September 01, 2016

Decius' Divi: Facebook for the Emperor

The Emperor Decius came to power in late AD 249 having killed his predecessor, Philip the Arab, in battle (Potter 1990, 40-45). This manner of succession was far from unusual for the period. By this time no Roman emperor had died of natural causes for a little over a hundred years. As such a Roman citizen could be forgiven for believing their new leader’s reign would be as short, and end as messily, as those that had filled the preceding century. Whilst said cynical citizen would have been entirely correct (Decius and his son were killed in a swamp fending off marauding Scythians a mere two years into his reign according to Zosimus) this was not an opinion the new emperor was keen to encourage. As such he commanded all citizens to make sacrifices to the gods for the health and stability of the empire and concurrently issued a series of coins, now known as the ‘Divi series’.

ric trajan decius 77 divus augustus

Antoninianus minted at Mediolanum (Milan), RIC IV Trajan Decius 77

Obverse: Head of Divus Augustus, legend 'DIVO AVGVSTO'
Reverse: Eagle, legend 'CONSECRATIO'.

This series of coins is remarkable because they do not, as we would expect, feature the image of the new emperor – a feature we know provincials regarded as distinctive in Roman (as opposed to local) coinage (Mark 12:17). Instead on the obverse they picture the faces of eleven of his predecessors, crowned with radiate crowns; Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Severus and Alexander (Ando 2000, 209). The image on the reverse of the coins varies, however most commonly they feature either an eagle (a representation of apotheosis, perhaps most notably seen on the Arch of Titus in Rome) or an altar – presumably to the divine emperor shown on the obverse. This is reinforced by the coins’ respective legends which, on the obverse, give the pictured emperor’s name with the prefix ‘Divo’, meaning divine, and on the reverse read ‘consecratio’, meaning consecrated. Notably we have examples of these coins from mints across the empire, not just from Rome, suggesting that Decius was keen for them to be viewed by as large a number of people as possible. They would seem to be the Roman equivalent of a public Facebook post, rather than a message meant for those immediately around the new ruler.

Imperial portraits also played a key role in the sacrifices Decius demanded for the empire’s continued stability. Whilst the deities sworn to varied from town to town across the empire’s provinces (Tertullian To the Nations 2.8.7), with Roman religion being flexible enough to incorporate local deities from far flung reaches of the empire, each ceremony was enacted before a series of imperial statues, perhaps even in some contexts the same emperors featured on the coinage (Ando 2000, 209). The message Decius hoped to deliver is clear. Here were a group of exceptional, and deified, emperors who moved the empire forward. He would be the next in the ‘canon’ of greats and a citizen of Rome was secure under his rule.

Moreover Decius was emphasising the power of the emperor. On his later coinage various Roman mainstays are depicted, but divine figures are almost entirely absent (Mattingly 1924). By presenting his predecessors as essential figures in Roman religion, to the detriment of the traditional pantheon, Decius promoted his office as something quasi-divine and by association raised himself above the concerns of petty mortals. If successful this public relations initiative could only have increased his authority and hold on an increasingly fractious state. It was also something of a change from the policy of his immediate predecessor who, as discussed in last month’s blog, was sympathetic to Christianity – a religious creed incompatible with the Imperial Cult.


Antoninianus minted at Mediolanum (Milan), RIC IV Trajan Decius 84b

Obverse: Head of Divus Nerva, legend 'DIVO NERVAE'
Reverse: Altar, legend 'CONSECRATIO'.

However for the viewer to understand the message that the Decius was sending they had to know who the men featured on the coins were. For some a degree of knowledge would be expected- Augustus as the first Roman Emperor would seem likely to be well known. But the same cannot be said for other members of the illustrious eleven. Why would ‘the man on the street’ in the farther reaches of the Empire know anything about the Emperor Nerva, who ruled for a mere 2 years and died 150 years before Decius struck his coins? I would suggest that Nerva’s presence in the series means that, at least in Decius’ eyes, he was a recognizable figure. Not every deified emperor appears on Decius’ coinage (Claudius is notably absent) and given the evident thought that went into this public relations initiative it is hard to imagine Decius deliberately weakening his message by using an unrecognisable figure. If we give Decius this benefit of the doubt then we can surmise that a not insignificant number of citizens in the Roman Empire had an impressive knowledge of the history of the Roman state; how many modern British citizens, with access to all the knowledge on the internet, could tell you about our Prime Minister 50 years ago, let alone recognise one from a century and a half previous?

So what kind of an impact did Decius’ Divi have? Whilst we cannot be sure we can be confident that his coinage was well known by later Romans. Gregory of Tours, a sixth century historian and bishop tells us that seven young Christians (and their dog) fled to a cave to escape persecution for refusing Decius’ edict to sacrifice to the pagan gods (Lane-Fox 1986, 450, 490). Naturally they then fell asleep for nigh on two centuries, awakening in the Christian empire of Theodosius II. When one of their number left cave to buy food the coinage he used was immediately recognised as from the time of Decius (Ando 2000, 227), which provoked wonder amongst the town’s folk – wonder presumably compounded when the sleepers all promptly fell dead (Gregory of Tours, Passio septem dormientium 7-8). Whilst the story itself isn’t terribly believable it likely grew in the telling from events that truly happened. It is not so hard to imagine Christians fleeing rather than submitting to the emperor’s edict, indeed reactions to said edict were a subject of much later controversy within the church (Lane-Fox 1986, 550). Moreover if those Christians were to have fled with any money it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that the emperor’s newest coinage would have featured prominently in their collections. If a cache of their belongings were later discovered and spent there would have been a sufficient framework for the myth to have grown. Whilst there’s a fair amount of conjecture there I like to think that Decius’ Divi were still being recognised two centuries after his death and were being talked about by even later historians.


This month’s coin entry was written by Ben Howarth. Ben is about to begin an MA in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. He has an interest in the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire and his undergraduate dissertation was on the persecutions of ‘others’ by Christians in the late 4th and early 5th centuries – an interest he hopes to develop further during his MA.


• Ando, C (2000) Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (London: University of California Press)
• Gregory of Tours, Passio septem dormientium in Ando, C (2000)
• Lane Fox, R (1986) Pagans and Christians (St Ives: Penguins)
• Mattingly, H (1924) “The reign of Trajan Decius” in The Journal of Roman Studies v14 (1924) pgs 1-23
• Potter. D. S (1990) Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
• Tertullian, To the Nations, trans. Q. Howe (
The Holy Bible, New International Version (Edinburgh: Hodder & Staunton 1979)
• Zosimus, New History, trans. T. Chaplin & W. Green (London: Green and Chaplin 1814)

Coin images reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica (Auction 33, ot 404), and Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Mail Bid Sale 66, lot 1420) (

August 03, 2016

The generic Roman emperor?

Token of Palmyra (TM Pl.LXXIII no. 48)

The Roman author Fronto, writing to his former student, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, commented:

You know how in all money-changer's bureaus, booths, bookstalls, eaves, porches, windows, anywhere and everywhere there are likenesses of you exposed to view, badly enough painted most of them to be sure, and modelled or carved in a plain, not to say sorry, style of art, yet at the same time your likeness, however much a caricature, never when I go out meets my eyes without making me part my lips for a smile and dream of you.

(Loeb vol. 112 p. 206-7)

Fronto's comment on the 'badly painted' images of Marcus Aurelius has always reminded me of the 2012 restoration of a Spanish fresco by an older amateur, or the painting presented to Queen Elizabeth II in Germany that prompted her to ask "Is that supposed to be my father?" These 'rustic' images of Roman emperors are rarely studied, but they must have formed a large part of the everyday experience of people outside the city of Rome. Many of these images (e.g. weights in the form of an emperor's bust) may have originally been intended to show a specific emperor (e.g. Nero), but they bear only a superficial (if any) resemblance to the official portraiture of the emperor concerned. The same can be seen on many provincial coins, particularly in the transition from the Republic to the principate, where it is often hard to know whether the male bust on the obverse of coins is Augustus, or a deity or some other figure.

One token from Palmyra, shown right, supports Fronto's statement, with Side A (shown on the upper side) showing a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor hanging on a wall over a banquet scene. This type of representation suggests the ubiquitous nature of the Roman imperial portrait, though the finer details of the portraiture are harder to see, suggesting to the viewer, 'Roman emperor', with the particular name of the emperor supplied by the mind of the viewer. If this token was in use for a longer period of time (unlikely) the identity of the emperor 'seen' on the wall would likely change. To what extent, then, might we speak of a 'generic' Roman emperor, whose precise identity was supplied by the viewer? A portrait of Caracalla in Rusicade, Numidia, that was later converted into a monument honoring Constantine, suggests that Caracalla's quite recogniseable visage was, in late antiquity, re-interpreted (at by some viewers).

A similar 'generic' image can be seen on a token from Rome, perhaps issued for use in the celebration of games by a curator. One side of the token shows a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor (perhaps Tiberius?), while the other side names the person responsible for the token and organising the celebration. Again the viewer would supply need to the identity of the emperor themselves, an identification that might change according to context. As well as expensive marble busts and other portraits, there existed the 'everyday' portrait of the emperor, and these types of images are something worth more detailed investigation.


Token showing a laureate imperial portrait on one side, with the legend Q. CAECILIVS Q.F. OINOGENVS CVR on the other. (Numismatica Classica 12, 1983, 39, Rostowzew 514b).

This blog entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the ERC-funded Token Communities project.

Further Reading:

Dahmen, K. (2001). Untersuchungen zu Form und Funktion kleinformatiger Porträts der römischen Kaiserzeit. Münster, Scriptorium.

Du Mesnil du Buisson comte, R. (1944). Tessères et monnaies de Palmyre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale (France). Département des médailles et antiques.

Franke, P. R. (1984). Q. Caecilius Q.F. Oinogenus F. Curator. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 54: 125-126.

Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.

Noah's ark in Roman Apamaea

apamea_coin_obverse apamaea_coin_rev

Alloy coin of Apamaea with Philip I on the obverse and an ark scene on the reverse. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above coin is one of a series of exceptional coins from ancient Apamea, Phrygia. On the obverse we have a Greek inscription naming the emperor as Philip I (AD 244-249), and a bust of the emperor looking to the right wearing a laurel crown, cloak and cuirass. Philip, commonly known as Philip the Arab, was an emperor of Syrian origin, and he is best remembered to history for his sympathetic view of Christianity, and potential conversion, as discussed by Christian writers such as Eusebius, Jerome and Orosius. On the reverse we have an inscription naming the town of Apamea and the magistrate in charge of minting the coin. The reverse has four figures depicted: two of them are inside a box with NOE inscribed on it that seems to be floating on water, this box has two birds perching above it; the other two stand to the side of this box, and have their right hands raised in a gesture of prayer. Five coins of this type, with minimal variation, have been found, and are attributed to five emperors of the first half of the 3rd century: Septimius Severus (AD 192-211), Alexander Severus (AD 222-235), Gordian III (AD 238-244), Philip I (AD 244-249) and Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253). Before looking at what makes these coins so extraordinary, it is important to look at the city of Apamea, and what this might reveal about the coin itself.

Apamea, founded in the 3rd century BCE, was a centre for trade in ancient Phrygia, and acted as an important transit centre for merchants travelling to the east. Perhaps due to the city’s economic significance, the city gained the epithet kibotos (chest) around the time of Strabo. The kibotoi were clearly significant for Apamea, as they appear on coins depicting Marsyas reclining in a cave, and in fact it is a kibotos that we find on the reverse of the coin type in question. Apamea also seems to have had a strong Jewish presence, as Josephus describes how the Seleucid king Antiochus III brought Babylonian Jews to Phrygia to serve as garrison soldiers, civil servants and royal administrators in the newly established city (Josephus, Antiquities, 12.3.4). This Jewish population was certainly still thriving in the 1st century BCE, as Cicero claims that a large sum of gold was confiscated from the Jews at Apamea as it was to be sent to the Temple in Jerusalem (Cicero, Pro Flaccus, 68); and we can assume that this prominent position was sustained under the Roman Empire. There was also a local tradition (The Sibylline Oracles, 1.320-40) that the nearby mountain was in fact Mount Ararat, the mountain on which Noah’s ark came to rest (Genesis 8:4); a tradition that must have been formed by the Jewish population of the city.

On this coin, then, we find a celebration of this local tradition. This is made clear by the NOE inscription, which is the same spelling that the Septuagint Bible uses for Noah. Thus we find that the kibotos is Noah’s ark, further tying the city into this episode from the Old Testament; the two figures inside are Noah and his wife during the flood, and the two figures on the outside are Noah and his wife praying to God after being saved. The two birds make this identification even more concrete; the one on the right is probably the raven that Noah sent out after 40 days, and the one on the left depicted holding some sort of branch, must be the dove sent out a week late that brought back an olive leaf to let Noah know the water had receded (Genesis 8:6-12). Many scholars have argued for a pagan reading of this coin instead, arguing it to be an allusion to one of the many other flood legends, such as Nannakos (Zenobius and the Suda), Philemon and Baucis (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) or Priasos (Nonnos). Even more popular is identifying this coin as a representation of the flood of Deucalion. In this reading Deucalion and Pyrrha are the figures in the kibotos, and the bird a reference to the dove released from the ark (Plutarch, Moralia, 13.1). However, none of these readings take into account the specificity of one of the birds holding a branch, and all require us to ignore the NOE inscription. It is too simplistic to look at this as a binary choice between this being a representation of a pagan myth or the story of Noah. In all likelihood, the flood myth was viewed as a point of similarity between the Jewish and pagan world; pagans could be reminded of their own traditions upon viewing this coin. The reason that this coin explicitly refers to Noah, rather than more broadly evoking flood myths, was probably due to the local legend of Mt. Ararat, which gave the relatively new city some historical prestige, whereas other flood myths were not specific to Apamea itself. We also cannot ignore the possibility of a Christian community in Apamea being behind the imagery on this coin. This coin type comes into existence at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, just when the first Christian art is beginning to emerge. Additionally, it is interesting to note that both Maximinus Thrax and Decius, who both persecuted Christians, are absent from this coin type. Although there is no direct evidence for Christian involvement, this possibility cannot be entirely ignored.

This coin series is quite extraordinary as being one of the only coin types known to bear a biblical scene. Not only that, there are two scenes depicted in sequence- something common on sarcophagus art, but hardly ever found on coins. They show the possibility for the tolerant acceptance of a Judaeo-Christian myth in a pagan city under a pagan emperor. This coin may lead us to reassess our views on the local relationships between pagans, Jews and Christians in the pre-Constantinian empire. In Apamea, it seems the local community were united by the local legend of Mt Ararat than they were divided by the fact that this story came from a non-pagan source. Perhaps local Apameans were not as concerned with religious identity as we might assume, and instead had civic unity at the forefront of their minds.


This month's coin entry was written by Simon Collier, is a second year part-time MA student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. His academic interests focus on the interaction between religions, specifically focussed on the reception of ancient paganism. He has previously written on topics such as blasphemous graffiti in Severan Rome, the reception of Hecate by William Blake and Neo-paganism, and colonial and post-colonial reactions to the origin of the Buddha image. His MA thesis is looking at the reception of Roman paganism in silent and epic cinema, and in what ways this is a continuation of ancient Christian views of paganism.


Goodenough, E.R. (1953) Jewish symbols in the Greco-Roman period Vol. 2 (New York: Pantheon Books)

Hachlili, R. (2009) Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues and Trends (Leiden: Brill)

Kelp, U. (2013) ‘Grave Monuments and Local Identities in Roman Phrygia’ in Roman Phrygia: Culture and Society, ed. P. Thonemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 79-94

Madden, F.W. (1866) ‘On some coins of Septimius Severus, Macrinus, and Philip I., struck at Apameia, in Phrygia, with the Legend NOE’ in The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society, New Series, Vol. 6: 173-219

Mitchell, S. (2013) ‘An Epigraphic Probe into the Origins of Montanism’ in Roman Phrygia: Culture and Society, ed. P. Thonemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 168-197

Spier, J. (2007) Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (London: Yale University Presss)

Tameanko, M., Noah and the Ark on Ancient Coins— (Accessed 6th May 2016)

Thonemann, P. (2011) The Maeander Valley: a historical geography from antiquity to Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Treblico, P.R. (1991) Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Weitzmann, K. (1979) Age of spirituality late antique and Early Christian art, third to seventh century : catalogue of the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979)

July 01, 2016

The agreement of the armies under Nerva

concorcia exerticuum coin nerva

Aureus of Nerva

Date: 96 AD

Obverse: IMP NERVA CAES AUG PM TR P COS II PP (Emperor Nerva Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Holding Tribunician power, Consul twice, Pater Patriae.)

Reverse: CONCORDIA EXERCITUUM (Agreement of the Armies), Two clasped right hands holding an Aquila set on the prow of a ship.

This particular coin is not visually exceptional since the image of clasped hands recurs on many different coin types. What makes it of interest is the message it carried, and the role this played in Nerva’s attempt to stabilise his position as Domitian’s successor. In order to understand the coin’s significance fully, we must first consider the context in which it was issued.

Nerva became emperor in September of AD 96, the year in which this coin was minted. As such, this would be among the first coins to be issued under his rule. His predecessor, Domitian, had been murdered in the Imperial palace and condemned as a tyrant by the Senate. Looking at the relative stability of Nerva’s rule as emperor, especially when compared to the civil war and instability which followed the death of Nero – the last Emperor to be violently overthrown – it can be easy to forget the dangers that the new Emperor would have faced. The reluctance of the army to shift their loyalties to an unknown Emperor is likely to have been significant in the wake of Domitian’s murder. Domitian had been a generous military leader and his succession by Nerva, who had little experience or prestige in military affairs, risked a crisis like that of the Year of the Four Emperors.

It seems that fortune was in Nerva’s favour, however, as the military situation at that time meant that a military coup was not an option. The all-important Northern armies were engaged in an ongoing war along the frontier; to return to Rome to contest Nerva would mean turning their backs to the enemy and leaving the Empire vulnerable. At the time of his accession Nerva was also already 65 years of age –perhaps they thought he wouldn’t last long enough to be worth overthrowing.

With this in mind, the Concordia Exercituum coin seems perplexing. The legend translates to “Agreement of the armies” referring to unity of armies both with each other – as signified by the military standard, ship’s prow and aquila – and the Emperor. This might seem like a strange choice of message to send at this time to military and non-military inhabitants of the empire. The majority of Romans may have been ignorant of military politics. If this celebration of army unity were aimed at them, wouldn’t it have been like announcing the existence of a previously unknown problem? It would be similar to the captain of a seemingly steady aeroplane announcing ‘There is absolutely no cause for alarm’, a statement that would only invoke suspicion and paranoia. Similarly if the Emperor felt the need to reassure citizens of the army’s loyalty, then that loyalty must be in doubt. As for the military, Nerva was no doubt aware that they would feel anything but unity with a Rome that had murdered their leader and denounced him as a tyrant. To them, receiving such a coin in their salary would surely have been laughable at best, and a grave insult at worse, as Nerva proudly announces that they are loyal to him. As a gold coin, if this type were used in military pay, it would have come into the hands of wealthier officers and individuals.

Considering the events of summer AD 97, it can be argued that Nerva (or his advisors) had taken the wrong strategy with these coins. The Praetorian Prefect, Casperius Aelianus, led the Praetorian Guard to the Imperial Palace to demand the execution of Domitian’s murderers: the freedman Parthenius and Petronius Secundus (Aelianus’ predecessor as Praetorian prefect). Petronius offered his neck to the guards, saying that he would rather die than give into their demands, and was killed immediately. Parthenius was subjected to a much more gruesome fate. He was castrated, likely a deliberate snub to Nerva who had made castration illegal, then strangled to death. The incident deeply embarrassed Nerva, as the military’s disloyalty was demonstrated publicly. It showed his failure to pacify his own army and forced him to name Trajan as his successor. Trajan was a military man, chosen in order to appease the soldiers.

But it is worth considering Nerva’s perspective further before condemning him. He had, after all, already been involved in politics during the civil wars of AD 69, and thus had personal experience in dealing with civil unrest in the aftermath of an emperor’s overthrow. He would have witnessed the events that led to Galba being murdered at the hands of the Praetorian Guard in the centre of the forum. Surely Nerva would have known the care needed to ensure the loyalty of the Roman troops. Nerva appears to have modelled most of his coinage, besides the Concordia Exercituum type, on that of Galba. It makes no sense for him to have designed a new coin, which seemed only to insult the military whose allegiance it was so essential for him to win.

Perhaps we are reading the coin wrong. It has been suggested that one key reason that the troops were hostile to Galba was that he gave no donative to the army. Syme argued that Nerva would remember the danger of forgoing the donative, and would have provided one. If the Concordia Exercituum coin was issued alongside this donative (or formed part of it), then rather than being seen as an arrogant declaration of something that was not true, the type would instead have borne a message of hope: that this gift would inspire concord between Emperor and army. If viewed by someone in Rome, the message may have been read differently. Inhabitants of Rome were surrounded by monuments celebrating Domitian’s military career, and may have viewed Nerva’s proclamation against Domitian’s established military record.

Finally, we should not see the ‘conspiracy’ of Casperius Aelianus as a complete failure on the part of Nerva. The Praetorians under his command only demanded the execution of two men, the murderers of the previous emperor, a demand that Grainger calls ‘surprisingly moderate’. When compared to other successors of overthrown emperors, such as Pertinax and Galba (both of whom were killed by the Praetorian Guard) Aelianus’ conspiracy appears more to be evidence of Nerva’s success, than failure.


This month's coin was chosen and written by Nigel Heathcote. Nigel is a first year MPhil/PhD student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. His PhD is a study of the effects of being condemned as a tyrant upon the ‘physical legacy’ of an emperor in the city of Rome, looking at themes of destruction, appropriation and contrast. His academic interests focus on the propagation of imperial ideas through material culture.

Further Reading:

Secondary Sources

Bennett, Julian (2001) Trajan: optimus princeps (Indiana University Press)

Grainger, J.D. (2003) Nerva and the Roman succession crisis of AD 96-99 (Routledge)

Jones, B.W. (1992/3) The Emperor Domitian (Routledge).

Mattingly, H. & Sydenham ,E.A. (1926) The Roman imperial coinage. Vol.2, Vespasian to Hadrian (London)

Mattingly,H. (1936) Coins of The Roman Empire in the British Museum. Vol.3, Nerva to Hadrian (London)

Syme, R. (1930) ‘The Imperial Finances under Domitian, Nerva and Trajan’, JRS 20: pp.55-70

Primary Sources

Cassius Dio, Roman History, trans. Cary, E. (Harvard University Press, 1914)

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. A. Thomson (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Co. 1889.)

Coin image reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

June 01, 2016

"Coins against Humanity"?

spintria from Thames

'Spintria' found in the Thames in 2012. PAS LON-E98F21

An Ancient Roman may not have been able to bring “Cards Against Humanity” to a pub game night, but they were able to bring spintriae. This particular sexy spintria was made famous when it was discovered in the Thames in 2012. There are several theories about the function of spintriae. People have suggested that they could be brothel tokens. Maybe the original owner of this token picked it up at the games? Or is it, as the title suggests, a game piece? One thing is for sure, the obverse is something that the user would remember and maybe even laugh at.

Two out of three theories are wrong. Suetonius wrote that Tiberius outlawed the use of coins stamped with the imperial image in bordellos (Clarke 1998: 244-245). This has led scholars to believe that these were brothel tokens. The idea that brothel customers would use these to pay for the services they wanted has been quickly dismissed (to see a more detailed discussion of this see Clare Rowan’s blog on this spintria).

This leads to the second theory. These tokens would be given to the public at public games. The idea this comes from a passage in Martial: “Now come sportive tokens (lasciva nomismata) in sudden showers.” (Martial Epigrams 8.78) These “sportive tokens” may be spintriae. That may seem like an odd token to give to spectators at public games celebrating things like military triumphs, but when considering the tensions in a society that placed importance on the lusts of men and the chastity of married women then maybe men receiving tokens to spend at a brothel might not be so bad (Knapp 2013: 236). However, this is not the case. The tokens would then be redeemed for gifts, but not at the local brothel. They could also provide a bit of a tough spot for an emperor who did not have the best press coverage. For example, viewers could be reminded of Tiberius’ sexual acts with boys on Capri (Suetonius Life of Tiberius 43-44). It is unlikely that an emperor, would want his people to snigger behind his back for what he got up to in his private life; thus, this theory seem implausible.

This leaves us with the third theory: these are game pieces. Although we don’t know what game these pieces were used with, we can be pretty sure that it was plenty of inspiration for the scenes of the game makers. There are other spintriae that have numbers going from I to XVI (1-16), but the sex scenes are different. This has led some scholars to believe that there is a correlation between the numbered spintriae and the illustrations of the sex manuals (Clarke 1998: 244, Clarke 2007: 194-5). This is also similar to the Pompeiian wall paintings found in the Suburban Baths. These are believed to have been numbered in a way similar to the lockers in the men’s changing room. As an added memory device, a taboo sex scene was placed above the number. The person using that space may not be able to remember his number, but they would probably be able to remember that funny dirty picture above it! (Savenga 2009).

This humour and function as a mnemonic device carried over to the game containing the spintriae. This spintria is tame compared to some of the other spintriae, so it was probably not one that was laughed too much. The steamy scene between this man and woman would have made the game memorable and may have reminded the player of what he had seen, read, heard, or even done. The fact that spintriae have been found in a widespread area, indicates that it Ancient Romans tended to have similar humour, played similar games, or that people loved this game so much that they brought it with them when travelling. Unfortunately, it may have been a male-only game. There were complaints [in Ancient Rome] that naughty pictures were corrupting respectable girls (Langlands 2006: 53). So, while the same sense of humour as a game of “Cards Against Humanity”, it might not have been a game to bring along to a game night with mixed company. However, it is not unreasonable to think that some clever minxes did manage to play “Coins Against Humanity”.


This month's blog was written by Katrina Anderson. Katrina is a Master’s student at Warwick University, who has recently become interested in the role of sex and gender in Ancient Roman art.


Clarke, J. (2007) Looking At Laughter. (London: University of California Press).

Clarke, J. (1998) Looking At Lovemaking. (London: University of California Press).

C. Rowan, Coins at Warwick: Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout love. Roman “Spintriae” in context.(1 Aug 2015). Accessed 10th May 2016.

Knapp, R. (2011) Invisible Romans. (London: Profile Books).

Langlands, R. (2006) Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Martial, Epigrams, trans. Shackleton Bailey, D.R. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press: 1993) 2 vols. from Loeb Classical Library.

Sayenga, K. Sex in the Ancient World: Prostitution in Pompeii, Documentary, directed by Kury Sayenga (2009; New York: History).

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. J.C. Rolfe (London: William Heinemann: 1913) 1 vol. from Loeb Classical Library.

May 16, 2016

Tokens from the Tiber: Alternatives Currencies?

During construction works in Rome in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an enormous variety of objects came to light. Amongst the items was a collection of lead money-like objects, initially published by Ficorini in 1740, who labelled the objects tesserae, a word he found in ancient literary texts and which he thought described these objects and their function. Virlouvet has convincingly demonstrated, however, that these money-like objects are not the tessera frumentaria of ancient Latin texts. What then are they?

token with lituus and altar token of culleo with clasped hands

Two tokens from the Tiber assemblage: one carries images of a priestly staff (lituus) and an altar, the other the name of Q. Terentius Culleo and clasped hands.

The connection with tessera frumentaria was perhaps created because some of these objects carry the image of a modius with corn-ears; the idea then that these objects were used in corn distirbutions in Rome was an easy conclusion. But when one examines the assemblage from the banks of the Tiber more closely, this interpretation comes into serious question. Dressel published this assemblage, consisting of 487 lead tokens, at the beginning of the 20th century, and concluded that it may have been a hoard dated to around the middle of the first century AD. Examining the imagery of these tokens I was struck by the fact that many of the images chosen, including the modius, imitate or reference the design of Augustan and Julio-Claudian quadrantes, the smallest coin denomination at this time. Twenty-seven tokens carried a modius accompanied by the legend QAE and OPT (?) on either side (Rost. 383); these are 17mm in diameter, roughly the same size as a Roman quadrans.

quadrans of augustus
Quadrans of Augustus with clasped hands and moneyer's name.

From the same assemblage is a token (18mm) in the name of Q. Terentius Culleo showing clasped hands, a type also found on quadrantes under Augustus. Even the way Culleo's name is presented, around the outer edge of the token in a circle, imitates money of this period. Other tokens carry altars, a lituus, an eagle with open wings, and balanced scales. If you examine the iconography of quadrans from this period (available to view here), you'll find these same images. Given that these tokens came to light in the eighteenth century, its difficult to know for certain if this is a 'hoard'. But Dressel's conclusion, that this assemblage is likely to be the privately produced small change, is a good one given the similarities in imagery and size between these objects and officially produced quadrantes. Dressel believed the 'hoard' was the till of a merchant or innkeeper - the tokens found in highest quantity (carrying an altar on one side and lituus or priestly staff on the other, shown above, and which had 205 examples) were those of the owner; the other tokens were the differing currencies issued by other individuals in the region. It appears then, that in a localised area in Rome, small change may have been privately produced, and circulated alongside official currencies. Some of these tokens carried the imagery and titulature of Nero and Octavia. What does this mean for the imperial image? Its something I am going to work on in the future at an upcoming workshop in Durham.

While some tokens may have served as small change, others obviosuly had other purposes. Stay tuned for more revelations from the ERC-funded Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project!

Select Bibliography

Dressel, H. (1922). Römische Bleimarken. Zeitschrift für Numismatik 33: 178-183.

Ficoroni, F. (1740). I piombi antichi. Rome, Girolamo Mainardi.

Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.

Virlouvet, C. (1995). Tessera Frumentaria. Les procédures de distribution du blé à Rome à la fin de la République et au débout de l'Empire. Rome, École française de Rome.

April 01, 2016

Crocodilian influences on the denarius of 28 BC

aegypto capta denarius
Denarius of Augustus from 28 BC.

The first recorded time a crocodile appeared on a Roman coin was 37/36 BC, under the authority of M Licinius Crassus, an official who had authority over the Greek island Crete and the African region of Cyrenaica. Scholars have attempted to claim that this was the son of the triumvir Crassus who in 53 BC famously conducted the Parthian disaster. The historical content of the Crassus coinage is dubious and complicated but it would be fair to assume and accept scholarly debate that his crocodile represented renewed Egyptian authority over Cyrenaica, an honour that was ceded to the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII by the cunning Marc Antony.

However, when Augustus utilised the crocodile on his coinage it was as a focal point of celebration towards Rome’s acquisition of Egypt and revered his military triumph. The crocodile interestingly could serve as a sign of continued power and dynastical tenure or the polar opposite of capitulation. With the caption of ‘Aegypto capta’; ‘captured Egypt’ we are able to understand the multi-faceted potential of a crocodilian representation and how the crocodile signified power dependant on the way it was utilised .

To understand the sole purpose of the crocodile on the denarius of 28 BC would be enormously difficult. Commonly in Egyptian practice, crocodiles were to supposed to allude to, and be associated with, their relationship to the river god Nilus, from whom Egypt’s affluence and prosperity was supposedly derived. The crocodile was the epitome of Egyptian power and was typically indigenous to the Nile so it often acted like a glorified mascot. Augustus had left his use of the crocodile imagery purposefully open to interpretation so that it could represent the formidable animal in which the Romans were so curious about, and were so proud to have enslaved, because it embodied the fate of Egypt. Or did it signify and celebrate the prosperity of Egypt through the crocodile’s relation to Nilus?

The best insight into the truth is the coinage of the colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) struck under Augustus: here a crocodile is depicted chained to a palm tree and is undeniably the sign of Egypt subdued to the power of Rome and presumably is a continuation of attitude from the denarius of 28 BC. The obverse of the denarius of 28 BC, a bareheaded and heroically unadorned bust of Augustus, has a protuberant brow alongside a wry smile which is meant to reaffirm the legitimacy of his autocratic reign by reasserting his military success, ultimately bringing us back to the subject of power. The crocodilian imagery on these coins was a boast of power, eastern luxury, but more importantly, it was who wielded and subjugated the crocodile that decided who the ancient beast would transfer its power to.

alfred.jpgThis month's coin was written by Alfred Wrigley. Alfie is a second year ancient history and classical archealogy student who is hoping to specialise in and write his dissertation on Julio Claudian coinage.

Coin image reproducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

March 01, 2016

The Proculus Enigma: Have the history books been telling it wrong?

Figure 1: Proculus Billon ‘Radiate’ (2.96g, 19.27mm)

Before discussing this particular coin of the month, please forgive the Herodotus-esque digression on the context of its appearance. The day was November 7th 2012, and it began much like every other for one Yorkshire metal detectorist. The site he had chosen for the day had produced numerous finds in prior visits, most of which had suggested that he was walking in the footsteps of his Romano-British forebears. At this point, a thought may even have crossed his mind that his next find might be something other than Roman ‘grot’(derogatory archaeological slang for a heavily corroded and illegible Roman (typically) coin). Yet one object was, and all it took was just one signal, one hole, and one turn of the spade to unearth something virtually unique. However, this was not realised by the finder, Colin Popplewell, until he had posted images to an online forum. Further unbeknownst to him, his chance discovery would reignite a debate over the very existence of a third century usurper, and the contentious issue of his having struck coinage. The coin he found (Fig.1), provided an overt reference to a character by the name of Proculus having assumed the imperial purple. The legend reads:


Emperor Caesar Proculus Augustus // Victory of the Emperor

This legend has only appeared once previously on a coin from a German collection, sold in 1991. Given its inherent rarity, it was unsurprising that this latest find was first met with scepticism, and then denunciation as a later forgery by some academic circles. However the author recalls a remarkably similar scenario occurring in the case of another usurper: Domitianus II. This case was only resolved in 2003, when a hoard from Chalgrove, Oxfordshire securely contextualized a coin bearing Domitianus’ name. Whilst a scenario such as this is yet to arise for Proculus, the reliable context of this second discovery compels my subsequent analysis to be conducted on the presumption that both examples are genuine.

both coins superimposed
Figure 2: Both coins superimposed

With only two coins, it would seem extremely difficult to produce a convincing argument for reinvestigation. However by overlaying images of one coin on top of the other, it is immediately apparent that the obverse and reverse designs are identical (Fig. 2). To a numismatist, this is a definitive indication that the same pair of dies produced both coins. This also strongly suggests that they were produced at the same workshop, if not even by the same hand (Morgan 2006: 175. For Domitianus II die linkages also proved crucial in authenticating both coins). Furthermore, the presence of intelligible legends on these two coins must indicate that they are also the product of a literate manufacturer. This particular factor also questions their potential alternative identification as so-called “barbarous radiates” (which also happened to be in contemporary circulation). However, most of these coins were low-grade imitations of official currency, and were seemingly produced by local, illiterate satellites. Consequently, the only plausible conclusion to draw from this appraisal of Proculus’ coinage is that they resemble the products of a coordinated and sanctioned series.

Having therefore established credentials for our coin, an assessment of other extant material can now be made, to establish whether this additional numismatic evidence for Proculus conforms to our historical impressions of the individual. The iconography of the coin itself helps to narrow our search of literary material to the later third century AD. This is evident from the size of the coin and the depiction of a radiate crown, which is emblematic of this period. Our main historical record for this period is the Historia Augusta, which is unfortunately notorious for its fabrication of stories (Dessau 1899). On account of its reputation, it is therefore unsurprising to find that it has provided two conflicting accounts for the character of Proculus. The first has him revolt in Cologne during the reign of the Emperor Probus (HA Life of Probus XVIII.5), whilst the second records his rebellion occurring in Lyon (HA Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus I.4, XIII.1). Other surviving references to Proculus are more questionable on account of their even later publication dates (Eutropius IX.17, Epitome de Caesaribus XXXVII.2). Consequently as the literary source most contemporary to the life of Proculus, the Historia Augusta must be consulted in contextual discussion of these enigmatic coins.

“One fact, indeed, must be known, namely, that all the Germans, when Proculus asked for their aid, preferred to serve Probus rather than rule with Bonosus and Proculus.”

HA Life of Probus XVIII.7

This suggests that Proculus usurped during the reign of Emperor Probus alongside a figure by the name of Bonusus, although no such indication of this partnership is given on our coins (the recognised dedication for multiple rulers is expressed by the number of Gs in ‘AVG’ - Proculus’ coinage has just one). More significant though, is the explicit mention of a location that accords with the find-spot of this latest example. Proculus is documented as having claimed the province of Britannia along with Gaul during his usurpation (HA Life of Probus XVIII.5), thereby assuming control of the Legion stationed in York (near to the site of the coin’s eventual deposition). However, in the view of the author, if the revolt had occurred during the reign of Probus, our examples of Proculus’ coinage would be stylistically out of date. This is owing to a coin reform enacted by Probus’ predecessor Aurelian, during the middle of AD 274 (Carson 1965, Weiser 1983). Alongside the addition of mintmarks and marks of metal or face value, the style of imagery depicted notably changed. Comparing the pre- and post-reform currency of Aurelian clarifies this point further, (Fig. 3 and 4) as design focus visibly shifts away from large draped busts to depictions of elongated necks wearing cuirassed attire. Whilst usurpation may have led to cessation of contact with the Empire, knowledge of monetary design appears to spread unaffected. Confirmation of this can be found in the usurper Saturninus, who apparently revolted in the East at the same time as Proculus did in the west (HA Life of Firmus, Saturninus, Bonosus and Proculus). His coinage (Fig. 5) depicts significant iconographic similarities to Aurelian’s reformed coinage, as the long neck and military uniform are his most noticeable features. Had Proculus’ rebellion been contemporary to Saturninus, one would expect to see more stylistic similarities between the two series. However, their style remains notably different, with Proculus’ strong facial dominance being more akin to pre-reform types. Consequently, iconography forces us to consider the possibility that Proculus coined, and thus usurped, much earlier than the literary sources suggest; prior to the Summer of AD 274.

post reform AURELIan prefrom aurelian
Figure 3: Pre-reform issue of Aurelian

Figure 4: Post-reform issue of Aurelian

staurninus aureus

tetricus antoninianus
Figure 5: AV Aureus of Saturninus
Figure 6: Antoninianus of Tetricus
(AD 270-3), VICTORIA AVG, RIC V.2 141

Pursuing this theme further identifies a striking iconographic relationship between Proculan types and Tetrican coinage of the late Gallic Empire (AD 271-4). The depiction of a radiate crown alongside the stylistic rendering of the hair and beard seem, at first glance, to be virtually indistinguishable. There is however an unusual feature to Proculus’ coin that challenges the combination of the reverse legend and the personification depicted. The legend being whole on the new discovery confirms the personification to be related to ‘victory’. However there appears to be no reflection of Victoria’s most recognisable attribute (wings) on the figure itself. Yet, similarly dedicated Tetrican issues clearly depict these iconic wings alongside the legend (Fig. 6). The author however notices the remarkable similarity of Proculan imagery to Tetrican representations of Pax [Peace] (Compare Fig. 1 and 7). If such confusion is a sign of ignorance on the part of the die engraver, the rest of the coin design reflects only overt and literate skill. Consequently, iconology allows us to isolate a distinct relationship between the coinage of the Tetrican dynasty and Proculus, furthering the contention for a revisal of our current date for his revolt.

proculus_8.jpg teritcus antonionianus
Figure 1: Proculus reverse
Figure 7: Tetricus Antoninianus
(AD 270-273) PAX AVG reverse

Intriguingly our other surviving literary reference to Proculus affirms this idea, by bizarrely also recording his revolt during the reign of the Emperor Aurelian:

“…to see to it that … Bonosus and Proculus and Firmus, who revolted under Aurelian, be not be passed over in silence.” (HA I.4)

Given this new date, earlier accounts need reappraisal in order to identify whether available evidence has been overlooked or even originally misrecorded. Given the previous association of Tetrican and Proculan coinage, the histories recounting the fall of Tetricus and the end of the Gallic Empire are of particular interest. They document how the Gallic usurper defected to Aurelian as a consequence of his inability to control his Legions’ ‘evil deeds’ (HA Life of Aurelian XXXII.3). The ambiguity of this account is problematic, as too is the implausible scenario of Tetricus simply defecting to Aurelian on account of his failure to discipline his army. Moreover, numismatic evidence clearly suggests that Tetricus had dynastic intentions for his own household, as he produced coins in the name of his son. This can only be perceived as a view to dynastic succession, thus directly contrasting with the notion of a voluntary, uncontested surrender. However, later histories allude to a mutiny within his legions at this time (Eutropius IX.13.1), and even the establishment of a rival usurper by the name of Faustinus (Aurelius Victor XXXV.4). Zonaras even adds that Aurelian succeeded in suppressing this usurper soon after receiving the surrender of Tetricus (Zonaras XII.27). Mutiny thus provides a more plausible explanation for Tetricus' surrender, as it implies that his actions were out of compulsion.

However the overall narrative is confounded by a lack of reference to the usurper “Faustinus” at any point in the Historia Augusta. Yet every indication from later sources imply that his reign lasted up to several months, easily affording him time to produce currency, especially if accounts accurately record the revolt at the Gallic mint site of Trier (Konig 1981: 181). Yet no such coins have ever appeared in the name of Faustinus and no account is provided for him in our most contemporary and complete text on third century Gallic usurpers. This history, however, strikingly resembles the picture thus far painted from a study of Proculus’ coinage. As previously argued, the idea of Proculus being the rival usurper who drove Tetricus out in AD 274 also fits significantly better with the coin iconography he displays. Such a narrative would also account for the significant rarity of Proculus’ coinage, as Aurelian was already marching on Gaul to remove Tetricus at the time of this subsequent revolt. Circumstantial evidence may therefore tempt us to entirely replace the character of Faustinus with Proculus, but neither exists on mutual exclusivity. Nevertheless, literary material still allows us to tentatively advance our knowledge on the figure of Proculus. Histories clearly indicate that a revolt occurred in Gaul at the end of Tetricus’ reign, prompting his downfall. Given the further existence of textual and iconographic data that plausibly attribute Proculus’ rebellion to this time, and to this location, Colin Popplewell’s find provides us with a new and significant opportunity to reconsider the date for this most enigmatic of usurpers.

Must it truly take one coin, in one hoard, to truly return Proculus to the annals of history?


Written by Greg Edmund, an Undergraduate Finalist at the University of Warwick, studying Ancient History. His interests are in Ancient and Medieval Numismatics.


Carson, R.A.G (1965) ‘The reform of Aurelian’, Revue Numismatique, Vol.6, No. 7, pp225-235

Dessau, H (1889) ‘Uber Zeit und Personlichkeit der Scriptores Historiae Augustae’, Hermes 24, pp337-392

König, I (1981) Die gallischen Usurpatoren von Postumus bis Tetricus (München)

Morgan, L (2006) ‘Domitian the Second?’, Greece and Rome Vol 53, No.2, pp175-184

Weiser, W (1983) ‘Die Münzreform des Aurelians’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 53, pp279-295


Figure 1: DNW Auction (10 April 2013) Lot 694.

Figure 2: Umberto Moruzzi and Fabio Scatolini ‘The usurper Proculus and his coinage’, Coins Weekly [Accessed: 30th January 2016)

Figure 3: Aurelian pre-reform radiate: RIC 29 ( [Accessed: 22nd February 2016]

Figure 4: Aurelian post-reform radiate ( [Accessed: 22nd February 2016]

Figure 5: Dirty Old Coins ( [Accessed: 30th January 2016]

Figure 6: Wildwinds ( [Accessed: 30th January 2016]

Figure 7: Wildwinds ( [Accessed: 30th January 2016]

February 01, 2016

A silver stater of Evagoras in the British Museum

evegoras coin high res

The political turmoil in the Greek world at the end of the Peloponnesian War provides the context for cultural changes of which this silver stater, produced for Evagoras I, ruler of the Cypriot city of Salamis from 411 to 374 BCE, is material evidence. Evagoras negotiated a tricky career with challenges both at home and in negotiating and maintaining relationships with Greek cities and the Persian empire. One of the remarkable things about Evagoras is the range of evidence about him and his career, from mentions in Athenian rhetorical, historiographic and philosophical texts, to inscriptions from both Athens and Salamis itself, to the gold and silver coins with which he established an identity for his city.

Evagoras’ coinage provides evidence for an intriguing cultural mixture and period of change. His coinage, of which this silver stater is a representative example, features the Greek hero Heracles on the obverse and a goat and a grain of corn on the reverse. The rather wild, bearded Heracles wears his lion skin as a head-dress, its legs knotted around his chin (perhaps a way to get the iconic garment into the format of a coin portrait?); the text, in Cypriot syllables, gives his name E-u-wa-go-ro. The iconography with its reference to Greek hero myth reinforces the Salaminian rulers’ claim to a Greek cultural heritage, also expressed through their legendary descent from Teucer. The text of the reverse asserts Evagoras’ authority of king (ba-si-le-wo-se), mixing Cypriot syllables with the occasional Greek letter, showing that the transition to a more emphatically Hellenic identity was in progress but incomplete.

As the fourth century progressed, subsequent rulers would adopt Greek letters for their coinage (Hill, McGregor); Evagoras, in whose name the earliest civic inscription using both Greek and Cypriot writing was issued, used both forms of writing. This coin catches an early stage in a transition to Greek script that would be completed by his successors.

For the Athenian educator and moralist Isocrates, Evagoras was a paradigm of the virtuous ruler. Praising his achievements in a florid encomium, Isocrates presents a story of a courageous and determined individual who surpasses the achievements of his mythical ancestors in retaking his city, as he did in 411 BCE, the start of what Hill describes as ‘a period of Hellenic revival’ (Hill 1904: c-ci). Evagoras campaigned with Conon, for which he was honoured by Athens, but in attacking other Cypriot cities attracted the unfavourable attention of Artaxerxes, great king of Persia, and by the 370s had to submit himself and his city to Persian control.

Isocrates passes over the rather squalid circumstances of the end of Evagoras’ career, his assassination by a eunuch in 374 BCE after a court intrigue (although his Nicocles 31 may refer to it: see also Aristotle Politics V.10.1311b4-6, Diodorus Siculus 15.47.8), and indeed spins his earlier role as provider of bolt-holes for fugitive Athenian politicians such as Andocides (Lysias 6.28) and Conon (DS 13.106.6) into praise for Salamis’ ability to attract a high class of immigrants (Evagoras 51-2). And there are further divergences between the literary and material record – Marguerite Yon (Yon 1993: 144-5) reports that extensive excavations at Salamis have not uncovered Evagoras’ buildings, praised by Isocrates (Evagoras 47), although archaeologists have found epigraphic records, including a fragmentary inscription with text written in both Greek letters and Cypriot syllabic symbols.

Isocrates was not a historian or even a biographer; his depiction of Evagoras is a work of patterning and invention, containing some of his most interesting thought on the nature of monarchy. It, along with its companion piece Nicocles, is an early example of an Athenian taking interest in a form of rule that would become more important as the fourth century BCE progressed and other monarchs from the fringes of the Greek world, with their own mythical ancestor stories, would claim the attention of the Athenians rather more aggressively. Spatially and politically, Evagoras’ Salamis lay between Greek and Persian areas of influence. The city, which Evagoras ruled as tyrant (Isocrates Evagoras 32) or king (Evagoras 39, IG II2 20.6, 16), depending on your analysis of monarchy, was, as Evagoras’ life shows, caught between the political and cultural influence of the Greek and Persian worlds, but it also had its own distinctive culture.

Isocrates was not the first Athenian to praise Evagoras, nor the last to find him interesting. The Athenians voted him first citizenship (IG I3 113, c.411 BCE) and then further honours and a statue for the help he had provided to Conon (IG II2 20, 394/3 BCE; Rhodes and Osborne 11). Athens needed all the friends it could find, during both the later phases of the Peloponnesian War and the period in which the restored democracy sought to re-establish Athenian interests in the Aegean and Mediterranean. But its grant of such honours to the ruler of a different kind of polity perhaps shows Athenian realpolitik in action.

This month's piece was written by Carol Atack. Carol is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Greek Cultural History in the Department of Classics and Ancient History; her primary research interest is in ancient Greek political thought, and particularly the monarchical thought of Xenophon and Isocrates.


Iacovou, M. (2013) ‘The Cypriot Syllabary as a royal signature: the political context of the syllabic script in the Iron Age’, in P.M. Steele (ed.) Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 133-152.

Hägg, T. (2012) The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 30-41.

Hill, G.F. (1904) Catalogue of the Greek coins of Cyprus (London: British Museum).

Lewis, D.M. and Stroud, R.S. (1979), 'Athens Honors King Euagoras of Salamis', Hesperia, 48 (2), 180-93.

McGregor, K.A. (1999), 'The Coinage Of Salamis, Cyprus, From The Sixth To The Fourth Centuries B. C.', (Unpublished PhD thesis, University College, London).

Rhodes, P.J. and Osborne, R. (2003) Greek Historical Inscriptions: 404-323 BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Roesch, P. (1973) ‘Une inscription digraphe du Ve S. av. J.C.’, in Institut Fernand-Courby, Anthologie salaminienne: Salamine de Chypre, Vol. 4, Paris: E. de Boccard), pp. 81-84.

Yon, M. (1993), 'La ville de Salamine: Fouilles françaises 1964-74', in M. Yon (ed.), KINYRAS: L'Archéologie française à Cyprus : table-ronde tenue à Lyon, 5-6 novembre 1991 (Lyon: Maison de l'Orient), pp. 139-58.

Image © Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

January 01, 2016

Numismatics: the role of the Praetorians in the accession of Claudius


RIC I2 Claudius 7

Date: AD 41 - AD 42

Denomination: Aureus

Mint: Rome

Obverse: TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TR P (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of Tribunician Potestas). Head of Claudius, laureate, right.

Reverse: IMPER RECEPT (Imperator/Emperor Received). Battlemented wall enclosing praetorian camp; inside, soldier, holding spear, right; in front, aquila; behind, pediment with flanking walls.

Claudius rose to the position of Emperor in AD 41, after the assassination of Caligula in a conspiracy including the Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea. Suetonius writes that a terrified Claudius took refuge by hiding in the palace (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 19.3). Claudius was found by the Praetorians, carried to their camp, and it was here that Suetonius reports Claudius spent the night in terror. On the following day the Praetorians chose to swear allegiance to Claudius as their newly elected emperor.

With this knowledge the coin takes on a completely different meaning from first glance, and gains far more significance (Crawford (1970) 265). It explains the iconography on the reverse of the coin, portraying the Praetorian camp, where Claudius was sworn in as emperor. The image behind the wall represents a Praetorian soldier holding a spear standing beside an aquila or “standard”. This offers an insight into the strong relationship between the Praetorian Guard and Claudius. This coin perfectly captures the change in attitude of Claudius, from Suetonius’ description of him fearing for his life at the hands of the Praetorians to instead displaying them as a symbol of safety, security and prosperity.

The Praetorian Guard, however, is shrouded by controversy in modern studies. Overall, they have received relatively little scholarly attention, yet it is almost unanimously accepted by scholars that the Praetorian Guard were used in supporting emperors’ often “ruthless” regimes (Rankov (1994) 3). This is an idea furthered by Levick’s reading of Josephus’ account, that the senate considered Claudius had seized the position of Emperor, condemning him in their eyes as a hostis or “public enemy” in much the same way as Mark Antony after the battle of Actium (Levick (2015) 40). However, with the support of the Praetorians the senate had little choice but to accept Claudius as Emperor. The power of the Praetorians is evident in this historic narrative and neatly summed up in Josephus when Veranius and Brocchus beseech Claudius not to accept the Praetorians’ backing in taking the position of emperor:

Now these ambassadors, Veranius and Brocchus, who were both of them tribunes of the people, made this speech to Claudius; and falling down upon their knees, they begged of him that he would not throw the city into wars and misfortunes; but when they saw what a multitude of soldiers encompassed and guarded Claudius, and that the forces that were with the consuls were, in comparison of them, perfectly inconsiderable, they added, that if he did desire the government, he should accept of it as given by the senate; that he would prosper better, and be happier, if he came to it, not by the injustice, but by the good-will of those that would bestow it upon him.

Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 19.4

There are clear parallels with Claudius’ rise to the position of emperor and that of Julius Caesar’s: both relied on strength of arms, although seizing power could arguably have brought great danger to Claudius. The speech of Veranius and Brocchus also draws a comparison of Claudius with “former tyrants” who had caused great afflictions to their cities (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 19.3). It would be easy to assume Claudius would want to distance himself from being seen as too powerful, something that may have contributed to the assassination of Julius Caesar. However, it is incredibly interesting that Claudius does not attempt to obscure the way he came to power; rather he advertises the support of the Praetorian Guard on pieces that include this coin (Levick (2015) 43-4).

The motive of the Praetorians becomes clear when we look at Suetonius, who explains that Claudius was the first Emperor to purchase the submission of the soldiers with money, promising fifteen to twenty thousand sesterces to each member of the Praetorian guard (Suetonius, Claudius 5.10). Tacitus mentions that the Praetorians rose in number from 9 to 12 cohorts in AD 47. Each cohort comprised one thousand soldiers; so assuming nine thousand soldiers at fifteen thousand sesterces each, Claudius would have been giving in the region of 135 million sesterces. The enormity of this donation may also have had a profound impact on the Urban cohort, undermining their loyalty to the senate through a sense of envy (Levick (2015) 37). Yet many coins minted at the beginning of Claudius’ reign in AD 41/42 display extremely similar iconography and it is easy to assume that a large number of these coins would end up in the hands of the Praetorians. This seems to be a clever reminder from Claudius to each soldier of the importance of the Praetorians to his rule, and a somewhat subtle attempt to avoid a similar ending to Caligula.

Here we have a perfect example of an emperor who clearly owed his rule to the praetorians and by examining the coins and literary sources there can be no doubt about the significance of the Praetorian Guard in this episode of Roman history.


This month's coin was written by Miles Pearce. This is his first year at Warwick; he previously read Classics and Ancient History at Lampeter University. He is currently studying Ancient Visual and Material Culture at Masters Level, and so far has found a particular interest in reception of Greek myth in Renaissance art. However, his main interest is the Praetorian guard and their political influence.


• Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. A. Thomson (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Co. 1889.) From Perseus Digital Library
• Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. W. Whiston (1895) From Perseus Digital Library
• Alexander, C. (1938) ‘Additions to the Gallery of Greek and Roman Daily Life’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33: 184-86
• Crawford, M. H. (1970) ‘Review of Roman Imperial Coins, Their Art and Technique’, The Journal of Roman Studies 60: 265-65
• Levick, B (2015, 2nd edn) Claudius (London / New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis)
• Rankov, B (1994) The Praetorian Guard (Oxford: Osprey publishing)
• Sutherland, C. H. V. (1941) ‘Claudius and the Senatorial Mint’. The Journal of Roman Studies 31: 70-72

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