NGC Ancients: Transitional Portraits on Roman Coins in the Third Century A.D.

Posted on 9/11/2012

This month, NGC Ancients explores the history and numismatic portraiture of the early third century A.D.

By the early years of the 3rd Century A.D., the Roman Empire was in the midst of a steady decline that had begun near the end of the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). The empire had been plunged into civil war after the murder of that emperor’s son and successor, Commodus (179-192). The war lasted until 197, with the formal establishment of the “Severan Dynasty.”

Under the Severans, the empire seemed to stabilize, albeit briefly. However, the cohesion established by the dynasty’s founder Septimius Severus (193-211) was quickly erased by his two sons, Caracalla (198-217) and Geta (209-211), who after his death fought for sole control of the empire. The fraternal rivalry ended with the murder of Geta at the hands of Caracalla, who was in turn murdered in 217.

This introduced another period of turmoil, with the usurper Macrinus (217-218) attempting to fill the power vacuum created by the murder of Caracalla.

Ultimately, another Severan named Elagabalus was proclaimed emperor in 218, largely owing to the shrewd political maneuverings of his powerful female relatives, such as his grandmother Julia Maesa and his mother Julia Soaemias. Elagabalus, who could charitably be described as eccentric, did not endear himself to the Roman people. His strange religious views and degenerate exploits led to his murder at the hands of his own guards in 222.

Severus Alexander (222-235), who was also a teenager, was hailed emperor in place of his cousin Elagabalus. Once again, this was due to the political prowess of female relations, including his mother Julia Mamaea. This denarius, struck between 222 and 235, features a youthful image of the new emperor on the obverse and the goddess Providentia on the reverse, shown sacrificing before an altar.

Though Severus Alexander probably possessed the attributes of a relatively just ruler, he spent virtually his entire reign under the control of his grandmother and his mother. His passive and scholarly nature left him vulnerable to the political intrigues that always dominated Rome. In 235, his attempts to buy peace with the enemy while on campaign against German tribes infuriated his soldiers, who soon found amongst them a new leader, the giant Maximinus I (“Thrax”). The legions mounted a revolt against the emperor and, as the ancient sources describe, Severus Alexander was murdered with his mother in the army camp.

The emperorship now fell to Maximinus (235-238), who was reputed to be over eight feet tall. He had the distinction of being the first common soldier to rise to the rank of emperor, and also was the first “legitimate” emperor to never visit Rome during his reign. Coins were soon struck in the name of the new emperor, but students of Roman portraiture will notice a curious characteristic among his early issues. This denarius, struck a short time after Maximinus assumed power, bears his name in the inscription, but the portrait still bears a strong resemblance to the recently murdered Severus Alexander. Indeed, the only noticeable difference is the addition of a crooked nose to what is otherwise a portrait of Alexander. The most reasonable explanation for this is that die engravers at Rome had no idea what Maximinus looked like! In an age where photography was about sixteen hundred years in the future, an accurate reproduction of Maximinus’ likeness could only have been achieved if the engravers were able to see their subject, or had access to an official bust. Enhancing the difficulty in this case was the fact that the emperor never set foot in Rome for the duration of his reign.

Eventually, official images of the emperor arrived in Rome from the provinces, as there is a noticeable evolution in the portraits of Maximinus. This silver denarius, struck a bit later than the last, displays significant differences in the facial structure, most notably a stronger chin. The face has a “harder” look to it, though elements of Severus Alexander are still present in the portrait. The reverse of this coin (ironically) features Pax, the personification of peace.

Finally, relatively accurate renderings of Maximinus began to be created by the engravers at Rome, for his later issues bear no resemblance whatsoever to the emperor who preceded him. One such denarius, issued towards the latter portion of the reign of Maximinus, shows a man with brutal, exaggerated features. The forehead and nose are prominent, and the chin juts out at an aggressive angle. The emperor truly resembles the giant soldier he was reputed to be, and it is easy to imagine him seizing power from Severus Alexander, who looks hapless by comparison.

Together, these coins bear witness to one of the most turbulent periods in Roman history. Regime changes could, and often did, happen without any warning. This often left civil servants, especially those employed at the mint, in a tough position. Because coins were an important form of political propaganda, it was important that regime changes were reflected immediately with new coins, even if those responsible for issuing coins had to act on limited, and often inaccurate, information.

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