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