By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
This article deals with three men that, while seemingly destined to become the emperor of ancient Rome–indeed, they held the title of Caesar, or second-in-command–ultimately failed, for one reason or another, to ascend the throne.
During the early Julio-Claudian dynasty, the emperor would designate his successor; the title of Caesar remained associated with the emperor. Augustus chose several successors, including Agrippa, the brothers Gaius and Lucius Caesar, and Germanicus, but they shared the misfortune of dying before he did. His stepson, Tiberius, outlived Augustus to become emperor.
The rest of the Julio-Claudian emperors became emperors somewhat smoothly (Claudius was proclaimed by the praetorian guards after the assassination of Caligula), but starting in 68 CE, four men became emperor in rapid succession by the violent death of their predecessor. Vespasian was the last man standing and began a rule that would last 10 years. His sons Titus and Domitian were given the titles of Caesar to make it clear they were to be Vespasian’s successors. “Caesar” in imperial Roman governance came to mean either the designated heir-apparent or an assistant emperor.
Lucius Aelius Caesar (101-138)
The first person to fit into our category of almost emperor was a man named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, which was changed to Lucius Aelius Caesar after his adoption by the emperor Hadrian.
Aelius was the son and grandson of consuls and was born around 104. Hadrian took a liking to him and made him praetor in 130 and then consul in 136. In that year, Hadrian adopted Aelius, which made Hadrian’s advisors question his judgment and angered his previous choice for heir, Lucius Salinator. Hadrian later put Salinator to death to prevent any future trouble. Aelius was known more for his love of luxury and dining and had very little administrative and military experience. As a result, Hadrian sent him to govern Pannonia in the Balkans in 136 and then awarded him tribunician power at the end of the year. Aelius began his second consulship on January 1, 137. Coinage with Aelius’ portrait was now being minted in Rome and in all denominations with CAESAR in the legend (Figure 1).
Then much to Hadrian’s chagrin, Aelius died of a massive hemorrhage on New Year’s Day, 138. Hadrian had already paid a large donative to the troops for the succession, so he was out a lot of money. Twenty-three days later Hadrian chose Aurelius Antoninus as his heir. Antoninus had to adopt both Aelius’ son, Lucius Verus, and Hadrian’s great-nephew, Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian died in July of 138.
Figures 1, 2, and 3 show an aureus, a denarius, and a sestertius of Aelius. The aureus is very expensive since they were minted for only about a year and are rare. The denarius is priced high, but this is due to its excellent condition, however, a denarius of VF condition can be purchased at a reasonable cost. Like the denarius, the sestertius is expensive because of the EF condition, and, as a rule, this denomination can be somewhat costly in VF or higher condition. The quinarii are very rare, and the asses and dupondii are pretty much indistinguishable from each other and like the sestertius in pricing.
Decimus Clodius Albinus (150-197)
The case of Clodius requires some elucidation.
The emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, was murdered on New Year’s Eve, 192. Almost immediately, Publius Pertinax was proclaimed emperor, but the praetorian guards did not like him and killed him three months later. The praetorians now decided to sell the title to the highest bidder, who happened to be a rich man named Didius Julianus. The guards made him emperor for the price of 25,000 sestertii per guard. The problem was that three field commanders were claiming the title of emperor: Septimius Severus in Pannonia, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Clodius Albinus in Britain. Septimius quickly marched on Rome and declared himself emperor, Julianus having been beheaded prior to his arrival. Septimius now had to deal with his two rivals.
Albinus was from North Africa, as was Septimius. He had been governor of Bithynia under Marcus Aurelius. Under Commodus, he had fought the Dacians in modern-day Romania and had held several other postings. Albinus was consul in 187, then governor of Lower Germany and Britain. To placate Albinus, Septimius gave him the title of Caesar, chose him as his heir, and had him add the name of Septimius to his own. This should not have made much sense to Albinus since he had to be aware that Septimius had two sons that would most likely be his heirs.
For whatever reason, Clodius Albinus failed to capture Rome while Septimius was away in the East. During 193-195, Albinus coins in the standard denominations were minted in Rome with CAES and/or SEPT on them (Figures 4 & 5).
In 193 and 194, Septimius fought and killed Niger in the East before returning to Rome. Even though Septimius and Albinus shared the consulship in 194, the former made it clear very quickly that the deal between them was over. The next year, Septimius had the senate declare Albinus a public enemy and elevated his own sons, Caracalla and Geta, as Caesars. Albinus quickly moved into Gaul and was hailed as emperor by his troops at Lugdunum (modern Lyon) in late 195 or early 196. Troops from Spain then joined him, though the Rhine legions did not. He is said to have raised 40,000 troops.
Albinus now minted coins at Lugdunum with him as emperor (Figure 6). These coins now have IMP instead of SEPT or CAES on them.
Septimius with his large army moved north and met Albinus’ army near Lugdunum in February 197. It was one of the largest battles in Roman history, and Septimius won with difficulty. Albinus fled the field and is said to have committed suicide.
Not surprisingly, the gold coins of Albinus as Caesar are expensive, and as emperor, extremely expensive with only a few extant. The coins minted for Albinus in Rome when he was Caesar, such as the denarii, are not very expensive in VF condition, but the bronzes can be rather pricey in nice condition. For the roughly 18 months that Albinus was Emperor of the West, only the aureus and denarius were minted at Lugdunum (two bronzes asses are said to exist). The denarius can be found in VF condition usually for less than $1000.
Publius Septimius Geta (189-211)
When Septimius was dying in Eboracum (modern-day York), he bade his sons Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Caracalla) and Publius Septimius Geta to “keep on good terms with each other, be generous to the soldiers, and take no heed from anyone else.”
Geta was born in Mediolanum (modern Milan) in March of 189 and grew up to resemble his father. His older brother Caracalla was less than a year older than Geta but a destructive and competitive enmity grew early on between the brothers. In 197, Geta, Caracalla, and their mother, Julia Domna, joined their father in the East as he was preparing to invade Parthia. Septimius minted coins showing his whole family (Figure 7).
Upon the capture of Ctesiphon, the capital of Parthia, in January 198, Geta was proclaimed Caesar and Princeps Iuventus (“First among the Young”), and his brother was raised to the rank of Augustus. This is when denarii and aurei of Geta, who was only nine, were first minted with CAES on them (Figure 8). Since the family was still in the East, the early issues were minted at Laodicea, Syria.
Around 202, his coins began to be issued from Rome and included all the standard denominations.
From 202 to 204, the family toured through Asia and the Balkans and then to North Africa, where Septimius was born. Fueling the brothers’ hostility, Geta resented that Caracalla received more authority than he did, and Caracalla was envious of any honors bestowed upon Geta. In 205, the brothers shared the consulship. Both sons, now in their teens, began to behave badly, outraging women, embezzling money, and collecting gladiators and charioteers as companions.
They again shared the consulship in 208, but after their term was over, Septimius took them with him on a campaign to Britain to fight the Caledonians. The emperor felt he needed to instill in his sons some discipline and get them out of the decadent palace. Geta participated in some of the early battles and was elevated to Augustus in 209 and, though initially, he adopted the praenomen of Imperator, he changed it to Britannicus in 210. Geta’s coin legends now included either IMP and CAES or, more commonly, AVG BRIT.
Geta remained in Eboracum while his father and brother attacked the Caledonians further north. Septimius returned to Eboracum, where he died on February 4, 211. A peace treaty was struck with the Caledonians, and the two sons and their mother began the journey back to Rome with the corpse. Neither brother would stay in the same place or dine together in fear of being killed by the other. After the funeral services in Rome, the brothers divided the palace in two and forbade anyone crossing from one side to the other.
The brothers also decided to divide the Roman Empire in two as well, with Caracalla getting the West and Geta the East, but their mother squelched the idea.
Caracalla was becoming more and more worried because of his brother’s growing popularity and decided to act. Near the end of December 211, both brothers agreed to meet with their mother alone to arrange a rapprochement. It was a trap; several guards entered the room and killed Geta in his mother’s arms. He was 22 years old and had been co-emperor with his brother for 10 months.
The coins shown above were all minted when Geta was Caesar and Caracalla was Augustus. Figure 7 is an aureus with Septimius obverse and his family of Caracalla and Geta flanking Julia Domna on the reverse. This is a very rare and valuable coin. Figure 8 is also expensive and has Caracalla on the obverse and Geta on the reverse.
As expected, the aurei of Geta are expensive, but the denarii, including those minted at Laodicea, are readily available and not very expensive. The bronzes are harder to find in nice condition for a reasonable price. Those coins below were minted when Geta was co-Augustus with his father and brother until February 211 and then with just his brother until his death at the end of the year. Figure 10 is a denarius with the AVG BRIT legend and Fortuna on the reverse, and Figure 11 is a dupondius with almost the same legend on the obverse and again Fortuna reverse. The aureii are expensive, and the quinarii are rare. However, the denarii are not very expensive for this two-year period and the bronzes are much easier to find and more affordable.
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Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. Barnes & Noble (1985)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values II. Spink (2002)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Coin World (1999)
Various. Roman Imperial Coinage. Spink and Son.
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).