Towards the end of the year AD 214 the Roman emperor, Caracalla, introduced to the imperial monetary system a new denomination of silver coin which we now call the antoninianus. At an average weight of around 5 grams, the coin weighed slightly more than one and a half times as much as the silver denarius, but was probably intended to circulate at twice its value. This represented more than a day’s pay for a legionary soldier of that time, and as the equivalent of 8 sestertii, 16 dupondii or 32 asses, the antoninianus was a valuable coin.
A little less than one hundred years later, around AD 307, the last direct descendant of this denomination was being struck. It had been relegated to the bronze series and served as a minor denomination in a newly restructured coinage system.
In a very tangible way the antoninianus reflects the turbulence and crises experienced by the Empire during the dark days of the third century, and also the restoration of central control in its last quarter. The coin’s progressive debasement, for example, clearly signals the economic decline, and the appearance of so many usurpers on the coins gives an insight into the political and military instability. The large number of ‘official’ emperors reflects the almost continuous power struggle, and the technical and administrative improvements which are evident from the reign of Aurelian herald the re-establishment of central control.
In the absence of contemporary references to the new coin, the principal argument for valuing it as a double denarius stems from the emperor’s portrait, which is always depicted with a radiate crown. Since the time of Nero, this device had been employed (but not invariably) on dupondii to indicate their value of two bronze asses; a relationship well attested by contemporary sources. When empresses or other female personages are portrayed on antoniniani, the radiate crown is replaced by a crescent under the bust. The latter is symbolic of the moon god, Luna, whereas the radiate crown is associated with the sun god, Apollo. The source of this attribute can be seen on the reverse of the antoninianus of Caracalla shown in photo 1, which depicts Apollo with the sun’s rays surrounding his head.
The name of the coin is a relatively modern invention derived from the official name of the emperor responsible for its introduction, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Caracalla, his commonly used nickname, is based on his predilection for wearing a long Gaulish cloak of that name, and serves to prevent any confusion with his distinguished but unrelated predecessors, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.
The Early Issues
Caracalla (AD 198-217) issued significant quantities of antoniniani, both in his own name and in that of his mother, the dowager empress, Julia Domna. An antoninianus of Domna is shown in photo 2. His reason for doing so must surely have been to collect taxes in denarii, and issue new money in the form of reduced-weight antoniniani. By this mechanism, the state stood to make a considerable profit over and above the normal fiscal revenue. Caracalla was not short of ideas for raising money; he is remembered for his granting of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire, which privilege rendered them liable to additional taxation.
Less than three years after his introduction of the antoninianus, Caracalla was assassinated on the orders of Macrinus, prefect of the praetorian guard. Macrinus seized the purple and reigned for fourteen months before he, too, met his death at the hands of a rival faction led by Julia Domna’s sister, Julia Maesa. During his brief tenure of office, Macrinus (AD 217-218) continued to issue the antoninianus, both in his own name and in that of his son, Diadumenian. The latter coins, however, are very rare, and all antoniniani of Macrinus are scarce. Photo 3 shows an antoninianus of Macrinus with a reverse type of Salus.
The purpose of Maesa’s opposition to Macrinus was to secure the throne for her grandson, Elagabalus, a 14 year old boy priest who takes his name from the sun god he worshipped. Elagabalus was successfully installed and for the next four years (AD 218-222) shamed his office with unspeakable acts of depravity and cruelty. Originally named Varius Avitus Bassianus, Elagabalus was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus to give greater weight to his imperial claim. This name being identical with that of Caracalla, there is some risk of the coins of the two emperors being confused. A useful distinguishing feature for antoniniani (not infallible for denarii) is that the obverse inscriptions on Elagabalus’ coins begin with the abbreviation, ‘IMP’, whereas Caracalla’s commence with his name, ‘ANTONINVS’.
Elagabalus issued substantial quantities of antoniniani during his reign, and also continued the issue of large numbers of denarii. Hoard evidence shows that these denominations circulated alongside each other, and examples of both types of coin, in all conditions, are readily available today.
Although only about eighteen years old at the time of his death, Elagabalus married several times, and three of his wives, Julia Paula, Aquilia Severa and Annia Faustina feature on his coinage. None of these appear on his antoniniani however; this privilege being reserved for his mother, Julia Soaemias, and his grandmother, Julia Maesa. Maesa’s antoniniani, an example of which is shown in photo 5, are relatively common, but those of Soaemias are extremely rare.
Like Caracalla, Elagabalus issued antoniniani with a wide range of reverse types, the majority of these being deities and personifications. Photo 4 shows an antoninianus of Elagabalus with the reverse type Felicitas, the personification of happiness.
Eventually, and inevitably, the excesses of Elagabalus led to his downfall. He and his mother, Soaemias, were murdered and their bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and thrown into a sewer leading into the river Tiber. The astute Maesa, having foreseen the developing situation, had already put in place an alternative plan, namely arranging the elevation of another grandson, Severus Alexander, to the rank of ‘Caesar’, or heir apparent.
On Elagabalus’ death, Severus Alexander (AD 222-235) was immediately recognised as ‘Augustus’, or full emperor. He was a complete contrast to his cousin and ruled with wisdom and moderation throughout his reign. The strong influence of his mother, Julia Mamaea, was, however, a source of resentment to the army, and having elevated one of their own number to imperial rank, Alexander and his mother were murdered.
Severus Alexander did not issue any antoniniani despite the relatively long period he held office. According to an inscription on certain dupondii of his reign, he was responsible for some kind of monetary reform, and may have regarded dropping the overvalued antoninianus as part of this process.
The emperor elevated to the purple by the army, Maximinus I, reigned from AD 235-238. Like Severus Alexander, he issued no antoniniani, either in his own name, or that of his son, Maximus, whom he raised to the rank of Caesar.
The tyranny of Maximinus resulted in an uprising in Africa, and the elderly proconsul of that province, Gordian, was persuaded to accept the purple. He secured the backing of the Senate in Rome, and reigned jointly with his son of the same name. The latter was soon killed in battle against supporters of Maximinus and, on hearing of his death, the elder Gordian committed suicide. The two Gordiani are known to us as Gordian I Africanus and Gordian II Africanus. Their reign, in AD 238, lasted just 21 or 22 days, and the rare coins bearing their respective portraits do not include any antoniniani.
1. Antoninianus of Caracalla
2. Antoninianus of Julia Domna
3. Antoninianus of Macrinus
4. Antoninianus of Elagabalus
5. Antoninianus of Julia Maesa
6. Antoninianus of Balbinus
7. Antoninianus of Pupienus
8. Antoninianus of Gordian III
9. Antoninianus of Philip I
10. Antoninianus of Philip II
11. Antoninianus of Otacilia Severa
The Antoninianus Relaunched
On learning of the Gordiani’s death, the Senate, fearing the retribution of Maximinus, appointed two of their own members to serve as joint emperors. Balbinus and Pupienus were charged with the task of halting Maximinus, whose elevation had never been recognised by the Senate, and who was now advancing on Rome.
After an absence of sixteen years, the antoninianus was reintroduced during this joint reign. Balbinus and Pupienus (AD 238) each issued the denomination alongside a broadly equivalent issue of denarii. The range of reverse designs was very limited; all antoniniani showing two clasped hands with various legends extolling the harmony of the two emperors. Examples of antoniniani of Balbinus and Pupienus are shown in photos 6 and 7 respectively.
Maximinus’ advance was halted, and he was ultimately killed by his own soldiers. There was dissatisfaction, however, with the rule of Balbinus and Pupienus, and when this turned to civil strife, the praetorian guard seized the initiative and murdered them. Gordian III, a grandson of Gordian I, had been appointed Caesar by the joint emperors, and on their murder was proclaimed Augustus by the praetorians.
It was during the reign of Gordian III (AD 238-244) that the antoninianus was really established as the principal silver denomination in circulation. Although Gordian issued substantial quantities of denarii, he was the last emperor to do so, and the predominance of the larger coin is evident in the range of designs employed and the ratio of surviving specimens of the two coins. It is likely that the overvalued antoninianus drove the denarius out of circulation as a result of the operation of Gresham’s Law, and very few were issued after about AD 245. Photo 8 shows an antoninianus of Gordian III with reverse depicting Jupiter holding a thunderbolt and sceptre. Antoniniani, now very rare, were also issued in the name of Gordian’s wife, Tranquillina.
In time-honoured tradition, Gordian was murdered at the instigation of the praetorian prefect, Marcus Julius Philippus, who then assumed the purple as Philip I.
On his accession, Philip I (AD 244-249) appointed his son of the same name to the position of Caesar, and in AD 247 elevated him to Augustus, or joint emperor. After his elevation, coins of the younger Philip (AD 247-249) have an identical inscription to those of his father, but are easily identified by his youthful portrait. His earlier coins may be differentiated by the inclusion of his title, Caesar, in the obverse inscription.
A number of events occurred during this period which have left their mark on the coinage. The one-thousandth anniversary of the traditional foundation of Rome occurred in AD 248 and was marked by all manner of celebrations. Exotic wild animals were put on show and many of these, including lions, gazelles, antelopes and stags feature on the reverses of antoniniani. Philip also issued antoniniani in the name of his wife, Otacilia Severa, one of which adds a hippopotamus to the list of animals depicted. Antoniniani of Philip I, Philip II and Otacilia Severa are illustrated in photos 9, 10 and 11.
Rebellion and Frontier Problems
Towards the end of his reign, Philip was beset by the problem of pretenders who sought to overthrow him. Pacatian seized power for a brief period in Upper Moesia around AD 248, and about the same time Jotapian was elevated by the army in Syria. Both usurpers issued antoniniani, which are now extremely rare, before being murdered by their own soldiers. A unique antoninianus also bears witness to another usurper, Silbannacus, but nothing else is known of him.
The final blow was struck by the rebellious legions of Trajan Decius. Philip I and his son were killed in battle against them at Verona, and Decius became undisputed leader of the Empire. The antoniniani of this emperor and his successors throughout the third quarter of the 3rd century are the subject of Part 2 of this article.