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


The Year of the Four Emperors (68–69) and the beginning of the Flavian Dynasty

The suicide of emperor Nero, in AD 68, was followed by a brief period of civil war – the first Roman civil war since Mark Antony’s death in 30 BC.  Between June and December of AD 69, Rome witnessed the successive rise and fall of Galba, Otho and Vitellius – until, ultimately, the accession of Vespasian – the first of the so-called Flavian dynasty. The social, military and political upheavals of this year had Empire-wide repercussions, which included the outbreak of the Batavian rebellion.

Galba  (AD 68-69)

Galba was Roman Emperor for eight months from AD 68 to 69 and was the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, when he made a bid for the throne during the rebellion of Julius Vindex.

  • He was the first emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors
  • Hardly anything is known about his life because he died so young
  • He was engaged to his step-sister Antonia Postuma, but they never wed
  • On January 1st, AD 69, the Rhine legions refused to swear loyalty to Galba
  • Instead, they acclaimed Vitellius as emperor
  • On January 15th, Galba was publicly killed by the Praetorian Guards
  • On the same day, the senate recognized Otho as emperor
Gold Aureus of Galba (68-69 AD), the Emperor Astride a Rearing Horse on the Reverse

Aureus July 68 – January 69, 7.22 g. IMP SER GALBA CAESAR AVG P M Laureate head r. Rev. Galba, bare-headed and in military dress, riding r., rising r. hand in salutation, in exergue Extremely rare and among the finest aurei of Galba in existence.

GALBA. 68-69 AD. AR denarius. GALBA-IMP (starting at 7 o'clock, reading clockwise) Laureate head r., with globe at point of bust. / HISPANIA Hispania, draped, standing l., holding corn ears and poppy in r. hand and round shield and two vertical spears in l.

GALBA. 68-69 AD. AR denarius. GALBA-IMP (starting at 7 o’clock, reading clockwise) Laureate head r., with globe at point of bust. / HISPANIA Hispania, draped, standing l., holding corn ears and poppy in r. hand and round shield and two vertical spears in l.

Otho (AD 69)

Otho did not have a record for tyranny or cruelty and was expected to be a fair emperor but his efforts to restore peace and stability were dashed by the revelation that Vitellius had declared himself Imperator in Germania and had dispatched half of his army to march on Italy.

  • Otho was not keen to begin another civil war and sent emissaries to propose a peace and convey his offer to marry Vitellius’ daughter.
  • It was too late – Vitellius’ generals had half of his army heading to Italy.
  • After a series of minor victories, Otho was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum.
  • Rather than flee and attempt a counter-attack, Otho decided to put an end to the anarchy and committed suicide. He had been emperor for a little more than three months.
Otho. AD 69. Aureus, 15th January – 9th March 69, AV 7.26 g. IMP M OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P Bare head r. / PAX ORB – IS TERRARVM Pax, dressed, standing l., holding branch in r. hand and caduceus in l.

Otho. AD 69. Gold Aureus, 15th January – 9th March 69, AV 7.26 g. IMP M OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P Bare head r. / PAX ORB – IS TERRARVM Pax, dressed, standing l., holding branch in r. hand and caduceus in l.

Otho. AD 69. AR Denarius (19mm, 3.48 g, 6h). Rome mint. IMP M OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P, Bare head right / PAX ORBIS TERRARVM, Pax standing left, holding olive branch and caduceus.

Otho. AD 69. Silver Denarius (19mm, 3.48 g, 6h). Rome mint. IMP M OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P, Bare head right / PAX ORBIS TERRARVM, Pax standing left, holding olive branch and caduceus.

Vitellius (AD 69)

  • On the news of Otho’s suicide, Vitellius was recognized as emperor by the Senate.
  • Vitellius focused on the pursuit of every possible rival, inviting them to the palace with promises of power only to have them assassinated.
  • Meanwhile, the legions stationed in Egypt, Iudaea (Judea/Palestine) and Syria acclaimed Vespasian as emperor.
  • A strong force drawn from the Judaean and Syrian legions marched on Rome under the command of Mucianus.  Vespasian himself traveled to Alexandria where he had been acclaimed Emperor on July 1, thereby gaining control of the vital grain supplies from Egypt.
  • Surrounded by enemies and with the Danube army at the gates of Rome, Vitellius went into hiding but was caught and killed by Vespasian’s men.
  • In seizing the capital, they burned down the temple of Jupiter.
  • The Senate then acknowledged Vespasian as emperor on the following day.
VITELLIUS. 69 AD. Gold Aureus, Tarraco January-April 69, 7.16 g. A VITELLIVS IMP GERMANICVS Laureate bust l., with globe at point of the bust. / VICTORIA – AVGVSTI Victory, draped, advancing l., holding shield inscribed S P / Q R

VITELLIUS. 69 AD. Gold Aureus, Tarraco January-April 69, 7.16 g. A VITELLIVS IMP GERMANICVS Laureate bust l., with globe at point of the bust. / VICTORIA – AVGVSTI Victory, draped, advancing l., holding shield inscribed S P / Q R

VITELLIUS. 69 AD. AR Denarius (3.26 gm). Rome mint. A VITELLIVS GERMANICVS IMP, Bare head right; early transitional type with features of Otho / CONCORDIA P R, Concordia seated left, holding cornucopiae and patera.

VITELLIUS. 69 AD. AR Denarius (3.26 gm). Rome mint. A VITELLIVS GERMANICVS IMP, Bare head right; early transitional type with features of Otho / CONCORDIA P R, Concordia seated left, holding cornucopiae and patera.

The Flavian Dynasty (69–96)

The Flavians rose to power during the civil war of AD 69, known as the Year of the Four Emperors.  Although the dynasty proved to be short-lived, several significant historic, economic and military events took place during their reign.  Three emperors belong to this dynasty – Vespasian, Titus and Domitian.

Vespasian (AD 69-79)

Vespasian was from an equestrian family that rose into the senatorial rank under the Julio–Claudian emperors.  Although he held various public offices, his renown came from military success: the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 and subjugated Judaea during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66.  Little information on his 10-year reign survived, except …

  • He reformed the financial system at Rome after the campaign against Judaea ended
  • He initiated several ambitious construction projects, incl. the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum
  • Through his general Agricola, Vespasian increased imperial expansion in Britain.
  • After his death in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus – thus becoming the first Roman Emperor to be directly succeeded by his own natural son (and not an adopted one)
Vespasian gold Aureus. Rome mint, 21 Dec 69 through early 70 AD. IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG, laureate head right / IVDAEA in ex, captive Jewess seated right, hands tied before, trophy of captured arms behind.

Vespasian gold Aureus. Rome mint, 21 Dec 69 through early 70 AD. IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG, laureate head right / IVDAEA in ex, captive Jewess seated right, hands tied before, trophy of captured arms behind.

Vespasian silver Denarius. IMP CAES VESP AVG P M COS IIII, laureate head right / VES-TA to either side of Vesta standing left, holding simpulum & scepter

Vespasian silver Denarius. IMP CAES VESP AVG P M COS IIII, laureate head right / VES-TA to either side of Vesta standing left, holding simpulum & scepter

Titus (AD 79-81)

Prior to becoming Emperor, Titus gained renown as a military commander, serving under his father in Judaea during the First Jewish-Roman War.  When Vespasian was declared Emperor on 1 July, AD 69, Titus was left in charge of ending the Jewish rebellion.  In AD 70, he besieged and captured Jerusalem, and destroyed the city and the Second Temple.  As emperor, he is best known for :-

  • Completing the Colosseum
  • His generosity in relieving the suffering caused by two disasters, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 and a fire in Rome in AD 80.
  • After barely two years in office, Titus died of a fever on 13 September, AD 81.
Titus, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 73 AD. T CAESAR IMP VESP CENS, laureate head right / TRI POT PONTIF, Titus seated right, holding sceptre & branch

Titus, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 73 AD. T CAESAR IMP VESP CENS, laureate head right / TRI POT PONTIF, Titus seated right, holding sceptre & branch

Titus, as Caesar, silver Sestertius. 72 AD. T CAES VESPASIAN IMP PON TR POT COS II, laureate head right / FORTVNAE REDVCI S-C, Fortuna standing left, holding branch & rudder on globe & cornucopia

Titus, as Caesar, silver Sestertius. 72 AD. T CAES VESPASIAN IMP PON TR POT COS II, laureate head right / FORTVNAE REDVCI S-C, Fortuna standing left, holding branch & rudder on globe & cornucopia

Domitian (AD 81-96)

As Emperor, Domitian strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage, expanded the border defenses of the Empire, and initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome.

  • Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to procure a decisive victory against king Decebalus.
  • Domitian’s saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance.
  • Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and as a consequence, Domitian was popular with the people and army but considered a tyrant by members of the Roman Senate.  According to Suetonius, he was the first Roman Emperor who had demanded to be addressed as dominus et deus (master and god).
  • He worshiped the goddess Minerva and she regularly appeared on his coinage—in four different attested reverse types – and he founded a legion, Legio I Minervia, in her name.
  • Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials.
  • The same day he was succeeded by his advisor, Nerva.
  • After his death, Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Roman Senate and propagated them memory of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant.
  • Modern history has rejected these views, instead characterizing Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political program provided the foundation of the peaceful 2nd century
Roman aureus minted in 83 during the reign of Domitian. Domitia appears on the reverse with the honorific title Augusta.

Roman aureus minted in 83 during the reign of Domitian. Domitia appears on the reverse with the honorific title Augusta.

Upon his accession, Domitian revalued the Roman currency by increasing the silver content of the denarius by 12%. This coin commemorates the deification of Domitian's son.

Upon his accession, Domitian revalued the Roman currency by increasing the silver content of the denarius by 12%.  This coin commemorates the deification of Domitian’s son.

DOMITIAN, as Caesar. 80 AD. Silver Denarius (3.48 gm). CAESAR DIVI F DOMITIANVS COS VII, laureate head right / PRINCEPS IVVENTVTIS, helmet on throne

DOMITIAN, as Caesar. 80 AD. Silver Denarius (3.48 gm). CAESAR DIVI F DOMITIANVS COS VII, laureate head right / PRINCEPS IVVENTVTIS, helmet on throne

DOMITIAN. 81-96 AD. Silver Denarius (3.51 gm). Struck 81 AD. IMP CAES DOMITIANVS AVG P M, laureate head right / TR P COS VII DES VIII, Dolphin coiled around anchor

DOMITIAN. 81-96 AD. Silver Denarius (3.51 gm). Struck 81 AD. IMP CAES DOMITIANVS AVG P M, laureate head right / TR P COS VII DES VIII, Dolphin coiled around anchor

Part 3 has been published !

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