CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: The Coinage of Claudius

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles,) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius,” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life…
–Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

FOLLOWING THE MURDER of demented emperor Gaius (nicknamed “Caligula”) on January 24, 41 CE, soldiers found the emperor’s 50-year-old uncle, the aforementioned Claudius, hiding behind a curtain in the palace. Escorted to the fortified camp of the Praetorian Guard, the only surviving male of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was proclaimed as Rome’s fourth emperor. To ensure their continued loyalty, every man in the elite Guard received a bonus of 15,000 sestertii–equivalent to over 16 years’ pay for an ordinary soldier. For English-speaking viewers, the 1976 BBC TV series[1] based on Robert Graves’s 1934 novel, I Claudius, is the classic retelling of this story.

Coins of Claudius in gold, silver, and bronze have always been popular with collectors, especially those pursuing a set of the “Twelve Caesars”. Many were designed and executed to a high artistic standard, and some are highly sought-after rarities.

“The Emperor Received”

A few years after Claudius came to power, a coin issued in both silver and gold celebrated the Praetorian Guard’s role in his accession.

Claudius 41-54. Aureus 44-45, Rome. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P IIII laureate bust of Claudius, right / IMPER RECEPT inscribed on the wall of a fortress, emperor holding scepter standing within a columned building, legionary standard to left 7,72g. C. 43; RIC 25; Calicó 361. An elegant and pleasant specimen, extremely fine. NGC Ch AU 5/5, 3/5. Numismatica Genevensis SA > Auction 13 15 November 2021, Lot: 6. Realized: 34,000 CHF (approx. $36,872).

On the reverse, we see a standing figure, sometimes identified as Fides Praetorianum (“Loyalty of the Praetorians”) within a fortified camp above the inscription IMPER(atore) RECEPT(o) (“The Emperor Received”). An exceptional example of the gold aureus brought over $36,000 USD in a recent Swiss auction[2]. Examples of the silver denarius with this design typically sell for $1,500 to $2,000 and up.

Nemesis

Claudius. Denarius. 46-47 CE. Lugdunum. (Ric-39). (Rsc-58). Anv.: TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P VI IMP XI, laureate head right. Rev.: PACI AVGVSTAE, Pax-Nemesis, winged and draped, advancing right, with right hand holding out fold of drapery below chin, with left hand holding winged caduceus, pointing down at snake, gliding right. Ag. 3,46 g. Struck on a full flan. Rare. Choice VF. Tauler & Fau > Auction 73 19 January 2021 Lot: 435. Realized: 1,300 EUR (Approx. 1,577 USD).

Nemesis was the pagan goddess of retribution. She is often depicted as winged, holding a downward pointing staff, and accompanied by a serpent. She appears on a few coin types of Claudius and Hadrian as a symbol of Peace, oddly enough. On many gold and silver coins of Claudius, the inscription is PACI AVGVSTAE (“To the Emperor’s Peace”)[3]. For Romans, the 13-year reign of Claudius was, in fact, relatively peaceful, compared to the bloody reigns of the paranoid Tiberius and the deranged Caligula.

Conquest of Britain

Aureus 46-47, AV 7.86 g. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P VI IMP XI Laureate head r. Rev. DE BRITANN on architrave of triumphal arch surmounted by equestrian statue l., between two trophies. C 17. BMC 32. Von Kaenel, type 27. RIC 33. CBN 54 (Lugdunum). Calicó 349a. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 125 23 June 2021 Lot: 629 realized: 24,000 CHF (approx. $26,178).

To celebrate the conquest of Britain by his general, Aulus Plautius, Claudius ordered the construction of an elaborate triumphal arch[4]. Like many Roman monuments, this structure eventually crumbled and the stone was re-used for other buildings, but bits of the sculpture are preserved in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The monument appears on gold[5] and silver coins, with the bold inscription DE BRITANN, abbreviating the Latin phrase Devictis Britannis (“The Britons Defeated”).

Small Change

Claudius issued a full range of low-value coins in bronze, brass, and copper. A handsome sestertius bears the honorific inscription EX SC OB CIVES SERVATOS (“By Decree of the Senate, for Saving the Lives of Citizens”) within a wreath of oak leaves. This was one of the highest honors the Roman Senate could confer, short of deification (the posthumous elevation to the status of a god). The sestertius, weighing over 26 grams, was struck in orichalcum (from a Greek term meaning “golden copper”), an alloy similar to brass. An outstanding example of this coin brought over $8,700 in a recent European auction[6].

Claudius, 41-54 Dupondius Spanish mint (?) circa 41, Æ 30.8mm., 16.86g. Bare head l. Rev. Ceres seated l. on throne, holding two corn ears and long torch. C1. RIC 110. Attractive green patina, Good Very Fine. Naville Numismatics Ltd. > Auction 64 21 March 2021 Lot: 494. Realized: £330 (Approx. $458).

The dupondius, valued at half a sestertius, weighed about 17 grams. Under Claudius, this denomination was issued at an uncertain Spanish mint. The reverse bears the seated image of Ceres, the goddess of grain (her name gives us the English word “cereal”). The emperor’s left-facing bare-headed portrait has an unusually long neck[7].

In the novel Claudius the God (also 1934), Robert Graves imagines the emperor’s reaction to his official coin portrait:

“…I must say that when I first saw the model of the gold piece that the mint-masters were striking for me, I grew angry … My little head with its worried face perched on my long neck … shocked me. But Messalina said, No my dear, that’s really what you look like. In fact, it’s rather flattering.” (Graves, 95)

The bronze as, weighing about 11 grams, was valued at one-quarter of a sestertius. In the first century, two asses would buy a one-pound loaf of bread[8]. The reverse of the most common as of Claudius bears a standing figure of Libertas (“Liberty”), holding a pileus, the symbolic felt cap that marked the status of freed slaves[9].

The smallest circulating denomination was the quadrans, valued at just one-quarter of an as. This copper coin was the price of admission to the public baths. The quadrans of Claudius does not bear his portrait but rather the image of a modius, a bucket used for measuring grain. For Romans, this symbolized a reliable food supply[10]. The emperor’s name and titles run across both sides of the little coin.

Honoring His Parents

The mother of Claudius was Antonia Minor (“The Younger”, 36 BCE – 37 CE), daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, elder sister of the emperor Augustus. She was either poisoned by Caligula or committed suicide to protest his behavior. When Claudius became emperor, he honored his mother with the title of Augusta (“empress”), which was commemorated on a series of coins – including a lovely portrait denarius, which bears on the reverse the allegorical figure of Constantia (“constancy, perseverance, or firmness”)[11].

In the name of Nero Claudius Drusus, father of Claudius Denarius 41-48, AR 3.88 g. NERO CLAVDIVS DRVSVS GERMANICVS IMP Laureate head l. Rev. Triumphal arch surmounted by equestrian statue between two trophies; below horse, DE and on architrave, GERM. C 2. BMC Claudius 97. RIC Claudius 70. CBN Claudius 3. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 72 16 May 2013 Lot: 597 Realized: 10,000 CHF (approx. $10,422).

The father of Claudius was Nero Claudius Drusus (38 – 9 BCE). He was the younger brother of Emperor Tiberius. At the age of just 23, Drusus was appointed governor of Gaul (Claudius was born in 10 BCE at Lugdunum–modern-day Lyon, France–the capital of the province). Drusus began the Roman conquest of Germany, being awarded the honorific title Germanicus. Claudius honored his father with a series of portrait coins, including a rare denarius that depicts the triumphal arch erected to commemorate his victories over the Germans[12].

Britannicus

 

In the year 43, Claudius invaded and occupied Britain. The Senate later granted him the honorary title “Britannicus”, which he bestowed, in turn, on his two-year-old son. A sensitive portrait of the boy appears on a very rare sestertius from an uncertain Balkan mint, c. 50-54 CE inscribed TI CLAVDIUS CAESAR AVG F BRITANNICVS (“Britannicus, Son of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar”). The reverse bears an image of the war god Mars in Greek-style armor.

On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, the sestertius of Britannicus ranks as #41 (Berk, 96). Only about 35 examples of this coin are known, many in poor condition. The finest known example realized over $135,000 in a 2011 Swiss auction.

At the age of 13, shortly after the accession of Nero, Britannicus died at a banquet, leading to suspicion that Nero had him poisoned. Some historians believe his death may have been the result of an epileptic seizure.

Messalina

 

CRETE, Koinon of Crete. Claudius, with Messalina. 41-54 CE. Æ (22mm, 7.17 g, 6h). Struck circa 41-43 CE. TI KΛAYΔIOΣ KAIΣAP ΓERMA ΣEBA, bare head of Claudius left / OΥAΛEPIA MEΣΣAΛEINA, bareheaded and draped bust of Messalina right. Svoronos 25; BMC 9; McClean 7219; RPC I 1032. Good VF, green patina. Among the finest known, with a delicate and wonderfully preserved portrait of Messalina. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XXII 8 January 2019 Lot: 491. Realized: 12,000 USD

Valeria Messalina (c. 17 – 48 CE) was the third wife of Claudius[13]. When they wed, she was just 14 or 15 and he was 50. Messalina bore two children, Octavia Claudia and Britannicus. Her reputation for murderous ruthlessness and insatiable promiscuity is at least partly due to the hostility of later (male) historians. Messalina’s portrait does not appear on regular Imperial coinage, but she is depicted on a few local issues from provinces and cities eager to gain her favor, notably Alexandria in Egypt, where her standing figure appears on the reverse of the coinage, with her imperial title in Greek[14].

Perhaps the best coin portrait of Messalina is a rare bronze from Crete, issued c. 41 – 43 CE. Her full name is spelled out in the Greek inscription without imperial titles.

An example of this coin “Among the finest known, with a delicate and wonderfully preserved portrait,” brought $12,000 in a 2019 New York sale[15]. The cataloguer recounts her fate:

…she appears to have felt little attraction to her much older husband and was notoriously promiscuous according to ancient accounts. While the emperor was traveling to Ostia in AD 48, he was informed that Messalina had secretly taken a second husband, a senator named Gaius Silius, who was said to be the handsomest man in Rome. Claudius returned to Rome and swiftly had Silius executed. Messalina was ordered to commit suicide.

Agrippina the Younger

On New Year’s Day, 49 CE, Claudius married his niece, Agrippina “the Younger”, a sister of Caligula. Technically, this was incest under Roman law, but the Senate obligingly made a special exception for the emperor. She was only the third Roman woman to be granted the title of Augusta (the other two were Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, and Antonia, mother of Claudius).

Agrippina Junior and Nero, Augusta, 50-59, and as Caesar, 50-54, respectively. Denarius (Silver, 20 mm, 3.62 g, 5 h), struck under Claudius, Rome, 50-54. AGRIPPINAE AVGVSTAE Draped bust of Agrippina Junior to right, wearing crown of corn-ears, and with her hair hanging down in a long plait behind her neck. Rev. NERO CLAVD CAES DRVSVS GERM PRINC IVVENT Bareheaded and draped bust of Nero to left. BMC 82 (Claudius). Cohen 5. RIC I 75 (Claudius). Very rare. With elegant and serene portraits. Nomos AG > obolos 15 24 May 2020 Lot: 768. Realized: 1,100 CHF (approx. $1,133).

Her portrait appears on the reverse of a magnificent aureus (c. 50-54 CE)[16]. Agrippina used her well-honed skills at palace intrigue to ensure the succession of her son Nero, who was adopted by Claudius. She ruthlessly and systematically eliminated any rivals for the throne, as well as their supporters. Mother and son appear together on a denarius from this period[17]; poor old Claudius isn’t even mentioned.

When Claudius died on October 13, 54 CE, it was widely suspected that Agrippina had poisoned him with a dish of mushrooms. Nero reportedly later joked that “mushrooms were the food of the gods, since by eating them Claudius became a god.”

Claudius the God

Divus Claudius, died 54. Aureus (Gold, 19 mm, 7.49 g, 5 h), Lugdunum, struck under Nero, October-December 54. DIVVS CLAVDIVS AVGVSTVS Laureate head of Divus Claudius to left. Rev. EX S C Slow quadriga right, with tensa (car) in form of a small temple, Antike Kunst (1967), 487 (this coin). BMC 4. Calicó 354a. Cohen 31. RIC 4. Very rare. A beautiful piece and unusually attractive for this difficult issue. Leu Numismatik AG > Auction 8 23 October 2021 Lot: 294 realized: 9,000 CHF (approx. $9,826).

Nero was just 16 years old when he became emperor. He married his stepsister Claudia Octavia and had the Senate declare the deceased Claudius to be a god. This honor had previously been bestowed only on Augustus and Julius Caesar. A rare gold aureus commemorates this with a dignified left-facing portrait, and the inscription DIVVS CLAVDIVS AVGVSTVS (“Emperor Claudius the God”)[18]. On the reverse, a funeral cart in the form of a temple drawn by four horses bears the ashes of Claudius, which were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus[19].

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Claudius_(TV_series)

[2] Numismatic Genevensis Auction 13, November 15, 2021, Lot 6. Realized CHF 34,000 (about $36,872 USD; estimate CHF 20,000).

[3] Tauler & Fau Auction 73, 19 January 2021, Lot 435. Realized €1,300 (about $1,577 USD; estimate €1,600).

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Claudius_(British_victory)

[5] NAC Auction 125, June 23, 2021, Lot 629. Realized CHF 24,000 (about $26,178 USD; estimate CHF 20,000).

[6] Nomos Auction 21, November 21, 2020, Lot 299. Realized CHF 8,000 (about $8,769 USD; estimate CHF 6,000).

[7] Naville Auction 64, March 21, 2021, Lot 494. Realized £330 (about $458 USD; estimate £150).

[8] A Roman pound was 12 ounces, or about 326 grams.

[9] CNG Auction 118, September 13, 2021, Lot 983. Realized $375 USD (estimate $250).

[10] CNG Electronic Auction 499, September 1, 2021, Lot 385. Realized $170 USD (estimate $100).

[11] CNG Auction 118, 13 September 2021, Lot 978. Realized $5,000 USD (estimate $2,000).

[12] NAC Auction 72, May 16, 2013, Lot 597. Realized CHF 10,000 (about $10,422 USD; estimate CHF 7,500).

[13] His divorced his first wife, the famously tall Plautia Urgulanilla when he was 24. He married his second wife, Aelia Paetina in 28 CE and divorced her three years later. Among elite Romans, divorce was common.

[14] Nomos obolos 17, December 20, 2020, Lot 550. Realized CHF 280 (about $317 USD; estimate CHF 100).

[15] CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 491. Realized $12,000 USD (estimate $7,500).

[16] NAC Auction 119, October 6, 2020, Lot 13. Realized CHF 32,000 (about $34,969 USD; estimate CHF 20,000).

[17] Nomos obolos 15, May 24, 2020, Lot 768. Realized CHF 1,100 (about $1,133 USD; estimate CHF 500).

[18] Leu Numismatik Auction 8, October 23, 2021, Lot 294. Realized CHF 9,000 (about $9,826 USD; estimate CHF 7,500).

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mausoleum_of_Augustus
 

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Pelham, AL (2019)

Graves, Robert. I, Claudius. New York (1934)

–. Claudius the God. New York (1935)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Vol. I. London (2000)

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Robert Graves, transl. New York (1957)

Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Michael Grant, transl. New York (1956)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Sidney OH (1999)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
 

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