Coin Relief 34 – Augustus

Welcome to the latest edition of Coin Relief. In this issue, Andrew Brown looks at the coinage of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.

Augustus, c.27 BC to AD 14

In September 31 BC, Gaius Octavius (Octavian) was victorious at the Battle of Actium and gained undisputed control over the Roman Republic. Octavian was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar through Caesar’s sister, Julia, and rose first in the military ranks under Caesar before taking the political reins in 43 BC when he became consul for the first time. As the Republic unravelled and conflict grew with Mark Antony, Octavian secured his position in part by drawing on very obvious familial links to the deified Caesar, and also by pointing out to the senate the obvious, treasonable, actions of Mark Antony and his relationship with Cleopatra.

Although Actium brought Octavian power, it also resulted in instability with the senate clearly not wanting another dictator. In January 27 BC, Octavian, with his new title ‘Augustus’ (sacred or revered), went through the show of giving his powers back to the senate and people of Rome, but the uproar that ensued resulted in him maintaining his imperium over the provinces and the legions as well as adopting the title Princeps (‘first citizen’). This ‘First Settlement’ essentially established the Principate, the first period of the Roman Empire with Augustus as its emperor.

Further political change came in 23BC with a Second Settlement when an ill Augustus dropped the power of consul and was instead granted Tribunician powers for life, which he held 37 times in total before his death in AD 14. This was a period of rebuilding within the new empire and not just politically. Extensive building and administrative works were carried out in Rome that also saw the emergence of a cult of Rome and Augustus that spread beyond the confines of Rome itself.

Augustus’ military campaigns saw the empire expand its control east as far as Spain and west into the provinces of Africa and Syrian, and notably against the Parthians. His victories and military honours are well documented, notably on the Res Gestae (‘The Deeds of the Divine Augustus’). This was Augustus’ own account of his life and achievements written just prior to his death and a version of this text survives on the cella wall of the Temple of Augustus and Rome (the Monumentum Ancyranum) in Ankara, Turkey. Indeed, he was acclaimed Imperator 21 times during his lifetime, albeit with the odd notable defeat along the way – in particular, Teutoburg in AD 9 when the Roman legions were resoundingly defeated by the Germanic forces of Arminius of the Cherusci.

The Monumentum Ancyranum with the  minaretof the Ottoman Haci Bayrum Mosque visible behind (image copyright: Andrew Brown).

Through his daughter Julia and her second husband Agrippa, Augustus attempted to preserve the Julian line with succession intended to go to his grandsons Gaius and Lucius who he adopted as sons and heirs. However, both died as young men, passing away before their grandfather – Lucius, in AD 2,  after a sudden illness while at Massalia (Marseille) en route to complete his military training, and Gaius, in AD 4, who had retired from public life after being wounded on campaign in the east. Succession now shifted to Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson through his first marriage to Livia, to continue the Julio-Claudia dynasty; and in fact there were suggestions in antiquity that Livia may have had a hand in events turning to favour her son. Tiberius was recalled to Rome to be formally adopted as heir and in turn adopted his own nephew, Germanicus, as his heir, thereby assuring the continuation of the dynasty.

Augustus died at Nola on the 19th August AD 14 at the age of 75. His body was returned to Rome with enormous ceremony, where he was cremated and his ashes interred in his vast mausoleum. Tiberius and Drusus delivered funerary orations, Augustus was deified, and his achievements (and useful propaganda!) in his Res Gestae inscribed on bronze pillars set in front of the mausoleum. Perhaps most importantly, he had established the new empire with an individual emperor at the head. He had transformed Rome physically and his legacy as Rome’s greatest emperor, and through the cult of Divus Augstus, shaped the empire for many centuries to follow. Two versions of his last words were reported. Publicly he is reported to have said:

Found it (Rome) of brick but left it of marble

While in private he is supposed to have said:

Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.

Coinage of Augustus

With the emergence of the principate from c.27 BC there was also a change to the Roman coinage that saw the introduction of the Augustan currency system. The denarius, in use since the end of the 3rd century BC, remained the standard silver denomination and was struck at about 3.9g of very pure silver. Above this, the larger gold aureus, a coin of about 8g of pure gold, was valued at 25 denarii. The most extensive change, however, came with the reorganisation of the base metal, bronze, coinages whose relative values as fractions of the denarius were fixed and remained in place until the mid-3rd century AD. The sestertius, originally a small silver coin during the Republican period but now a large brassy coin of about 26g, was the largest of the base metal denominations, valued at a quarter of a denarius. Beneath this was a brassy dupondius of around 12.5g, valued at half a sestertius, and a copper as of around 11g, valued at half a dupondius. The two smallest denominations, the semis and the quadrans (a half and a quarter of an as respectively), we have looked at in previous blogs.

Coins of Augustus are not hugely common as PAS finds. There are currently 321 single coins recorded on the PAS database, the majority of which are denarii from various mints in the western empire, with just four aurei and fewer than 30 bronze coins. Indeed, bronze coins of Augustus are rare even as British site finds and gold is never common.

Coins of Augustus were struck at a number of mints in both the eastern and western empire, particularly in the early years of his reign following the Battle of Actium. These can usually be distinguished from one another based on the coin types and denominations attributed to each mint, although take with worn coins. In this piece we follow the outline of Augustus’ coinage given in RIC I (2nd edition), although much has been written on the subject and this may require adjustment to the PAS records in the future.

  • Spain: three mints striking coins between c.25-16 BC (Emerita, and two uncertain mints, possibly Colonia Caesaraugusta(?) and Colonia Patricia(?))
  • Gaul: three(?) mints striking coins between c.20 BC-AD 14 (Nemausus, Lugdunum and Treveri(?))
  • Italy: several(?) mints striking between c.32 BC-AD 12 (uncertain Italian mints and Rome)
  • Eastern mints: multiple mints striking between c.31-15 BC (North Peloponnesus, Samos(?), Ephesos, Pergamon, Antioch and Cyrenaica)
  • Other uncertain mints striking between c.28-17 BC

Within the PAS dataset we are largely dealing with coins from mints in Spain, Italy and especially Gaul, which is understandably the best represented given its proximity to Britain. The are 289 coins attributed to Augustus on the PAS database, of which 265 can be ascribed to a mint. Of these, more than half the of the total are coins from the mint of Lugdunum.

Lugdunum (Lyon, France)

The mint at Lugdunum began striking coins under Augstus in c.15 BC, replacing the coin production of the Spanish mints in the western empire. From c.12 BC the mint at Rome stopped minting precious metal coinage, only striking bronze from this point onwards. Production of aurei and denarii shifted to Lugdunum. Importantly, Augustus himself controlled the provinces so could issue coinage here without any influence from the authorities in Rome, while the city itself was close both to key silver reserves in Spain and the armies on the Rhine that required payment. The city became an important centre of the imperial cult. From c.12 BC, Drusus brought together the tribes of the three imperial Gallic provinces (the Tres Galliae) with Lugdunum becoming the focal point of the concilium galliarum at an altar to Rome and Augustus, personally dedicated by Augustus on his visit to the city with annual celebrations on the 1st August.

The first issues from Lugdunum carry Augustus’ title of IMP X, Augustus is depicted bare
headed and as the divine son of Caesar (divi filius). Record ID is WILT-CEB2C2 (Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, license: CC-BY).

Coins of Lugdunum are the most commonly seen on the PAS, with almost two-thirds of all examples belonging to the mint. Of these, 99 coins are of one type with reverse depicting the two imperial heirs Gaius and Lucius. The majority are aurei and denarii, with just 12 base metal coins recorded to date.

The most significant group of coins from the Lugdunum mint is the issue of coins from c.2 BC onward with distinctive reverse types depicting Augustus’ grandsons, the caesars Gaius and Lucius. Woytek and Blet-Lemarquand (2017: p. 185)13 describe this issue as “the iconic coins of the Augustan age par excellence” and it was struck in huge volume. This is the only
issue on the PAS represented by aurei as single finds (3 coins) with 96 denarii. Augustus is depicted laureate, still as divi filius, but now also Pater Patriae (‘father of his country’) – a title afforded to him in 2 BC. The reverse type refers to Gaius and Lucius as consules designati (COS DESIG), which indicates that the issue of this coinage must have begun in c.2-1 BC after Augustus became pater patriae and before Gaius became consul in AD 1.

Record ID is LEIC-35CCA5 (Leicestershire County Council, license: CC-BY).

The denarii of this issue fall into four main types in RIC, nos. 207, 210, 211, and 212. A fifth variety, RIC no. 208 appears to be a restitution issue struck after Augustus’ death. All four of these types are essentially identical, the difference being the arrangement of the lituus and simpulum on the reverse between the spears. RIC 207 is by far the most common, with 83 of
the PAS examples likely attributable to this type.

The placement of the simpulum and lituus are potentially significant chronologically and an excellent summary, followed here, is found in the analysis of this type by Woytek and BletLemarquand (2017). In RIC 207, the most common type, the simpulum as a symbol of the pontifex is on the left, indicating Gaius who became pontifex in 7 BC is standing to the left of
the reverse type. The lituus, on the other hand, was the symbol of the augur and therefore of Lucius who stands to the right. These swap around in RIC 210 and so the caesars also swap places. Gaius’ seniority is also represented by his shield always being in front of that of Lucius – the shields and spears symbolise the brothers’ coming of age. Coins bearing an X beneath the simpulum and lituus have been interpreted as a commemorative issue struck after the deaths of Gaius (AD 4) and Lucius (AD 2), perhaps connected to the lex Valeria Cornelia in AD 5 that ordered senators and equites into ten centuries, five named for Gaius and five for Lucius, when voting for candidates for consul and praetor.

An important last issue to note is the appearance just prior to Augustus’ death of coins that reference the new heir, Tiberius, and which carry on into the latter’s reign (below right), replacing the Gaius and Lucius coinages from c.13 AD. There are only five PAS coins from this period, but it is important to note the distinctive PONTIF MAXIM reverse type (below left) that is prolific under Tiberius but rare for Augustus.

Left: record ID LIN-AE1D8E (Lincolnshire County Council, license: CC-BY). Right: record ID IOW-BDC677 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, license: CC-BY).

Base metal coinage from the Lugdunum mint is much rarer on the PAS than the silver. This might be expected, since the coinage is being struck prior to the Claudian invasion and at a time when Britain was not integrated into the empire. Silver and gold were intrinsically valuable and so could have travelled across the channel both prior to AD 43 but most likely
following the invasion to pay the incoming legions within the new province. Bronze in contrast wouldn’t have functioned or circulated in the same way prior to the invasion. There are just 12 possible bronze coins of Augustus from Lugdunum recorded on the database to date, nine asses and three semisses, all with the same reverse type that depicts the altar of Augustus and Rome at Lugdunum with the reverse legend ROM ET AVG. This
reverse type appears in c.15 BC and soon replaces the Nemausus aes as the predominant bronze coinage in the western empire. One thing to note with the bronze of both the Nemausus and Lugdunum mints is that they do not carry the S C on the reverse type as these are essentially issued from regional/provincial mints and so not directly under the auspices of
the senate at Rome.

We have focused on coins from the mint at Lugdunum in this blog post as they are the ones most commonly seen through the PAS. If you’d like to see examples from other mints, please download Andrew’s full article below.

References and further reading:

There are many texts on Augustus’ life, see for example W. Eck The Age of Augustus (2007)

Suetonius Divus Augustus 29; see also Cassius Dio LVI.30: “I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble”

Butcher and Ponting’s (2005) analysis of Augustan denarii from Spain and Lugdunum suggest almost pure

P-A Besombes and J-N Barrandon ‘Les dupondii de Nîmes : datation, diffusion et nature du métal utilisé’ RN 157, 2001: 305-328

B. Wolters ‘The Julio-Claudians’ in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage
(2012), p. 339

B. Woytek and M. Blet-Lemarquand ‘The C. L. CAESARES denarii RIC I² Augustus 208. A pseudoAugustan unsigned restoration issue. Corpus, die study, metallurgical analyses’ RN 174, 2017: 183-248

“Founder” Coins and Rome’s Ritual Boundary

In this post Maria Kneafsey, Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, celebrates the anniversary of the foundation of Rome (21st April 753 BC) by examining a coin from the PAS database. 

A silver denarius linked to the foundation of Rome, WILT-E5BA8D (Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, License: CC-BY).

WILT-E5BA8D (RIC I, Augustus, 272) is one of the rarer coin types on the PAS database at present, with only two examples recorded. It is a silver denarius issued between c.29-27 BC by Augustus, perhaps even while he was still known as Octavian. On the obverse we see the laureate bust of Apollo, Octavian’s adopted patron deity, whose temple he constructed next to his home on the Palatine Hill in 28 BC (Wiseman, 2019: 101). The reverse shows Octavian veiled in priestly garb, ploughing a furrow with a yoke of oxen. It is this latter image that I’d like to focus on here; this motif is a prototype of Augustan visual language, weaving together tradition and ambition to cast the man who would become Rome’s first emperor not only as the true leader of the city and the empire, but as a second Romulus, a second founder.

The ploughing ritual depicted here is the creation of a boundary known as the sulcus primigenius, the first furrow, which in turn marked out the line of the pomerium, The pomerium was a city’s ritual boundary, which separated the sacred space of the city from the profane world outside. The creation of this line was the first step in the foundation of a new city and its most famous iteration was the legendary ritual that took place on the 21st April 753 BC on the banks of the River Tiber.

Rome’s Servian Wall (red) and pomerium (original in green, extended in yellow). (Image: Heinrich Kiepert, Wikimedia Commons).

The story of Rome’s pomerium and its ritual creation by the legendary figure Romulus is a crucial component of the city’s foundation myth, which was recorded by a number of ancient authors: Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 1. 88), Plutarch (Rom. 11. 1-4), Tacitus (Ann. 12. 23-24), Aulus Gellius (NA 13. 14), and Festus (Lexicon 295L s.v. Posimerium), amongst others. The stories recorded by these authors were all very minor variations on the following sequence of events: the pomerium of Rome was believed to have been ploughed originally by Romulus around the Palatine Hill according to the instructions of a priest, breaking the furrow at the points of entry and exit from the city. This line was the first furrow (the sulcus primigenius), and it set out the line for not only the first pomerium, but also the first city wall. The ritual took place on an auspicious day, and was celebrated each year thereafter with the Parilia festival in the fields, and after the time of Hadrian, the Romaea festival in the streets of Rome. To this day, the natale di Roma is celebrated in the city, and thousands of people turn out to walk the ancient via Sacra and congregate in the Circus Maximus

So where did this ritual come from? In antiquity it was commonly accepted that the ploughing ritual was based on an Etruscan rite that was adopted for the creation of the city, as recorded by Varro in the first century BC:

Many founded towns in Latium by the Etruscan ritual; that is, with a team of cattle, a bull and a cow on the inside, they ran a furrow around with a plough (for reasons of religion they did this on an auspicious day), that they might be fortified by a ditch and a wall (Ling. 5. 143).

It was further echoed by his contemporary, Livy:

This word [pomerium] is interpreted by those who look only at its etymology as meaning “the tract behind the wall,” but it signifies rather “the tract on both sides of the wall,” the space which the Etruscans used formerly to consecrate with augural ceremonies when they proposed to erect their wall (1. 44).

The only surviving source that mentioned the foundation ritual prior to the first century BC is Cato’s Origines, written in the early second century BC and which survives only in fragments. The Origines was the first history written in Latin prose, and the first of its seven books was concerned with the origo populi Romani (Cornell, 1995: 6). His account of the creation of a pomerium included the first written record of the ritual, suggesting a Latin origin, not a specifically Etruscan one:

Founders of a city used to yoke a bull on the right, and a cow on the inside [the left]; then, clad in the Gabine manner – that is, with part of the toga covering the head and the rest tucked up – they would hold the plough-handle bent in so that all the clods fell inwards, and ploughing a furrow in this manner they would describe the course of the walls, lifting the plough over the gateways (1. 18a = fr 18 P).It is perhaps true to say that in antiquity it was largely irrelevant whether or not the connection between the pomerium and the foundation of Rome by Romulus was based on fact; by the late republic and early imperial periods the link was firmly established in visual and literary culture, as the yoked bull and cow ploughing the pomerial furrow had become symbols of colony foundation. This can be seen in the first century AD relief from Aquileia, possibly the only complete, surviving sculptural representation of the pomerium ritual, associated with the founding of the Italian colony (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia: inv. 1171). Similarly, a cast statuette in the British Museum found in County Durham depicts the same pomerial ritual (1879,0710.1).

DUR-EFD631 – a denarius of Vespasian showing the yoked oxen on the reverse (RIC II 2nd edition, Vespasian, 944). Copyright: Durham County Council, License: CC-BY).

Many emperors employed this image in the material culture produced during their reign, demonstrated by the existence of “the founder” coin type seen above (figs. 1 & 3), with examples surviving from the coinage of Augustus, Vespasian (RIC II 2nd edn., Vespasian 943-5; 951-2), Trajan (RIC II, Trajan 567-8), Hadrian (Mershorer 2; Hendin 810) and Commodus (RIC III, Commodus, 247; 560; 570), amongst many others, minted in numerous provinces across the Empire. Though the most famous version of this ancient ritual took place at Rome, there is evidence to suggest that many other Roman towns had a pomerium that was created in this way, notably Capua, Pompeii, and Herculaneum in Italy (Senatore, 1999: 100-2), Aelia Capitolina at Jerusalem (Ben-Eliyahu, 2016), Iulia Genetiva in southern Spain (CIL 2.5.439), and Colchester, Lincoln, and Gloucester in England (Wacher, 1997; Pearce, 2011). The coin illustrated in figure 1 has been linked to the foundation of Nicopolis by Octavian in c. 29 BC after his victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC (RIC I: 60-1, fn. 272; BMCRE I, cxxiv; Calomino, 2012: 103-4). This brings additional meaning: the reverse of this coin not only references the ritual foundation of Rome and hints at the emerging political prominence of Octavian, but it also commemorates the foundation of a new city inextricably connected to his greatest military victory to date, hidden behind the imagery of tradition and piety that would become hallmarks of the Augustan visual programme. Coins such as WILT-E5BA8D help us to understand the mechanisms by which these powerful and simple images were transmitted across the empire. Though this coin was almost certainly minted in Italy, its arrival in Britain demonstrates the vast distances these images could travel and the populations they could reach. The inhabitants of Nicopolis may never have seen Augustus, but they could hold his coinage, see the image of Apollo and the founder of their home, and learn a little about the man who ruled the Eternal City.

Further reading:

Beard, M., North, J., and Price, S. 1998. Religions of Rome, (2 vols). Cambridge.

Galinsky, K. 2012. Augustus: introduction to the life of an emperor. Cambridge.

Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor.

Stevens, S. 2017. City Boundaries and Urban Development in Roman Italy. Leuven.


Ben-Eliyahu, E. 2016. ‘“Cities surrounded by a wall from the time of Joshua Son of Nun” as a Rabbinic Response to the Roman Pomerium,’ The Jewish Quarterly Review 106: 1-20.

Calomino, D. 2012. ‘Actia Nicopolis. Coinage, Currency and Civic Identity (27 BC-AD 268),’ in F. L. Sanchez (ed.) The City and the Coin in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds. BAR International Series 2402. Oxford. 103-115.

Cornell, T. J. 1995. The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). London.

Pearce, J. 2011. ‘Making the dead: tombs and topography in the Roman provinces,’ in M. Carroll & J. Rempel (eds.) Living with the dead: burial and commemoration in the classical world. Oxford. 134-159.

Senatore, F. 1999. ‘Necropoli e società nell’antica Pompei: considerazioni su un sepolcreto di poveri,’ in F. Senatore (ed.) Pompei, Il Vesuvio, e La Penisola Sorrentina. Rome. 91-112.

Wacher, J. 1997. The Towns of Roman Britain. London.

Wiseman, T. P. 2019. The House of Augustus: A Historical Detective Story. Princeton.

All translations of ancient texts are from the Loeb editions, unless otherwise stated:

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romanae Antiquitates (Roman Antiquities)

Plutarch, Βίοι Παράλληλοι (Parallel Lives)

Tacitus, Annales (The Annals)

Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights)  

Festus, De Verborum Significatu (or, The Lexicon, trans. by the Festus Lexicon Project, University College London)

Varro, De Lingua Latina (On the Latin Language)

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita (or, The History of Rome)Cato, Origines (Origins)

Post written by Maria Kneafsey, Finds Liaison Officer for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.