Obverse, Roman Imperial Silver Denarius of Caligula. Image courtesy Atlas Numismatics

Overview:

Caligula long ago entered the popular imagination as an archetype of the sadistic and depraved Roman emperor. From a distance of almost 2,000 years, it is hard to say to what extent the stories of incest, madness and murderous sociopathy that have come down to us are accurate or exaggerations of political expediency. But what is known for certain is that, as a member of the first dynasty of Roman emperors (the Julio-Claudians, who counted Augustus (Octavian) and Julius Caesar himself among their number), he was a survivor of some of the most naked and ruthless politics ever played.

And to that end, the emperor honors his mother, Agrippina the Elder (herself a survivor of imperial ambitions), on this silver denarius minted in what is now modern-day Lyon, France.

Caligula & Agrippina

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, otherwise known as “Caligula”, became the third emperor of the Roman Empire upon the death of his great uncle Tiberius.

Which was an unlikely inheritance, on the face of it.

“Caligula” was the son of the incredibly popular general and politician Germanicus. As a small boy, Caligula won the hearts of hardened Roman soldiers by wearing his father’s large boots around camp – earning him the nickname “Little Boot”, or “Caligula”.

During the reign of Augustus, a coalition of German tribes under Arminius (also known as Herman the German) learned from the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar 60 years earlier and devastated the Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. It was perhaps the worst defeat the Roman army ever suffered. A few years later during the reign of Tiberius, it fell to Germanicus to avenge the Roman losses, and avenge them he did. The Roman people loved him.

Tiberius? Not so much. Germanicus died in Syria a few years later, possibly by poison. His widow Agrippina (nicknamed “the Elder” to differentiate her from one of her daughters) was forced to return to Rome with her children, completely at the mercy of the jealous emperor.

But Tiberius took a liking to Caligula, and officially adopted him as his heir.

There is some consensus that Caligula’s reign started out well. There is nothing outrageous or out of the ordinary on this coin; struck in 37 or maybe 38, his mother had been dead for a few years, and such a numismatic tribute was the custom.

Nevertheless, something happened to Caligula around the time of this coin’s striking. Some historians blame lead poisoning from decaying Roman plumbing. Others suggest that the death of his favorite sister Julia Drusilla–around which relationship the rumors of incest swirled–led to a mental breakdown. Whatever the cause, the remaining four years or so of Caligula’s reign were marked with the capriciousness that has served centuries of Western Civilization as a sort of dark fable on the moral failings of monarchy.

Lugdunum

The city of Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon) was the capital of the province of Gaul and the site of an important Imperial mint. It was founded by Roman inhabitants of Gaul fleeing the wrath of insurgent Gauls to the south not long after the death of Julius Caesar. Gold and silver denominations were minted there under Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Copper coins only were struck under later rulers until around 90 CE. No mint marks are found on these earliest issues.

Except for a brief window in the late second century, the mint remained inactive until the middle of the third. It then operated for almost another two hundred years.

Denarius

The denarius was first struck around 211 BCE. The success of Greek silver trade coinage (drachms, didrachms, etc.) convinced Roman authorities of the need for a native circulating silver coin (previous coins had been made of bronze). It was originally valued at 1/72 of a Roman pound, but by the time of Nero it had lost about a fifth of its weight.

By the time coining operations resumed in Lugdunum in the third century, the denarius had been replaced by the Antoninianus.

Description:

atlaslogoThe following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Atlas Numismatics

Obverse:

Caligula, facing right, is portrayed without a crown or wreath. Starting at the lower right of the coin and running counterclockwise is the inscription C CAESAR AVG GERM P M TR POT, which stands for Caius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Pontifex Maximus Tribunicia Potestas (“Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus*, Tribune of the People”). The engraving is thick but surprisingly detailed. Strong die flow lines radiate from the center of the coin. A ring of dots or beads encircles the design, though only the lower left quarter or so is visible.

Reverse:

Reverse, Roman Imperial Silver Denarius of Caligula featuring Agrippina the Elder. Image courtesy Atlas Numismatics
Agrippina’s bust, also facing right, is featured on the reverse. Her hair is tied up off of her back, though intriguingly a single lock is loose over her neck. Clothing is visibly draped over her shoulder area. The inscription AGRIPPINA MAT C CAES AVG GERM (“Agrippina, mother of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”) encircles her portrait in the same counterclockwise fashion as the obverse. A good 3/4 of the dotted ring surround the design, with small but strong die flow lines running from the letters of the inscription to the ring and slightly beyond.

Some chipping or corrosion of the edges is visible on both sides of the coin.

Coin Specifications:

Nationality:  Roman
Issuing Authority:  Caligula
Date: ca. 37-38 CE
Metal/Alloy:  Silver
Denomination: Denarius
Weight:  approx. 3-4 g
Diameter:  approx. 17-19 mm

*Pontifex Maximus was the highest priest (“pope”, if you will) of the Roman state religion.

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