O’Brien Coin Guide: Roman Emperors and their Coins, Part I


Coins of the Roman Empire

This is intended as a simple, introductory guide to Roman coins.  Links to academic and other sources of information are provided for each Roman Emperor and more detailed Roman coin databases are available online.

The Republic

The Roman Republic (Latin: Res publica Romana) was the period of ancient Roman civilization beginning with the overthrow of Roman Kingdom, traditionally dated to 509 BC, and ending in 27 BC with the establishment of the Roman Empire.  It was during this period that Rome expanded from the city of Rome itself to dominance over the entire Mediterranean world.  Lots of good articles are available about this period of history :-

From a numismatic viewpoint, the Romans (and the Celts) copied the Greek coinage system and the early coins of the republic were copies / imitations of their Greek counterparts.

The Dictatorship of Julius Caesar (45-44 BC)

Ironically, most people believe the most famous Roman emperor was Julius Caesar – a dictator for life, not an emperor – who seized power when Rome was a republic and ruled by democracy.  Although a dictator, he wasn’t the worst of them and historians tell us Julius Caesar was a general, a statesman, a lawgiver, a jurist, an orator, a poet, a historian, a philologer (a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistic), a mathematician, and an architect.

The word “Caesar” originates from the aristocratic patrician family of Julius Caesar, the man who seized power when Rome was still a republic.  Julius Caesar was, however, undeniably one of the most influential rulers of Rome – his reforms stabilized the Mediterranean world.  He managed to do this because he was dictator for ten years and consul for five … and imperator or commander of an army he was not made to disband, so that he nearly was as powerful as any king at the time.

From a numismatic point of view, Julius Caesar was the first to print his own bust on a Roman coin – perhaps one of the reasons every Roman coin collector wants a coin of Julius Caesar in their collection.  This is, perhaps, why so many think of him as an emperor.  At the very least, he was an empire-builder and his step-son (Augustus) was the first emperor of Rome and expanded the empire even further.

roman coin JULIUS CAESAR. gold Aureus Rome Mint, 46 BC

Julius Caesar, gold Aureus (7.98 gms), Rome Mint, 46 B.C. Cr-466/1; Calico-36; S-1395. “C. CAESAR COS.TER”, veiled head of Vesta (Pietas?) right; Reverse “A. HIRTIVS PR”, lituus, capis and axe (pontificate and augurate emblems).

Roman coin silver Julius Caesar denarius, 44 BC, CAESAR IMP M Laureate head right, crescent moon behind, rev L AEMILIVS BVCA, Venus standing left

Julius Caesar denarius, 44 BC, CAESAR IMP M Laureate head right, crescent moon behind, rev L AEMILIVS BVCA, Venus standing left

There are hundreds of internet pages dedicated to Julius Caesar and lots of paper-based books too, so I am just listing three links here as a “starter” for finding out more about this most famous of Roman generals.

On the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus – an act made famous by Shakespeare in his play.  A new series of civil wars broke out immediately after the death of Caesar and the constitutional government of the Roman Republic was never restored.  Caesar’s adopted heir Octavian, later known as Augustus, eventually rose to sole power and the era of the Roman Empire began.

Julian-Claudian Dynasty – 27 BC to AD 68

The Julian-Claudian Dynasty 27 BC to AD 68 is so-called because its Emperors belonged to the patrician families called the Julii and the Claudii.  The Julii claimed they were descended from the goddess Venus.  Some of the most famous of all of the emperors belonged to this dynasty including the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar who was followed by Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Augustus (27 BC-AD 14)

  • The founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor.
  • The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana.
  • He enlarged the Empire, annexing Egypt, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum, and Raetia, expanded possessions in Africa, expanded into Germania, and completed the conquest of Hispania.
  • Beyond his frontiers, he secured the Empire with a buffer region of client states, and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy.
  • He also reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established a standing army
  • He established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign.
roman coin gold aureus, minted in Rome between 13-14 AD. Laureate head of Augustus is on the left with the inscription

Gold aureus coin, minted in Rome between 13-14 AD. Laureate head of Augustus is on the left with the inscription “CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE”, on the right is Tiberius riding a chariot with four horses holding his eagle tipped scepter.

Roman coin - Wreathed head of Augustus is on the left with CAESAR AVGVSTVS

Wreathed head of Augustus is on the left with “CAESAR AVGVSTVS” written on it, and on the right is a comet with eight rays with tail upward

Roman coin - Denarius of Augustus with Agrippa 27 BC - 14 AD - minted in Rome by Caius Sulpicius Platorinus, moneyer. On the left is Augustus bare head with inscription CAESAR AVGVSTVS and Agrippa's head on the right with M - AGRIPPA PLATORINVS - III - VIR

Silver Denarius of Augustus with his famous general, Agrippa c. 27 BC-14 AD. Minted in Rome by Caius Sulpicius Platorinus, moneyer. On the left is Augustus bare head with inscription CAESAR AVGVSTVS and Agrippa’s head on the right with M – AGRIPPA PLATORINVS – III – VIR”

Tiberius (AD 14-37)

  • Tiberius was one of Rome’s greatest generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily Germania; laying the foundations for the northern frontier.
  • He came to be remembered as a dark, reclusive, and sombre ruler who never really desired to be emperor
  • In 26 AD, against better judgment, Tiberius exiled himself from Rome and left administration largely in the hands of his unscrupulous Praetorian prefects Sejanus and Macro.
  • It was during the government of Tiberius that, in the Roman province of Judea, Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate.
  • An able soldier, forced to divorce his wife and marry the daughter of Augustus, who then adopted him as his son.
  • They both a earned a reputation for partying – included minting ‘base metal’ coin counters (similar to modern day casino chips) that illustrated scenes from his famous parties.  For obvious reasons, these coins are best not illustrated in this post.
Gold aureus roman coin - The laureate head of Tiberius (left) surrounded with the inscription

The laureate head of Tiberius (left) surrounded with the inscription “TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS”, while seated on the right is his mother Livia, holding a scepter and branch with inscription “PONTIF MAXIM”. This coin was minted in Lyon, in the then Roman province of Gaul (now France).

Silver Denarius of Emperor Tiberius, circa 14-37 AD. Obverse: TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVST, laureate head right. Reverse: PONTIF MAXIM, Livia, as Pax, seated right; plain legs to chair with double line below.

Silver Denarius of Emperor Tiberius, circa 14-37 AD. Obverse: TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVST, laureate head right. Reverse: PONTIF MAXIM, Livia, as Pax, seated right; plain legs to chair with double line below.

  • Thirty pieces of silver was the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, according to an account in the Gospel of Matthew 26:15 in the New Testament – were they silver denarii of Tiberius?

Caligula (AD 37-41)

  • There are few surviving sources on Caligula’s reign, although he is described as a noble and moderate ruler during the first six months of his rule.
  • After this, the sources focus upon his cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and intense sexual perversity, presenting him as an insane tyrant.
  • He dealt severely with his senators, humiliating them publicly.
  • He threatened to set up a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem
  • He directed much of his attention to ambitious construction projects and notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.
  • During his reign, he annexed the Kingdom of Mauretania and made it into a province.
  • In 41 AD, Caligula became the first Roman emperor to be assassinated, the result of a conspiracy involving the Praetorian Guard, the Roman Senate and the imperial court.
Caligula_AD_37-41 aureus

Gold aureus struck at Rome, A.D. 37–38. Caligula’s portrait appears with that of his deceased mother, Agrippina Senior, a political martyr of the reign of Tiberius.

roman coin caligula - The laureate head of Caligula is shown on the left with emblem “C CAESAR AVG GERM P M TR POT”. Agrippina (the elder) with her braided hair is on the right with the legend “AGRIPPINA MAT C CAES AVG GERM”

The laureate head of Caligula is shown on the left with emblem “C CAESAR AVG GERM P M TR POT”. Agrippina (the elder) with her braided hair is on the right with the legend “AGRIPPINA MAT C CAES AVG GERM”

roman coin, Sestertius of Caligula - obverse: shows the wreathed head of Caligula with the caption “C CAESAR DIVI AVG PRON AVG P M TR P III P P”. Reverse: Caligula standing on a platform addressing five helmeted soldiers with shields, parazonia and two aquila. It bears a legend “ADLOCVT COH”

Sestertius of Caligula – obverse: shows the wreathed head of Caligula with the caption “C CAESAR DIVI AVG PRON AVG P M TR P III P P”. Reverse: Caligula standing on a platform addressing five helmeted soldiers with shields, parazonia and two aquila. It bears a legend “ADLOCVT COH”

Claudius (AD 41-54)

  • Declared Emperor by the Praetorian Guard after Caligula’s assassination, at which point he was the last man of his family
  • An ambitious builder, he built many new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Empire.
  • Interested in law, he presided at public trials and issued up to twenty edicts a day.
  • Vulnerable throughout his reign, Claudius was constantly forced to shore up his position; this resulted in the deaths of many senators. These events damaged his reputation among the ancient writers, though more recent historians have revised this opinion.
  • Many authors contend that he was murdered by his own wife (Agrippina).
  • After his death in 54 AD (at age of 63), his grand-nephew and adopted son Nero succeeded him as Emperor
roman coin gold aureus Claudius, 41-54 AD 41-42 AD, Rome

Claudius, 41-54 AD. Aureus, struck 41-42 AD, Rome; 7.79 g. T CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P, laureate head right / PACI AVGVSTAE, Pax walking right, holding caduceus over serpent

roman coin Claudius. AD 41-54 AR silver Denarius Rome mint

Claudius. AD 41-54. AR Denarius (19mm, 3.51 g, 4h). Rome mint. Struck AD 43-44. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P III, laureate head right / PRAETOR RECEPT, Emperor and soldier, holding signum and shield, standing vis-à-vis, clasping right hands

Nero (AD 54-68)

Nero was the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty – he was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 AD following Claudius’ death.

  • Nero focused on diplomacy, trade, and enhancing the cultural life of the Empire.
  • He ordered theaters built and promoted athletic games.

During his reign, general Corbulo conducted a successful war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire.  He was also active in several other military ventures :-

  • General Suetonius Paulinus crushed a revolt in Britain.
  • Nero annexed the Bosporan Kingdom to the Empire
  • Nero began the First Roman–Jewish War.

Infamously, in 64 AD, most of Rome was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome, which many Romans believed Nero himself had started in order to clear land for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.  He is infamously known as the Emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned” and as an early persecutor of Christians.

  • In 68, the rebellion of Vindex in Gaul and later the acclamation of Galbain Hispania drove Nero from the throne. Facing a false report of being denounced as a public enemy who was to be executed, he committed suicide on 9 June, 68 AD (the first Roman emperor to do so).
  • Nero’s rule is often associated with tyranny and extravagance.
  • He is known for many executions, including that of his mother, and the probable murder by poison of his stepbrother Britannicus.
  • His death ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, sparking a brief period of civil wars known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
roman coin gold Nero Aureus. 57-58 AD. NERO CAESAR AVG IMP, bare head right / PONTIF MAX TRP IIII COS around EXSC in wreath

Nero AV Aureus. 57-58 AD. NERO CAESAR AVG IMP, bare head right / PONTIF MAX TRP IIII COS around EXSC in wreath

roman coin silver Nero Denarius. 60-61 AD. NERO CAESAR AVG IMP, bare head right / PONTIF MAX TR P VII COS IIII EX-SC, Ceres standing left, holding corn ears & torch

Nero Denarius. 60-61 AD. NERO CAESAR AVG IMP, bare head right / PONTIF MAX TR P VII COS IIII EX-SC, Ceres standing left, holding corn ears & torch

Part 2 has been published !

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2 thoughts on “O’Brien Coin Guide: Roman Emperors and their Coins, Part I

  1. Pingback: Counting On Currency

  2. I was looking through some of my grandmothers old jewelry boxes and found this old coin I discovered it is a Roman coin of Caligula and Agrippina (the elder). I tried to find out the value for insurance purposes can you help me or let me know who can. Thank You for helping me: Respectfully Yours Patricia Templeton

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