Coin Relief – Issue Ten

Here is the next edition of our regular blog series on ancient coins from the PAS database. In this edition, Dr. Andrew Brown looks at the coinage of Geta and Caracalla – a tale of sibling rivalry that did not end well for one of the brothers…

Geta (AD 198-212)

Denarius of Geta c.AD 198-200. Record ID is LVPL-287532 (Copyright: National Museum Liverpool, Licence: CC-BY).

The youngest son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna,
Publius Septimius Geta, was born in Rome on the 7th March
AD 189. Conflict with his older brother, Caracalla, was a constant problem for Geta as well as the extended imperial family, with Julia Doman often acting as intermediary between the two. Ultimately, this would prove Geta’s undoing but not before he had served for some time alongside his father and brother in office as caesar and then augustus. When Severus became emperor in AD 198, he immediately promoted Caracalla to co-ruler with Geta as the more junior caesar. Geta continued as caesar for more then a
decade, as consul in AD 205 and again in AD 208, before
heading off to campaign in Britain with the imperial family.

During the British campaigns, Geta remained in York in charge of the civil administration of both the province and the empire while Severus and Caracalla campaigned north of Hadrian’s
Wall. Victory brought with it a new title, Britannicus, for each of the male rulers and for Geta in AD 209 elevation to the status of augustus, perhaps much to the resentment of his brother.
Cassius Dio (LXXVII.15) recounts how Severus’ dying words were designed to bring the brothers together to rule the empire jointly. However, this hope soon disappeared. After Severus’ death at York in February AD 211, the two brothers grew increasingly apart and at conflict with one another. Supporters of each rallied around their favourite and the imperial palace at Rome was even divided in two in an attempt to enable the brothers to co-exist and co-rule. Caracalla sought to take sole control of the empire and, after an initial failed attempt, assassinated Geta in his mother’s arms in late December AD 211 (see Herodian 4.3-4.4).
Following the murder, Caracalla proceeded to purge not only Geta and his name and image from history – his damnatio memoriae – but also all those who supported or were even
remotely linked to Geta! The number of deaths is put at 20,000 by Cassius Dio (LXXVIII.4.1), although this may be somewhat inflated. Whatever the number, numerous monuments, sculptures, and smaller objects like coinage were subject to the removal of Geta’s image or name. Hardly the peaceful joint rule Severus could have imagined!

Coinage of Geta

Much like we have already seen with Septimius Severus and Julia Domna, Geta’s coinage follows quite well-defined chronological developments that typically allow for the relatively close identification of individual coin types. One of the difficulties on very worn coins is separating out those of Geta and his brother Caracalla, who as young caesars appear very similar! I follow RIC IV.1 here for Geta and this is a useful starting point for identifying whether the coin you have is one or other of the caesars, particularly if the legends are not visible or only partly visible.

The PAS has 332 records for Geta (including 51 IARCW records), of which 318 are for denarii, again highlighting the paucity of bronze coinage during the Severan period. Coins of the mint of Rome remain the most prolific within the PAS dataset, numbering 237 identified records, but this is not the sole mint that issued for Geta.

Denarius of Geta c.AD 200-202, Mint of Rome. Record ID is WILT-3B7D64 (Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Licence: CC-BY).

Coins were also struck at an eastern mint, probably Laodicea ad Mare, until c.AD 203 but these are rare compared to
their Rome counterparts in Britain – there are fewer than 15 examples currently identified on the PAS database, although I suspect there may be others that need reattribution from Rome
to the Eastern mint. Although gold was struck there are no PAS examples.

Denarius of Geta c.AD 198-200, Eastern Mint. Record ID is BH-0F3387 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence: CC-BY).

Geta’s coinage essentially falls into three periods: with Geta as caesar until AD 209; after his elevation to augustus in AD 209 and before the death of Severus in AD 211; finally, as co-ruler with Caracalla between AD 211 and his death (probably in December of that year or early in AD 212). In RIC IV.1 this is divided based on the development of the obverse legends combined with the award of his various imperial titles – Geta was consul (COS) in
AD 205 and AD 208, held tribunician powers (TR P) for a second time in AD 210, then again in AD 211 and AD 212, was augustus (AVG) from AD 209, and assumed the title BRIT in AD 210.

Caracalla (AD 196-217)

Bust of Caracalla from the British Museum collections (BM: 1805,0703.102, copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

Lucius Septimius Bassianus was born in Lyon on the 4th April AD 188 as the first son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. Better known to history as Caracalla, a nickname afforded him supposedly due to a type of Gallic hooded cloak that he regularly wore (Epitome De Caesaribus 21). At the age of just 8 years old, he was elevated by his father to caesar and, two years later, to augustus and co-ruler of the Roman empire. As we have seen in previous blogs, Caracalla was very much a key figure in the imperial family and the new dynasty being created by Severus, following his father on campaign and serving the empire particularly in matters military. In AD 202 he was forced into marriage with Plautilla, who he appears to have disliked hugely – after her father was executed for treason in AD 205, she was banished to Lipari and then murdered, possibly on Caracalla’s orders in AD 211. His conflict with Geta was a continual problem, though, and while the two tolerated one another during Severus’ lifetime, after his death in AD 211 Caracalla acted swiftly and had his brother murdered by the end of that year or the beginning of AD 212.

During his early life and alongside Severus, he was consul three times, first in AD 202, and then with Geta in AD 205 and 208. A fourth consulship was taken in AD 213 after Severus’ death, and each year from AD 198 he held the power of the tribune (tribunicia potestas). Campaign and victory of sorts with Severus in Britain from AD 208-211 brought additional honours with the tile Britannicus, which appears on his coinage for several years.
Following Geta’s death and the expunging of his brother from history, Caracalla left Rome to campaign in Gaul in c.AD 213 and was to never return. He became popular with the military, in part due to his preference to march amongst and alongside them. Perhaps equally persuasive were his political machinations that prompted two key changes in AD 212. The first was his constitutio antoniniana (the Antonine Constitution) that awarded all free men of the empire full Roman citizenship (and also provided him with a bigger pool of tax payers and soldiers!). The second was his increase of military pay by about 50%. As we shall see this in turn had a knock-on effect for the development of Roman coinage. Successful campaigns in Gaul in AD 213 led to the senate awarding him the title Germanicus Maximus and were followed by his move east into Asia Minor and then onto Alexandria. During this time (c.AD 213-215) he began to fixate on the history and mythology of Alexander the Great, according to Cassius Dio (LXXVIII.7) going so far as to suggest that “he must call his hero
“the Augustus of the East”; and once he actually wrote to the senate that Alexander had come to life again in the person of the Augustus, that he might live on once more in him, having
had such a short life before”! He appears to have become increasingly erratic and when in Alexandria in AD 215, after having visiting the tomb of his hero Alexander, he snapped. A
violent massacre ensued with Caracalla’s men murdering thousands of unarmed civilians. After Alexandria, Caracalla campaigned in the east first in Armenia and then against
Artabanus V in Parthia, culminating in underhand tactics by Caracalla that enabled Roman forces to expand east of the Tigris in AD 216 before returning to Edessa (Şanlıurfa, Turkey)
to over winter. On the 8th April AD 217, the emperor was travelling from Edessa to Carrhae (Harran, Turkey) and stopped to relieve himself. At which point, unguarded, an assassin,
Martialis (probably at the order of Macrinus, who plotted to take Caracalla’s place as the next Roman emperor), killed him with a single sword blow.

 The Baths of Caracalla in Rome (Copyright: Andrew Brown).

Caracalla’s ashes were returned to Rome and placed in the
Mausoleum of Hadrian, Julia’s following shortly afterwards. He
was not subject to damnatio memoriae like his brother had
been and was in fact later deified by Elagabalus. Caracalla is often seen as something of a cruel tyrant as a result of his actions around the empire. At times of poor health, insecure and unstable, and notably affected by his hero worship of Alexander. He was also regarded as a soldier in all that that entailed (good and bad!), but as a result a poor leader of the empire at large. He did widen citizenship, military pay, reform Roman coinage, and
notably completed the monumental construction of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. But these latter elements are often overlooked against the backdrop of his character and the historical events of his lifetime.

Coinage of Caracalla

Caracalla’s coinage is quite lengthy, covering the period from his elevation as caesar in AD 196 to his death in AD 217. The PAS has 927 records for coins of Caracalla in the various phases of his life (including 166 IARCW records), the majority of which are for his silver coinages although there are c.40 bronze coins from this period too but so far no gold. As with the other Severans, plated and base metal copies are common and we are dealing largely with issues from the mint of Rome but with some Eastern mint coins, probably from Laodicea, during the early years of his rule under Severus until c.AD 202/203.

There are too many types to explore individually, however a useful feature are the many coin types that provide key dates relating to his various titles and offices. After AD 198 he took tribunician powers each year (TR P to TR P XX in AD 217), with consulships (COS) in AD 202, 205, 208, and 213. These dated types are less common on the PAS database than types which do not carry any specific reference to dates or titles, but they do
provide a framework for his entire coinage. For the undated series, the development of the obverse legends and types (based on what is known from the dated issues) allow us to place them within broad periods throughout his reign. So we see his development from a very young caesar of just 8 years old, to a young man in his 20s by the time of the British campaigns, and finally a slightly stern and bearded soldier at the end of his life.

The first coinages of Caracalla were struck in c.AD 196-198 during the period of Severus’ rise to power and with the threat of the likes of Clodius Albinus in the background. Severus’ elevation of Caracalla to caesar in AD 196 ultimately prompted conflict with Albinus but this also secured the empire. Caracalla takes the imperial name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus rather than his birth name on his coinage and this is a demonstration of Severus’ attempts to create a new dynasty with links to the Antonines of the previous century. As caesar, Caracalla is a young boy, depicted bare headed, and with types that reflect his position as prince and
soon to be augustus.

Base denarius of Caracalla c.AD 196-198, showing him as a bare-headed young boy. Record ID is GLO-1DA4F1 (Copyright: Bristol City Council, Licence: CC-BY).

Septimius elevated Caracalla to augustus at the age of just 10 years old in AD 198. On the early phases of his coinage as co-emperor, Caracalla is still depicted as a young boy, but the
distinctive feature is the appearance of a laureate rather than bare head that marks him as augustus. This can also be a useful diagnostic tool in separating worn coins of Caracalla and Geta. The early issues of this period are rare as PAS finds, particularly those short groups of coins with longer and/or dated legends between AD 198-200.

Denarius of Caracalla c.AD 199, depicted as a young boy with a laureate on his head. Record ID is DUR-972D60.

The increase in military pay in AD 212, combined with the continued debasement of the denarius, prompted the introduction in c.AD 215 of a new silver denomination. The presence of a radiate crown on the bust type (for empresses, the obverse type rests on a crescent), referencing the sun god Sol, has led this coin to be called a radiate, although it is unclear what the coin was actually called in antiquity. What we can say is that it was likely a double denomination – hence the radiate crown in much the same was the dupondius with radiate crown was valued at two asses – and so probably a double denarius. Interestingly, it contained far less than twice the quantity of silver of the denarius! Over the course of the next half century, the radiate would become the dominant coin type but experienced huge debasement from the coins issued initially by Caracalla that were of quite good silver content, to coins with little more than 1-2% silver by the AD 270s. These are surprisingly rare coins on the PAS given the volume of radiates that appear in later periods. There are fewer than 20 examples, of which 7 are IARCW Welsh records.

Radiate of Caracalla c.AD 216, depicting him with the radiate crown that gives the coin its modern name. Record ID is SWYOR-B92118 (Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, Licence: CC-BY).

References and further reading:

D. Calomino Defacing the Past: Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome (2016), Chapter 5

R. Abdy ‘The Severans’ in The Oxford Handbook of Greek
and Roman Coinage (2012)