CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
The Death of Commodus
IN RIDLEY SCOTT’S FILM GLADIATOR (2000), demented emperor Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is slain in the Colosseum by mortally-wounded general-turned-gladiator Maximus (Russell Crowe). In the closing scene, we are left to imagine that wise Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) and lovely princess Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) will govern Rome as regents until boy heir Lucius Verus (Spencer Treat Clark) comes of age. It is beautifully crafted, emotionally powerful and –- historically — total rubbish.
Here’s what actually happened.
By the end of 192 CE, it was clear to everyone in Rome that emperor Commodus was dangerously insane. Plots began to form. His favorite concubine, Marcia, slipped poison into his wine but he threw it up. Plan B: a wrestler named Narcissus strangled him. The next morning (New Year’s Day, 193), the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Pertinax, the elderly city manager (praefectus urbi) as emperor. The Senate joyfully confirmed him and declared the dead Commodus a public enemy, revoking his decrees and tearing down his statues.
So began the Year of Five Emperors, a chaotic period that would keep the coin die engravers at Roman mints very busy indeed. Some of the rarest Roman coins were struck during the next few months, along with many available to collectors today at surprisingly modest cost.
Born in northern Italy in 126 CE, Publius Helvius Pertinax was the son of a freed slave. Because his father prospered in business, young Pertinax received a good education and became a teacher. However, at the age of 35 he joined the army because the pay was better. Rising quickly through the ranks, he gained the notice of emperor Marcus Aurelius, who made him a senator and gave him a series of provincial commands. In 175 he served as consul (a largely honorary title, but one that still carried great prestige). Most historians agree Pertinax was implicated in the death of Commodus, but he probably saw this as a last resort to save Rome, not as a personal power grab.
Considering that he ruled for just 87 days, his coinage is remarkable: six issues of gold, 11 of silver and 14 in bronze or copper at Rome, and several at Alexandria including rare types honoring his young wife Titiana and son Pertinax Junior. He raised the silver content of the denarius from 74% to 87%. His powerful, bearded portrait conveys a sense of gravitas – that untranslatable Latin term that combines seriousness, authority, and the power to command respect.
It wasn’t enough to prevent his overthrow, however. On March 28, Pertinax tried to quell a mutiny of the unruly Praetorian Guard. He was killed by a javelin to the chest.
His head, fixed on a pole, was carried through the city to the camp by the soldiers who killed him. His remains, including his head, which was recovered, were laid in the tomb of his wife’s grandfather. And Julianus, his successor, buried his body with all honour, after he had found it in the Palace. [Historia Augusta, Life of Pertinax, 14:7-9]
Born to a distinguished senatorial family around 133 CE, Marcus Didius Julianus grew up in the household of Domitia Lucilla, mother of Marcus Aurelius. Like many elite Roman men, he advanced through the cursus honorum, a series of increasingly responsible civil and military offices, rising to the consulship in the same year as Pertinax. He may have been implicated in the mutiny that led to the death of Pertinax; sources uniformly treat him as a scoundrel and a coward. According to legend, the Praetorian Guard auctioned the empire, and Julianus offered the winning bid of 25,000 sesterces for every guardsman (equal to 6250 silver denarii, or 250 gold aurei–-more than 10 years regular salary per man!).
It’s a great story, but it probably never happened. The only other “bidder”, Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus (urban prefect and father of the late emperor’s wife) was unacceptable to the Guards, who feared that he would try to avenge Pertinax.
Julianus wasted no time in issuing coins promoting his imperial reign and honoring his wife, Manlia Scantilla, and daughter, Didia Clara. On one reverse, he holds a globe and proclaims himself RECTOR ORBIS – “master of the world.” Nervous about the loyalty of his troops, his most common reverse type is CONCORDIA MILITUM – “Consent of the Army.”
As his enemies closed in, Julianus grew desperate. Attempting to conciliate his main rival, he added the name “Severus” to his own nomenclature on the coinage, even as he dispatched assassins (unsuccessfully) to kill him. Held in contempt by the senate and people of Rome, Julian us
…was conducted into a private apartment of the baths of the palace, and beheaded as a common criminal, after having purchased, with an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only 66 days. [Gibbon, volume 1, chapter 5]
The Praetorian Guard never got the money he promised.
Born in Italy c.135 – 140 CE, Gaius Pescennius Niger rose to the rank of consul in 190. Commodus appointed him governor of Syria in 191. His unusual cognomen, or nickname, means “black”, and is supposedly based on the fact that he had very dark skin on his neck. When news of the murder of Pertinax arrived, nine legions in the East proclaimed him emperor*.
His coinage was struck at Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, and Caesarea in Cappadocia (“Caesarea” was a popular Roman place name; like “Springfield” in the USA). Issued in haste to pay the troops, the coins often have blundered inscriptions and crude workmanship. But some are impressive, like the rare debased silver tetradrachm of Antioch. For centuries, numismatists believed that Pescennius issued no gold, and fakes appeared as early as the 17th century. About a dozen aurei–some unique, many in museums–are now accepted as genuine.
A clash between the western legions of Severus and the eastern legions of Pescennius was inevitable. After his army was defeated at Issus (where Alexander the Great outfought the Persian army of Darius III in 333 BCE), Pescennius was captured and beheaded (Spring, 194).
“Little is known of his personality, except that he had a melancholy outlook and a foul sense of humor, but he was brave in battle and harsh in his discipline” [Vagi, 1999, v. 1, p.264].
Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus, whose cognomen refers to his extremely light complexion, was born about 140 CE at Hadrumetum, in Tunisia. He rose to the rank of consul in 187 and was appointed governor of Britain by Commodus. After Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his legions in April, 193, he quickly offered Albinus the empty title of “Caesar” (in theory the emperor’s designated successor).
Severus issued coins at Rome in the name of Albinus as Caesar, but the portrait is similar to that of Severus himself, and the engravers might have lacked a realistic image to work from. Coinage in the name of Albinus as Caesar included at least five types in gold (very rare), seven in silver, and 10 in bronze. Albinus declared himself emperor in 195 when Severus elevated his son, the future emperor Caracalla, to the rank of Caesar. His “imperial” coinage, minted at Lugdunum (Lyons, France), is considerably scarcer than his coinage as Caesar and has a distinctly different portrait. Defeated in a great battle near Lugdunum, he killed himself to avoid capture.
The winners get to write history, so much of what we know about the Year of Five Emperors is the version that Severus wanted recorded.
“Septimius Severus, a native of Africa, who, in the gradual ascent of private honors, had concealed his daring ambition, which was never diverted from its steady course by the allurements of pleasure, the apprehension of danger, or the feelings of humanity” [Gibbon, volume 1, chapter 5]
Born to an influential family in 145 at Leptis Magna in Libya, his ancestry was Punic (and probably Berber) on his father’s side and Roman on his mother’s side. He had a successful military career, rose to consul in 190, and then became governor of Pannonia on the Danube frontier.
When news of the murder of Pertinax arrived, the three legions based at his headquarters in the town of Carnuntum acclaimed Severus as emperor. He immediately marched on Rome, made short work of Didius Julianus, and disbanded the treacherous Praetorians after executing the men who killed Pertinax. He then added “Pertinax” to his own name, to honor the former emperor’s memory (elite Romans seem to have changed their names about as often as they changed their togas).
The coinage of Severus’ 18-year reign is vast in quantity and variety, but his initial issues from 193 include a handsome “Victory” aureus and a series of denarii to honor–and to pay–the 16 legions that eventually supported him.
Collecting the Five Emperors
Gold aurei of the Five Emperors bring prices beginning in the thousands of dollars, running into hundreds of thousands for rare types in high grades and with posh pedigrees. Nice denarii of Severus can be found often for under $100, but those of other players in 193 typically sell for several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Worn bronzes can be quite affordable, but rare sestertii in near-Mint State may bring tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
The maxim “buy the book before you buy the coin,” captures the wisdom of generations of collectors. A solid, up-to-date reference for the coinage of this period is the second volume of David Sear’s masterful Roman Coins and Their Values (2002) – about $76.
*For an idea of how many soldiers supported Pescennius Niger’s assumption of the throne, a legion was about 6,000 men at full strength.
Applebaum, Alan. “Another Look at the Assassination of Pertinax and the Accession of Julianus.” Classical Philology 102:2 (2007)
Bland, R., A.M. Burnett, and S. Bendall. “The Mints of Pescennius Niger in the light of some new aurei.” Numismatic Chronicle 147 (1987)
Bowman, A., P. Garnsey and A. Cameron (eds.) The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, AD 193-337. Cambridge (2005)
Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. Seaby. 1990
Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1. London (1776-1789)
Harrer, G. “The Chronology of the Revolt of Pescennius Niger.” Journal of Roman Studies 10 (1920)
Historia Augusta. (tr. David Magie) Loeb Classical Library. (1921)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values II. Spink (2002)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Coin World (1999)
van Sickle, C. E. “The Legal Status of Clodius Albinus in the Years 193-96.” Classical Philology 23:2. (1928)
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An American-English slang word for a porcelain throne (toilet) is a “commode” having the etiology of deriving (with the intermediary of the French word for “satisfactory” or “convenient”) from the Latin “commodus”.