Faustina the Elder

The Five Good Emperors and Antoninus Pius

From about the end of the first century (96 CE) to near the end of the second (180), the Roman Empire was ruled by what historians have historically called the “Five Good Emperors“. These emperors–Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius–are often presented as exemplars of competent imperial government. When contrasted with those who came before and certainly those who came after, the Five Good Emperors are viewed as unusually moral, benevolent, and visionary. One of the most distinctive aspects of this group of rulers is that each emperor adopted his own successor based upon the adopted heir’s character and abilities, rather than simply following a rule of strict familial inheritance. Historians have often stated that this tactic for securing the succession of the Empire was responsible for the good governance and relative stability that was the second century in Rome.

Antoninus Pius (86-161) was the next-to-last of the Five Good Emperors (ruled 138-161). He is perhaps most famous today as the namesake of the Antonine Wall in Scotland, which serves as a physical reminder of the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. Otherwise, he is known for his capable administration of the Imperial coffers and an apparently genuine concern for the welfare of the Roman masses. The first resulted in the inheritance by his successor (and nephew-in-law) Marcus Aurelius of a treasury surplus; the second resulted in a massive building campaign that brought fresh drinking water to many in the Empire that were in desperate need of it.

How he earned the epithet “Pius” is not certain. Antoninus may have become known for his religious devotion through either his deification of Hadrian or that of his deceased wife Faustina, or both. Or he may have reversed several policies of Hadrian that were less than popular at the time, earning him the gratitutde of the Senate. At any rate, it is important to note that upon the death of his beloved wife, he issued a posthumous gold aureus that proclaimed her divinity throughout the Empire.

Faustina the Elder

Coming from a senatorial family like her husband, Faustina married the future emperor Antoninus around 110 CE. She became known as Faustina Major (“Faustina the Elder”) to distinguish her from her daughter Faustina (“the Younger”), who would be an empress in her own right when her husband (and cousin) Marcus Aurelius ascended to the throne. The elder Faustina also happened to be the niece of Emperor Hadrian.

Upon Hadrian’s death in 138, Antoninus became the next Emperor of Rome and Faustina gained the title “Augusta” – the female counterpart to the imperial title of “Augustus”. According to ancient sources, the imperial couple were happy together and raised a healthy and stable family of four children, but that did not stop the emperor’s political adversaries from spreading rumors of the empress’ alleged licentiousness and overall “uppitiness”.

And it certainly didn’t prevent Faustina from an untimely death not long into Antoninus’ reign, in about 141. It is at this point in time that she enters numismatic history. Among the various ways that a bereft Antoninus honored his deceased wife–which include the sculpting of gold statues in her honor, the establishment of charitable organizations in her name, deification, and the construction and consecration of a temple dedicated to her worship–one of the most beautiful expressions of his love came in the form of a gold aureus struck after her death that bear her veiled portrait and the legend “Diva Faustina”, or “Divine Faustina”. Many provincial mints also struck commemorative mortuary issues, with some featuring her funeral pyre on the reverse. The coin profiled here, however, features Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest and fertility, and a general symbol of the health of the state. This connection of an ancient, patriotic deity on one side with the newly minted divine empress on the other was most definitely also meant to convey a message to the people regarding the right of Antoninus Pius to rule over the Roman Empire.

Description:

atlaslogoThe following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Atlas Numismatics

Obverse:

The obverse features a right-facing portrait of Faustina with an ornate, second-century Roman updo. The Latin inscription DIVA FAUSTINA (“Divine Faustina”) is divided clockwise starting from the left, with each word located to the left and right of Faustina’s effigy, respectively. A ring of beads, reduced to crescent shapes at its thinnest points, encircles the design, though the ring is broken at the bottom of the present example. Gorgeous die flow lines radiate from the center of the coin and are present over the entire field.

Reverse:

A left-facing standing figure of Ceres, Roman goddess of the harvest and the equivalent of the Greek Demeter, is the central motif on the reverse. She is dressed in a veil and holds flaming torches, one in each hand. The letters of Faustina’s imperial title AUGUSTA are arranged clockwise around Ceres. As on the obverse, a ring of beads and crescent shapes encircles the main design though does not entirely enclose it, with the gap this time located at the top of the side. Spectacular-looking die flow lines are present here as well.

Edge:

As befitting a hammer-struck ancient Roman gold coin, the edge of this posthumously issued aureus is irregularly shaped. This specimen, however, has a generous amount of “overhang” beyond the design and does not seem to have lost much of its gold through clipping or wear over the centuries.

Coin Specifications:

Nationality:  Roman Imperial
Issuing Authority:  Rome
Date:  After 141 CE
Metal/Alloy:  AV (Gold)
Denomination: Aureus
Weight:  7.38 g

 

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