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May 01, 2021

A Flavian token in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

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Lead token, 19mm, 12h, 2.74g. Side a: Laureate head of Vespasian right; IMP AVG VES around. Side b: Laureate heads of Titus (on left) and Domitian (on right) facing each other; IMP above and T DO CAES below.

TURS 40, The Hunterian Museum, RLT 24. Photo by author.

Amongst the Roman lead tokens now in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow is a piece that presents the Flavian dynasty. On one side of the token we find a portrait of the emperor Vespasian, accompanied by a legend that names him. On the other side we find his sons, Titus and Domitian, facing each other with a globe between them. The token recalls coinage that was struck in Vespasian's name in AD 70 (RIC II.12 Vespasian 15–16, 37). An example of this coinage is shown below.

silver coin showing Vespasian Titus and Domitian

Silver denarius, 7.5mm, 6h, 3.22g. Obverse: Laureate head of Vespasian right, IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG around. Reverse: Bare head of Titus on left facing bare head of Domitian on right, CAESAR AVG F COS CAESAR AVG F PR around.

RIC II.12 16, American Numismatic Society 1944.100.39897.

At first glance, the coin and token are very similar: both show Vespasian on one side and his sons on the other, with accompanying legends naming the individuals shown. But upon closer examination there are also important differences. On the token both Titus and Domitian are shown wearing laurel wreaths ("laureate"); one can see the ties of the wreaths flowing down behind their respective necks. On the coin they are bare-headed. On the token a globe is placed between the busts, absent on the coin issue. This globe, and the representation of Vespasian's sons, recalls an earlier token issue showing the twin sons of Drusus the Younger, Tiberius Gemellus and Tiberius Germanicus, shown below.

token showing sons of Drusus

Orichalcum token, 21mm, 4.67g, 12h. Obverse: Two young busts facing each other, each with a star above (the twin sons of Drusus the Younger), globe in between them. Reverse: VIIII within dotted border within wreath.

Buttrey B19/VIIII, © The Trustees of the British Museum, R. 4456.

The IMP on the token (an abbreviation of the title imperator) sits above the heads of Titus and Domitian. Who the title refers to is ambiguous; it may refer only to Titus, but since both Titus and Domitian are laureate it perhaps references both of them. Both Titus and Domitian also had the title CAESAR, abbreviated to CAES on the token and placed on the right hand side. In sum, although the token was likely inspired by the coin type, the makers did not merely copy the coin. They adapted the 'official' image and altered it; the resulting tokens were presumably given to an audience who were receptive to the alterations.

The precise occasion that motivated the creation of this token series is not known. It might have been created in connection to Vespasian's triumph (an important moment in which the new Flavian dynasty was presented to Rome), or at some later occasion. Another token issue also shows the laureate heads of Titus and Domitian, this time without the globe (TURS 41-42). On the other side of this token issue we find a horse rider carrying a spear accompanied by the legend IMP AV VES. The reference to Vespasian suggests that it is the emperor shown on horseback here. Whatever the occasion for the tokens showing laureate Titus and Domitian, their existence provides us with an insight into a particular vision of the Flavian dynasty not found on coinage or other media. This particular imagery of the imperial family would have contributed to the emotions, experiences and memories of the events in which the tokens were used.

This month's blog was written by Clare Rowan, as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.

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.

July 01, 2014

Coin of the Month: Two Coins Depicting Germania

Gold coin of Domitian showing Germania

In 83 AD the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) conducted a campaign against the Germanic tribe of the Chatti, the first emperor to campaign in person since Claudius’ expedition to Britain in 43 AD. Literary tradition is divided over the success of campaign; Iulius Frontinus commended Domitian’s strategy and handling of troops, but other sources suggested that the Chatti were not subdued and continued to pose a threat, even if defences of the frontier were improved. In any case, Domitian proclaimed a victory and had this magnificent aureus struck in Rome around 84 AD. The obverse shows a laureate head of Domitian facing left, wearing an aegis. The legend overhead reads IMP(erator) CAES(ar) DIVI VESP(asiani) F(ilii) DOMITIAN(us) AUG(ustus): ‘Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian’. The reverse depicts a humbled and sorrowful semi-naked female figure sitting on a beautifully embossed shield. A broken spear can be seen underneath. The inscription overhead proclaims Domitian’s title of victor of the Germans: GERMANICUS CO(n)S(ul) X.


Gold coin of Trajan showing Germania

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The depiction of Germania in the second coin is very different. This coin is an aureus struck in Rome in 98-99 AD. The obverse displays the laureate head of Trajan (98-117 AD) facing right, with the legend IMP(erator) CAES(ar) NERVA TRAIAN(us) AUG(ustus) GERM(anicus): ‘Emperor Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus Germanicus’. The reverse bears the words PONT(ifex) MAX(imus) TR(ibunus) POT(estas) CO(n)S(ul) II: ‘chief priest, holder of tribunician power, consul for the second time’. It depicts Germania seated on a pile of shields, resting her left arm on a hexagonal shield and holding an olive branch in the right hand. The pile of shields and the olive branch suggest the end of confrontation. At the same time, the semi-naked proud figure of Germania reminds the viewer of Tacitus’ descriptions of hostile, free, ‘barbaric’ Germanic tribes. So instead of depicting a conquered Germania like in Domitian’s coin, Trajan’s aureus presents Germania as a barbarian nation making a pact with Rome under the paternal gaze of the emperor. In this way the second coin also advertised Trajan’s successful tenure as governor of Germania before he succeeded his adoptive father Nerva in 98 AD.

desiree_arboThis month’s coin was chosen by Desiree Arbo, a second year PhD student. Desiree’s research focuses on the reception of classical texts in 18th-19th century Spanish America. She is currently exploring how Jesuit missionaries used classical themes and texts to depict the Guarani Indians of Paraguay.

(Coin of Domitian above reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG (Auction 67, lot 139)

November 12, 2013

Augustus, the Ludi Saeculares, and Roman Numismatic Memory

Augustan Aureus showing the suffimenta ceremony

Given that the bimillenium of Augustus' death falls on the 19th August 2014, we have decided to run a series of blogs highlighting the coins of the emperor. This weekend the JACT Inset Day will focus specifically on Augustus, with a special session examining Augustan coinage. Amongst the coins discussed will be an aureus struck in conjunction with the celebration of the saecular games in 17 BC (pictured right, LACTOR L 26).

The ludi saeculares were held at the beginning of each new 'age' or saeculum, a period defined as 110 years. The performance of these games was believed to ensure the continuity of Roman power. Although an old ritual, Augustus transformed the celebration so that it fit in with his new imperial ideology. The games were closely associated with the deified Julius Caesar, and Apollo, Augustus' divine supporter, received a special place in the carmen saeculare or hymn (composed by Horace). Several coins were struck to mark the games (several incorporating iconography associated with Julius Caesar), including the above aureus. The reverse of this coin shows the distribution of the suffimenta, the materials given to Roman citizens to purify their homes.

Domitianic sestertius showing the suffimenta ceremony

This type, and other Augustan numismatic saecular iconography, is referenced on the ludi saeculares coinage of the emperor Domitian in AD 88. The platform with the emperor, the basket of purification materials, as well as the legend SVF P D, all recall the aureus of Augustus. In fact, Domitian's saecular games coinage consciously references other Augustan types as well, although very few of the Augustan coins would have been in circulation at the time.

In AD 204 Septimius Severus would also celebrate the saecular games, and his coins would recall those of Augustus and Domitian. This suggests that these coins did not only serve as currency, but also probably formed an official 'record' of the event, preserved and archived in some way. This would explain how the iconography could be accessed and reused every 110 years, when the next saecular festival came around (after all, no one would have been alive to remember the previous games or their coins!) If this hypothesis is correct, and the designs, dies, or examples of coins were kept on record in Rome, these coin types not only served to decorate the currency, but also functioned as a visual record of the emperor's performance of his religious duty.

(Coin images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Triton V, lot 1857 and Mail Bid Sale 73, lot 875) (

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