HomeAncient CoinsGood Dad, Bad Son: Disappointing Heirs of Great Rulers

Good Dad, Bad Son: Disappointing Heirs of Great Rulers

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
HISTORY IS LITTERED with great and wise rulers who fathered heirs who were monsters or idiots: sons who just plain turned out wrong. The coins of these rulers illustrate these stories, perhaps offering us some insight into how such good fathers raised such bad sons.

Eucratides and Heliocles

BAKTRIA, Greco-Baktrian Kingdom. Eukratides I Megas. Circa 170-145 BCE. AR Tetradrachm. Image: CNG.
BAKTRIA, Greco-Baktrian Kingdom. Eukratides I Megas. Circa 170-145 BCE. AR Tetradrachm. Image: CNG.

Eucratides “the Great” ruled Baktria, a remote Central Asian kingdom founded by successors of Alexander the Great. A descendant of the kingdom’s founders, Eucratides ousted a rival dynasty and ruled for 25 prosperous years. He issued the largest gold coin struck in antiquity, a unique 20-stater piece (169.2 grams, 58 mm) now in the French national collection. His common reverse design, the mythical twins Castor and Pollux on horseback[1], was adopted as the seal of the Afghan Central Bank at its founding in 1939.

Eucratides fought the Parthians and conquered parts of northern Pakistan and India. The Roman historian Justin, who lived in the second century CE (long after these events,) records this tale:

“As Eucratides returned from India, he was killed on the way back by his son, who ran his chariot over the blood of the king, and ordered the corpse to be left without a sepulture (Justin XLI, 6).”

Heliocles I, circa 145 – 130 Tetradrachm. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Heliocles I, circa 145 – 130 Tetradrachm. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Maddeningly, history fails to tell us which of Eucratides’ three known sons was the killer, but Heliocles seems the most likely candidate. On his rare coins[2], he identifies himself as “King Heliocles the Just” – perhaps he had a guilty conscience?

Germanicus and Caligula

Germanicus (father of Caligula) Ӕ As. Image: Roma Numismatics, Ltd.
Germanicus (father of Caligula) Ӕ As. Image: Roma Numismatics, Ltd.

Born into the Roman elite on May 24, 15 BCE, Germanicus was destined for a brilliant career. His father, Drusus the Elder, was the son of the empress, Livia Drusilla, and the stepson of the emperor Augustus. Germanicus’ mother, Antonia the Younger, was the daughter of Mark Antony.

In a series of brilliant campaigns (14 – 16 CE), Germanicus led eight legions to regain two of the three sacred legionary standards captured by German tribes in the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. He became a national hero, beloved by the Roman people. Posted to the Syrian city of Antioch to deal with the restless eastern provinces, Germanicus died suddenly in 19 CE at the age of 34. It was suspected that he was poisoned on the orders of his uncle, the jealous and suspicious Emperor Tiberius. Many years after his death Germanicus was honored on coins[3] issued by his son, Caligula, and his brother Claudius.

Gaius (Caligula), with Germanicus. 37-41 CE. AR Denarius. Image: CNG.
Gaius (Caligula), with Germanicus. 37-41 CE. AR Denarius. Image: CNG.

“Of all the emperors of Rome, Caligula is the best known for his personal depravity and abuse of power (Vagi, 143).”

Caligula became emperor at the age of 25. His personal name was Gaius; “Caligula” was a nickname meaning “little boots” that was given to him as a child by his father’s troops, amused by his miniature legionary uniform. Collectors seeking evidence of madness, decadence and depravity in the coinage of Caligula will be disappointed. Coinage is conservative, and these coins present an idealized portrait of a rather dorky young man[4], along with a series of stock images reflecting conventions of Classical art that the Romans adopted from the Greeks.

Marcus Aurelius and Commodus

Marcus Aurelius. 161-180 CE. Æ Sestertius. Image: CNG.
Marcus Aurelius. 161-180 CE. Æ Sestertius. Image: CNG.

Marcus Aurelius comes down to us across the centuries as perhaps the most likable Roman emperor, because we can read him in his own voice: sensible, dutiful and patient. His 19-year reign saw continuous warfare and a succession of disasters, including a devastating plague. The coinage, being a medium of imperial propaganda, is relentlessly upbeat, celebrating victories over a series of barbarian tribes, or depicting a variety of Roman deities, such as Salus, goddess of well-being[5].

Commodus, the only son of Marcus who outlived him, proved to be a monster: cruel, capricious, and delusional. He came to believe that he was the reincarnation of Hercules, and on some of his coins he wears the mythic hero’s lion skin and is identified as “Roman Hercules”[6]. Commodus was assassinated in a palace coup in 192 CE. Modern historians dismiss the theory–as seen in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator–that he murdered his father to become emperor.

Theodosius and Honorius

Theodosius I, 379-395. Medallion of 2 Solidi
Theodosius I, 379-395. Medallion of 2 Solidi. Image: Nomos AG.

Theodosius “the Great” was born in 347 CE to a distinguished military family in Roman Spain. After the catastrophic defeat of Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Emperor Gratian appointed Theodosius as co-emperor in the East[7]. Devoutly religious, Theodosius banned the Olympic Games in 393 because the sight of naked pagan athletes offended Christian sensibilities.

Honorius, 393-423. Solidus. Image: Leu Numismatic.
Honorius, 393-423. Solidus. Image: Leu Numismatic.

Shortly before his death in 395 CE, Theodosius made the disastrous decision to divide the Roman Empire between his two sons, Honorius (age 10) in the West and Arcadius (age 17) in the East. The Empire would never again be united. The English historian Edward Gibbon, in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), provides this description of the young emperor:

His subjects, who attentively studied the character of their young sovereign, discovered that Honorius was without passions, and consequently without talents; and that his feeble and languid disposition was alike incapable of discharging the duties of his rank, or of enjoying the pleasures of his age[8].

Constantine IV and Justinian II

Constantive IV Pogonatus 668-685. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.
Constantive IV Pogonatus 668-685. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.

To outward appearances, young Constantine IV inherited a disaster. Much of his army was far away in Sicily, where it had just murdered his father Constans II. …Constantine IV had experience and steadiness beyond his nineteen or so years. He acted promptly to restore order and confidence… (Treadgold, 323)

Born about the year 650 in Constantinople, Constantine IV was crowned co-emperor as a child. His great achievement was the defeat of a Muslim siege of Constantinople (674-678)[9] with the help of a secret incendiary weapon, “Greek Fire”[10].

In 681, possibly in response to a conspiracy, Constantine IV ordered his younger brothers, Heraclius and Tiberius, mutilated by slitting their noses, making them ineligible for the throne in classic “Byzantine” style. This was considered more merciful than execution. Some of Constantine’s gold solidi struck at this time bear a remarkably realistic portrait that stands in sharp contrast to the crude, cartoon-like images on most contemporary coins[11]. These “fine style” pieces were executed by a gifted engraver, whose work continued into the reign of Constantine’s son, Justinian II. Suffering from chronic poor health, Constantine IV died at the age of about 35.

Justinian II, First Reign, AV Solidus. Constantinople, 686-687 CE. Image: CNG.
Justinian II, First Reign, AV Solidus. Constantinople, 686-687 CE. Image: CNG.

Justinian II came to the throne at the age of 16. He is remembered as a brutal and vindictive tyrant, one of the worst Byzantine emperors. For numismatists, his reign was an historic milestone, because he placed the image of Christ on his gold coins, a gesture of defiance of the Muslims, who rejected the divinity of Jesus. Justinian’s early coinage bears his beardless facing portrait with long wavy hair[12].

Overthrown by a popular uprising in 695, his nose was mutilated and he was exiled to a remote Byzantine outpost in Crimea. But Justinian escaped, married a princess of the Khazars (a powerful Turkic tribe), and plotted his revenge, returning to power in 705. In 711, he was deposed for a second time, and decapitated to ensure he would not return.

Henry II and John of England

Henry II AR Penny (1154-1189). Image: CNG.
Henry II AR Penny (1154-1189). Image: CNG.

Born in 1133, Henry II was the first English king of the Plantagenet dynasty. His mother Matilda fought a protracted civil war (1139-1154) against Stephen of Blois, a French noble who had seized the English throne in 1135. This chaotic period is remembered as “The Anarchy[13].

Henry knew when to wait and when to act; when to defend and when to attack … His continental possessions he defended and regained by swift, ferocious action in the face of attacks on all fronts. It was consummate strategy and generalship. Henry II is usually represented as a peacemaker and lawgiver; he was, but he also conducted widespread and aggressive campaigning. He extended his rule to Ireland, beat down the Scots and Welsh, and forged a new dominion in France greater than the French king’s (Hooper and Bennett, 53).

Henry’s coinage consisted entirely of silver “short cross” pennies[14].

IRELAND. John. As King, 1199-1216. AR Penny. Image: CNG.
IRELAND. John. As King, 1199-1216. AR Penny. Image: CNG.

In the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, the role of Henry was brilliantly played by Peter O’Toole, with Katharine Hepburn as Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

John was a capable administrator, but his weaknesses were serious. His manic depressive tendencies would cause him to lapse into inaction at critical times; he was endlessly suspicious that the baronial class… were disloyal… he seemed unable to keep his hands off the wives and fiancées of the high nobility… (Cantor, 265).”

During the reigns of Henry’s sons, the English silver penny continued to be struck in Henry’s name (coinage is conservative!) The only coins of King John that bear his name were issued in Ireland, with his portrait in a distinctive triangular frame[15].

Charles V and VI of France

FRANCE, Royal. Charles V le Sage (the Wise). 1364-1380. AV Franc à pied. Image: CNG.
FRANCE, Royal. Charles V le Sage (the Wise). 1364-1380. AV Franc à pied. Image: CNG.

The only French king to earn the epithet “the Wise” (Charles le Sage), Charles V became regent at the age of 18 when the English captured his father, King Jean II, at the disastrous Battle of Poitiers[16]. A distinctive coin of this reign was the gold franc a pied (“franc on foot”), showing the king standing under an elaborate canopy[17].

His son, Charles VI, came to the throne at the age of 11 in 1360 and ruled for a remarkable 42 years. Remembered as Charles “the Mad” (Charles le Fou), he was plagued all his life by mental illness, with occasional violent psychotic episodes. Various court factions competed to control the increasingly disabled monarch. At one point he developed the delusion that he was made of glass and had iron rods sewn into his clothing so that he would not shatter.

France Double d'or ND (1420). Image: MDC.
France Double d’or ND (1420). Image: MDC.

A very rare coin of this reign is the gold double, showing the king enthroned holding sword and scepter[18]. Under his reign, France lost territory to the English in the “Hundred Years’ War”, culminating in a disastrous defeat at Agincourt in 1415. In 1420, the mad king betrothed his daughter Catherine to the English king Henry V and disowned his son, the future king Charles VII (who would be the patron of Joan of Arc).

Leopold I and II of Belgium

Belgium. Leopold I (1831-1865). 20 Francs. Image: Spink.
Belgium. Leopold I (1831-1865). 20 Francs. Image: Spink.

Born in 1790, Leopold I was the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Sallfeld, a small German state. When the French occupied his land, he joined the Imperial Russian Army and fought against Napoleon. He later moved to England and married the daughter of future king George IV (ruled 1820-1830). Offered the throne of Greece, he refused, considering the country too unstable.

But when he was offered the throne of newly created Belgium in 1830, he accepted, ruling until his death in 1865 at the age of 74. His coronation on July 21 is still observed as a Belgian national holiday. A competent and widely respected ruler, Leopold defeated the Dutch effort to conquer his country, and survived the revolution of 1848. During the 19th century, the Belgian franc was issued to the same standards as the French franc, in silver and gold[19].

BELGIAN CONGO. Congo Free State. 5 Francs, 1887. Image: Stack's Bowers.
BELGIAN CONGO. Congo Free State. 5 Francs, 1887. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

His son, Leopold II, ruled for 44 years. In 1885, when the major European powers were busily carving up Africa into colonies, Leopold established the “Congo Free State[20] as his private property (he never visited it). He managed the Congo through a reign of terror using torture, mutilation, and forced labor to extract wealth in the form of ivory and (later) rubber. The Congo Free State issued its own currency bearing Leopold’s portrait[21].

The atrocities were so extreme that the Belgian government was forced to take over administration of the colony in 1908. Author Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1903) was inspired by reports of Leopold’s brutal regime. Leopold II is a controversial figure in Belgian history, and there have been recent calls for the removal of his public statues.

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[1] CNG E-auction 525, 19 October 2022, Lot 593. Realized $850 USD (estimate $750).

[2] NAC Auction 77,May 26, 2014, Lot 123. Realized CHF 19,500 (about $21,768 USD; estimate CHF 10,000).

[3] Roma Numismatics Auction XXV, September 22, 2022, Lot 945. Realized £2,800 (about $3,154 USD; estimate £3,500).

[4] CNG Auction 121, October 6, 2022, Lot 791. Realized $5,000 USD (estimate $3,500).

[5] CNG Auction 121, October 6, 2022, Lot 859. Realized $1,500 USD (estimate $2,000).

[6] CNG E-auction 495, July 7, 2021, Lot 373. Realized $700 USD (estimate $200).

[7] Nomos Auction 24, May 22, 2022, Lot 433. Realized CHF 180,000 (about $185,166 USD; estimate CHF 125,000).

[8] Text online at https://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/volume1/chap29.htm.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Constantinople_(674%E2%80%93678)

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

[11] CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 1081. Realized $2,500 USD (estimate $1,500).

[12] Roma Numismatics E-sale 85, June 17, 2021, Lot 2551. Realized £1,000 (about $1,410 USD; estimate £1,000).

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Anarchy

[14] CNG E-auction 519, June 29, 2022, Lot 723. Realized $140 USD (estimate $150).

[15] CNG E-auction 459, January 8, 2020, Lot 641. Realized $375 USD (estimate $150).

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Poitiers

[17] CNG Auction 121,October 6, 2022, Lot 1172. Realized $4,000 USD (estimate $1,500).

[18] MDC Auction 9, June 3, 2022, Lot 406. Realized €30,000 (about $32,000 USD).

[19] Spink Auction 379, October 1, 2022, Lot 170. Realized $280 USD (estimate $300 – 350).

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Free_State

[21] Stack’s Bowers NYINC Auction, January 14, 2022, Lot 1025. Realized $2,800 USD (estimate $1,400 – 1,800).


Breckinridge, James. The Numismatic Iconography of Justinian II. New York (1959)

Cantor, Norman (editor). The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. New York (1999)

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York (1903)

Grierson, Philip. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Volume 2. (1968)

Hooper, Nicholas and Matthew Bennet. Cambridge Illustrated Atlas Warfare: The Middle Ages. Cambridge (1996)

Justin. Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum (Marie-Pierre Arnaud-Lindet, translator).

Skingley, Philip (editor). Coins of England and the United Kingdom (46th edition). London (2011)

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford (1997)

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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