Every coin has a story to tellJuly 5, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Collections online
Collections Online Project Assistant, Ed Johnson, shares his experiences of digitising our ancient coins and reveals the stories that they tell.
As I approach the end of my first 12 months of working with the Roman coins for Collections Online, I am struck by the numbers involved. I have handled, scanned, identified and written captions for approximately 4,000 ancient coins. I can recognise the face of over a hundred different emperors, empresses, princes and usurpers, and identify many of the posturing gods, goddesses and personifications that are to be found on the reverse. However, I have taken very little time to consider the circumstances in which these coins were made.
Coins were not simply shaped lumps of precious metal or tokens used to pay for goods and services; they were an outlet for imperial propaganda. As such the emperors had an opportunity to broadcast to the Empire and beyond. By looking at the coin issues of one emperor, Septimius Severus, AD 193-211, we can gain some understanding of the concerns and pressures that shaped his rule.
Upon the assassination of Emperor Commodus in December AD 192, the Roman world was plunged into chaos; the throne was without an heir and Rome spiralled into civil war. Initially the popular choice of the senate was the high-ranking Pertinax. Pertinax sat on the throne for no more than three months before his assassination at the hands of the unsatisfied Praetorian Guard (the Emperor’s Bodyguard). He was followed by the Didius Julianus, who paid for the support of Pertinax’s murderers, but was not a popular choice throughout much of the Empire.
Pertinax’s death, and Didius’ weakness, sparked the ambition of 3 claimants on the fringes of the empire, all were military men and all were supported by their legions. Pescennius Niger was proclaimed emperor in Syria by the eastern legions, Clodius Albinus was given a similar honour in Britannia and Hispania, and Septimius Severus was elected to the throne by his troops in Pannonia (central Europe). By the end of the conflict Septimius Severus was to be victorious, sitting on the throne for 18 years and establishing a dynasty which was to rule for nearly half a century.
Being a military man and therefore wholly dependent upon the goodwill and support of his legions it is not surprising that much of Septimius first issues of coinage were interested in military matters. The denarius seen above was struck in AD 193 and celebrates one of his most beloved and supportive legions, the Legio XIV/XIII Gemina. A series of similar coins struck for a further 14 legions are testament to Septimius’ desire to reward his troops and ensure their future loyalty.
Septimius marched into Rome in AD 193, and Didius’ already slim support melted away. He was deposed and murdered in the palace after just three months of rule.
Despite his successes Septimius still had to win over the mob. Upon Julianus’ accession demonstrations were seen throughout Rome calling for him to be replaced by his rival, the popular and well respected, Pescessius Niger. Septimius was not the people’s elect, he was not Italian by birth as Pescessius was, he was born on the fringes of the Empire in modern day Libya and was seen by many as little more than a strong, but provincial, military commander. Coins minted throughout his reign, such as the sestertius seen above (minted in Rome, AD 195), suggest a need to appease the people of Rome – the eternal city [ROMAE AETERNAE].
In AD 194 the threat posed by Pescessius was eliminated in the battle at Issus. Pescessius escaped the battle but was later captured while fleeing to Parthia (modern day Iran) and was swiftly beheaded. With the threat from the east removed, Septimius turned his attentions west, to Clodius Albinus. Relations between the two were initially cordial. Clodius accepted the title of Caesar (Crown Prince) from Septimius and was recognised as his successor. The denarius below shows Clodius’ adoption of the title Casear. The figure of Spes, the Roman goddess of hope, on the reverse indicates the optimism with which the agreement was met. Other issues of this time speak of harmony (Concordia), peace (Pax) and the pacification of Minerva, the Roman goddess of war (Miner Pacif).
However, this arrangement was short lived. In AD 196 Clodius declared himself emperor and crossed from Britannia into Gaul to engage Septimius. In February AD 194, Clodius’ ambitions were checked with his defeat and subsequent death at the bloody battle of Lugdunum (Lyon, France). A series of coins from around this period (such as those show below) depict the emperor armed on horseback departing Rome to protect the Empire (PROFECTIO AVG) and then returning victorious to the felicitations of the Roman people (ADVENTI AVG FELICISSIMO).
By the Spring of AD 193 Septimius had established himself as sole ruler of the Empire. The two coins below, were both minted in the early 3rd century AD, after his supremacy was asserted. By this time his rule was less troubled with conflict and infighting and more concerned with establishing peace and bringing about stability to the Empire. The coins below show common themes for much of his coinage from this period. Septimius declares himself as the founder of peace (FVNDATOR PACIS) and looked to the future, minting coins of his children Geta and Caracalla as princes of youth (PRINC IVVENT); emperors in waiting.
There is a wealth of stories that can be told from the coins in our collection. Every single one of the thousands that will soon go online have been struck for a reason, each has its own ancient story to tell. These are far more than pieces of metal struck to buy wine, bread, sandals and slaves.