By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
On September 2, 31 BCE, a great fleet under the command of Octavian, the great-nephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar, faced the fleets of Caesar’s former close companions Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII at the Battle of Actium. Octavian (or rather, Octavian’s friend Marcus Agrippa) won a crushing victory, from which Antony and Cleopatra barely escaped with their lives. Octavian’s forces were again victorious in the final showdown in Alexandria, Egypt the following year, and Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide rather than become prizes to be paraded at Octavian’s triumph. Octavian – who would become “Augustus” and the first Roman emperor in 27 BCE – became the undisputed master of Rome.
During the year leading up to Actium, Antony had assembled a powerful military force, with upwards of 70,000 infantry and 500 ships, most of them great galleys. In order to pay his army, Antony minted the series of coins known as the legionary denarii. He probably struck the coins at his base in Patras, Greece, but it is also possible that they were struck at mobile mints that moved with his legions. The coins typically weigh about 3.9 grams, about the same as the standard Roman denarius, but the silver content is only about .922 fine–typical of the silver coinages in the East, but lower than the Roman standard of about .968 fine.
Legio Prima Denarius
The design of the denarius struck for Antony’s 1st Legion is typical of the legionary denarii.
The obverse depicts a praetorian galley with a sceptered prow and a forward-slanting mast, being rowed to the right; the number of oars on the galley varies, probably for no reason other than the taste (or the work ethic) of the engraver. The obverse inscription reads ANT•AVG III•VIR•R•P•C, an abbreviated version of Antonii Auguris Tresviri Rei Publicae Constituendae (“of Antony, the Augur and One of the Triumvirs for Organizing the Republic”). “Augur” identifies Antony as a priest in the Roman state religion, while “Triumvir” refers to his role in the former Second Triumvirate. In later years, under the Roman Empire, the inscription “AVG” on a coin would be short for Augustus, a title which came to mean “Emperor”.
The reverse depicts an aquila, the legionary eagle, between two signa, the standards for smaller units within a legion. The inscription is LEG PRI (for Legio Prima, or “First Legion”) on either side of the aquila.
The 1st Legion denarius is quite rare, with just three known examples. The specimen shown here sold at auction in February 2014 for €6,000 (about $8,089 at the time) against a €2,500 estimate.
Legio Prima Denarius – Fake
The rarity of the 1st Legion Prima denarius has tempted at least one very skillful forger. Tardani, who was active from about 1890 to the beginning of World War I, produced deceptive forgeries of many coins. Although he specialized in Medieval Italian coins, he did branch out into the coins of the Roman Republic and other areas. The “coin” pictured here was accepted as genuine as recently as December 2015, when it realized €6,250 (approximately $6,771.25 at the time) at a public auction. It sold for $1,600 at an auction in May 2020, where it was accurately described as a counterfeit, and its full history was given.
Legio III Denarius
This denarius was struck for Antony’s 3rd Legion. It sold for $1,400 at an auction in January 2021. This legion was probably the legion that appears in the historical record as Legio III Gallica, a legion that Julius Caesar raised during his campaigns in Gaul and which Antony took over after Caesar’s death. It is also possible that this was an entirely different 3rd Legion, one which Antony himself raised in North Africa.
Legio IIII and Legio IV Denarii
There are two different versions of the denarius which Antony struck for his 4th Legion; one identifies the legion as Legio IIII while the other uses the form Legio IV. The Legio IIII denarius is extremely rare, but does not necessarily carry a huge price tag: the example shown here sold at an auction in October 2017 for just $575, a price likely depressed by the coin’s weak strike, its heavy wear, and a bank’s mark on the obverse.
The Legio IV denarius is much more common than the Legio IIII denarius but can nonetheless command a hefty price when it is found in nice condition: the outstanding specimen shown here sold for $2,250 at an auction in January 2020.
Legio IV later came to be known as Legio IV Scythica. This is probably a legion that Antony raised for his disastrous campaign against the Parthians (the legion is also known as Legio IV Parthica). Ironically, there is also the possibility that this legion was originally raised in 43 BCE by the Consul C. Vibius Pansa Caetronianus – who raised the legion specifically for the purpose of fighting Antony during the period immediately after Julius Caesar’s assassination. The 4th Legion continued as an active component of the Roman army long after the Battle of Actium; records survive of its activities as late as the reign of Elagabalus (reigned 218-222 CE), and there are hints that it may even have survived as late as the 420s.
Legio XII Denarii
There are two major versions of the Legio XII denarius, which together involve an unsolved puzzle.
The first denarius identifies the legion simply as Legio XII, while the second identifies it as Legio XII Antiqvae (“Legion XII Ancient” or “the Old One”). The puzzle arises from the fact that Antony is known to have led a Legio XII Fulminata (“Legion XII Thunderbolt”), originally raised by Julius Caesar, but there are no legionary denarii in the name of Fulminata; on the other hand, there is absolutely no record at all of a Legio XII Antiquae outside of the coins themselves, which are scarce.
The Legio XII denarius shown here sold in a fixed price sale for $1,600, while the Legio XII Antiquae denarius sold at auction in September 2009 for $2,750.
There is nothing particularly special about the Legio XV denarius, except for the remarkable condition in which this coin was found. The “typical” Legio XV denarius can be purchased for less than $300, but this superb, well-struck, and well-centered coin sold for $9,000 at auction in January 2011. This example is about as nice as a legionary denarius can be.
Legio XVII Classiquae
Antony apparently raised Legio XVII Classicae to serve as what might today be considered to be a marine unit: classicae does not derive from the Latin word classic (meaning “classic”) but rather from classis, the Latin word for a “naval fleet”.
Octavian already had his own 17th Legion, and he either disbanded Antony’s 17th Legion after the Battle of Actium or he transferred its surviving legionaries into other units. Octavian’s Legio XVII survived the Battle of Actium and went on to serve in Germania until it was annihilated at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. The Roman army never again used the number XVII to designate one of its legions.
The Legio XVII Classicae denarius is somewhat scarce: the example shown here sold at auction in May 2020 for $650.
Legio XVIII Denarii
There are at least two, and possibly three versions of the legionary denarius Antony struck for his 18th Legion, a legion that Antony probably raised in North Africa.
The first, and more common of the two (or three) versions, identifies the legion simply as Legio XVIII. The example shown here sold for $1,700 at auction in January 2020.
The second, and much scarcer version, identifies the legion as Legio XVIII Lybicae (“Legion XVIII from Libya”). The coin shown here sold for $2,250 at an auction in May 2020.
The third version is more likely rumored rather than real: “XIIX” is a rather unorthodox way to write the number “18” in Roman numerals, but Babelon (1885), Sydenham (1995 reprint), Sear (1998), et al., refer to a Legio XIIX denarius. All references to this denarius trace back to the 17th-century numismatist Andreas Morell, and it seems that no one has actually seen such a coin since Morell, so this denarius may not, in fact, exist.
Octavian also commanded an 18th Legion. Octavion’s 18th Legion suffered the same fate as his 17th Legion.
“23” is the highest-documented number of Antony’s legions. The Legio XXIII denarius shown here sold for $1,100 at an auction in May 2015.
After the Battle of Actium, Octavian either disbanded Antony’s 23rd Legion or transferred its surviving legionaries into other units. After Octavian became Augustus in 27 BCE, he reorganized the Roman Army into 28 legions, but he only numbered them up to XXII. In 100 CE, Marcus Ulpius Traianus – better known as the emperor Trajan (reigned 98-117) and one of the greatest of the Roman Emperors – raised the Legio Ulpia Victrix (“Legion XXX Ulpia Victory”) for his Dacian War. But other than that one exception, no imperial Roman legion ever bore a number higher than 22. Trajan’s 30th Legion continued in service until the fifth century.
In 43 BCE, Servius Sulpicius Galba, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, wrote a letter to Cicero in which he noted that Antony had commanded a 35th Legion at the Battle of Mutina in April of that year (Sulpicius went on to claim that he himself put the 35th Legion to flight at the beginning of the battle). Antony’s 35th Legion is otherwise completely unknown to history, and there is no documentary record of Antony having in his service at Actium or anywhere else a legion numbered higher than the 23rd Legion. There have been a few modern-day reports of “legionary denarii” for legions numbered XXIV through XXX, but it has generally been assumed that these are forgeries (perhaps by Tardani), or the result of errors on the part of the die engravers.
This changed on March 23, 2017, when the legionary denarius shown above for the 33rd Legion sold at auction for £4,400 (equivalent to $5,507 at the time). Although there is a slight die shift on the reverse, the coin clearly references an otherwise unknown 33rd Legion. The coin appears to be genuine: its style, metal composition, weight, thickness, and all other aspects are consistent with other legionary denarii that are unquestionably authentic. A second example of the 33rd Legion denarius sold at auction in January 2022 for $52,000 against a $2,000 estimate. The market seems to have accepted these coins as authentic.
There is a possibility that the Legio XXXIII coins are both authentic and fake at the same time: there may well never have been a 33rd Legion in Antony’s army, but at the same time Antony may have ordered his moneyers to strike coins in the name of this non-existent legion (and perhaps other non-existent legions as well), in order to make it appear that his army was much larger than it actually was.
Roman Republican generals campaigning in the field were usually accompanied by elite escort units known as praetorian cohorts. They took their name from praetorium (“general’s tent”) and cohortis (“cohort)”, a military unit within a legion that consisted of six centuriae. A “century” was a sub-unit of a legion that originally consisted of 100 men (from centum, “hundred”) and was led by a centurion, but by this time a century generally had 80 men. The praetorian cohorts eventually evolved into the Praetorian Guard of the Roman emperors.
Antony’s army at Actium included at least four praetorian cohorts, and he issued “legionary denarii” for them. Antony’s praetorian cohorts were separate and apart from the legions, and the inscriptions on their denarii do not name a legion but instead read CHORTIVM • PRAETORIARVM (“of the Cohort” – the spelling should be “Cohortium”, but only pedants and the writer of this article really care about such niceties).
These denarii are rather scarce. Despite heavy wear, a banker’s mark on the obverse and a few small marks underneath the toning, the specimen shown here sold for $1,400 at an auction in May 2020.
A legion under the Roman Republic would typically have 10 speculatores, who served as the legion’s intelligence officers. They scouted ahead of the legion, carried messages, and acted as spies. Antony expanded on this by creating a special Cohortis Speculatorum (“Cohort of Scouts”), and he struck “legionary denarii” for them, as well.
The reverse of the denarius minted for the speculatores differed from that of the standard legionary denarius in both design and inscription. The inscription referred to the CHORTIS SPECVLATRORVM rather than a legion, and instead of displaying an aquila standing between two signa, these coins presented three signa, each of which had two wreaths and a miniature galley prow. The wreaths on the signa probably refer to some victory that was won due to the efforts of the speculatores.
The denarii of the Cohort of Speculators are a bit more available than those of the Praetorian Cohort. The specimen shown here sold for $2,200 at an auction in January 2003.
Collecting Legionary Denarii
Antony struck an enormous number of legionary denarii; Harl (1996) estimated that the total mintage was at least 25 million coins, and there may have been as many as 35 million of them. The sheer volume of this coinage was so huge that Woytek (2007) estimated that Antony’s legionary denarii made up 20% of all of the denarii circulating in the Roman Empire during the reign of Vespasian (reigned 69–79 CE) – a full century after the coins were struck. Hoard evidence and contemporary references indicate that Antony’s legionary denarii were still circulating during the reign of Severus Alexander (222-235 CE).
Today, two millennia after these coins first appeared, tens of thousands of legionary denarii are still extant and available for collectors. Most surviving specimens are well-worn (which is to be expected of coins that circulated for over 200 years), but coins in excellent condition can still be found. “Nicer” coins are generally pricey, and the rarity of some of the issues would make it difficult if not impossible to build a complete set of the coins. But most collectors should be able to obtain a coin or two from this fascinating series, which records a fascinating period of history.
The best guide to the coins for a collector is Sear (1998). It covers the series thoroughly, it provides the full historical context for the coins, and as is true for all of Sear’s works, it is written in a lively, engaging style.
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Babelon, E. Description historique et chronologique des monnaies de la République romaine vulgairement appelées monnaies consulaires. Paris. Rollin et Feuardent. (1885-1886)
Harl, K.W. Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. Ancient Society and History. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. (1996)
Sear, D. The History and Coinage of the Roman Imperators 49-27 BC. Spink. London. (1998)
Sydenham, E.A. The Coinage of the Roman Republic. Rockville Centre, New York. Durst. (1995)
Tullius Cicero, M. Letters of Cicero After the Death of Cæsar (S.H. Jeyes, transl.). Nabu Press. (2010 reprint)
Woytek, B. “Die Münzen der römischen Republik under der Übergangszeit zum Prinzipat im Museum Carnuntinum”, Numismata Carnuntina (Alram, M. and Schmidt-Dick, F., eds.). Forschungen under Material. Vienna. (2007)
Extremely anachronistic image of The Battle of Actium courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Legio Prima denarius courtesy and copyright of Bertolami Fine Art, at www.bertolamifineart.com
Image of Legio XXXIII denarius courtesy and copyright of Roma Numismatics Limited at www.romanumismatics.com from Auction 13, Lot 696.
All other coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group LLC, www.cngcoins.com
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About the Author
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.