Coin Relief 29 – Elagabalus

The coinage of Elagabalus, AD 218-222

After the death of Caracalla in AD 217, Macrinus and his son Diadumenian reigned for just over a year. However, the Severan dynasty was not finished. Elagabalus, born Varius Avitus Bassianus, was the grandson of Julia Maesa; she was the younger sister of Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus. Elagabalus’ mother started to spread the falsehood
that her son was in fact fathered by Caracalla himself. This succeeded in turning Legio III Gallica and on May 16th, 218, Elagabalus was declared emperor at the age of only 14. The following month, Macrinus was overthrown.

The Sun-God Elagabal

Silver denarius of Elagabalus depicting the emperor as Priest of the Sun-god Elagabal. Record ID BERK-6113AC (The British Museum, Licence CC-BY).

Elagabalus was named after the god Elagabal (meaning ‘God of the Mountain’) who was the Syrian Sun-God worshipped at Emesa (hometown of Julia Domna’s family). Elagabalus was in fact the hereditary high priest of Elagabal and his veneration of the God was to cause a great stir in Rome. He transported the black baetyl stone of the god to Rome where it was installed in a new temple, the Elagaballium, on the Palatine. Rome was shocked by the worship of this new deity because the emperor placed Elagabal above all the traditional Roman gods, including Jupiter. On numerous coins, the emperor is shown as the priest (sacerdos) of Elagabal: he is ‘Priest of the Sun-God Elagabal’; he is the ‘Invincible Priest’; finally, he is the ‘High Priest’.

Elagabalus’ personal life and demise
Elagabalus had a notorious personal life which shocked Rome. He was married three times, to Julia Paula (AD 219-20), to the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa (AD 220) and to Annia Faustina (AD 221) – he struck coins for all of his wives, his mother and grandmother which will be covered in another blog. Furthermore, it is said he had relationships with other women
as well. However, he was bisexual and had male lovers; at one stage he even asked for a physical operation to enable a sex-change. Added to his religious beliefs, his sexual activity was another factor in the young emperor’s unpopularity. It appears that it was his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and mother Julia Soaemias who oversaw the government of the
empire. In an attempt to stabilise the imperial house, Elagabalus’s cousin, the young Severus Alexander, was raised to Caesar in AD 221. The following year, Elagabalus tried to have Severus murdered, but failed; the tables were turned and Elagabalus and his mother were murdered, leaving Severus Alexander emperor (AD 222-35).

Elagabalus’ coinage on the PAS Database
There are 465 coins of Elagabalus (excluding 90 IARCW pieces from Wales) on the PAS Database. This total comprises 442 denarii, 13 ‘radiates’ and 10 base-metal sestertii, dupondii, and asses. Amongst the silver coins, there are contemporary copies which will be the subject of more editing. Elagabalus’ coinage was struck at two mints, Rome and a mint in the East, often given as Antioch. Coins of both mints are on the Database and this piece will look each of the mints in turn. Elagabalus did strike coins for five imperial ladies, but these will be the subject of the next piece.

Mint of Rome

Silver ‘radiates’ (Antoniniani), AD 218-9
Caracalla had introduced the ‘radiate’ in AD 215. From a study of dated coins, we can ascertain that it continued to be struck by Elagabalus in AD 218-219, at Rome only. After 219, it was not resurrected as a denomination until the reigns of Balbinus and Pupienus in AD 238. There are 19 radiates of Elagabalus on the PAS Database, being scarce finds in Britain.

Silver ‘radiate’ of Elagabalus, c.AD 218. Record ID IOW-F074D3 (The Portable Antiquities Scheme, licence CC-BY).

Silver denarii – dated issues
Both Rome and Antioch issued dated coins, Table 1 showing the different reverse legends found. These dated coins help us to give broader date ranges to undated coins. 

Dated coins from the Mint of Rome (c. 100 specimens)
Dated coins were issued at Rome in each of the five years of Elagabalus’ reign. The totals by year can be compared with the coins found in the Shapwick Hoard, as shown in Table 2. 

The PAS and Shapwick hoards show a similar proportion of coins (%) by year which does suggest that this profile represents the relative quantity of coins arriving in Britain for each year. The coins of AD 221 are by far the most common coins of the dated issues on the PAS Database and in the Shapwick Hoard. The vast majority of Elagabalus’ denarii are undated, but by comparing with dated coin types and obverse legends it is possible to give broad date ranges as follows:


Base-metal issues from Rome
Elagabalus struck sestertii, dupondii, and asses at Rome only; the Eastern Mint only struck in gold and silver. Since c. AD 196, the number of base-metal coins arriving in Britain had fallen dramatically; Severan base-metal pieces are particularly rare as finds in Britain. This paucity of coins is clearly shown by the PAS data for Elagabalus – there are only 4 sestertii, one dupondius and 5 asses (excluding 2 IARCW Welsh entries), making a total of 10 coins; there are 455 denarii and radiates showing clearly how silver predominates. One has to question if these coins were actually sent by the imperial authorities to Britain, or just arrived in dribs and drabs with soldiers, merchants or other travellers.


There are only four sestertii on the PAS Database, all in rather poor condition. The illustrated piece shows considerable wear, suggesting it remained in circulation up until the
time sestertii went out of use in the AD 260s.

Sestertius of Elagabalus, c.AD 220-221. Record ID HAMP-640DF8 (Hampshire Cultural Trust, Licence CC-BY).

Only one dupondius on the PAS Database can be attributed to Elagabalus. Dupondii became increasingly rarer during the 3rd century.

Dupondius of Elagabalus, c. AD 220-221. Record ID BH-324038 (The Portable Antiquities Scheme, Licence CC-BY).

Asses are the most numerous base-metal coins of Elagabalus on the PAS Database with 7 examples (including two IARCW pieces).

As of Elagabalus, c.AD 218-222. Record ID BH-E1CA34 (St. Alban’s District Council, License CC-BY).

Eastern Mint (Antioch)

There are 15 coins of the Eastern Mint on the PAS Database (of which 6 are IARCW pieces from Wales). If we exclude IARCW pieces from the analysis, 2% (9 out of 442) of the PAS denarii come from the Eastern Mint; for Shapwick it is 1.6% (11 out of 685). It should be noted that more Eastern Mint denarii might be found amongst the PAS coins after more editing.

Silver denarius of Elagabalus from the Eastern mint, c.AD 218-219. Record ID PUBLIC-B923E1 (All rights reserved, licence CC-BY)

Contemporary Copies

There are a number of contemporary copies of Elagabalus’ silver pieces on the PAS Database. However, it is very important to note that the official silver coins had an increasing amount of copper added in the early third century. This often results in green verdigris appearing on the coin which is often interpreted as representing a plated copy; however, in many cases this is not the case. There still needs to be further editing of coins which have been noted as copies which are in fact probably official.