NGC Ancients: Collecting the Severan Dynasty

Posted on 7/12/2016

Silver denarii are the most popular coins issued by the Severans, who ruled the Roman Empire for more than 40 years.

Severan emperors ruled the Roman world most every year from A.D. 193 to 235. Like most emperors, they issued gold, silver and base metal coins in a variety of denominations, but with collectors of Severan coins the most popular issues are silver denarii due to their abundance, variety and affordability.

The Severan dynasty was founded in the midst of a civil war that sparked following the murder of the Emperor Commodus (177-192) in the final hours of A.D. 192. One contestant was dynasty founder Septimius Severus (193-211), a frontier general from a Romanized part of North Africa. He faced many challenges during the civil war, but continuously emerged victorious until no opponents remained.

At the head of the family were Septimius and his wife, Julia Domna, who hailed from a noble, priestly family in modern-day Syria. Their portrait denarii are remarkably affordable, with high-grade examples being readily available for less than $100.

Silver Denarius of Septimius Severus

Silver Denarius of Julia Domna

Once the Severan family had achieved uncontested rule, problems remained. Foremost was the rivalry between the couples’ sons, Caracalla (198-217) and Geta (209-211). Though Caracalla was only slightly older than Geta, he was showered with titles and responsibilities, whereas such things generally were delayed or withheld from Geta. For example, Geta was not hailed emperor for eleven years after his brother had received that honor.

Whether their disproportionate treatment was the source of the problem is not known, but their mutual hatred is well documented.

Silver Denarius of Caracalla

Silver Denarius of Geta

After Septimius Severus died in 211, power passed to his sons. Their rivalry quickly intensified, and within months Caracalla had murdered his younger brother. The denarii of Caracalla and Geta above both have mature portraits, yet a full range of portraits were issued for the brothers, from cherubic boys, to adolescents, to bearded young men.

Though Geta was never married, Caracalla took as his wife Plautilla, the daughter of his father’s praetorian prefect, his most trusted and highest-ranking soldier. As was customary, Caracalla struck coins in his wife’s name. The denarii of Caracalla and Geta are commonly available and inexpensive, but those of Plautilla are somewhat scarcer.

Silver Denarius of Plautilla

In A.D. 217 Caracalla was murdered by his own soldiers, after which his praetorian prefect, Macrinus (217-218), was hailed emperor in his place. But this was not the end of the Severan Dynasty – merely an interruption: about one year afterward a counter-revolution occurred, led by members of Julia Domna’s Syrian branch of the family.

Paving the way were Domna’s sister, Julia Maesa, and one of her daughters, Julia Soaemias. They promoted Soaemias’ son, Elagabalus (218-222), as the next candidate for emperor, and achieved their goal when their armies defeated those of Macrinus in open battle.

Silver Denarius of Julia Maesa

Silver Denarius of Julia Soaemias

With the usurper Macrinus dead, Elagabalus was hailed emperor. Unfortunately for the Roman world, he was an incredibly unstable young man, perhaps just 14 years old when he came to power. Prior to this he had been the hereditary chief priest of a bizarre religious cult that worshipped a meteorite. Once he and his family came to Rome, he wasted no time in testing the limits of Roman tolerance.

Silver Denarius of Elagabalus

One of his affronts to Roman traditions was marrying four times in just two years. First was Julia Paula, the daughter of his praetorian prefect. Second was the Vestal Virgin Aquilia Severa. Third was Annia Faustina, who seemingly was descended from Marcus Aurelius. His fourth and final marriage was to Aquilia Severa, the Vestal whom it seems he preferred after all.

Silver Denarius of Julia Paula

Silver Denarius of Aquilia Severa

Silver Denarius of Annia Faustina

Unlike the denarii of Elagabalus, which are common and inexpensive, those of his wives are more challenging. Most available are those of Julia Paula, but those of Aquilia Severa are rare, and those of Annia Faustina are prohibitively rare, with just a handful known.

By the spring of A.D. 222, Elagabalus had pushed the envelope too far, and his regime was beyond salvage. Soldiers and senators conspired with the emperor’s grandmother to bring forth an alternative: Elagabalus’ cousin Severus Alexander (222-235). Initially he held the rank of Caesar, but within months Elagabalus and his mother were murdered, leaving Severus Alexander to rule in his place.

Silver Denarius of Severus Alexander

The reign of the mild-mannered Severus Alexander was comparatively calm, as he avoided the social and political excesses of his cousin and was firmly guided by his mother, Julia Mamaea, who arranged his marriage to a noblewoman, Orbiana.

Silver Denarius of Julia Mamaea

Silver Denarius of Orbiana

Though this newfound stability appears to have been welcomed, after more than a decade of timid rule by a young man who was so strongly influenced by his mother, the army had tired of the situation. In February or March of A.D. 235, Severus Alexander and his mother were murdered by soldiers while encamped near the Rhine. The legions threw their support behind a Thracian military commander, Maximinus I (235-238), who by force was hailed the next emperor of Rome.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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