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The Coins of Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius. Image Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.
Antoninus Pius. Image Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. In private life, he was an amiable as well as a good man. The native simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation. He enjoyed with moderation the conveniences of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society; and the benevolence of his soul displayed itself in a cheerful serenity of temper.

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)

Antoninus Pius and His Coins

TITUS AURELIUS FULVUS Boionius Antoninus was born to a distinguished Senatorial family on September 19, 86 CE in Lanuvium, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Rome. His father and grandfather had both risen to the rank of consul, a position that retained little actual power under the Empire but still carried enormous prestige. In his late 20s, Antoninus married Annia Galeria Faustina (called “the Elder” to distinguish her from her daughter Faustina the “Younger”).

Like so many Roman aristocrats, Antoninus climbed through the ranks of the cursus honorum[1], becoming consul himself in 120. Emperor Hadrian appointed Antoninus as one of the four proconsular governors of Italy, and in 134/135, Hadrian appointed him as governor of the important province of Asia (today the western part of Türkiye).

As Hadrian’s health failed, he adopted Antoninus as his son and designated successor (with the title of Caesar) on February 25, 138. In turn, Antoninus agreed to adopt two young men that Hadrian was grooming as potential future emperors: Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

When Hadrian died at the age of 62 on July 10, 138, Antoninus, aged 52, became emperor without opposition. He insisted that the Senate, which hated Hadrian, deify the dead ruler. Deification (declaring a deceased mortal to be a god) began when Julius Caesar was elevated to divine status by the Senate in 42 BCE[2].

Aureus

Gold Aureus (19 mm, 7.08 g). Rome mint. Struck 143-144 CE. Image: CNG.
Gold Aureus (19 mm, 7.08 g). Rome mint. Struck 143-144 CE. Image: CNG.

On the obverse of a gold aureus of Antoninus from the first year of his reign[3] he added the abbreviated name of Hadrian to his own name: IMP T AEL CAES HADR ANTONINVS. The coin bears a reverse image of Pietas, the personification of Duty:

During the Empire, Pietas was often portrayed on coins, to symbolize the moral virtues of the reigning emperor (Adkins, 180).

In Latin, virtues are mostly feminine nouns, so it was natural to represent them as female figures. In recognition of his piety, the Senate awarded Antoninus the honorific “Pius”, which became part of his name, appearing on the coin’s reverse inscription AVG PIVS P M TR P COS DES II (“Augustus, Pius High Priest, Tribunician Power, Designated Consul Twice”).

After a few years, Antoninus dropped Hadrian from his name. A gold aureus dated to 143/144 CE[4], once in the collection of famed American banker J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), bears a winged Victory on the reverse. This may be a reference to the successful campaign in Britain by Quintus Lollius Urbicus[5], who pushed the Roman frontier northward in the Scottish lowlands and constructed the so-called “Antonine Wall[6] as the new edge of the empire.

Quinarius

Gold Quinarius circa 152-153 CE, 3.62 g  Image: NA.
Gold Quinarius circa 152-153 CE, 3.62 g. Image: NA.

The gold quinarius, valued at one-half aureus, is so scarce that many experienced collectors have never seen one. During Antoninus’ long reign, at least 10 different quinarii coins were issued. A typical example, issued for the emperor’s fourth consulship (COS IIII), bears a walking figure of Victory with her signature palm branch and wreath[7].

Denarius

Divus Antoninus Pius. Silver Denarius after 161 CE, 3.15 g. Image: NAC.
Divus Antoninus Pius. Silver Denarius after 161 CE, 3.15 g. Image: NAC.

The silver denarius, which represented a day’s wages for a laborer, weighed a bit more than three grams during this era. Antoninus issued a great variety of denarii in vast quantities; one reference (Sear) lists 95 different types! Sometimes the portrait is bare-headed, other times the emperor is crowned with a laurel wreath. The different reverse designs carry symbols and personifications that reflect imperial ideology, such as Concordia[8] (the personification of social harmony) and Aequitas[9] (fairness, holding the scales of justice). At the time of writing, very fine examples of Antoninus Pius denarii bring around $150 to $250 USD at auction, with extremely fine coins going for $500 and up.

Sestertius

Bronze Sestertius (31 mm, 25.06 g). Rome. 145-147 CE. Image: CNG.
Bronze Sestertius (31 mm, 25.06 g). Rome. 145-147 CE. Image: CNG.

The sestertius, worth one fourth of a denarius, was a substantial bronze coin of about 25 grams. The large size of the coin allowed engravers to cut detailed portraits and complex reverse designs. Small change was in chronic short supply in the ancient world, so sestertii usually remained in circulation until they wore flat. As a result, high-grade examples are scarce and highly coveted by collectors.

Antoninus issued 118 different types! The reverse of one sestertius of Antoninus Pius shows the emperor driving a quadriga, the four-horse chariot that featured in Roman triumphs and races, on the coin’s reverse. Graded “good VF,” this coin realized $1,300 in a 2009 U.S. auction[10].

Dupondius

Bronze Dupondius, about 140-144 CE. 16.11 g. Image: Hess-Divo AG.
Bronze Dupondius, about 140-144 CE. 16.11 g. Image: Hess-Divo AG.

The dupondius, weighing about 16 grams and valued at one-half sestertius, or two asses, was often struck in brass (an alloy of copper and zinc called orichalcum in Latin). Antoninus issued 28 different types. The usual mark of value was the spiky “radiate” crown worn by the emperor on the obverse.

A dupondius of Antoninus struck c. 140-144 CE[11] bears a symbolic thunderbolt on the reverse, along with the inscription PROVIDENTIAE DEORVM (“Providence of the Gods”). This stylized representation of a thunderbolt was used as a design on the shields of Roman legionaries.

Copper As

Bronze As. 10.94 g, 26 mm. Rome, 148-149 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Bronze As. 10.94 g, 26 mm. Rome, 148-149 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

The copper as, valued at one fourth of a sestertius, weighed about 11 grams during this era. In the Gospel of Matthew (10:29) it was noted that two sparrows were sold for one as. Antoninus Pius issued at least 32 different types of this coin.

One remarkable type, dated the the emperor’s fourth consulship (148-149 CE)[12] depicts an armored war elephant, with the inscription MVNIFICENTIA AVG (“Generosity of the Emperor”). This could be a reference to the emperor providing elephants for the bloody beast hunts in the arena that delighted Roman crowds.

Copper Semis

SYRIA, Antioch. Bronze Semis (18 mm, 3.61 g). circa 145-147 CE. Image: CNG.
SYRIA, Antioch. Bronze Semis (18 mm, 3.61 g). circa 145-147 CE. Image: CNG.

Weighing about 3.6 grams, the copper semis, valued at one eighth of a sestertius, was issued in large quantities for circulation in the Roman Empire’s Eastern provinces. An example[13] from Antioch in Syria is inscribed with the emperor’s name and titles in Greek but the reverse bears the bold Latin letters S • C, abbreviating the phrase Senatus Consultu (“By Decree of the Senate”).

Copper Quadrans

Bronze Quadrans. 2.62 g, 15 mm. Time of Domitian to Antoninus Pius. Rome, 81-161 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Bronze Quadrans. 2.62 g, 15 mm. Time of Domitian to Antoninus Pius. Rome, 81-161 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

The humble copper quadrans, weighing about 2.5 grams (similar to the current U.S. cent) was the smallest denomination in the Roman monetary system. It was possibly the price of admission to the baths. In the Biblical story of the Widow’s Mite, the Gospel of Mark (12:42) notes that the two small Judaean coins donated to the Temple by a poor woman were worth one quadrans[14]. For many decades of its production, the denomination was anonymous and so cannot be dated precisely. An example[15] that might be from the time of Antoninus Pius bears the head of the goddess Minerva on the obverse of the coin and her companion animal, the owl, on the reverse, with the letters S C as mentioned above.

Egyptian Tetradrachm

Egypt Billon Tetradrachm. Image: CNG.
Egypt Billon Tetradrachm. Image: CNG.

As a Roman province, Egypt maintained a separate currency for three centuries, based on the Greek denominations used under the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BCE). During the reign of Antoninus, the standard tetradrachm of about 12.7 grams was struck in billon, a copper alloy with a small amount of silver. These coins were dated in Greek numerals according to the emperor’s regnal year. An example from Year 8 (144/145 CE) bears a reverse image of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, drawing an arrow from her quiver and accompanied by a hound[16].

Egyptian Drachm

Egypt Zodiac Bronze Drachm circa 144-145 (Year 8), Alexandria. 34.50 mm, 26.12 g. Image: Naville Numismatics.
Egypt Zodiac Bronze Drachm circa 144-145 (Year 8), Alexandria. 34.50 mm, 26.12 g. Image: Naville Numismatics.

Astrology was an important influence in the popular culture of the ancient world and was frequently reflected in coin imagery. A spectacular example is a series of large bronze drachms (over 26 grams) struck in Alexandria, Egypt, under Antoninus. The reverse shows a running lion, representing the constellation of Leo, below the head of the sun god Helios. An eight-pointed star in the field reinforces the celestial theme. Zodiac-related coins are extremely popular with collectors. An example of this type–“possibly the finest specimen known”–brought £9,000 (about $11,577) in a 2023 British auction[17].

Faustina the Elder

Faustina Senior. Bronze As (28 mm, 9.25 g). c. 138-141 CE. Rome mint. Image: CNG.
Faustina Senior. Bronze As (28 mm, 9.25 g). c. 138-141 CE. Rome mint. Image: CNG.

The future emperor married his wife, Annia Galeria Faustina, sometime between 110 and 115 CE. As ruler, Antoninus Pius honored her on coins during her lifetime, and even more after her death. A rare lifetime bronze as struck in the name of Faustina has a reverse that depicts the throne of the goddess Juno[18] with her companion peacock and the inscription IVNONI REGINAE (“To Queen Juno”).

Diva Faustina

Diva Faustina Senior. Gold Aureus (19.5 mm, 7.18 g). Rome mint. c. 150 CE. Image: CNG.
Diva Faustina Senior. Gold Aureus (19.5 mm, 7.18 g). Rome mint. c. 150 CE. Image: CNG.

After she died at about age 40 in late October 140 CE, Faustina the Elder was declared a goddess by the Senate, with a temple[19] to her memory erected in the Roman Forum. Her extensive posthumous coinage is inscribed DIVA FAUSTINA.

A superb example is a gold aureus[20] from the 1985 Arquennes (Belgium) hoard. The reverse depicts a peacock, companion bird of Juno, queen of the gods.

Divus Antoninus

Following the death of Antoninus at the age of 74 on March 7, 161 CE at Lorium, his estate 19 km (about 12 miles) west of Rome, the Senate declared him a god. His successors, the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, issued coins in the name of the deified emperor (DIVUS ANTONINUS). The reverse bears an eagle perched on an altar surrounded by the word CONSECRATIO. Romans believed that an eagle would carry the soul of the deceased emperor to Heaven[21].

Antoninus Pius is remembered as one of the “Five Good Emperors”, a traditional list of competent and mentally stable Roman emperors ruling from 96 to 180 CE that includes (in order of reign) Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

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Notes

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

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Caesar

[3] CNG Triton XXVII, January 17, 2024, Lot 6156. Realized $3,500 USD (estimate $2,500).

[4] CNG Triton XXVII, January 9, 2024, Lot 764. Realized $14,000 USD (estimate $5,000).

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quintus_Lollius_Urbicus

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonine_Wall

[7] NAC Auction 117, October 1, 2019, Lot 293. Realized CHF 8,000 (about $8,021 USD; estimate CHF 6,000).

[8] Leu Web Auction 21, July 19, 2022, Lot 4207. Realized CHF 180 (about $185 USD; estimate CHF 75).

[9] NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 635. Realized CHF 550 (about $548 USD; realized CHF 500).

[10] CNG 81, May 20, 2009, Lot 1031. Realized $1,300 USD (estimate $1,000).

[11] Hess-Divo Auction 341, December 13, 2023, Lot 83. Realized CHF 1,000 (about $1,141 USD; estimate CHF 1,000).

[12] Roma Numismatics E-sale 116, January 18, 2024, Lot 794. Realized £240 (about $304 USD; estimate £200).

[13] CNG E-Auction 200, December 3, 2008, Lot 270. Realized $152 USD (estimate $100).

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8mpKWplxDs

[15] Roma Numismatics E-sale 110, August 3, 2023, Lot 1193. Realized £130 (about $165 USD; estimate £40).

[16] CNG E-Auction 289, October 24, 2012, Lot 12. Realized $575 USD (estimate $150).

[17] Naville Auction 83, July 30, 2023, Lot 281. Realized £9,000 (about $11,577 USD; estimate £2,000).

[18] CNG Triton XXVII, January 17, 2024, Lot 6162. Realized $1,500 USD (estimate $1,000).

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

[20] CNG Triton, XXVII, January 9, 2024, Lot 769. Realized $11,000 USD (estimate $3,000).

[21] NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 642. Realized CHF 500 (about $498 USD; estimate CHF 500).
 

References

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

Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. London (1990)

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

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)

Rowan, Clare. “Imaging the Golden Age: The Coinage of Antoninus Pius”, Papers of the British School at Rome 81 (2013)

Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. London (1995)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and their Values, Volume III. London (2002)

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

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Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike 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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