NGC Ancients: A.D. 238 - A Year of 7 Rulers

Posted on 6/9/2015

During the revolutionary year of A.D. 238, the Rome Mint issued coins for no less than seven men and boys who ruled the Roman Empire.

Of all the eventful years in Roman history A.D. 238 is especially underappreciated. In this year the empire fell into political, social and military chaos when the senatorial elite took a stand against an emperor who had seized power by force. It was a brave act to be sure, but ill-conceived. It failed to reverse a trend of the 3rd Century A.D. in which the military was the driving force behind the throne.

Three years earlier, in A.D. 235, the emperor Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) had been murdered near the banks of the Rhine during a sluggish war against the barbarian Alemanni. Taking the helm in his place was Maximinus, an emperor often called Maximinus I “Thrax” due to his peasant, Thracian ancestry. He had been selected for that highest post after having risen in the army from a raw recruit to an officer.

Maximinus I "Thrax" - AE Sestertius

Maximinus is said to have been of extraordinary stature – about eight feet, six inches tall, and of remarkable strength. Taking into account this claim and his distinctive portrait, some modern observers suggest he probably suffered from some form of acromegaly. Not long after he became emperor, Maximinus raised his son, Maximus, to the rank of Caesar.

Maximus (as Caesar) - AE Sestertius

Three years later, in A.D. 238, the elite of the empire had grown weary of Maximinus’ soak-the-rich approach to fund-raising. Their response was desperate, and was unprecedented in Imperial history. It began when two extraordinarily wealthy Roman landowners from North Africa, a father and son known as Gordian I and II, staged a rebellion against Maximinus.

Gordian I – AR Denarius
Gordian II – AR Denarius

Despite support from the senate in Rome, their revolt was quickly and brutally crushed, ending with the deaths of the Gordiani and many of their supporters. Though the length of their reign is not known, it is said to have been just 21 or 22 days.

It was presumed that Maximinus would seek vengeance, so the senate appointed twenty of its leading members to run affairs in the meantime. Among these men, two were chosen as figureheads: the senators Balbinus and Pupienus, each of whom was awarded the title of Augustus (emperor). Pupienus was charged with organizing a military defense against Maximinus, and Balbinus was tasked with the governance of the capital.

Balbinus – AR Double-Denarius
Pupienus – AR Double-Denarius

Their joint reign was disorganized, chaotic and contentious, and during their 98 or 99 days as emperors they failed to gain the support of the people. Indeed, near the end of their reigns, in an act of desperation, they awarded the subordinate title of Caesar to the docile, 13-year-old grandson of the defeated Gordian I. This young man, who was supported by the Praetorian Guards in Rome, came to be known to history as Gordian III.

Gordian III (as Caesar) – AR Denarius

Meanwhile, Maximinus had led his battle-hardened legions into Italy, only to get bogged down in a siege of the city of Aquileia. Disease and disaffection soon spread through the camp of the besiegers and Maximinus was murdered along with his son, Maximus. Momentarily, the fate of Balbinus, Pupienus and their senatorial co-conspirators appeared to have been spared.

But in the aftermath the two continued their reckless behavior, allowing their discord to escalate. Soon afterward Balbinus and Pupienus were murdered by the Praetorian Guards, who promptly caused Gordian III to be hailed emperor in their place. The reign of Gordian III would last a comparatively long time for the era, from A.D. 238 to 244.

Gordian III (as Augustus) – AV Aureus

During these chaotic few months the Rome Mint was extremely active, striking coins for five men and two boys, each of whom held an imperial title. What’s more, the dies are universally of high quality with the inscriptions being neatly cut, the portraits being engraved in fine style, and the physical production being of an unusually high caliber.

The series is readily collectible, even if some of the issues are expensive. The two common issues are of Maximinus I and Gordian III as emperors. Highly attractive examples of these, in silver, often cost less than $100 each. Quite scarce are those of Maximinus’ son Maximus and Gordian III – both as Caesar – and the co-emperors Balbinus and Pupienus. Nice examples of these typically sell for several hundred dollars each, and exceptional pieces bring more than a thousand. The most expensive pieces are those of Gordian I and II, with pleasant examples of their silver denarii and bronze sestertii typically fetching a few thousand dollars each.

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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

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