Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
 

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

—Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II (1597)

ROMAN EMPERORS RARELY wore an actual crown. They are more commonly shown wearing a laurel wreath or a diadem, the jeweled headband that was an ancient emblem of royalty. But the mortality statistics were enough to make any imperial head uneasy. Over 70 percent died by assassination, suicide, or in combat. Between 27 BCE and 395 CE, the average length of an emperor’s reign was just 5.6 years. But many lasted for a much shorter span of time (Saleh, 1-7).

Yet Roman mints were so efficient that even in a reign of a few weeks, it was possible to produce an extensive coinage, often with lifelike portraits of the ruler and his family. Every new ruler knew it was important to show the people his face on their money. Some of these coins are quite rare, but many are surprisingly common and affordable today.

Gordian I and II: 21 Days

Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

Armies in all eras tended to promote big men; their physical size and strength commanded respect and obedience.

Maximinus Thrax was a giant, eight feet tall (2.4 meters) according to the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta[1]. Of peasant stock, he rose through the ranks to command a legion on the northern frontier, and in 235 CE his mutinous troops murdered the Roman emperor Alexander Severus and his powerful mother, Julia Maesa. The army proclaimed Maximinus the new emperor, and the Senate grudgingly assented.

Like many rulers of humble origin, he hated aristocrats and made the mistake of alienating the Senatorial elite without exterminating it. He never set foot in the city of Rome and may have been illiterate (unusual for a third-century legionary officer). In 238 (the famously chaotic “Year of Six Emperors”), the province of Africa (today Tunisia and part of Algeria) rose in revolt against Maximinus. Leading the rebellion at Carthage was a distinguished elderly provincial governor, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus. The Senate quickly recognized him as Emperor Gordian I “Africanus”. Because of his advanced age (about 80), he insisted on making his adult son co-emperor as Gordian II. The governor of Numidia (now parts of Algeria and Morocco) remained loyal to Maximinus and advanced against Carthage. Gordian II was killed in battle and his father committed suicide after a reign of just 21 days (March 22 – April 12, 238).

Incredibly, three weeks was sufficient time for mints at Rome and Alexandria to produce an extensive coinage in the names of both Gordians, bearing their portraits. A denarius of Gordian I currently brings between $1,500 to $3,000 USD at auction[2], while one of Gordian II can sell for twice as much[3]. The inscriptions for the father and the son are identical but the portraits are distinctively different.

Numismatist David Vagi writes:

The elder Gordian has a full head of hair, a thin face, a beaked nose, and a slightly recessed jaw. The younger Gordian has a receding hairline, a long flat nose, a pronounced forehead, heady jaw and jutting chin, and is fleshier in appearance (Vagi, 319).

Diadumenian: About 1 Month

The fate of child emperors was often tragic.

Born in 208, Marcus Opellius Antoninus Diadumenianus was the son of Macrinus, who was Praetorian Prefect (palace guard commander and senior advisor) to Emperor Caracalla. Macrinus seized the throne after murdering Caracalla. At the age of eight, Diadumenian received the title of Caesar – in effect, heir apparent. Caracalla’s aunt influenced the troops of the eastern legions to proclaim her 14-year-old grandson, Elagabalus, as emperor, using the rumor that the boy was actually Caracalla’s son. At some point, Macrinus promoted his own son to Augustus (co-emperor).

Defeated in battle near Antioch, on June 8, 218, Macrinus was captured and executed. With a few trusted guards, Diadumenian fled to seek sanctuary in the Parthian Empire but was intercepted and beheaded at the age of 10. His head was sent as a trophy to Elagabalus, who himself was only a few years older.

Coins of Diadumenian as Caesar are scarce, but those of his brief reign as Augustus (perhaps less than a month) are extremely rare. In a 2014 Swiss auction, a denarius – one of just four known – sold for over $38,000[4].

Didius Julianus: 66 Days

Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

On March 28, 193, disgruntled Praetorian guards stormed the imperial palace and murdered the stern emperor Pertinax, who had reigned for only 86 days (see below). The 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon elegantly recounts what happened next:

The more prudent of the Praetorians ran out upon the ramparts; …and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction. This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license, diffused a universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city. It reached at length the ears of Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator…

Senator Didius Julianus and another man, Sulpicianus (the father of the murdered emperor’s wife, Titiana), began to bid ferociously against each other for the throne. Julianus won the auction with an extravagant promise of 25,000 sestertii for each of the 8,000 guardsmen. Romans of this era commonly expressed large sums of money in terms of the bronze sestertius. The winning bid was equivalent to 6,250 silver denarii, or 250 gold aurei per man!

Julianus quickly ordered the mint to produce coins promoting his imperial reign and honoring his wife, Manlia Scantilla, and daughter, Didia Clara. On the reverse of his gold aureus, he holds a globe and proclaims himself RECTOR ORBIS – “Master of the World.”[5] Nervous about the loyalty of his army, his most common reverse type is CONCORDIA MILITUM – “Consent of the Soldiers.”

Julianus proved deeply unpopular, and civil war loomed as three major armies revolted against him, led by Clodius Albinus in Britain, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia on the Danube. Severus won the race for Rome and Julianus, deserted by the Praetorian Guard (which had yet to receive its promised payment), was deposed by the Senate, captured, and beheaded.

During a reign of just 66 days, the mint of Rome managed to turn out three different types in gold, three in silver, and six in bronze!

Pertinax: 86 Days

Born in the year 126, Publius Helvius Pertinax was the son of a slave who gained his freedom and prospered in the wool trade, providing a good education for his son, who then rose through the ranks of the army and became a senator and provincial governor. Following the assassination of Commodus on the last day of the year 192, Pertinax was chosen by the Praetorian Guard to become emperor.

A capable and responsible ruler, Pertinax restored the weight and quality of the silver coinage, which had deteriorated under the previous emperor. His attempts to reduce corruption and impose military discipline on the unruly Praetorians were resisted, and he was murdered after a reign of just 86 days.

During this brief time, the mint of Rome managed to issue six types in gold, 10 in silver, and 13 in bronze! A common reverse type was PROVIDENTIA DEORVM (“Providence of the Gods”), depicting the standing female personification of “providence in the sense of a prescient power caple of creating or altering future events.” (Adkins, 186)

Otho: 92 Days

Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

Otho, who is described by Tacitus as “an extravagant young man”, was renowned for his effeminacy and vanity, and was particular about his grooming. He is famous to numismatists for his well-made toupee, which appears as a luxuriant head of hair on his imperial portraits (Vagi, 189).

Remembered as the “Year of Four Emperors”, 69 CE was a chaotic period that followed the suicide of Nero.

On January 15, Marcus Salvius Otho organized a coup that overthrew and killed his former friend, the emperor Galba. Otho’s unusual name was of Etruscan origin. Nero had forced Otho to divorce his wife, the beautiful Poppaea Sabina, so that Nero could marry her, and sent him to govern distant Lusitania (now Portugal).

Soon, however, the powerful Roman army on the Rhine frontier marched on Rome, determined to depose Otho. When his army was defeated in Northern Italy, Otho committed suicide on April 16 or 17. He was 36 years old.

With a reign of just three months, Otho issued only gold and silver coins. The most common reverse, inscribed SECVRITAS, bears the personification of “Security”. Some elegant bronze fantasies were created during the Renaissance to fill the demand for sestertii of Otho. These fakes can be quite affordable[7].

For collectors determined to complete a set of the “Twelve Caesars”, Otho is one of the most challenging rulers, since coins in high grade are very scarce. A silver denarius in Very Fine condition currently goes for about $1,000 to $3,500[6], while a gold aureus brings anywhere from $10,000 to well over $100,000 depending on grade.

Aemilianus: 2-3 Months

Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

Born in Mauretania in Africa about the year 208, Marcus Aemilius Aemilianus was commanding the legions on the Danube when his troops, rebelling against the unpopular Trebonianus Gallus, proclaimed him emperor in August 253. When Aemilianus invaded Italy, Gallus and his son Volusian were murdered by their own troops – a common fate of third-century emperors.

In Aemilianus’ reign of two or three months, the mint of Rome struck three types in gold, over 20 types in silver, and about 13 types in bronze for Aemilianus. A few very rare silver antoniniani were issued in the name of his wife, Cornelia Supera, who is otherwise unknown to history. Ironically for this war-torn era, many reverses honor Pax, goddess of peace[8]. When another general, Valerian, was proclaimed emperor by his army and invaded Italy, Aemilianus was murdered at a bridge near Spoleto that came to be known as Pons Sanguinarius (“Bloody Bridge”).

Marius: 2-3 Months

In the turbulent year 269 CE, a blacksmith who had risen through the ranks of the Roman army on the Rhine was proclaimed emperor by his troops under the name “Marcus Aurelius Marius”. He reigned for just two or three months before he was executed–according to legend, his end came at the edge of a sword he had forged in his previous career.

In this short reign, a considerable volume of coinage – mostly silvered bronze – was produced, probably to pay the troops. These coins of Marius are quite affordable[9]. Only about nine gold aurei of Marius exist, seven in museums.

Florianus: Less than 3 Months

Born in 232 CE, Marcus Annius Florianus (or “Florian”, still a popular boy’s name in Romania) was the younger half-brother of Tacitus, a distinguished senator who became emperor at the request of the Senate following the murder of Emperor Aurelian in September 275.

When Tacitus died, either from illness or assassination (sources differ), Florianus, then serving as Praetorian Prefect[10], declared himself emperor. At the same time, Probus, a senior general commanding the powerful armies of the East, was proclaimed emperor by his legions in Syria and Egypt. The inevitable clash came in the mountains of Cilicia, and Florianus was killed by his own disgruntled troops after a reign of fewer than three months.

A silvered bronze antoninianus of Florian in extremely fine condition can be found for under $100, with even the finest Near Mint State examples going for under $500[11]. High-grade examples of the very rare gold aureus sell for as much as $200,000 when one comes to market every few years[12].

Pupienus and Balbinus: 3 Months

The death of the two Gordians in 238 (see above) created a power vacuum in Rome.

With the army of Maximinus poised to invade Italy and wreak bloody vengeance on the Senate, the senators responded by electing two distinguished elders, Marcus Clodius Pupienus and Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus, to serve as co-emperors. Pupienus was named first in official inscriptions – a source of irritation to his colleague, who claimed a better aristocratic pedigree. The common people, who loved the Gordians, insisted that a surviving 13-year-old grandson of Gordian I be proclaimed as heir to the throne: the future Gordian III.

On July 29, 238 CE, disgruntled Praetorian guardsmen stormed the palace, dragged out the two co-emperors, and hacked them to death.

In an outburst of creative productivity, the mint of Rome turned out 29 different coin types for Pupienus (one in gold, 14 in silver, and 14 in bronze) and 23 for Balbinus (one in gold, 10 in silver, and 12 in bronze) during this reign of 99 days. Ironically, although the two co-emperors despised one another, a common reverse type is a pair of clasped hands, with the inscription FIDES MVTVA AUGG (“Mutual Trust of the Emperors”)[13].

During this reign, the relatively pure silver denarius[14] was gradually phased out in favor of the debased antoninianus, over-valued at two denarii.

Short Timers on Ancient Coins: The Briefest Reigns of Roman Emperors

The gold aureus of Pupienus is apparently unique, although there is a well-known forgery by the 19th-century German counterfeiter Karl Wilhelm Becker (1772-1830). Just three gold aurei of Balbinus are known; one brought over $70,000 in a 2005 Swiss auction[15].

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_Augusta

[2] CNG Electronic Auction 482, December 16, 2020, Lot 468. Realized $2,750 USD (estimate $2,000).

[3] Leu Numismatik Auction 10, October 24, 2021, Lot 2336. Realized CHF 7,000 (about $7,643 USD; estimate CHF 3,500).

[4] NAC Auction 80, October 20, 2014, Lot 144. Realized CHF 36,000 (about $38,939 USD; estimate CHF 35,000).

[5] Nomos Auction 19, November 17, 2019, Lot 284. Realized CHF 140,000 (about $141,643 USD; estimate CHF 45,000).

[6] CNG Auction 118, September 13, 2021, Lot 994. Realized $3,250 USD (estimate $1,000).

[7] Stephen Album Auction 36, January 23, 2020, Lot 73. Realized $90 USD (estimate $75-$125).

[8] CNG Auction 117, May 19, 2021, Lot 599. Realized $350 USD (estimate $300).

[9] CNG Electronic Auction 494, June 23, 2021, Lot 404. Realized $160 USD (estimate $100).

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praetorian_prefect

[11] CNG Electronic Auction 498, August 18, 2021, Lot 388. Realized $325 USD (estimate $150).

[12] NAC Auction 64, May 17, 2012, Lot 1269. Realized CHF 190,000 (about $201,016 USD; estimate CHF 90,000).

[13] Roma Numismatics E-sale 59, July 11, 2019, Lot 907. Realized £800 (about $1,000 USD; estimate £1,000).

[14] CNG Electronic Auction 493, June 9, 2021, Lot 623. Realized $650 USD (estimate $500).

[15] NAC Auction 31, October 26, 2005, Lot 83. Realized CHF 90,000 (about $70,225 USD; estimate CHF 55,000).
 

References

Adkins, Lesley and Roy Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York (1996)

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London (1776 – 1789)

Saleh, J.H. “Statistical reliability analysis for a most dangerous occupation: Roman emperor”, Palgrave Communications 5. (2019)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, III. London (2005)

Stevenson, Seth. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1964 reprint of 1889 edition)

Potter, David. Emperors of Rome. London (2007)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. 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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