NGC Ancients: A.D. 193 - Civil War, a New Dynasty, and the Coinage of Septimius Severus

Posted on 11/8/2011

This month, NGC Ancients examines the Roman Civil War of A.D. 193 and the foundation of the Severan-Emesan Dynasty.

The civil war of A.D. 193 was pivotal in Roman history. Like the more famous civil war of A.D. 68-69, it witnessed multiple emperors, political turmoil, and much bloodshed. Both civil wars ended with the establishment of new political dynasties – the latter gave rise to the Severan-Emesan Dynasty, which would shape the Roman world for the next half-century.

The events of 193 were precipitated by the long-awaited murder of the emperor Commodus (177-192) on New Year’s Eve, 192. The son of the famous emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Commodus was a truly unworthy successor. The progressive degeneration of the man and his reign resulted in his murder, as his attackers were motivated by a fear for their own lives should Commodus continue to rule.

This monumental occurrence set in motion events that allowed five men to lay claim to the throne between 193 and 195. The first of these men – Pertinax (193) – was hailed emperor the same night that Commodus was murdered. He was an unexpectedly virtuous ruler who reigned less than four months before he was killed by the Praetorian Guards, the very men who were supposed to protect him.

This senseless loss was compounded by shame when the title of Roman Emperor was sold by the Praetorians at auction on March 28 – the very day they had murdered Pertinax. This extremely rare aureus features a distinctive portrait of the late emperor.

The highest bidder at the auction was Didius Julianus (193), whose only apparent virtue was the vast personal fortune that enabled him to offer each guard 25,000 sestertii for their support. This was a significant amount of money, equivalent to 6,250 denarii, an example of which is shown here.

Unfortunately for Julianus, three generals who had served under the recently-murdered Pertinax marched on the capital after receiving urgent appeals from the citizens of Rome, who were distressed by this unprecedented and embarrassing turn of events.

These three men were Clodius Albinus (Caesar 193-195; Augustus 195-197), Pescennius Niger (193-194), and the eventual victor, Septimius Severus (193-211). Although he was the least popular choice for emperor of the three, Septimius Severus gained an inherent advantage by being the first to reach Rome. He orchestrated the murder of Didius Julianus and then consolidated his power through a mixture of clever political maneuvering and the usual bloodletting.

Pescennius Niger was hailed a rival Augustus by his legions in the East in the spring of 193, and he remained a threat until Severus led an expedition against him that resulted in Niger’s death after fleeing a battle at Cilicia sometime in mid-194 (chronologies vary). An intriguing bust of Niger appears on this extremely rare tetradrachm struck at Alexandria, Egypt, during his short-lived revolt of 193-194.

Clodius Albinus did not fare much better, though he lived slightly longer. He initially settled for the subordinate title of Caesar offered to him by Severus, who led his army against Niger. However, when Severus returned to Italy it was clear that he intended to have his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, replace Clodius Albinus in his regime, and in 195 Albinus revolted after being hailed emperor by his soldiers in Gaul. The rivals fought a decisive battle at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) in February, 197, with Severus emerging victorious. Albinus took his own life, and Septimius Severus executed his immediate family. This brass sestertius, which depicts Albinus as Caesar, was struck during the period 194-195, when the two former colleagues were at war.

With rivals eliminated, a secure grip on power, and a succession established with his sons, Severus turned his attention to other matters of state. His coinage in this period is quite interesting, with his earliest silver denarii (struck 193-194) distinguished by a closely cropped beard and a compact planchet. Over time, the prominent “corkscrew” beard that Severus came to be known for would be more heavily accentuated on his coinage portraits.

This denarius (above) illustrates how exaggerated this characteristic had become by the year 206.

Besides the usual gold, silver, and bronze denominations, the coinage of Severus is also characterized by distinctive branch mint issues. The denarius above left which was struck at Emesa, Syria has a cruder style of portrait, and is easily distinguished from issues of Rome. Likewise, a denarius from Laodicea, Syria, above right, displays a somewhat different bust style.

The provincial tetradrachms of Septimius Severus are noteworthy for a striking range of portraits. This example, above left, issued at Laodicea, Syria, in 208-209, features a wonderfully expressive portrait of an emperor nearing the end of his reign. By contrast, this rare issue above right, from the Seleucia ad Calycadnum mint in Cilicia, features a less stylized but equally compelling depiction of Severus.

After the death of Septimius Severus in February, 211, at the British frontier city of York, the throne passed to his sons Caracalla and Geta, both of whom had shared the title of Augustus with their father since 209. In December, 211, after several months of tense co-rule, Caracalla murdered his brother and assumed sole power.

The dynasty was interrupted from 217 to 218, when the praetorian prefect Macrinus gained the throne through the murder of Caracalla. The dynasty was renewed with the rebel’s overthrow and the passing of the throne to an eccentric family member, Elagabalus (218-222), by his powerful grandmother Julia Maesa. After Elagabalus was murdered in 222, his cousin Severus Alexander (222-235) became the last Severan emperor. In 235 he, too, was murdered by soldiers, and with that, the curtain came down on forty-two years of the Severan-Emesan Dynasty.

Today, the coins struck by the men involved in the turmoil of 193 are eagerly sought by collectors. Issues of Commodus and Septimius Severus are, by nature of their longer reigns, more readily obtainable than the coinage of the other, shorter-lived emperors. However, reasonably priced examples can still be acquired by the dedicated and resourceful collector.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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