NGC Ancients: The Restoration Issue of Trajan Decius

This month, NGC Ancients looks at a special issue of silver double-denarii under the emperor Trajan Decius.

The middle of the third century A.D. was a turbulent time for the Roman Empire. With the exception of Severus Alexander (222-235), no emperor had been able to hang onto the reigns of power for more than a decade since the regime of Septimius Severus (193-211). The increasingly high rate of turnover for emperors would only become worse as the century wore on, resulting in a dizzying array of portraits and themes on Roman coinage. One of the more interesting series of coins was issued in 251 by the short-lived emperor Trajan Decius (249-251).

Decius was a distinguished senator and former governor who came to power after Philip I “the Arab” (244-249) was deposed in a rebellion in 249. He might have proved a capable ruler in more tranquil times, but his reign was beset by military crises, political intrigue, and even the beginning of the deadly Antonine Plague (251-266). He was fated to be the first Roman emperor to die in battle against a foreign enemy, against the Goths at Abrittus in 251.

It was perhaps these unstable and unhappy times that prompted Decius to issue a series of silver double-denarii (popularly known as antoniniani) commemorating eleven past emperors of Rome, all of whom had been deified. The emperors depicted in the series are: Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81), Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Commodus (177-192), Septimius Severus (193-211), and Severus Alexander (222-235). The coins all feature inscriptions that contain DIVO and some form of the emperor’s name on the obverse, and the legend CONSECRATIO on the reverse, with both core inscriptions making reference to the emperors having been deified by vote of the senate.

This silver double-denarius, which displays a bust of Trajan, is fairly indicative of the series as a whole. The reverse depicts a lighted altar, one of two reverse types used for this series – the other being an eagle. Both types, like the inscriptions, make reference to deification.

Some choices for this series are curious to historians today – for instance, Commodus is included while other deified emperors, notably Claudius (41-54), are excluded from the issue. This double-denarius depicts the infamous Commodus paired with the eagle reverse type.

Could it be that Commodus, perceived today as a murderous egomaniac, was regarded more favorably than Claudius (today considered one of the better emperors) in ancient times?

Although he was never proclaimed emperor, the absence of Julius Caesar (d.44 B.C.) from this series might be considered curious as well. Caesar, who had long enjoyed a good reputation amongst Romans, was a central figure in the foundation of the Roman Empire.

Another interesting inclusion within the series is that of the ill-fated emperor Severus Alexander, who had reigned for thirteen unremarkable years before he was murdered by his own troops in 235. The young emperor, depicted posthumously here as the last chronological entry for the series, was likely still held in high esteem by the public, even sixteen years after his demise.

Some of the pieces in the series display spectacular portraiture style, such as this double-denarius of Septimius Severus with an eagle reverse. Others, such as Titus and Hadrian, are collected as rarities within the series.

Ultimately, placing the faces of famous, divine predecessors on coinage did nothing to improve the reign of Decius. After his death in 251, the Roman Empire fell increasingly into a state of chaos and decay, from which it came perilously close to collapsing and would not emerge until the early fourth century. Today, Decius’ interesting and historical coins remain a popular and relatively affordable series for collectors of ancients – a testament to a trying time in Roman history.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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