvii) that as a result of this event, Commodus took the title ‘Pius’ to align himself with the virtuous Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, in contrast to the impious Lucilla and her associates.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 182-3, with Pius legend. Record ID DOR-806F42 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License CC-BY).

AD 184-5 – Britannicus and the fall of Perennis

In the early 180s there had been problems on Britain’s northern frontier, with the apparent breaching of Hadrian’s Wall. By 184, the governor of Britain, Marcellus, had restored order which was the opportunity for Commodus to take the title Britannicus and
celebrate the victory on his coinage. However, there was unrest within the Roman army in Britain, apparently due to changes being made by Perennis, Commodus’s chief minister in Rome. A legionary commander called Priscus was even declared emperor in Britain, but the coup failed. However, this did not stop 1,500 ‘javelin men’ from Britain marching to Rome to complain about Perennis. Their complaints were heard by Commodus and Perennis was executed in AD 185.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 184, with Commodus hearing complaints about Perennis on the reverse. Record ID WILT-867A0D (Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, License CC-BY).

The Annona/Corn Supply of Rome

Maintaining the corn supply of Rome (the Annona) was a crucial element for imperial contral of Rome, as stated in Juvenal’s panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’). Annona was the
personification of the corn-harvest, most commonly used to represent the corn supply brought to Rome by large fleets from Egypt and North Africa. The modius that appears on coins was a corn measure. In AD 186, Commodus did build a new grain
fleet for Rome.

Pius Felix

We have seen above how Commodus took the title Pius in AD 183. In AD 184, he added the title Felix. Here, Commodus combines the Felicity of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) with the piety of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-61), creating a formula which is to become commonly used by emperors of the later Roman Empire (when it is normally abbreviated P F on coins). In general usage Pius Felix was to mean ‘pious to the Gods, blessed by the Gods’. P FEL / FELIX are the most common abbreviations on the coinage of Commodus.

AD 187 – Commodus’ tenth jubilee (decennalia)

n AD 186/7, Commodus celebrated his tenth year as Augustus. On the coin below, Commodus is seen fulfilling his vows (vota soluta) with a sacrifice after ten years of rule.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 186-7, with reverse depicting Commodus sacrificing at a tripod altar. Record ID PUBLIC-72C6C1 (All rights reserved, License CC-BY-SA).

Mint reforms in AD 186-7?

In AD 186-7, Commodus introduced a novel new type showing the three monetae on the reverse of his sestertii. It is suggested that this might refer to mint reforms in Rome.

AD 186-9 – The different guises of Fortuna

Fortuna was regarded as an essential attribute of a successful emperor; without Fortuna on your side you were doomed. She took on different forms, however, as shown clearly in Commodus’s coinage, some which are shown above. The image below shows, from left to right: ‘Fortuna Redux’ (‘Fortune the Home-bringer’), in this case probably in anticipation of Commodus travelling to Germany or Africa; ‘Fortuna Manens’ (‘Fortune the Steadier’) is much rarer on coins, but as Harold Mattingly writes she was popular with Romans: ‘… a Fortuna as firmly held as the horse which she herself bridles.’ (BMC IV, p. clxv); and ‘Fortuna Felix’ who ‘combines the wealth of Fortuna with the magic luck of Felicitas.’

Left to right: copper alloy sestertius (DENO-ED7C9D, Derby Museums Trust); silver denarius (BM-AA3304, Vincent Drost); and copper alloy sestertius (DOR-5F62D5). All images License CC-BY-SA.

AD 188-90 – Extolling Rome’s power and stability, and the fall of Cleander

The coinage of this period presents an ordered, peaceful and divinely-ordained Rome, with types proclaiming ‘eternal peace’, victorious Minerva and Mars ‘the bringer of peace’. The reality was that matters in Rome were becoming increasingly troubled under Commodus’ chief minister, Cleander. Finally, during the races in the Circus Maximus, the people rioted against Cleander because there was a food shortage; Cleander was forced to flee to Commodus who had him executed. Apollo of the Palatine was the
protective deity of the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill and might be represented on coins to show that after the disturbances Commodus was in residence in the city. The coin below is an unusual type which shows Apollo as a protective deity of the Mint.

Silver denarius of Commodus, Rome, AD 190. Record ID SUR-6FF567 (Surrey County Council, License CC-BY).

Loyalty of the army

It must be remembered that whilst there were court intrigues and increasingly turbulent times in Rome, Commodus maintained the army’s loyalty, both the Praetorian Guard in Rome, and the
army further afield (at least for now). A number of coins show this, some extolling the ‘Faith of the Cohorts’.

Commodus and Hercules

In the last few years of Commodus’ reign, he increasingly suffered from megalomania. He began to perform in the arena at the games (as now immortalised in the film Gladiator). He had already honoured Hercules earlier in his reign but increasingly associated himself with the god in his later years, giving rise to a wide range of types in his last two years, some even depicting him as Hercules on the obverse.

Copper alloy sestertius of Commodus, Rome, AD 192, depicting the emperor as Hercules on the reverse. Record ID HAMP1747 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License CC-BY-SA).

New Year’s Eve, AD 192 – The demise of Commodus

Commodus’ reign became increasingly turbulent in AD 192. After a major fire in Rome, Commodus styled himself as a new Romulus and even named the city after himself: Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. It appears that in attempt to bolster his throne he had two ‘liberalities’ (numbers VIII and VIIII) to bribe the people of Rome. In the end the Praetorian Prefect Laetus hatched a plot with Commodus’ servant, Eclectus, which even
included Commodus’ mistress, Marcia. On New Year’s Eve, AD 192, their attempt to poison Commodus failed, but he was strangled by his wrestling partner, Narcissus, in the bath. He was succeeded by Pertinax who reigned for just under three months.