Continuity and Legitimacy: The Ancient Coins of Septimius Severus

Continuity and Legitimacy: The Ancient Coins of Septimius Severus

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

Septimius Severus ascended to the throne in absentia as he marched from the “sleepy” Danubian province of Pannonia Superior towards the heart of imperial power in Rome. This provincial governor who ended the bloody civil war of 193 would go on to reign until his death in 211 CE and issue over 1,400 types of coins. His prodigious numismatic output informs us of the evolution of his reign and familial life, the workings of Rome’s imperial mint, and the wider cultural life of the empire – all of which served to present a constant facade of legitimacy and continuity for the emerging Severan dynasty.

The first issues produced for Severus at the central imperial mint in Rome were struck immediately after he reached the city. This Imperatore proclamation series, honoring the recently proclaimed emperor, continued for several years and has many reverse types. Simultaneously, in accordance with the new emperor’s wishes, the mint struck a series of denarii and aurei “celebrating the consecration” of the recently deposed Pertinax.

Severus, a scion of a wealthy North African Roman family, was born in 145 CE in the city of Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya and was in fact the first African to become emperor. The perennially elitist Italian patrician Romans scorned the provincial upstart. As such, Severus needed to bolster his legitimacy. Initially, the new emperor latched onto Pertinax, the third emperor in the “Year of Five Emperors“. He ordered the senate to deify the slain emperor and declared himself his “avenger”. To cement this connection, Septimius also adopted his predecessor’s name into his own regnal title: Imperator Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax Augustus.

As mentioned above this event was commemorated with a series of aurei and denarii, both of which are extremely rare. One of two known examples, the aureus below depicts Pertinax’s multi-level funeral pyre. The top level is “surmounted” by the triumphal imperial quadriga (a four-horse chariot) with an effigy of the deceased emperor flanked by torches which sit above two tiers of religious and familial statuary all atop the lower level, which is simply garlanded. The silver denarius presents the imperial eagle standing, wings outstretched, atop a globe. Both these coins have the reverse legend “Consecratio” and are simply dripping with symbolism, harkening back to the Antonine consecration coins of the previous dynasty.

Divus Pertinax. AV Aureus (20mm, 7.15 g, 6h). Consecration issue. Rome mint. Struck under Septimius Severus, 193-194 CE. OBV: head right REV: four-tiered funeral pyre REF: RIC IV 24B
Divus Pertinax. AR Denarius Aureus (19mm, 2.87 g, 12h). Consecration issue. Rome mint. Struck under Septimius Severus, 193-194 CE. OBV: Bare head right REV: Eagle standing on globe REF: RIC IV 24A

By hitching his wagon both to the earlier Antonine dynasty and to the respected Pertinax, Septimius was overcoming his lackluster familial history. Furthermore, he played to the Roman love of martial success by minting coins with various legends to commemorate his victories over the upstart Pescennius Niger with the legends PART ARAB and PART ADIAB, displaying his victory titles “Pathicus Arabicus” and “Parthicus Adiabenicus” (proclaimed in 195 CE). These titles do not include Niger’s name to cover up the fact that Septimius had waged a civil war. Instead, “Severus phrased the victory as being over the Parthian controlled areas of the Arabians and Adiabenians, who aided Niger’s cause, and were later punished by punitive expeditions”. The orichalcum sestertius below, while smoothed, shows both legends on the reverse particularly clearly.

Septimius Severus, 193-211. Sestertius (Orichalcum, 30 mm, 26.17 g, 12 h), Rome, Struck 195 CE. OBV: head of Septimius Severus Rev. Two Parthian captives with trophy between. REF: BMC 555 var.

By Septimius’s ascension to the purple, the Praetorian Guard–the personal guard of the emperor–held immense power over the imperial office. Yet their loyalty had a price in silver. The Guard had assassinated Pertinax and proclaimed the grasping Didius Julianus emperor. As Cassius Dio described in his book Roman History, the Praetorians “auctioned” the eternal city to Julianus for 25,000 sestertii per soldier. Following in this tradition, Septimius presented the praetorians a donative at double the rate of Julianus. Or, as Edward Gibbon describes in the first volume of his seminal work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Septimius Severus secured their loyalty by “promising every soldier about four hundred pounds; an honourable donative, double in value to the infamous bribe with which Julian had purchased the empire”.

This donative “both honored and paid the legions”. The so-called Legionary Denarii are common due to the sheer number struck. Septimius distributed an initial total of 250 denarii per soldier. But in the succeeding years, the officina in Rome and the various traveling military mints continued to strike this type for each legion. Because the reverse iconography is similar to the legionary denarii of Mark Antony and other interim militarized emperors, and was combined with Septimius’s recognizable “cork-screw beard”, these coins are easily identifiable.

The example above was struck for the eastern Third Legion. Named “Parthica”, the legion was formed by Septimius in 197 CE. The coin must be misattributed because the Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) describes it as “struck in 193 AD” – or four years before the Third Legion’s formation. This legion, and its sisters I Parthica and II Parthica, proved central to the emperor’s successful Parthian campaign and only added to his prestige back in Rome. Therefore, it was essential to maintain the morale and loyalty of this force with regular payments in silver.

In 188 and 189 CE, the imperial fortunes shifted yet again with the births of Caracalla and Geta. Armed with two strong, healthy sons, Septimius set out reinforcing his bloodline in proverbial numismatic stone by striking a series of familial coins. Pictured below are two interesting pieces.

The first type, discovered in 1909 in the Cologne-Gertrudenstrasse Hoard, is historically interesting since it depicts one of the imperial sons on both the obverse and reverse without any reference to Septimius. Both sons had already been elevated to the rank of Caesar in 198 CE, and since the coin was struck in 202 they already sat in the imperial college.

Caracalla and Geta AV Aureus, Rome, 201 CE. OBV: bust of Caracalla. REV: bust of Geta. Ref: Biaggi 1167. BMC p. 174, 121. Calicó 2863. C. 4. Hill 465a. RIC 17. Sear II 6520A

While struck contemporaneously, the second type (pictured below), is much more famous and depicts the entire Severan family. With the standard imperial portrait on the obverse, the reverse depicts a facing bust of Julia Domna between two profile busts of Caracalla and Geta. One of the only types that depict the entire imperial family, this coin belies the internal strife and hatreds which would end in the death of one brother. Almost immediately upon the death of their father, the two brothers would disregard his dying wish that they “agree with each other, make the soldiers rich, and ignore everybody else”.

Septimius Severus AV Aureus, Struck 202 CE, OBV: bust of emperor Rev: Draped bust of Julia Domna, between, busts of Caracalla (L) and Geta (R) REF: RIC 181c. BMC 380 var.

Not only did the emperor strike coins depicting his family, but in an unusual move he “gave” several of the imperial mint’s officinas to each son and his wife. Initially operating at a strength of five officinas at the time of Septimius’s ascension, the emperor “restored” the mint to its official “full strength” of six officinas once Caracalla was raised to the rank of Caesar in 196 CE. He then proceeded to keep three, give one to his wife Julia, and one each to Caracalla and Geta. Later, with the initiation of the PIVS AVG series in 201, he gifted a second officina to Caracalla.

Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) – PIVS AVG type AR Denarius, Struck 201-202 CE. OBV: laureate head facing right REV: Victory walking left, holding wreath & palm. REF: RIC IV 295

This created a more diverse numismatic output from the mint. Because the mint struck coins in cycles, disaggregated by denomination, the division of officinas to each family member dramatically increased the number of types struck each year. Instead of striking “substantive and commemorative issues” for only one individual, the moneyers needed to produce custom designs for four people.

Due to the vast quantities of coins struck, both when the Rome mint was under Septimius’s sole control and after he distributed the various officinas to his family, many early pieces struck during his lifetime are rather affordable. Worn provincial bronze types can be acquired for as little as $50 and common denarii struck in Rome are currently valued at $70 to $100. Common aurei are rather more valuable and start at $5,000 to $10,000.

But regardless, there is a Septimius Severus coin for all numismatists!

* * *


* * *

About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.