Friday, 11 December 2009

Severan Coinage

I thought as I had been so slack I would post an essay I wrote for my coins and inscriptions course at uni. It's a bit rough around the edges as due to computer troubles I had to rewrite it without access to many of my sources in 48hours.

How well do the images and legends of the coins of the reign of Septimius Severus reflect imperial policy and history of the time.

Roman coinage played a dual role in antiquity; functioning as both a currency and as an excellent platform for spreading political messages throughout the Empire. This can be seen most clearly at times of regime change, as new dynasties attempt to supplant their power by spreading their political ideals through the medium of coin types and legends. The coinage of Septimius Severus is an excellent example of how the politics and history can be reflected in the coin types or legends, as when viewed chronologically one can clearly see one of the most interesting political schemes in all Roman history unfold.

In 193 AD Septimius Severus was serving as Governor of Upper Pannonia when the succesor of Commodus, Pertinax, was murdered by the praetorians. The guard then offered the throne to the the highest bidder, a contest won by Didius Julianus who promised a donative of 25,000 sestertii to each man (1). This caused uproar in the city and the plebs protested in the forum before heading to the Colosseum where they remained over night calling upon the assistance of the provincial legions. Although the plebs named the governor of Syria, Pescenius Niger, as their chosen saviour; Septimius Severus also answered their call. In order to portray himself as the avenger of Pertinax he adopted the title Pertinax and this can be found on his early coinage in the form of "PERT" in the obverse legend. Upon entering Rome Septimius reaffirmed this idea by having Pertinax consecrated and minting a series commemorating this bearing the legend "DIVVS PERT PIVS PATER" (a) on the obverse. These coins clearly reflect the political stance of Septimius Severus by displaying him as avenger of Pertinax but other early coin types show the harsh reality of the period.

It is clear from the outset that Septimius Severus lacked any real claim to the throne and that avenging Pertinax was merely spin. His real claim was that he controlled the largest army within striking distance of Rome (2). The Historia Augusta's account of Severus' entry into Rome makes it quite clear that it was it was the fact that he was “accompanied not only by armed soldiers but also by a body of armed friends” (HA Severus 7.4) that ensured Severus' senatorial approval. It is clear that both the legions and Severus understood the real position of the power therefore Severus' coinage of 193-194AD clearly reflect his desperate attempts to maintain the loyalty of the troops. His issues display an almost exclusively military theme with military virtues such as "Virtus(b)" and "Victory"(c) being backed up by one of the clearest calls for troop loyalty the "FIDEI LEG(d)" or “loyalty of the legions” type. Most notably however Septimius Severus mints an entire series of legionary coinage depicting an eagle between two standards and bearing the titles the legions under his control(e). Of the sixteen legions in the Rhine-Danube region under his control fifteen have recorded coin types and only the X Gemina has no surviving types. This could mean that the X Gemina somehow lost favour with the Emperor (3), possibly through siding with one of the other contenders for the throne, but it is impossible to be sure. The fifteen legions represented all received denarii but alongside these Severus also minted aureii for three legions, the I Minerva, VIII Augusta and XIII Gemina Martia Victrix, the latter of which also received sestertii (f). The fact that Severus only minted for legions already under his control is a clear sign that, much like Marcus Antonius prior to Actium, he was attempting to honour them and ensure their loyalty. This is in contast to the legionary issues of Gallienus, Victorinus and Carausius, who minted for legions out of their control in the hope of gaining their favour (4). These issues of Severus clearly reflect the true history of the period as, having been forced into embarassing situations by his troops, Severus knew that they were key to his power and that he must maintain their loyalty at all costs.

Along with Severus two other pretenders for the throne answered the call of the plebs; the governor of Britain Clodius Albinus and the governor of Syria Pescennius Niger. Despite having the largest army Severus knew that he could not win a battle on two fronts and was forced to resort to diplomacy to avoid a war on two fronts. He offered the lesser of his two rivals, Albinus, the title of Caesar and even although he had also been declared Augustus by his troops he knew it wise to accept (Herodian II.15.3). The period of Albinus as Caesar is represented in the coin spectrum by a run of coinage from the mint of Rome from 193AD bearing both the title “CAES” and “SEPT” (g), showing Albinus adopted Severus' nomen to cement the link between the two. Upon closer inspection however the coinage hints that this was a purely political link entered into begrudgingly on the part of Severus. Mattingly argues that the lack of honorific titles on the coins of Albinus makes this clear (5). Albinus is never granted tribunician's power or invested into the pontifex. Neither is he “IMP” or, despite adopting Severus' nomen, described as his son. When viewed along side the coinage of Severus' sons as Caesars it is all the more clear, as their coinage displays “TR P” and “PONT” as soon as they are declared Caesars, that Albinus is merely a pawn in Severus' political game. The coinage of Albinus clearly reflects the tense relationship between the Augustus and his Caesar, which led to Albinus being declared Augustus in 195AD and a second round of civil war.

Following this rift between himself and Albinus, Severus undertook one of his most ambitious political moves by attempting to have himself fictitiously adopted into the Antonine dynasty. Initially Severus was very blunt in his tactics, simply declaring himself the son of the Divine Marcus and changing Caracalla's name from Bassanius to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Both of these events can be found in the coinage, as Severus minted with the obverse legend "DIVI M PII F P M TR P III"(h) in 195AD and a large number of coins of Caracalla bearing his new title "M AVR ANTONINVS" can be found, as Severus grooms him in preparation for his rise to Caesar. These unsubtle coin types clearly played a large part in spreading this new political idea in an attempt to justify the prolonged civil war but it was not until after the defeat of Albinus that the true importance of the fictitious adoption became clear.

Following years of civil war Septimius Severus was left controlling a fractured Empire and the task of reuniting it would not be easy. The most imminent concern was ensuring the support of the remaining legions, which had previously been under the control of Albinus and Niger. By joining the Antonine dynasty he could now trace his lineage all the way back to the divine Nerva and that he became the rightful heir of Marcus Aurelius. With this theoretically came the loyalty of the troops (6) and in order to ensure that he was viewed as the rightful heir of the Antonine dynasty Severus employed several more subtle methods throughout the remainder of the reign. In 198AD we see the beginning a series of coinage depicting Julia Domna as the mother of the camp (i), a title which she received for accompanying Severus on his Parthian campaigns. This same title was awarded to Faustina the Younger, the wife of Marcus Aurelius, in 174AD to commemorate her accompanying Marcus on campaign. The coinage of both Julia and Faustina is remarkably similar and it is clear that Severus was attempting to subtly link not only himself to gens Aurelia but his family as a whole.

He takes this link further when, following the capture of Ctesiphon in 198AD, he accepted the title "Parthicus Maximus". The same title granted to Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius following their Parthian victories of 165- 166AD. Septimius initially adopted this title in place of "PERT" upon his obverse legends along with his eleventh imperial acclamation but buy 200AD had shortened his title to simply "SEVERVS AVG PART MAX" (j). Dropping Pertinax from his title not only reflects his new political agenda, as he attempts to align himself fully with the gens Aurelia, but offers support to the claim that the fictitious adoption was required to reunite the army. For Pertinax had been known as a strict disciplinarian and was not well liked by the troops, especially in Britain where he had previously put down a mutiny. Therefore by dropping the title and instead adopting a title more common with the Antonine dynasty Severus was able to shed the associations with the short lived Emperor.

Severus further attempts to link his entire house with that of Marcus Aurelius by following his adopted father’s model in the advancement of Carcalla. He carefully grooms his eldest son to become Augustus following the pattern of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Dio tells us that Commodus received the toga virilis and was adopted as co consul before he was of age (DIO 72(71)22.2) and Severus follows this example by bestowing the toga virilis on Caracalla at age 12 and appointing him as co consul the following year in 202AD (HA SEV 26.8). This event is recorded in the coinage as Caracalla receives the title "COS". Caracalla is also taken on campaign with his father and his coinage even bears the title "PART MAX" (k)following his fathers second Parthian campaigns. This follows the model of Commodus, who received the title of Germanicus after his fathers victory over the Marcomanni in 172AD. The coinage of the period clearly paid an important part in Severus' attempts to depict his house as a continuation of that of Marcus Aurelius.

The extent people have believed in this adoption will never be known by running concurrently is a series of coinage chosen by Severus in an attempt to call out directly to the people, who have been ravaged by civil war for 5 years. He attempts to portray the new Imperial House as a stable unit capable of restoring “SECVRIT ORBIS”(l). Every member of the Imperial Household has types minted representing their ability to return the Empire to normal. There are idealised types promising such prosperity such as; “SPEI PERPETVAE” (m) alongside more specific reference to real concerns. These include types minted showing the idealised forms of the vital services of the Empire, including the food and money supply. Severus mints “AEQVITAS AVGG, “ANNONAE AVG” and “MONETA AVGG” (n) to celebrate business as usual returning to the Empire, through the power of the Augustae. It is questionable whether these claims are truly accurate (7) but they do reflect an important part of Severus' imperial policy.

While Severus did mint several coin types depicting himself as the source of this return to greatness, including a “RESTITVTOR VRBIS” type bearing an image of himself sacrificing on the reverse (o), his advanced age meant that his mind was generally on the bigger picture. His focus was now on ensuring the acceptance of his new found dynasty after his death. Severus utilised coinage to reinforce the idea that the new found stability was the result of a stable imperial house. This idea is best represented though a series of dynastic aureii depicting Severus alongside various members of the imperial house all of which make some fairly drastic claims. Upon one type Severus appears on the obverse with his two sons on the reverse declaring “AETERNIT IMPERI”(p), essentially that the eternal survival of the empire relies on maintaining his new dynasty. This type is backed up by similar types making equally bold promises, such as “CONCORDIAE AETERNAE” (q) and “VICT AETERN” (r), all of which clearly express the idea that it is the unity and continuity of an imperial dynasty that ensures the survival of the Empire.

As a part of Severus' attempt to display the unity of the Imperial house; Julia Domna plays a significant role, which is clearly reflected on the coinage. She is now very much portrayed as the mother of the future emperors, as well as the wife of the current one. Her coinage begins to display a heavily maternal theme from 198AD, a theme which continues to the end of the reign of Severus and beyond. Although there are denarii which follow the style of the dynastic aureii mentioned above, which depict Julia on the obverse and either of her two children on the reverse (s), this is achieved largely through minting a significant number of different series of coin bearing maternal deities and legends. One can find several types depicting Hilaritas and even one where Hilaritas is depicted holding , the symbol of victory, a palm branch and a cornucopiae with two children at her feet (t). This type clearly symbolises the joy (hilaritas) Severus believes the people should feel that his great victory has brought a period of plenty to be continued by his heirs, represented by the two naked children at the feet of the Goddess. There is also several types depicting Venus Genetrix (u), representing Venus in her form as mother of the Roman people just as Julia is mother of the newly founded Severan dynasty. However the clearest representation of Julia's role as a mother can be found on a coin type depicting Julia as the Cybele found as both an aureus(v) and denarius. This type shows Julia, as, the Cybele riding in the Cybele's typical lion quadriga with the legend “MATER AVGG”. By depicting Julia as the “Magna Mater”, the mother of the gods and the original birth giver, with the legend “mother of the Augustae” (Even although Geta is not yet full Augustus) Severus leaves us in little doubt that he wishes to portray Julia as the mother of his new dynasty.

As a whole I believe that the coinage of Septimius Severus closely reflects both the history and policy of his reign. It allows valuable insight into the complex political scheming of Severus as he founds his new dynasty at each different stage. It also hints at the truth behind the propaganda of Severus both in terms of his true source of power and in his relationship with his Caesar.


1)Cassius Dio, lxxiv, 11.5
2) For an in depth study of Severus' position prior to the death of Pertinax see Birley 1999 pp88ff
3) For a further reading on the legionary coinage of Septimius Severus see Bruce R. Brace “The legionary coins of Septimius Severus” 2003 .
4)Oman “Coins of Severus and Gallienus commemorating the Roman Legions” 1918 and Mattingly “The Legionary Coins of Victorinus” 1938
5) Mattingly, BMC lxxxv (1950)
6)For an in depth study into the dynastic principle and the army see Baharal “VICTORY OF PROPAGANDA The Dynastic Aspect of the Imperial Propaganda of the Severi : the Literary and Archaeological Evidence, AD 193-235” 1996
7) Despite Severus’s claims reported in the Historia Augusta HA Albinus 12.7


Cassius Dio
Historia Augusta

Baharal “VICTORY OF PROPAGANDA The Dynastic Aspect of the Imperial Propaganda of the Severi : the Literary and Archaeological Evidence, AD 193-235” 1996
Birley “ Septimius Severus: The African Emperor” Routeledge 1990
Bruce R. Brace “The legionary coins of Septimius Severus” 2003
Mattingly “Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum vol 5” London 1950
Mattingly “Roman Imperial Coinage vol IV” Spink 1936
Mattingly “The Legionary Coins of Victorinus” 1938
Oman “Coins of Severus and Gallienus commemorating the Roman Legions” 1918


n.b Images are not to scale.

Figure a: Silver Denarius depicting Divus Pertinax RIC IV 24a

Figure b: Silver Denarius depicing Virtus on the reverse RIC IV 24

Figure c: Silver Denarius depicting Victory RIC IV 425

Figure d: Bronze Sesterius depicting Fides on the reverse RIC IV 1

Figure e: Silver Legion denarius of XIIII Minerva RIC IV 14

Figure f:AE Setertius of XIIII MInerva MV RIC IV 652

Figure g: Silver Denarius of Albinus as Caesar RIC IV 7

Figure h: AE Sestertius with obverse legend "DIVI M PII F" RIC IV 702

Figure i: AR Denarius depicting Julia Domna as mother of the camp RIC IV 164

Figure j: AR Denarius bearing legend "SEVERVS AVG PART MAX" RIC IV 171a

Figure k: AR Denarius depicting Caracalla with the title PART MAX RIC IV 54a

Figure l: AR Denarius of Caracalla depicting Securitas RIC IV 351a

Figure m: AR Denarius of Geta depicting Spes RIC 96

Figure n: AR Denarius depicting Moneta RIC 135b

Figure o: AR Denarius depicting the emperor sacrificing RIC IV 167

Figure p: AV Aureus depicting the three male members of the dynasty RIC IV 174

Figure q: AV Aureues depicting the imperial couple. RIC IV 52

Figure r: AR Denarius with "VICT AETERN" RIC IV 170

Figure s: Denarius depicting Julia on the obverse and Geta on the reverse RIC IV 394

Figure t: AR Denarius depicting hilaritas with two children RIC IV 577

Figure u: AR Denarius depicting Venus Genetrix RIC IV 578

Figure v: Aureus depicting Julia as Cybele RIC IV 562

Please note: due to a computer error I have lost my list of references for images. If you own the rights to any of these images and would like accredited or that they be removed please contact me and I will do so immediately.