Coin Relief 31 – Civil War denarii

Welcome to another edition of Coin Relief. In this issue Andrew Brown looks at a rare group of coins from the period of unrest that followed Nero’s demise.

Denarii of the Civil Wars, c.AD 68-70

In previous editions we have looked at the coinage of Nero and his demise, as well as three of the four emperors that succeeded him in the tussle for power in AD 68-69: Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. However, we also see the appearance of rare ‘anonymous’ coins without the busts or names of any living ruler but which represent coinage issued during this period of unrest until Vespasian finally wrests control and establishes the Flavian dynasty in AD 69. These are not common coins and their identification is complicated by a number of factors, not least the lack of legends that identify issuers, types that are in some cases rare or unique, and a quite high prevalence of plated examples. Historically, they have been associated with a series of revolts in the period between c.AD 68-70 and were struck outside Rome, lacking the stylistic elements that would suggest they were products of the Rome mint.

C.H.V. Sutherland in his analysis of these coins in RIC I (2nd ed.) divided the anonymous Civil Wars coinage into six main groups, each with various associated mints or historical events. We follow this outline here for ease of identification. An important study of the metallurgy of these issues by K. Butcher and M. Ponting helps to more securely identify the location of the mints producing these coinages, while noting the presence of two basic
stylistic groups, one more closely associated with the coinage of Galba and the other with Vitellius but with some overlap between the two (Butcher and Ponting, 2015: 303). Anonymous coins of the Civil Wars are rare as PAS finds and to date there are fewer than 30 examples that can be securely identified as single finds, although there are examples from various hoard groups (e.g. SF-413CE5, WMID-7AECFC) that add to a growing corpus of material.

In this piece I will focus on the single coin finds while work is ongoing on some of the hoarded material. Although there are examples of aurei struck during this period these are so far extremely rare, especially in Britain, with Bland and Loriot noting only one British example (Bland and Loriot, 2010: no. 74). We are essentially dealing with denarii with a range of obverse and reverse types that can be separated out into the groups outlined in RIC I. Interestingly, Butcher and Ponting’s analysis of the metal composition of denarii from these issues highlights that they were struck with a higher level of fineness than the Neronian issues of the Rome mint (about 90% silver in Nero’s last Rome mint issues), approaching pure silver. The appearance of obverse and reverse types that reference the western provinces, the role of the senate and military, the achievements of Augustus, and the Roman people generally, reflect a sense of the times and push back against Nero’s increasingly autocratic rule. In their parallels to the coinage of subsequent rulers they also help to link these coins to the broad stylistic groups of Nero’s successors.

Group I – c.April to June AD 68, Spanish mint – Galba

Denarius of the Civil Wars, c.AD 68, Spanish mint, with clasped hands on the reverse. Record ID is BH-56A298 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License CC-BY).

The first substantial group identified in RIC is attributed to Galba in the period between April AD 68 when he was declared emperor by his legions and the death of Nero in June when he accepted the elevation fully. This was the period when Galba supported the revolt of Vindex in Gaul against Nero (see Group II below) and, as governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, was positioned in Spain. Analysis of coins from this group suggests they are likely products of a Spanish mint, adding weight to their association with Galba (see Butcher and Ponting, 2015: pp. 303, 312).

Coin types from Group I highlight the restoration of Rome and of the constitutional freedoms of the senate, as well as the hopeful outcome (‘bonus eventus’) of peace for the people of Rome, presumably against Nero’s tyranny, and of the Genius of the people of Rome. Some types, not represented amongst the single finds of coins recorded through the PAS, reveal strong links with the later coinage of Galba through the use of identical reverse types, while others clearly demonstrate a message of support between Galba and the Gallic revolt by Vindex against Nero.
Sutherland notes (RIC I, p. 198) that this issue highlights the shared goals of Galba and Vindex and that hurried production and shortage of materials to mint coin for his forces in Spain results in some stylistic variation as well as the appearance of plated copies.

This group is represented on the PAS by just five single coin finds with only three types present, at least two of which are plated.

Group II – c.March to May AD 68, Gallic mint – Vindex

Plated denarius of the Civil Wars, c.AD 68, Gallic mint. Record ID is BUC-14ABA3 (Buckinghamshire County Council, License CC-BY.

The largest Civil Wars group has been associated with revolt against Nero’s regime led by Gaius Julius Vindex – a Roman senator and governor of Gallia Lugdenensis. This began in March AD 68 when Vindex sought to free Rome and replace Nero with an individual of better character. He does not appear to have wanted the highest office himself and instead placed his support behind Galba in neighbouring Hispania (see, for example, Cassius Dio, 63.22-23; Plutarch, Life of Galba, 4; Suetonius, Life of Nero 40). However, Vindex was not to see this achieved. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior and loyal to Nero led an army against Vindex, who himself is reported to have had at least 100,000 troops (perhaps hence the need for extensive silver coinage!). Vindex was heavily defeated in battle at Vesontio (Besançon, France) probably in May AD 68, after which he committed suicide. As Butcher and Ponting (2015: 304) note, there is no direct evidence that coins were struck in Vindex’s name, but given their style, manufacture, and timing and location of their appearance this is certainly a possibility even if there are potential other options – for example for Galba after Vindex’s death and before Galba’s acceptance as emperor by the senate. Analysis of denarii from this group shows them to be Gallic in manufacture with silver from the Massif Central (France), making an association with Vindex (or Galba) possible (see Butcher and Ponting, 2015: pp. 305, 312).

This group is the most well-represented amongst the PAS data, with a total of 13 denarii, one of which lacks an image and at least two others that are plated. The most common types carry legends reading SALVS GENERIS HVMANI (‘The Welfare of the human race’), repeated later on coins of Galba, that echo Vindex’s appeal to Galba to restore order to the empire (Suetonius, Life of Galba, 9.2: “humano generi assertorem ducemque”). There are eight PAS examples of this type. Other coins again reference the importance of the Roman people, of peace, safety/welfare, and liberty, and some overtly subvert types proper to Nero. In all instances there is a clear message of freedom for Rome and her people alongside a peaceful transition of power from Nero to something more befitting the empire.

Group III – c.AD 68-69, Gallic/Spanish mint – Augustus and Divus Augustus

Denarius of Augustus, possibly Civil Wars, c.AD 68-69, mint of Spain or Gaul. Record ID is DOR-B346D5 (Somerset County Council, License CC-BY).

In a third group of Civil Wars coinage, we see the revival of lifetime and posthumous issues of Augustus. These are difficult to separate from the official coinages of Augustus, particularly on very worn or corroded examples, and in some instances it is hard to know whether a coin is simply an irregular Augustan example or associated with the Civil Wars. RIC I (pp. 190-200) suggests the Civil Wars issues are generally lighter weight (on Nero’s reformed standard, c.3.5g for denarii) and often slightly irregular in terms of their style and production and with links to the other Civil Wars types. They are separated in RIC into two groups: types of Augustus’ lifetime attributed there to a Gallic mint and likely associated with Group II coins of Vindex; and posthumous Augustan types of suggested Spanish issue associated with Galba. Butcher and Ponting (2015: 306-308) note that many of the Divus Augustus types show greater affinity with the anonymous Civil Wars types than the lifetime issues of Augustus. Their analysis of one group of Augustan types demonstrates probable Gallic production with silver from the Massif Central (France) and metal composition and types that suggest a link to Vitellius rather than Vindex or Galba. However, these types remain a little ambiguous!

At the moment it is unclear whether there are any or many of the Augustus types on the PAS database. Two denarii noted for Augustus may simply be irregular but could just be later products of the Civil Wars rather than official Augustan issues, although this is a little unclear. Examples have appeared in hoarded assemblages, however (e.g. WMID-7AECFC), so they may well appear as single finds. It is worth checking any Augustan denarii you see for recording just in case there are later copies amongst them.

Group IV – c.AD69, Gallic/Spanish mint – ‘Military Group’, Vitellius

Denarius of the Civil Wars, c.AD 69, mint of Gaul. Record ID is SF-E12920 (Suffolk County Council, License CC-BY).

The last substantial group of Civil Wars coinage is the so-called ‘Military Group’, whose types demonstrate strong associations to the military. These are likely related to the early activity of pro-Vitellian forces in Gaul or Spain prior to Vitellius’ elevation as emperor in AD 69 (see RIC I (2nd ed.), pp. 200-201; Butcher and Ponting, 2015: 309). Analysis of the metal composition of coins from this group allowed Butcher and Ponting (2015: pp. 309-312) to suggest their separation into two distinct groups by type: one with characteristic clasped hands and overt military associations with silver from the Massif Central and therefore of probably Gallic manufacture; the other with Vesta and Jupiter types (Sutherland’s ‘civilian’ section of this group, see RIC I (2nd ed.), p. 201) of Spanish origin. Both groups perhaps sit between the issues of Galba and Vitellius as emperors.

The first group have a very strong military message, appealing to the loyalty of the army and the praetorians (Fides Exercitvvm and Fides Praetorianorvm), characteristically depicted clasped hands on the obverse. The second group references Vesta as protector of the Roman people (Vesta P R Qviritivm) and Jupiter Optimus Maximus (I O Max Capitolinus), again with references also the military. These are the second most commonly seen group in the PAS data, with six of the clasped hands types and four of the
Vesta/Jupiter types.

Group V – c.AD 69-70, Gaul, Batavian Revolt

A group of denarii are linked to the Batavian Revolt in the Lower Rhine in c.AD 69-70 first against Vitellius and subsequently Vespasian. These are very rare and so far not represented amongst the PAS data, but there is the possibility one could turn up. There are no BM examples of this group.

Group VI – c.April-June AD 68, Africa

The final group identified in RIC I is extremely rare and similarities with coinages of Clodius Macer and Galba suggest an African origin for the issue. There are only two entries for this group in RIC and there are, unsurprisingly(!), no PAS examples to date. There is a single example in the BM collection (Fig. 39). It is probably unlikely that one of these denarii will appear in Britain through the PAS, but this of course can’t be ruled out entirely.

References and further reading

BMC I; P.H. Martin Die anonymen Münzen des Jahres 68 n. Chr. (Mainz, 1974); there is ongoing interest and research into these issues based on single finds and hoarded groups that may well provide new interpretations. For the time being, the PAS data reflects the outline in RIC I, but it may be that in the future this needs to be adjusted slightly.

K. Butcher and M. Ponting The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage: From the Reform of Nero to the Reform
of Trajan (CUP, 2015), see especially pp. 301-312

R. Bland and X. Loriot Roman and Early Byzantine Gold Coins found in Britain and Ireland (Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication no. 49, 2010)

K. Butcher and M. Ponting ‘The denarius in the first century’ In Holmes, N., (ed.) Proceedings of the XIV International Numismatic Congress. (Glasgow: The International Numismatic Council, 2011), p. 562)