By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, TRAVEL was hazardous and uncomfortable, even for the elite.
Yet remarkably, the Roman emperor Hadrian spent half of his 21-year reign on the road, visiting almost every province of the vast empire. The mint celebrated these grand tours with extensive coinage in gold, silver and bronze, known to numismatists as the “Travel Series”. There are four distinct reverses in this series, but coins of each type are not known for all provinces in all metals:
- “Province” – The name and personification of the province.
- “Adventus” – (Arrival) Emperor sacrificing, with figure of the province.
- “Resititutor” – (Restorer) Celebrates relief provided by the emperor to residents.
- “Exercitus” – (Army) Emperor addressing troops of local legions.
For Romans, representing provinces as women was logical, since province names in Latin are feminine nouns (Italia, Gallia, Britannia) just like abstract principles (Pax, Iustititia, Libertas). Rivers on Roman coins are typically represented as men, since river names are masculine nouns (Tiber, Nilus, Rhenus). Grammatical gender has a subtle but powerful influence on thought.
Hadrian was said to be vain about his appearance, and his coin portraits are executed with great care and technical skill. He was the first Roman emperor to wear a beard, which clean-shaven Romans saw as a Greek affectation. Nevertheless, Hadrian established a fashion for beards that was adhered to by his successors for two centuries.
Governed directly by the emperor, Italia was not technically a “province”. Hadrian’s travels were a tour of inspection for the empire’s frontiers and armies; since Italia had none this coin represents the start and finish of his journeys. The standing figure of Italia holds a scepter, symbolizing authority, and a cornucopia, symbolizing abundance. A gold aureus celebrates his arrival (ADVENTUI in Latin) with a ritual scene of the emperor and Italia sacrificing at an altar.
In 122 CE, Hadrian toured Gallia (now France, Belgium and part of Germany). On the scarce silver denarius, the standing emperor, wearing a toga, extends a hand to a kneeling figure of the province. The inscription proclaims “To the restorer of Gallia” (RESTITVTORI GALLIAE).
Roman Germania included the Rhineland, a strip of territory on the east bank of the Rhine, and part of the Netherlands. Important towns were Colonia Claudia (Köln), Treveri (Trier), and Moguntiacum (Mainz). On Hadrian’s coin, the Germans’ warlike reputation is symbolized by a standing female figure holding a spear and a distinctive “barbarian” shield. The denarius is relatively common; very fine examples sell for about $150 USD or less.
For English-speaking collectors, Hadrian’s Britannia coins are very popular, particularly the large bronze sestertius. An exceptional example brought $30,000 (against a $3,000 estimate) in a 2010 US auction. Hadrian ordered the construction of a 73-mile (117.5 km) fortified barrier on Britain’s northern frontier that is still known as Hadrian’s Wall. The seated armed figure of the province became an iconic image on modern British coins.
For generations, Hadrian’s ancestors were wealthy landowners in southern Hispania (Spain), so the province had a special significance for him. On a magnificent gold aureus, the reclining figure of Hispania rests against a rock, holding an olive branch (olive oil was a prized export of the region). A small rabbit, which also symbolized Hispania to Romans, appears at her feet. The poet Catullus (ca. 84 – 54 BCE) described a friend as “a son of rabbity Spain” (cuniculosae Celtiberiae fili).
From Spain, Hadrian crossed to the North African province of Mauretania (now Morocco and part of Algeria). Roman armies valued Mauritanian tribesmen as superb light cavalry. Unique among Hadrian’s travel series, the personification of Mauretania is a male figure holding a pair of javelins beside a bridled horse.
The province of Africa included northern Tunisia and adjacent coastal Algeria and Libya. In ancient times this fertile, productive region exported grain and oil to feed Rome (since then, climate change, deforestation and overgrazing have turned much of it to desert). Africa appears on the coins as a voluptuous figure reclining beside a basket of fruit, wearing an elephant head-dress and petting a lion. A handsome gold aureus of this type brought $12,000 in a recent New York auction.
Egypt and Alexandria
Richest province of the empire, Egypt was a vital source of grain. Estimates of its ancient population range from four to eight million, mostly peasants.
On the coin, the name is spelled AEGYPTOS and the reclining female figure holds a sistrum, a ritual bronze rattle used by Egyptian priests. At her feet stands an ibis, a long-legged bird associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. An example of this coin, “perfectly centered on a full flan with a lovely iridescent tone,” brought $478 in a recent Swiss auction.
Hadrian’s beloved young companion Antinoüs, drowned in the Nile under mysterious circumstances during the emperor’s visit in 130. NILUS, the personification of the river, appears on a gold aureus holding a horn of plenty and reclining against a sphinx, accompanied by a crocodile and a hippopotamus.
Although Alexandria was the capital of Roman Egypt, the city was essentially Greek and had little in common with the Coptic-speaking peasantry upstream. Alexandria appears on a coin as a standing figure holding the emblematic Egyptian sistrum and a basket from which a snake emerges–perhaps a reference to Cleopatra’s death?
Judaea was the empire’s most troubled province during Hadrian’s reign. For Romans, offering ritual sacrifice to the imperial state cult was a normal civic obligation. Most ancient religions were broadly tolerant of each other’s deities, but the Jews’ fierce insistence that their one, invisible God forbade any form of idolatry in their land was a constant source of tension.
In the year 70 CE, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, along with much of the city, in the great revolt.
When Hadrian visited Judaea in 130, he proposed to rebuild the city under the name of Aelia Capitolina (“Aelius” was his family name) with a temple to Jupiter on the holy site. Infuriated, the Jews rose in revolt in 132. In four years of bitter fighting, the province was devastated. Hundreds of thousands died, and many survivors were sold into slavery.
The province was renamed “Syria Palaestina”.
Hadrian’s arrival in Judaea is commemorated on a very rare ADVENTUS sestertius. On the reverse, the emperor greets the figure of Judaea sacrificing over a pagan altar, accompanied by two children. It would be hard to imagine an image more offensive to Jewish sensibilities.
Syria was a strategic base for the legions confronting Parthia (modern-day Iran), Rome’s historic enemy. An EXERCITUS issue depicts Hadrian’s visit to the Syrian army. The emperor on horseback raises a hand in salute to three soldiers holding military standards.
For Romans, “Asia” was a small province in western Anatolia, with its capital at Ephesus.
Coastal Greek cities of this region had a great seafaring tradition. Coins commemorating Hadrian’s visit depict the figure of Asia holding a ship’s rudder and a hook. The denarius is relatively common, with nice examples currently going for under $200.
Achaea (the southern part of Greece) was Hadrian’s favorite province, with his beloved Athens as its capital (Trajan, Hadrian’s mentor and predecessor, nicknamed him Graeculus, “little Greek”). A superb gold aureus hails the emperor as the Restorer of Achaea. Holding a scroll, the emperor stands, extending a hand to the kneeling figure of the province. Between them, an elegant vase holds a palm branch, symbol of peace.
The Dacians were … a steppe people who, around 300 BC, had braved the passes to find this favorable and fertile land. A cultural miracle followed, by which, in less than four centuries, nomads were transformed into farmers, with high standards of craftsmanship and metalwork, a money economy, and (in a mixture of Greek and Roman characters) the beginnings of literacy. Finally, the first century of our era saw the rise of a centralized kingdom with ominous military potential (Williams, 56).
Between the years 101 and 106 in a series of hard-fought campaigns, the emperor Trajan conquered Dacia (modern Romania). Trajan’s Column, in the heart of Rome, is elaborately carved with images of this war.
Hadrian’s visit to Dacia is commemorated by a magnificent sestertius in orichalcum (a brass alloy of copper and zinc). The figure of Dacia sits on a rock pile, holding a legionary eagle standard (aquila) and a sickle-shaped sword (falx), of the kind wielded by the defeated Dacians. The finest known example of this coin brought over $60,000 – double the estimate – in a recent European auction.
Sicily became the first Roman province in 241 BCE. The cities were largely Greek-speaking, but when Hadrian visited in 125 CE there were extensive Roman colonies and estates. A very rare sestertius hails the emperor as the “Restorer of Sicilia”. In 2007, an example brought $5,400 against a $500 estimate! On the reverse, the kneeling figure of Sicilia wears a bizarre headdress with three projecting bent legs, the triskelion that still appears as a symbol on the island’s flag.
Collecting the Travel Series
Even in bronze, collecting a complete set of Hadrian’s travel series would be a challenge requiring great patience, persistence and deep pockets. Some coins are so rare (for example RAETIA, MOESIA and PHRYGIA) that I could find no examples in any metal sold in the past 20 years.
Additionally, Hadrian’s coins are hard to date with any precision. The common formula on his inscription “COS III PP” means the coin was struck after his third consulship in 119, and after the Senate voted him the honorific title Pater Patriae (“Father of the Country”) in 128. But the consensus of numismatic scholars is that the travel series was issued c. 134-138.
* * *
 On American coins, the symbolic figure of Liberty is still female.
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 52, 10 January 2019, Lot 818. Realized UK£280 (About $358 USD; estimate £150).
 CNG Triton XXIII, 14 January 2020, Lot 744. Realized $14,000 USD (estimate $10,000).
 CNG Auction 106, 13 September 2017, Lot 753. Realized $2,100 USD (estimate $2,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 33, 4 February 2017, Lot 464. Realized UK£120 (about $150 USD; estimate £75).
 CNG Triton XIII, 5 January 2010, Lot 317. Realized $30,000 USD (estimate $3,000).
 CNG Triton XXIII, 14 January 2020, Lot 733. Realized $12,000 USD (estimate $10,000).
 NAC Auction 92, 24 May 2016, Lot 2221. Realized CHF 2,000 (about $2,015 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).
 CNG Triton XXIII, 14 January 2020, Lot 732. Realized $12,000 USD (estimate $10,000).
 NAC Auction 106, 9 May 2018, Lot 943. Realized CHF 480 (about $478 USD; estimate CHF 600).
 CNG Triton XXIII, 14 January 2020, Lot 735. Realized $7,500 USD (estimate $7,500).
 CNG Triton XVIII, 6 January 2015, Lot 1094. Realized $1,700 USD (estimate $500).
 NAC Auction 78, 26 May 2014, Lot 996. Realized CHF 80,000 (about $89,306 USD; estimate CHF 40,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 67, 22 September 2004, Lot 1486. Realized $770 USD (estimate $600).
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 41, 2 December 2017, Lot 755. Realized UK£130 (about $176 USD; estimate UK£75).
 NAC Auction 59, 4 April 2011, Lot 1001. Realized CHF 60,000 (about $65,232 USD; estimate CHF 28,000).
 Leu Numismatik, Auction 5, 27 Octobeer 2019. Realized CHF 60,000 (about $60,478 USD; estimate CHF 30,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 76, 12 September 2007, Lot 1464. Realized $5,400 USD (estimate $500).
Birley, A. R. “Hadrian to the Antonines”, Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XI. (2008)
Everitt, Anthony. Hadrian: The Triumph of Rome. New York (2009)
Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. London (1990)
Lambert, Royston. Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. New York (1984)
Mattingly, Harold. Roman Coins: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Western Empire. London. (1967)
Mattingly, Harold. “Some Historical Coins of Hadrian”, Journal of Roman Studies 15 (1925)
Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. London (1995)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)
Williams, Derek. The Reach of Rome: A History of the Roman Imperial Frontier 1st – 5th Centuries AD. New York (1996)