Coin Relief – Issue Ten

Here is the next edition in our series of Roman coin blogs written by Dr. Andrew Brown and Dr. Sam Moorhead. They explore the many Roman coins recorded on the PAS database.

AD 193 – The year of the five emperors

By the end of AD 192, the emperor Commodus’ megalomania was readily apparent. Self-styled as Hercules the son of Zeus (see figure left: BM R.15096), his god complex saw him rename the months of the year after his twelve names, rename Rome itself as Colonia Commodiana with him as its second founder, and he was furthermore declared a living god. His exploits in the arena as both gladiator and embodiment of Hercules shocked Rome while many in power grew increasingly fearful for their positions. The situation was volatile and after declaring his intention to begin the new year (AD 193) as both consul and gladiator, events came to a head. A coup on the 31st December AD 192 manufactured by Quintus Aemilius Laetus, commander of the praetorian guard and Eclectus, the imperial chamberlain, saw Commodus’ concubine, Marcia, administer poison in an attempt to depose him and install Pertinax as the new emperor. Commodus was violently sick and to ensure the coup was successful the conspirators sent Narcissus, Commodus’ wrestling partner, to strangle him in the bath.

Commodus’ death brought about the end of the Antonine dynasty and he was subject to damnatio memoriae, with his name and image removed from all variety of monuments and objects. His death also ushered in a period of civil unrest within the empire. With no direct successor, rule fell first to Pertinax and then a series of four other rival claimants during the year AD 193 before Septimius Severus was able to wrest control and introduce an element of stability.

We have already seen in a previous post the coinage of Clodius Albinus, but in this edition we will look briefly at three of the other rivals to imperial power from the ‘year of the five emperors’ – Pertinax, Didius Julianus, and Pescennius Niger. The fifth, Septimius Severus, will be looked at in greater detail.

Publius Helvius Pertinax (January 1st-March 28th AD 193)

Denarius of Pertinax dating to AD 193. Record ID is OXON-4C2792 (Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council, License: CC-BY).

The son of a freed slave, Publius Helvius Pertinax was born in Alba Pompeia (Liguria) on the 1st of August AD 126. In his mid-30s he embarked on a military career that saw him serve under Lucius Verus in the Parthian Wars, at York with the Legio VI Victrix, and in the Marcommanic Wars under Marcus Aurelius. He subsequently held office as governor of Moesia, Dacia, Syria, and, between AD 185-187, of Britain. His time in Britain involved the (successful) suppression of a mutiny but in the end he asked to leave, apparently because “the legions were hostile to him because he had been strict in his discipline” (Historia Augusta,
Pertinax, 3.10). Between AD 188-189 he was proconsul in Africa but at the time of Commodus’ assassination he held the office of urban prefect and consul in Rome.

Pertinax’s reign was a brief one. The conspirators in Commodus’ assassination rushed him that same night first to gain the support of the praetorians – which he did with an offer of 12,000 sestertces a head! – and then to the senate, where, after feigning reluctance to accept, he was installed as augustus. Pertinax’s problem was that he had failed to grasp that “one cannot with safety reform everything at once” (Cassius Dio, LXXIV.10). His policies alienated many, especially the praetorians who it seems only received half of the 12,000 sestertii they were promised! Mattingly in his commentary in RIC (IV.1 pp. 5, 13) describes
Pertinax as weak but well-meaning, a sort of ‘second Galba’. It seems that he was regarded as somewhat ungenerous and not of great ability (e.g. Cassius Dio, LXXIV.12). An initial plot to overthrow him was made by the praetorians in early March AD 193, but on the 28th a contingent of 2-300 soldiers arrived at the imperial residence and demanded what had been promised to them. Pertinax, rather than fleeing, attempted to reason with them. This backfired though and he was stabbed to death by the assembled mob. At the age of 66 he had ruled for just 87 days.

A poorly-preserved sestertius of Pertinax, dating to AD 193. Record ID is PUBLIC-5BF776 (Copyright: retained by illustrator, License: CC-BY-SA).

Given his very brief period in power, Pertinax’s coinage is equally limited in volume. There are just 39 types listed in RIC IV.1 although Mattingly does note (p. 3) that despite this there is an element of originality to the types represented. Rome is the only mint represented and obverse legends are usually either IMP CAES P HELV PERTIN AVG or IMP CAES P HELV PERTINAX AVG.
The PAS data is equally sparse. Coins of Pertinax are not common in Britain and there are just 14 examples recorded on the PAS database (including 2 IARCW records). The majority of these – 11 coins – are denarii, with the remaining three poorly preserved sestertii.

Marcus Didius Severus Julianus (28th March-1st June AD 193)

Pertinax’s murder by the praetorians left no clear successor as emperor. So began one of the most bizarre and notorious successions in Roman history. Marcus Didius Severus Julianus
was born in Milan in AD 133 or 137 to parents of Milanese and North African descent. He was raised within the household of Marcus Aurelius’ mother Domitia Lucilla. By AD 172 he had risen through the ranks to command the Legio XXII Primigenia in Germany before sharing the consulship with Pertinax in AD 175. As governor of Dalmatia, Germany Inferior, Bithynia, and then Africa he increased his standing and political position. By the time of Pertinax’s death, therefore, he was in an ideal position to assume power.

Sestertius of Didius Julianus dating to AD 193. Record ID is KENT-CF6FE2 (Copyright: Kent County Council, License: CC-BY).

However, the transition of power on the 28th March was far from straightforward! The praetorians held sway and at their camp two rival candidates for emperor, Julianus and Pertinax’s father-in-law Titus Flavius Sulpicianus engaged in a bidding war, an auction, to buy the imperial throne (Cassius Dio, LXXIV.11). Julianus as the high bidder at 25,000 sesterces per praetorian (although paying 30,000) effectively bought control of the empire
from the praetorians. The manner in which the empire had changed hands made Julianus hugely unpopular. He had been elevated by the praetorians (a second Otho to Pertinax’s Galba!), but even their support soon disappeared. More of a problem was in the border provinces where outrage at the auction of imperial power resulted in three rival claimants as emperor. We have already seen the coinage of Clodius Albinus, who declared himself emperor with the support of the legions in Britain. The Syrian legions in their turn proclaimed Pescennius Niger as their emperor by mid-April (see below). More pressing for Julianus,
though, was the governor of Upper Pannonia, Lucius Septimius Severus, who declared himself emperor on the 9th April with the support of the legions on the Rhine and Danube. Severus was able to postpone conflict with Albinus by offering him position as caesar while he turned to deal with Julianus in Rome. Julianus attempted to slow Severus’ advance through political pressure in the senate and with the military support of the praetorians.
However, as Severus closed in on Rome, support for Julianus disappeared and on 1st June AD 193 the senate sentenced him to death.

Julianus’ coinage is very small in quantity and variety given he ruled for little more than two months. He essentially has one issue of coinage divided in two based on obverse legends that
initially read IMP CAES M DID IVLIAN AVG and subsequently have the addition of his name Severus (IMP CAES M DID SEVER IVLIAN AVG), perhaps in an attempt to align with or appease Septimius Severus. There are three main reverse types across all of Julianus’ denominations and with the addition of coinage for his wife Manlia Scantilla and daughter Didia Clara there appear to have been five officinae at the mint in Rome during this period.
PAS examples are, like those of Pertinax, rare – there are just four denarii and five sestertii for Julianus plus one contemporary copy that is possibly muled with a type of Severus.

Plated copy of a denarius of Didius Julianus dating to AD 193. Record ID is HESH-4E4964 (Copyright: Birmingham Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

The coinage of Julianus’ wife and daughter are rarer still than those of Julianus. There are currently two sestertii and one denarius of Scantilla of which only one sestertius has an
image (WILT-D0772D). To date no examples of Didia Clara have been reported, although there are a number of worn bronze coins of this period that could be either of the two (but equally either
Crispina or Julia Domna).

Gaius Pescennius Niger (April AD 193 – April/May AD 194)

Denarius of Pescennius Niger dating to AD 193-194. Record ID is BUC-9298E5 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

As governor of Syria since AD 191, Gaius Pescennius Niger was declared emperor by his legions after Pertinax’s death and Julianus’ purchase of imperial power. His power base was in Antioch and as popular opinion in Rome turned against Julianus many sought support and assistance from Niger (Historia Augusta, Pescennius Niger, 2-3). However, Niger was slow to act. Severus reach Rome following Julianus’ death and so any attempt by Niger to consolidate his power was immediately hampered. With Clodius Albinus temporarily removed as a threat, Severus turned instead to deal with Niger’s threat to his power from the
east.

Severus’ legions marched east towards Asia Minor where Niger had secured the Taurus mountains north of his capital at Antioch and Byzantium further west. Severus gained important victories however at Cyzicus and Nicaea, pushing Niger back to the Taurus. A decisive battle took place near Issus, close to the Cilician Gates, in the spring of AD 194 with Niger’s army suffering heavy defeat. In his attempt to flee to Parthia, Niger was captured and beheaded, his head was sent to Rome and Severus pushed on into Mesopotamia to campaign against those who had sided with Niger.

Denarius of Pescennius Niger dating to AD 193-194. Record ID is PUBLIC-C27DF1 (Copyright: Stephen Auker, License: CC-BY).

Niger was apparently a distinguished figure, an excellent soldier, a disciplinarian, “but as an emperor, unlucky” (Historia Augusta, Pescennius Niger, 6.10). His name ‘Niger’ was purportedly due to his very black neck that was in stark contrast to the rest of his body! Niger struck no bronze coinage but issued silver and, rarely, gold. This was mostly from the mint of Antioch, although it seems as though the provincial mints of Alexandria and Caesarea
were also used. The types issued by Niger are more extensive and with a greater range of influences resultant from his position in the eastern half of the empire. They were also struck for longer than both Pertinax and Julianus combined! Given their eastern output and the fact that Albinus, allied to Severus, was active in the western empire, it is not surprising that his coinage is hugely rare in Britain. There are just two coins recorded through the PAS (BUC-9298E5 and PUBLIC-C27DF1).

Septimius Severus (AD 193-211)

Septimius Severus (statue in The British Museum collections, BM: 1802,0710.2)

In the Roman provinces the death of Pertinax and purchase
of imperial power by Didius Julianus was met with outrage. We have already seen how this led to declarations of support behind new emperors in both Syria and the western empire. The Roman legions on the Rhine and Danube frontiers instead turned to Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), the governor of Upper Pannonia, who was declared emperor at Carnuntum in early April AD 193.

Severus was born in Leptis Magna (Libya) on the 11th April AD 145 to a distinguished provincial family that had Roman origins and maintained familial connections within the political sphere of Rome. He attained senatorial rank under Marcus Aurelius in AD 162 before returning to Leptis when the Antonine plague struck Rome in AD 166. During the AD 170s he held various civil and military offices, notably as quaestor, then legatus to his cousin the proconsul of Africa, and Tribune of the plebs in Rome. He married Julia Domna in AD 187 by whom he had two sons,
Lucius Septimius Bassianus (better known as Caracalla)
(AD 198-217) and Publius Septimius Geta (AD 209-212). In AD 190 he was made consul for the first time and the following year (AD 191) governor of the province of Upper Pannonia.

After being declared emperor by the legions on the Rhine, Severus and his army were quick to turn their attention to Rome and the assassins of his friend and colleague Pertinax. He gained the support of the senate from Ravenna and “rode up to the gates [of Rome] on horseback dressed in cavalry uniform…the whole army, infantry and cavalry alike, accompanied him in full ceremonial armour” (Cassius Dio 74.1). To avenge Pertinax’s
death, prior to his ceremonial entry into Rome Severus disbanded the Praetorian Guard and executed those responsible for the assassination. He then took Pertinax’s name as part of his own imperial titles and deified the dead emperor, while establishing a new military presence in the form of a renewed Praetorian Guard populated with forces loyal to his cause. With Clodius Albinus installed in the west as caesar and for the time being not a threat, he turned to deal with Pescennius Niger in the east.

Severus’ coinage

Coins of Septimius Severus are common finds recorded through the PAS. There are over 1,800 database records for Severus alone (including 282 IARCW records), with the majority (1,648 records) for denarii struck during his reign. Severus’ reign is defined by his campaigns first in the east against Niger and the Parthians, and then in the west against Albinus and in Britain. During this period, he cultivated a large army and by AD 197 had probably doubled military pay. The corresponding need for extensive silver to pay his soldiers led to a decrease in the silver content of the denarius down to about 40% by AD 196.1 As a consequence, there is a proliferation of often quite base silver coinage and this is reflected in the PAS data, plausibly also affected by Severus’ expedition to Britain at the end of his life that would have brought with it the army, the imperial court, and “an immense amount of money” (Cassius Dio 76.12). A by-product of this is the appearance in quite large number of contemporary copies
of Severan denarii recorded through the PAS, either as base or plated coins, which are generally lacking in the same volume within contemporary hoards. In contrast to the silver, bronze coinage is comparatively limited in quantity. Britain
experiences a period of minimal supply of bronze coinage from the end of the 2nd century as a result of a drop in production of bronze from the mints with the need for extensive silver coinage throughout the empire. This makes bronze denominations much less common as single finds in Britain. Indeed, there are, for example, only 144 PAS records for sestertii of Septimius Severus. On the Roman limes on the Rhine, and probably also in Britain, this in turn prompts the appearance of cast lightweight bronze coinages – Limesfalschungen – to fill the need for smaller bronze denominations.

Mints

Rome was the major mint producing silver and bronze coinage throughout Severus’ reign, and coins from the workshops here are those most frequently recorded through the PAS.

Denarius of Septimius Severus minted in Rome, dating to AD 194. Record ID is GLO-1C4C7A (Copyright: Bristol City Council, License: CC-BY).

However, Severus’ eastern campaigns against Niger in AD 193-194 resulted in silver coinage from several eastern mints at least until he moved his forces west in AD 196. This presumably reflects his need to pay a large army! Four eastern mints have been identified as in operation during this period:
• Alexandria (Egypt) – production continued here from the period of Niger’s rule into that of Severus. Denarii from the mint at Alexandria are distinctive in that the eyes of the portrait are very prominent (‘bug-eyed’). Coins issued until c.AD 196.
• Laodicea ad Mare (Turkey) – this appears to have been the result of a move of the mint to here from the Syrian capital of Antioch by Severus in response to the Antiochenes harbouring Niger. Coins issued until c.AD 203.
• Emesa (Syria)/Caesarea in Cappadocia (Turkey) – denarii typically identified as being from Emesa, Syria, the home of Julia Domna, now instead appear to be from Caesarea (which was in use under Niger).
• A series of revived eastern silver cistophori with Latin legends struck in Asia – there are no examples of these types on the PAS. Struck until AD 198.

Left to right: Denarius from the Alexandria mint (NARC-69EEE5, CC-BY); Denarius from the Laodicea mint (WAW-220CD2, Birmingham Museums Trust, CC-BY); denarius from an unidentified Eastern mint (HAMP-06AA78, CC-BY)

Julia Domna, Caracalla, and Geta

Coins were also struck during Severus’ lifetime for the other members of the Imperial family – his wife Julia Domna (AD 193-217) and two sons, Caracalla (AD 198-217) and Geta (AD 209-212). In this blog post we will look at Severus’ coins alone, but will turn to the other members of his family in future editions. It is worth noting here that there are issues from Severus’ reign that depict the imperial family as a whole, some proclaiming AETERNIT
IMPERI – ‘Eternity of the Empire’ – pointing to the establishment of the new imperial dynasty. There is just one example of this type, for Julia Domna and her sons, recorded through the PAS.

Gold coinage

Gold coinage from the Severan period is also rare on the PAS. There is just one example for Severus, a fractional gold denomination (quinarius) that is previously unlisted in RIC.

Gold quinarius of Septimius Severus, minted in Rome and dating to AD 202-10. Record ID is HAMP-474144 (Copyright: Hampshire Cultural Trust, License: CC-BY).

Julia Domna (AD 193-217)

While serving as legate in Lyon, Septimius Severus “made inquiries about the horoscopes of marriageable women,
being himself no mean astrologer; and when he learned that there was a woman in Syria whose horoscope predicted that she would wed a king… he sought her for his wife” (Historia Augusta, Life of Septimius Severus 3.9). The woman in question was Julia Domna. She was born c.AD 160 in Emesa (Homs, Syria), the youngest daughter of Gaius Julius Bassianus, a wealthy member of the Syrian Arab aristocracy and High Priest of Syro-Roman sun god Elagabal in Emesa. Julia Domna was one of several
influential women in the Severan dynasty who held much sway over the course of events in the early-3rd century. Her elder sister, Julia Maesa, would go on to become the grandmother of two Roman emperors, Elagabalus (AD218-222) and Severus Alexander (AD 222-235).

Denarius of Julia Domna, dating to AD 193-196. Record ID is BUC-E21FC2 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Julia married Septimius Severus in Lyon in AD 187, with Caracalla born the following year and Geta in AD 189. The marriage appears to have been a happy one. Julia accompanied
Severus everywhere while he was on campaign, earning her the title of mater castrorum (‘mother of the army camp’) in much the same way as Faustina II in the previous century and as empress played an important role in politics, intrigue, patronage of philosophy and intellectualism. While in York during Severus’ British campaigns, Julia appears to have influenced local fashion while maintaining a lively relationship with the British women, the wife of the Caledonian Argentocoxus remarking “We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let
yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” (Cassius Dio LXXVII.16.5). After Severus’ death, Julia travelled with her sons back to Rome to place the urn containing his ashes in the Reports of her adultery, for example, in the Historia Augusta (Life of Septimius Severus 18.8) may well have been affected by Plautianus’ stirring an ill will against her – see Cassius Dio LXXV.15.6, LXXVIII.24.1. Her role remained political and influential but now as a foil attempting to maintain a balance between her warring sons. This was ultimately unsuccessful
and in December AD 211 Caracalla conspired to murder his brother in his mother’s arms. Julia remained a key political figure for the remainder of Caracalla’s rule until his assassination in AD 217 while campaigning against the Parthians in the east. Julia was at Antioch and, suffering from breast cancer and with the threat of Macrinus (AD 217-218), conspirator to the murder of Caracalla and his successor, starved herself to death in AD 217.3

Coinage of Julia Domna

The coinage of Julia Domna is extensive and struck throughout the reigns of Severus, Geta, and Caracalla. Reverse types highlight her role as empress, as mother of the imperial dynasty and of the empire itself, as well as the various deities to which she is associated. Coins were struck at the mints in operation under Severus – in RIC IV.1 (pp. 57-58) one eastern issue is assigned to Emesa on the basis of her familial ancestry in the city, although as we have seen with Severus this may now more plausibly be attributed to Caesarea. There is often little difference, other than stylistic, between the issues for Julia, which can make identification problematic, although some types are specific to one or other mint. RIC, followed here, is the best starting point – the majority of PAS finds are from Rome.

As with Severus’ coinage there is a proliferation of silver, including base and plated examples, and in contrast relatively smaller quantities of bronze coinage. The PAS has 716 records for coins of Julia Domna (including 107 IARCW Welsh records), of which 636 are for denarii. There is no gold of Julia to date on the PAS database.

Julia is often identifiable on her coinage through her distinctive bust type with hair waved and pulled up into a chignon at the back of her head. She is usually depicted draped and on the radiate coinage after AD 215 rests on a crescent as is typical of empresses for this coin type. Julia’s coinage is divided into three main groups in RIC IV.1:

  • AD 193-196 – types with obverse legend IVLIA DOMNA AVG
  • AD 196-211 – types with obverse legend IVLIA AVGVSTA
  • AD 211-217 – types with obverse legend IVLIA PIA FELIX AVG
Top to bottom: IVLIA DOMNA AVG obverse (BUC-E21FC2, PAS, CC-BY); IVLIA AVGVSTA obverse (HAMP-01AE53, Hampshire Cultural Trust, CC-BY); IVLIA PIA FELIX AVG obverse (SWYOR-FCA7A1, West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, CC-BY).

References and further reading: 

S. Moorhead and D. Stuttard The Romans who Shaped Britain, 2012

H. Gitler and M. Ponting, ‘The Silver Coinage of Septimius Severus and His Family, 193-211 AD: A Study of the Chemical Composition of the Roman and Eastern Issues’, Galux 16, Milan 2003

D. Walker, ‘The Roman Coins’ in B. Cunliffe ed. The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, 1988: 281-358

R. Abdy, ‘The Severans’ in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage 2012: 502