Ancients: Famous Romans You Can Collect, Part IV

David Vagi continues his discussion of some of the most important issuers of Roman coins in the fourth of a multi-part series.

1. Cassius, Imperator 43-42 B.C. Just like his compatriot Brutus, Cassius was born into one of Rome’s ancient, aristocratic families. After taking a leading role in the conspiracy to murder Julius Caesar on the Ides (15th) of March, 44 B.C., Cassius was forced to flee Italy and join forces with Brutus in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Brutus took a somewhat passive role in preparations, Cassius was forced to lead the most aggressive campaigns to raise money – an inequality that Cassius resented, and which nearly broke their partnership. All of these efforts led up to the Battle of Philippi in October 42 B.C., at which Brutus and Cassius lost to Octavian and Marc Antony, the political successors of Julius Caesar. Most of Cassius’ coins are silver denarii and gold aurei, including this aureus that shows the goddess Vesta and two priestly implements.

2. Sextus Pompey, 67-35 B.C. Sextus Pompey was an important warlord in the waning years of the Republic who kept alive the cause of his father, Pompey “the Great,” and his brother, Pompey Jr., after they perished at the hand of Julius Caesar or his allies. Sextus proved his brilliance as a naval commander upon receiving a war fleet from the senate, which he used for more than seven years to keep Octavian off balance. As an ever-present threat to African grain shipments to Rome, he was the only serious challenger to the supremacy of Octavian in the West. Sextus issued a variety of coins in gold, silver and base metal – some in his own name, and others in memory of his father and brother. The silver denarius shown here portrays his patron deity, the sea-god Neptune, along with an ornate naval trophy, both of which allude to the fleet as the base of his authority.

3. Germanicus, imperial heir A.D. 14-19 When Germanicus rose to prominence early in the reign of his uncle Tiberius (emperor, A.D. 14-37), he had the advantage of pedigree: his father Nero Claudius Drusus had been a hero to the Rhine legions and likely would have been Augustus’ heir had he not died young. Also, since his wife Agrippina Senior was a granddaughter of Augustus, his children preserved the bloodline of Rome’s first emperor. Thus it’s easy to see why many Romans preferred this young man to Tiberius. Germanicus was leading risky – often foolhardy – campaigns against Germans across the Rhine when Tiberius re-assigned him to lead important diplomatic missions in the East. While in Antioch, Germanicus died, seemingly a victim of poisoning. His wife and children returned to Italy to become a rallying point against Tiberius – a decision that cost Agrippina and her two eldest sons their lives. This brass dupondius struck by Germanicus’ only surviving son, Caligula (emperor, A.D. 37-41), shows Germanicus riding in a quadriga and saluting.

4. Galba, A.D. 68-69 Long before Galba became emperor, he was one of Rome’s wealthiest and most prominent men. He was serving as governor of Spain in A.D. 68, the last year of Nero’s reign, when a revolt was sparked in Gaul by the governor Vindex. Galba joined in the rebellion, as did Clodius Macer, a legate in North Africa. When the dust settled, Nero had committed suicide and Vindex and Macer had both been killed, leaving Galba the new emperor. He reigned for seven months before he, too, was murdered, principally because he refused to pay bribes and bonuses to key men in government and the army. Afterward, the civil war that had swept Galba into power continued for another 11 months, during which two further emperors – Otho and Vitellius – rose and fell before peace was restored by the general Vespasian (A.D. 69-79). This silver tetradrachm from the mint of Antioch, in Syria, has an artful and realistic portrait of Galba.

5. Antoninus Pius, A.D. 138-161 To many, the reign of Antoninus Pius represents the apex of Roman success. With the exception of a few troubles in the provinces (including rather perilous revolts in Britain and Mauretania), the empire’s borders were secure and life seems to have been prosperous and settled. Strangely enough, Pius was named emperor by Hadrian more or less as a caretaker of the throne for his intended heirs, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (who jointly became emperors upon Pius’ death). Unlike his predecessor Hadrian, who spent most of his reign traveling throughout the provinces, Pius never left the Italian peninsula as emperor. Though he was not neglectful of the provinces, his agenda was strongly focused on Rome and Italy. On this gold portrait aureus, the reverse depicts a platform upon which the personification Liberalitas (‘generosity’) accompanies the emperor, as a citizen awaits a donation of money.

6. Elagabalus, A.D. 218-222 One of Rome’s most bizarre and depraved rulers, Elagabalus was a teenage priest from Syria who, if he had not become emperor, would have continued to fulfill his role as hereditary priest of the Emesan sun-god Heliogabalus (Elagabalus). He came to power unexpectedly during a counter-revolution in A.D. 218, in which the rule of the Severan-Emesan house was restored. If we believe the ancient sources, there were no limits to the extreme religious and sexual behavior of this young emperor, whose regime quickly spun out of control. Of the many things that interested Elagabalus, running the empire was not one of them. His grandmother, the royal matriarch, tried desperately to restrain him, but did not succeed. Elagabalus and his mother were murdered by the praetorian guards, who switched their loyalty to the emperor’s cousin – a mild-mannered Syrian teenager who had assumed the name Severus Alexander. The portrait on this sestertius of the Rome mint seems to convey the devious nature of this most unusual emperor.

7. Constantine I “the Great,” A.D. 307-337 Despite his insatiable ego and a host of other poor qualities, Constantine ranks among the most successful generals in Roman history, and his importance to the course of Western civilization cannot be understated. He changed the complexion of the empire when he allied himself with the leadership of the Christian Church. By laying the foundation of Christendom and moving the empire’s capital to the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Constantine insulated Europe from the conquest of Islam through the Dark Ages and Medieval times. As a ruler, Constantine was ruthless toward foes or potential rivals, and he is not remembered for keeping his word. However, no commander of the era could match him on the battlefield, and the expansion of his original territories to encompass the whole empire is the result of his invincibility on the battlefield. This gold solidus was struck in A.D. 330 at Constantinople, the Greek city of Byzantium that Constantine re-founded in his own name as the new capital of the empire.

8. Julian II, A.D. 360-363 If Constantine I “the Great” (A.D. 307-337) was the founder of the Christian Roman Empire, then Julian II was the one who tried to turn back the hand of time. Julian belonged to a branch of the royal family that had been persecuted by Constantine, and he had no desire to defend or promote the legacy of his deceased half-uncle. Known to posterity as “the Apostate,” Julian was infatuated with philosophy and was a devout pagan who attempted to restore the status of the traditional religion of the Greeks and Romans. His efforts did not amount to a persecution of Christianity, but merely an attempt to restore paganism as the dominant religion of the empire. He rose to power under the most difficult of circumstances and found early success, but he died in the heart of Mesopotamia under mysterious circumstances while leading the Roman army against the Sasanians. This gold solidus shows Julian with his flowing ‘philosopher’s beard,’ something quite out of fashion at the time but in perfect keeping with his philosophic approach to life.

Images courtesy of Numismatic ARS Classica and CNG

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