NGC Ancients: The Numismatic Legacy of Trajan Decius

Posted on 5/9/2017

The volume of Decius coinage is remarkable, considering his short reign.

Gaius Messius Quintus Decius – best known to history as the Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (A.D. 249 to 251) – was born in about A.D. 201 in the small village of Budalia, near Sirmium in the Balkans. As a member of a senatorial family, Decius rose through the ranks both militarily and politically.

A billon tetradrachm of Trajan Decius issued at Antioch in Syria.
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By the early 230s he was a distinguished senator and in 232 he attained the rank of consul, the highest position in the Roman senate. He also was governor of the provinces of Moesia, Germania Inferior and Hispania Tarraconensis. Early in the reign of Philip I (A.D. 244 to 249), Decius also served as urban prefect for the city of Rome.

A bronze sestertius of Philip I.
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The 240s saw tensions rise along Rome’s northern borders: various uprisings occurred, there were threats of Gothic invasions, all followed by the rebellion of the Roman commander Pacatian in Upper Moesia. Philip I appointed Decius governor of both Moesia and Pannonia with the mission of ending Pacatian’s revolt and easing tensions along the border.

A rare double-denarius of the usurper Pacatian.
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When Decius arrived, the revolt of Pacatian already had ended, but the rebels’ troops remained unhappy. Recognizing Decius as a fellow Balkan, the troops threw their support behind him and hailed him as their candidate as emperor. To what degree he was complicit in this, or merely was complying with the motivated legions, is unknown.

On this sestertius, Decius celebrates the Illyrian army that had hailed him emperor.
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Decius and his armies marched on Rome and in Macedon in 249 met the legions of Philip I. The reigning emperor was defeated and killed, and is unfortunate son, Philip II, was promptly murdered by the praetorian guards in Rome.

A billon tetradrachm of Philip II, issued at Alexandria, Egypt.
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The senate, which saw Decius as one of their own due to his extensive experience in government, quickly recognized him as Rome’s new emperor and gave him the name Trajan because both Decius and the earlier emperor Trajan (A.D. 98 to 117) had strong links to military activity in the Balkan region (principally Dacia, Illyria, Pannonia and Moesia).

On this sestertius, Decius celebrates the Pannonian army, which also had supported him.
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Despite his short, two-year reign (mid 249 to June 251), Decius’ coinage is both interesting and complex. The first coins issued in Rome for Decius celebrate his proclamation as emperor with some standard coinage types: ADVENTVS AVG (the emperors arrival in Rome), PAX AVGVSTI (peace of the emperor), VICTORIA AVG (victory of the emperor), and VIRTVS AVG (virtue of the emperor).

This gold aureus celebrates the arrival of Decius in Rome.
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Decius also celebrated the men and troops responsible for his elevation to emperor with three new reverse types; GENIVS EXERCITVS ILLVRICIANI (genius of the Illyrian army), PANNONIA (which depicts a personification of the province) and DACIA (which shows of personification of Dacia holding a draco standard). This probably was a wise move politically, as very recently these Balkan troops had been responsible for the rebellions of Pacatian and Decius (and would be responsible for two more in the coming years).

This sestertius bears a lovely portrait of Decius’ wife, the Empress Herennia Etruscilla.
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Decius also chose to honor his family and to promote a dynasty with his coinage, with issues for his wife Herennia Etruscilla, his eldest son Herennius Etruscus (whom he elevated to Caesar early in his reign) and his youngest some Hostilian (who was given the title Caesar late in Decius’ reign). Very late in Decius’ reign, Etruscus was promoted to emperor alongside his father, and a small, very rare, issue of coinage was issued for Etruscus as Augustus.

This provincial bronze of Jerusalem features the portraits of the brothers Herennius Etruscus and Hostilian on each side.
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Throughout his reign, Decius issued the standard Imperial Roman coin denominations, including the gold aureus, the silver double-denarius and quinarius and the bronze sestertius and as. However, in AD 250, Decius overhauled the bronze coinage by introducing a new denomination, the double-sestertius, and by reintroducing a small bronze piece about the size of the long-since-abandoned semis, which probably was intended to be “reduced as”.

A double-sestertius of Decius.
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A ‘reduced as’ or ‘semis’ of Decius.
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The double sestertius featured Decius’ radiate portrait on the obverse and those Decius issued for his wife featured her bust set upon a crescent. The new ‘reduced as’ or ‘semis’ was struck only for Decius and featured the standing figure of Mars on the reverse.

One of Decius’ last coinages was his famous ‘divi series’ of double-denarii on which he honored eleven deified Roman emperors: Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, and Severus Alexander.

This ‘divi series’ double-denarius shows a flaming altar on its reverse and honors Decius’ namesake, the emperor Trajan.
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This ‘divi series’ double-denarius shows an eagle on its reverse and honors the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 139 to 211).
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Each coin paired a radiate portrait of one of the deified emperors with one of two reverse types – a flaming funerary altar or an eagle. This series is actively collected as it is historically interesting and makes a nice ‘short set’ of 22 coins.

Along with double-denarii from the main mint at Rome, the mint of Antioch produced double-denarii for Decius and his family. The reverse types are similar to those used in Rome, but the coins can be differentiated from the Rome issues by the style of die engraving, the fabric of the planchets and by the occasional inclusion of officina (mint workshop) numbers below the bust which can take the form of numbers or pellets.

This double-denarius of the Caesar Herennius Etruscus from Antioch has two pellets below the bust, indicating it was struck in the second officina.
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Finally, the eastern cities of the Roman Empire produced a tremendous variety of provincial coinages in the name of Decius and members of his family. Great quantities of billon tetradrachms were produced at Antioch (in Syria) and Alexandria (in Egypt), and almost 60 other cities produced bronze coins of various sizes and denominations.

Decius is portrayed on this provincial bronze struck at the city of Syedra in Cilicia.
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Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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