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Philosopher King: The Coinage of Marcus Aurelius


CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.

The Meditations, 2:1

OF ALL THE Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius comes down to us across the centuries as perhaps the most likable, because we hear him in his own voice: sensible, dutiful and patient. His book, known to us as The Meditations, survived because it was copied and recopied in medieval monasteries. Marcus wrote in koine, the common Greek used in The New Testament. The Church came to view his pagan Stoic philosophy as, well… not incompatible with Christianity.

His coinage extends over four decades (139 – 180 CE) and it also survives in abundance. On it, we see his progress from adolescence to manhood, prematurely aged by hard campaigning and the cares of ruling an Empire in crisis.

Marcus Aurelius as Caesar

marcuscaeserMarcus Aurelius was born in Rome on 26 April 121 CE to an elite family; both his grandfathers served as Consul, an office that still held immense prestige, though little real power. As a child, Marcus attracted the attention of Emperor Hadrian, who groomed him as a potential successor. After Hadrian died (138 CE), the emperor Antoninus Pius adopted Marcus as his heir, along with another young aristocrat, Lucius Verus[1].

This can be confusing, because each adoption involved a name change. Sometimes it seems as though elite Romans changed their names as often as they changed their togas. Born “Marcus Annius Verus”, he became “Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus” upon adoption, then “Aurelius Caesar” in 139, and finally “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus” when he became emperor.


On a gold aureus, the beardless image of young Marcus appears on the reverse, accompanying the senior emperor on the obverse. On a silver denarius, young Marcus appears by himself, with the implements of the high priesthood that was part of his duties. A bronze sestertius of Marcus as Caesar bears a reverse depicting the goddess Minerva with spear and shield.


In 145, Emperor Antoninus gave Marcus his own daughter, Faustina the Younger[2], in marriage. Born about the year 130, she was his only child to survive into adulthood. Emperor Hadrian had originally intended that young Faustina would marry Lucius Verus, but elite Roman families often reshuffled such betrothals as the political winds shifted. Lucius Verus eventually married Lucilla (148 – 182 CE), a daughter of Marcus.marcus1

Faustina ultimately bore six daughters and seven sons, including two sets of twins, but many died in childhood. Her extraordinary fertility was celebrated on coins with the inscription FECUNDITATI AUGUSTAE (“to the fertility of the empress.”) She accompanied Marcus and his army on campaign, earning the respect of the troops, who honored her as Mater Castrorum (“mother of the camps”). This title appears on a rare posthumous sestertius struck after her death in 176.

faustinaAncient historians (all elite men) were uniformly hostile to strong women who tried to play a role in politics, and the sources accuse Faustina of serial infidelity, even with low-born gladiators. Marcus was devoted to her memory, however, and had the Senate proclaim her a goddess (coins in the name of DIVA FAUSTINA are common) – an honor she shared with her mother.

Marcus as Emperor

To ensure an orderly succession upon the death of Antoninus Pius on 7 March 161, Marcus Aurelius donated five thousand denarii to every soldier of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard – the equivalent of more than 16 years’ salary for an ordinary legionary.

The Senate duly declared Pius a god, and a memorial column topped with his statue was raised in the Campus Martius district of Rome. The column appears on a coin struck that year, and its elaborate marble base survives[3].

Marcus had loyally served the emperor for 19 years, and–except for a lack of military command experience–was well prepared to rule. Marcus insisted that the Senate recognize his adoptive brother Lucius Verus as co-emperor. The friendship of the two co-emperors was celebrated on coinage with the inscription CONCORDIA AUGUSTORUM (“harmony of the emperors”) surrounding standing figures of the two men clasping hands. A superb gold aureus of this type brought over $24,000 USD in a recent European auction[4].

In 165, Rome observed the 200th anniversary of the decisive battle of Actium. To commemorate this occasion, the mint struck copies of the legionary denarius issued to pay the army of the defeated general Mark Antony. Originally struck in debased silver in huge quantities, these coins had remained in circulation as small change for over a century after the battle, and Romans must have been fond of them. The new denarius differed from the original in the reverse inscription, “Emperors Antoninus and Verus Restored [This].”

Marcus often adopted the name of his predecessor Antoninus Pius on his coinage.

One of the most spectacular coins issued by Marcus is a gold aureus dated to 173-174 depicting the emperor on horseback, his hand raised in a gesture of peace. This is the pose we see in the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that stood for centuries in the plaza atop Rome’s Capitoline Hill[5]. The statue survived because medieval Romans erroneously thought that it depicted Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337), the first Christian emperor.

macrusgodThe 19 years of Marcus’s reign saw continuous warfare and a succession of disasters, including a devastating plague (probably smallpox). The coinage, being a medium of imperial propaganda, is relentlessly upbeat, celebrating victories over the Parthians, the Germans and the Sarmatians, an Indo-European tribe migrating from the steppes to invade the Balkans. A sestertius of 176-177 celebrates the defeat of the Sarmatians with a depiction of a pile of captured shields, armor and military gear on the reverse.

In October 166, Marcus elevated his five-year-old son Commodus to the rank of Caesar, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, who died in 169. Commodus was the first imperial son in over 70 years to survive into adulthood. His youthful portrait appears along with his father’s on the coinage. For example, a very rare denarius of 174-175 is inscribed “Commodus Caesar, Son of the Emperor, Victor over the Germans.” In a 2008 European auction, an example of this coin brought over $15,000[6].

Emperor Commodus proved to be a monster: cruel, capricious and delusional. He was assassinated in a palace coup in 192. Modern historians, however, dismiss the theory (depicted in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator) that he poisoned his father to become sole emperor.


For centuries after his death in 180, Romans remembered Marcus fondly. The column built by Commodus to memorialize him still stands in Rome[7]. Some 70 years after his death, the emperor Decius issued coins honoring his predecessors who had been declared gods by the Senate. The obverse of a silvered antoninianus issued for Marcus shows him wearing the “radiate” crown, with a standing eagle on the reverse.

The historian Cassius Dio (155 – 235 CE) wrote:

“[Marcus] was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him[8].”

Collecting Marcus Aurelius on Coins

Extending over four decades, the coinage of Marcus includes a vast number of different types, providing rich opportunities for collectors at all price levels. One reference, David Sear’s Roman Coins and Their Values, lists 420 different issues, plus hundreds more in the names of Lucius Verus and Faustina the Younger. On CoinArchives Pro, a database of over three million auction records, a recent search on “Marcus Aurelius” turned up 16,938 hits. The collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in New York lists 1,586 coins of Marcus.

A common silver denarius of Marcus in VF or better can often be found for well under $100.

A well-worn gold aureus might bring $3,500 – 5,000, with rare or high-grade specimens typically selling for $20,000 and up.

Prices for the bronze coinage are heavily dependent on condition, but a nice VF sestertius would probably sell for a few hundred dollars, and really spectacular examples for a few thousand.

The standard reference usually cited in catalogs is volume three of Roman Imperial Coinage, published in 1930. At the time of publication, a 1997 reprint sells for about $80.

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[1] Adoption was common among the Roman elite. In an era of high child mortality rates, adoption ensured that noble families did not die out.

[2] Faustina the Elder (or Faustina Major, or Faustina I, died 140) was the wife of Antoninus Pius. Faustina the Younger (or Faustina Minor, or Faustina II) was her daughter.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Column_of_Antoninus_Pius

[4] Numismatica Ars Classica. Auction 92 Part 1, 23 May 2016. Lot 592

[5] The original statue is preserved into a climate-controlled museum, and a replica has been put in its place.

[6] UBS Gold & Numismatics. Auctions 78 and 79, September 2008. Lot 1707

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Column_of_Marcus_Aurelius

[8] Cassius Dio, Book 72:35 online text at the University of Chicago.


Birley, Anthony. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. London (1987)

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

Gilliam. J.F. “The Plague under Marcus Aurelius”, American Journal of Philology 3 (1961)

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

Mattingly, H. and E.A. Sydenham. Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume 3 : Antoninus Pius–Commodus (138–192). London (1930)

McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: A Life. New York (2009)

Pangerl, Andreas. “Vier Jahrzehnte Porträts des Mark Aurel auf römischen Reichsmunzen (Four decades of portraits of Marcus Aurelius on Roman imperial coins)”, Honesta Missione: Festschrift Fur Barbara Pferdehirt. Mainz, Germany (2014)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume Two. London (2002)

Winkler, M. M. (ed) “The Chief Ancient Sources on Marcus Aurelius”, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History. Oxford, UK (2009)

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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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