Coin Relief – Issue Twenty

Welcome to the latest issue of Coin Relief. This time Dr. Andrew Brown looks at the coinage of the emperor Antoninus Pius.

Antoninus Pius, AD 138-161

After the death of Lucius Aelius in AD 138, Hadrian turned to Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161), who he adopted as his son and heir. Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, following his adoption on 25th February AD 138 known as Imperator Titus Aelius Caesar Antoninus, was born in Lanuvium in September AD 86. He married Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina I), the niece of emperor Hadrian in the first decades of the 2nd century and held various offices under Hadrian including consul in AD 120 and proconsul of Asia between AD 135-136. A requirement of
Antoninus’ adoption was that he in turn adopted Marcus Annius Verus (later Marcus Aurelius), son of Hadrian’s brother in law, and Lucius (later Lucius Verus) son of Lucius Aelius. In so doing, the seeds of a new dynastic structure were put in place that saw succession from the end of Hadrian’s reign through the entirety of the 2nd century even if often largely by adoption rather than direct familial ties. Of Antoninus and Faustina’s biological children, only one, Faustina II, would continue the dynasty through her marriage to Marcus Aurelius.

Following Hadrian’s death in AD 138, Pius’ reign was long and relatively peaceful – as one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ this was a period of relative stability and prosperity that also saw him celebrate the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Rome in AD 148 with great games. Despite Faustina’s death in AD 141, the reign was defined as much by the development of the imperial family (and dynasty) as anything else, with Pius seemingly
focused on ensuring continuity and stability from Hadrian’s reign and apparently no great desire to expand or for that matter leave Rome! He promoted the development of public infrastructure, formal public and religious celebrations, legal reform, and the careful administration of the empire’s finances. On his death in AD 161 he was deified by the senate and power shifted to his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius.

Coinage of Antoninus Pius

Coins struck for Antoninus are not uncommon on the PAS. There are over 3,000 examples in his name alone for this period (Reece Period 7; AD 138-161), including 407 Welsh coins from the IARCW dataset, with more than 1,200 coins for his wife Faustina I, almost 900 for Marcus Aurelius as caesar, and over 150 examples for Faustina II1. In total, for Reece Period
7 (AD 138-161) the PAS records over 5,000 coins, with c.2,000 sestertii and c.1,700 denarii forming the bulk of the material. The standard references for identifying coins of this period
remain RIC III and BMC IV, the latter perhaps more up to date and with a useful introduction to the structure and organisation of his coinage.

Throughout this period, we are dealing essentially with a single mint – Rome – producing gold, silver, and bronze coinage for all of the imperial family. Examples of gold are typically rare as British finds in this period, but silver and the larger bronze denominations are prolific. Analysis of the coins from the Sacred Spring at Bath by D. Walker demonstrated the
replacement of the smaller bronze dupondii and asses during the period of regular supply of bronze coinage to Britannia (c.AD 96-197) with sestertii that begin to dominate, especially
after AD 147. The smaller semis and quadrans largely disappear by Pius’ reign and it is in this period too that the denarius, struck at 1/96 lb, begins to see a reduction in fineness,
especially by the end of the century with Commodus. Several notable groups of bronze coins, struck in AD 153-155, for both Pius and his family represent discrete batches issued in Rome
and shipped for use in Britain – the so-called ‘Coins of British Association’ (see below).

Antoninus Pius’ coinage is usually quite closely identifiable and datable thanks to a combination of his official titles and the organisation of his obverse legends:

COS II – AD 139
COS III – AD 140
COS IIII – AD 145-161

Between his accession in AD 138 until AD 147 he carries tribunician powers simply with the title TR P. These were taken it seems on 25th February each year, but a change occurs in AD
147. Marcus Aurelius received his first tribunician power in AD 147, following the birth of his first son, during Antoninus’ 10th tribunician year (TR P X). It seems that the two systems were streamlined so that from December 10th AD 147 the emperor and his adopted son took their tribunician powers on the same day and in so doing likely reinforced the notion of their
imperial dynasty too with Aurelius as the junior party. From this date onward, Pius’ coins have numbered tribunician dates for each year from TR P XI in AD 147 (with Marcus as TR P II) to TR P XXIIII in AD 161 (with Marcus as TR P XV-XVI). If your coin has a legible TR P date for Pius, it should therefore be possible to date it to one year!

Antoninus caesar under Hadrian, c.AD 138

Denarius of Antoninus Pius as caesar under Hadrian c.AD 138. Record ID is LANCUM-F95063 (copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY-SA).

The first issues of Antoninus appear following his adoption by Hadrian as his heir on 25th February AD 138 and prior to Hadrian’s death in July of the same year. These are rare as
PAS finds and I can only find a handful of examples (fewer than 10) that might reasonably be identified with this period. In these types, his obverse legend identifies him as caesar, while he has first TRIB POT COS and then COS DES II reverse legends that demonstrate his first tribunician power combined with his first consulship and his election (DES[ignatus]) to a second consulship to be taken up the following year.

Antoninus as augustus, AD 138-139

Following Hadrian’s death in July AD 138, Antoninus assumed power and continued the dynastic structure that Hadrian had created through his adoption and in turn Pius’ adoption of
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. The succession, constructed rather than biological, was seemingly secured. However, Antoninus met with opposition from the senate, who not only
attempted to stop many of Hadrian’s acts, but also prevent his deification by Pius. This battle with the political heart of Rome led Antoninus to threaten abdication before the senate relented and his reign began in proper. Interestingly, this struggle between emperor and senate is reflected in Antoninus’ coinage through the changing legends that appear in the early issues of AD 138 and in to AD 139.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius c.AD 138, a rare early type. Record ID is OXON-4BA9FB (copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

The first issue of AD 138 for Antoninus as augustus sees him named as COS DES II as he had been on his coinage under Hadrian. However, a second issue shortly afterwards sees him demoted to simply COS, presumably a result of the senate questioning the acts of Hadrian and indeed Antoninus’ legitimacy as emperor as a result. A third issue sees him adopt Hadrian’s gentile name Aelius (AEL) and the titles Augustus and Pontifex Maximus, then the title Pius and the name Hadrian in a fourth and fifth issue respectively. Finally, in a sixth issue at the end of AD 138 he is restored to COS DES II and Hadrian’s deification is recognised in a short consecration issue. In AD 139, Pius becomes COS II and to begin with retains the long obverse legend referencing Hadrian until part way through the year (in a 3rd issue of AD 139) when this is dropped to just read
ANTONINVS AVG PIVS P P, which remains the standard format for the rest of his reign. The following year, in AD 140, After the shortening of the obverse legend, coins also appear for Marcus Aurelius as caesar and consul designate.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 139. Record ID is DOR-BC2882 (copyright: Somerset County Council, License: CC-BY). 

The types that appear on Antoninus’ coinage are quite varied and often commemorate significant social or political events and the emperor’s links to the wider empire, notably also
reinforcing the structure and importance of the imperial family. We have already seen in previous editions the ‘crown’ series issued by Pius in AD 139 that references his contact with the provinces and halving of the aurum coronarium gold tax. The modius type (above) is again a reflection of the importance of the grain supply to Rome and the imperial role in maintaining this. Similarly, the sacrificial implements – emblems of the priesthood – may reference Marcus Aurelius’ entrance into the chiefpriesthoods before he appears on Pius’ coinage, initially as a young caesar depicted as a reverse type.

Antoninus, COS III, AD 140-144

The coinage of Antoninus’ third consulship, between AD 140-144, continues many of the themes from his early coinages in terms of his role as emperor and head of the imperial family. A notable change is the use of a laureate bust from AD 140 along with several coin issues that relate to specific events within the Roman world during these years.

Aureus of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 140-143. Record ID is NARC-04A984 (copyright: Northamptonshire County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).

The only two gold aurei recorded through the PAS belong to this period – gold is generally less common in the 2nd than the 1st century in Britain, Bland and Loriot note 20 single finds for the period of Antoninus’ reign (along with another 65 hoard coins), including one of the PAS examples below. The aureus in Fig. 15, with its depiction of Mars and Rhea Silvia, highlights the appearance in this period of coin types that focus on Rome and her mythology, perhaps in anticipation of the 900th anniversary of Rome but equally in the gradual renewed interest in her origins as was seen with the medallic coinages of Pius too. Thus, in addition to the Mars and Rhea Silvia type, coins also appear that depict, for example, the wolf and twins or the sow suckling eight piglets.

Sestertius of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 140-143, with wolf and twins. Record ID is SOM-24B372 (copyright: Somerset County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).

Perhaps the most significant event early in Antoninus’ third consulship was the death of his wife Faustina I in AD 141. An extensive posthumous coinage was struck in her name from
this date that probably lasted for most of the reign up until his death in AD 161. The coinage of the defied empress has numerous types that initially retain her title of augusta before this transfers to Faustina II in AD 147, after which she is simply the deified Faustina. The production in large volume of coins depicting the female members of the imperial family is a feature of the 2nd century coinage, with lifetime and posthumous issues of several of the Antonine women. With perhaps the exception of Sabina, depictions of the empress prior to this were generally on a more restricted scale. We have already looked at Faustina II, whose coinage begins under Pius in AD 147 and continues
under her husband Marcus Aurelius. 

Antoninus’ reign was not notable for any real conflict or war. Indeed, he ruled over an essentially peaceful empire from Rome (never leaving the city on campaign or straying further than his nearby estates!) as a well-liked leader who succeeded as much due to his sense of duty to the empire and the careful implementation of administrative and legal control as he did in any militaristic or acquisitive way. This doesn’t mean that the empire was entirely peaceful of course! It is in Britannia that his most overt military action occurred with the appointment of Quintus Lollius Urbicus as governor in AD 139. His campaign in
southern Scotland against the Brigantes resulted in the construction of the Antonine Wall 40 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 142. Although the territory gained was not held for all that long – the Antonine Wall being abandoned by the AD 160s – the victory in the north of the province gained Antoninus the acclamation as Imperator for the second time with the event commemorated on his coinage, notably with the appearance of Britannia personified too.

Sestertius of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 143-144, depicting Britannia. Record ID is HAMP1731 (copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY-SA).

Antoninus, COS IV, AD 144-161

The coinage from Antoninus’ fourth consulship continues in much the same vein as that of his third. There are some interesting issues though that relate to events specific to his reign. He celebrates his first decennalia, the 10th anniversary of his accession, in AD AD 147-148 (TR P XI). After this time, the coin types can be dated by the Tribunician numbers in their legends that change each year for the remainder of his reign. A second decennalia is celebrated on the coinage of AD 157-158 and AD 158-159 and the several episodes of imperial largesse during this period are frequently depicted, notably through the personification of Liberalitas. On the coinage of AD 150-151 an
interesting revival of Pius’ first obverse legend, alluding to his link as Hadrian’s heir, is revived and this likely reflects the dedication of the Temple of Divus Hadrianus and Diva Sabina in that year.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 147-148 celebrating the decennalia. Record ID is ESS-70F50C (copyright: Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service, License: CC-BY-SA).

It is in this last period of Antoninus’ reign that we also see injections of bronze coinage into the currency pool in Britain, in particular in the years AD 153-154 and AD 154-155. Most notable amongst these coins are the smaller bronze dupondius and as denominations that have types seemingly associated with Britannia – the ‘Coins of British Association’. These are
issued not only for Pius himself, but also for the deified Faustina and the two juniors Marcus Aurelius and Faustina II. The subject as a whole has been examined by D. Walker and S.
Moorhead, amongst others, and is part of ongoing work looking at the PAS dataset. These warrant an examination in their own right as part of a later edition, but it is worth noting the key types for Antoninus. Most distinctive are the Britannia asses, and more rarely dupondii, that depict her seated left on rocks,
which is by far the most common type found in Britain, with over 150 PAS examples. These are followed by two Libertas types (in both denominations), one holding pileus with arm
outstretched, the other holding pileus and sceptre. A less common Felicitas type is represented on the PAS by just seven examples. Do look out for these if you are recording coins through the database. They were struck in Rome but appear to have been shipped to the province deliberately to top up the currency pool, so they have a specific British connection.

As of Antoninus Pius, c.AD 154-155 with Britannia seated on rocks. Record ID is ESS-5A2744 (copyright: Colchester Museums, License: CC-BY).

Antoninus Pius died of illness on the 7th of March AD 161 aged 74 at his estate in Lorium (Etruria). He was deified without opposition by the senate and buried in the mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome alongside Faustina I. The temple in the Roman forum dedicated initially to Faustina I was rededicated following his death as the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, with parts of the original structure still preserved in the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. His largely peaceful reign was long and he was well thought of. Perhaps as importantly, he was central to the development of the new Antonine dynasty conceived during Hadrian’s reign and which would last until the end of the 2nd century, albeit with varying degrees of success…! 

References and further reading

D.R. Walker ‘Roman Coins from the Sacred Spring at Bath’ in B. Cunliffe ed. The Temple of Sullis Minerva at Bath II: Finds from the Sacred Spring (Oxford, 1988)

S. Moorhead’s academia page here:

R. Bland and X. Loriot Roman and Early Byzantine gold coins found in Britain and Ireland (London, 2010)