Ancient Coins – Septimius Severus: The African Emperor of Rome

By Timothy O'Fallon ....  Gibraltar Coins & Precious Metals ........
 

In 193 CE, the Roman Praetorian Guard massacred the emperor, an ex-Senator by the name of Pertinax. Flush with the kill, they hoisted Pertinax's severed head aloft on a lance, and announced to the crowds gathering before the Imperial palace that the throne was available to the highest bidder. A man by the name of Didius Julianus won! After recovering from a night of celebration, it is likely that a very bad feeling began to grow in the pit of Julianus' stomach. The governor of Pannonia, an African named Septimius Severus, was declared Emperor by his own legions and was on his way to Rome to avenge Pertinax. Julianus didn't stand a chance, and his anxious nine weeks as Emperor ended in the usual manner.

Septimius Severus, the ex-governor, ruled with military efficiency for 18 years, establishing a dynasty of his own and restoring confidence in the government of the Empire. However, it is likely that Severus also unwittingly sowed the seeds of the Empire's eventual fall with an overemphasis on the military as the "voting public", a power the armed forces did not always wield with wisdom in the coming years.

Served as Emperor: 193-211 CE

The "Severan Tondo", ca. 200 CE. Tempura paint on wood

The portrait above is the famous "Severan Tondo", one of the only surviving portraits of its kind from ancient times. It is a portion of a panel painting of tempera (egg-based paint) on wood. Note that the childhood portrait of Geta has been scraped off, after his memory was officially damned by his brother and murderer, the emperor Caracalla.

Birthplace: Lepis Magna, Africa (today's Libya)

Youth: Septimius Severus gave his first speech at age 17, probably in Greek. His native tongue was Punic (Carthaginian), but he was fluent in Greek and Latin, which he spoke with a slight accent.

Early Career: Septimius Severus' political career advanced in part due to the thinning of the ranks of the political class due to the Antonine Plague, which opened various jobs to him. These included the office of quaestor in Sardinia, proconsul of Africa, and governor of Pannonia.

Family: After the death of his first wife, Septimius Severus married Julia Domna, a Syrian woman from a prominent family in Emesa. This family was preeminent in the Syrian cult of the sun god Elagabal, and a prophecy of the same predicted that Julia would someday marry a king. This made her attractive in Septimius Severus' ambitious eyes. Julia Domna turned out to be an extremely valuable partner to the future Emperor, and the couple had two sons, known to history as future emperors Caracalla and Geta.

Elevation: At the death of Emperor Pertinax at the hands of the Praetorian Guard, the Empire was auctioned off to the highest bidder by the murderous Guard. Senator Didius Julianus won the bidding, becoming emperor... for a few weeks. The Pannonian Legion XIV Gemina declared their governor, Septimius Severus, the new emperor in opposition to the perceived insanity back at Rome.

Septimius Severus marched on Rome, dispatched the feeble resistance of Didius Julianus (and Julianus as well), then consolidated his Empire over the next few years by eliminating his rivals Prescinnius Niger and Clodius Albinus.

Rule: Severus initiated several successful military campaigns, first against the Parthians, then in Africa, and finally in Britain. He initiated several military reforms to prevent the disaster that befell Pertinax, and essentially reformed the Empire by militarizing it. Some historians believe that although his reforms brought efficiency and temporary success to the Empire, Septimius Severus planted the seeds of military prominence that would contribute to the Empire's eventual collapse. Severus certainly acted the tyrant with the Senate, regularly trying unfriendly Senators on trumped-up charges before having them executed and replaced by associates.

However, because he largely ended the rampant corruption that the Empire endured for years under Commodus (the emperor right before Pertinax), Severus was popular with the people.

Currency: Septimius Severus enthusiastically used Roman coinage as a propaganda vehicle, employing themes of his supposed virtue, the Empire's security under him and the importance of his wife Julia Domna and his two sons in the stability of government and the happiness of all people. However, while he was minting a sensational array of fascinating coins, he was also devaluing them by reducing the silver weight and purity dramatically.

At the beginning of his reign in 193 CE, the silver denarius contained about 1.46 grams of silver. By 211, the denarius only contained about 1.82 grams of silver. This was the most significant devaluation of currency since Nero.

Death: Septimius Severus died while on a military campaign in Britain in 211. His death may have been hastened by an exhausting war with the Caledonians, his health weakened by gout and arthritis. There is a rumor that his son Caracalla bribed the doctors to hasten his death. Septimius Severus died in the Roman town of Eboracum (modern-day York) in Britain, and his two sons were proclaimed co-emperors by the army.

septimusseverusaureusCoins of Septimius Severus: The potential for collecting coins of this emperor is simply spectacular. Of the official Imperial coins alone, one may collect:

  1. Bronze As
  2. Bronze Sestertius
  3. Bronze/Orichalcum Dupondius
  4. Silver Quinarius
  5. Silver Denarius
  6. Gold Quinarius
  7. Gold Aureus
  8. Billon Cistephorus

The Silver Denarius was the denomination in every day use in much of the Empire, and is among the most popular denomination of Septimius Severus to collect. These coins were the primary vehicles of propaganda and communication to the citizens of Rome, which explains why there are no less than 1,063 different known reverses! Some of these reverses are pompous, some elegant, some fascinating... and all very self-serving!

* * *

Timothy O'Fallon is the Senior Numismatist with Gibraltar Coins and Precious Metals and has been since 1992. When he isn't buying and selling rare coins, Tim can generally be found either hiking with his kids or with his nose in a history book. Once, he tried doing both at the same time, and got very lost. Even worse, he lost his place in the book.
 


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