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Imaging the Golden Age: the coinage of Antoninus Pius1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2013

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Given that few ancient accounts of the reign of Antoninus Pius survive from antiquity, other monuments, in particular coinage, become important in reconstructing his reign. In this article coin hoards are used to reconstruct a quantitative understanding of Pius's numismatic imagery. It is clear from the results that the three different coin metals (gold, silver and aes) differed in their messages: while gold coinage emphasized the imperial family and the concept of pietas, silver and aes coinage focused on the emperor's concern for the grain supply (annona). This broad understanding of Pius's numismatic image is supplemented by more detailed analysis of coin iconography in particular years. The liberalitas and Britannia series of Pius are explored in depth. The study highlights coinage's role as one imperial monument among many, contributing to the communication of imperial ideologies. It is clear that the image of Pius as a virtuous emperor ruling in a ‘Golden Age’ was one cultivated by the imperial bureaucracy, and so it is not surprising that the concept features in the preserved texts. The long-term impact of Pius's coinage is also considered. In the absence of significant quantities of aes coinage struck by the Severans, the coinage of Pius continued to be of importance in many regions throughout the third century, conveying impressions of Empire among users well after the emperor's death.

Dato che pochi resoconti antichi del regno di Antonino Pio sopravvivono dall'antichità, altri monumenti, in particolare le monete, diventano importanti nella ricostruzione del suo regno. Nell'articolo le raccolte monetali sono usate per ricostruire un patrimonio di informazioni sull'immaginario numismatico di Antonino Pio. È chiaro dai risultati raggiunti che tre differenti metalli usati (oro, argento e aes) differivano per i messaggi contenuti: mentre la monetazione d'oro enfatizzava la famiglia imperiale e il concetto di pietas, la monetazione d'argento e di aes si concentrava sull'interesse imperiale verso il rifornimento granario (annona). Questa ampia visione dell'immagine numismatica di Antonino Pio è integrata da un'analisi più dettagliata dell'iconografia numismatica in anni particolari. La serie liberalitas e britanniche di Antonino Pio sono esplorate in profondità. Lo studio sottolinea il ruolo delle monete come uno dei monumeti imperiali tra i tanti, contribuendo alla comunicazione delle ideologie imperiali. È chiaro che l'immagine di Antonino Pio come imperatore virtuoso che agiva in un'‘Età d'oro’ fu tra quelle coltivate dalla burocrazia imperiale e così non è una sorpresa che il concetto sia mostrato nei testi conservati. Viene preso in considerazione anche l'impatto sul lungo termine della coniazione di Antonino Pio. In assenza di significative quantità di monete di aes battute dai Severi, la monetazione di Antonino Pio continuò ad essere importante in molte regioni nel corso del III secolo, comunicando impressioni dell'Impero tra coloro che le usavano ancora molto dopo la morte dell'imperatore

Copyright © British School at Rome 2013 

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This article has developed out of research originally performed while at Cambridge, and I owe a debt of thanks to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan for providing the opportunity and funding for the research. For discussions and suggestions, I am indebted to Terence Volk, Prof. Mary Beard and Dr John Patterson. I am also grateful to the two anonymous readers and Editor of the Papers of the British School at Rome, who provided many helpful suggestions.


2 E. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I (Westminster, 1776 (repr. 2003)), 53–4. Edward Sydenham characterized the reign as ‘the dullest twenty-three years of Roman history’ (E.A. Sydenham, Historical References on Coins of the Roman Empire (London, 1968), 100). For the most recent assessment of Pius and his reign, see B. Rémy, Antonin le Pieux 138–161 (Fayard, 2005). Important earlier assessments include E.E. Bryant, The Reign of Antoninus Pius (Cambridge, 1895); W. Hüttl, Antoninus Pius I: Historisch-politische Darstellung (Prague, 1936); and M. Grant, The Antonines (London, 1994).

3 M. Boatwright, ‘Antonine Rome: security in the homeland’, in B. Ewald and C. Noreña (eds), The Emperor and Rome (Cambridge, 2010), 169–97. On the textual evidence, see most recently A.M. Kemezis, ‘Lucian, Fronto, and the absence of contemporary historiography under the Antonines’, American Journal of Philology 131 (2010), 285–325.

4 B. Levick, ‘Propaganda and the imperial coinage’, Antichthon 16 (1982), 104–16.

5 C.H.V. Sutherland, ‘Compliment or complement? Dr Levick on imperial coin types’, Numismatic Chronicle 146 (1986), 85–93; A. Chueng, ‘The political significance of Roman imperial coin types’, Schweizer Münzblätter 191 (1998), 59; W.E. Metcalf, ‘Roman imperial numismatics’, in D.S. Potter (ed.), A Companion to the Roman Empire (Oxford, 2006), 42. Monetales normally went on to lead distinguished senatorial careers, suggesting that they were in imperial favour. See E. Birley, ‘Senators in the emperor's service’, Proceedings of the British Academy 39 (1953), 202–13.

6 R. Wolters, Nummi Signati (Munich, 1999), 292; Metcalf, ‘Roman imperial numismatics’ (above, n. 5), 42; C. Noreña, ‘Coins and communication’, in M. Peachin (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World (Oxford, 2011), 250–1.

7 T.V. Buttrey, ‘Vespasian as moneyer’, Numismatic Chronicle 12 (1972), 108 (on the possibility that Vespasian was once a moneyer and the possible effect of this on his coinage). The story of the conflict between Hadrian and Apollodorus of Damascus (Dio 69.4.1–6) may reflect the collaboration between emperors and advisers in the creation of public monuments, even if the suggestion that Hadrian put the architect to death is false. See R. Ridley, ‘The fate of an architect: Apollodoros of Damascus’, Athenaeum 67 (1989), 551–66 for a discussion of the passage.

8 The seminal works are P.L. Strack, Untersuchungen zur Römischen Reichsprägung des Zweiten Jahrhunderts III: die Reichsprägung zur Zeit des Antoninus Pius (Stuttgart, 1937); Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum IV (London, 1968); and Roman Imperial Coinage III (London, 1962).

9 See C. Noreña, ‘The communication of the emperor's virtues’, Journal of Roman Studies (2001), 141–68; C. Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge, 2011); C. Rowan, ‘Communicating a consecratio: the deification coinage of Faustina I’, in N. Holmes (ed.), Proceedings of the XIV International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 I (Glasgow, 2011), 991–8; C. Rowan, ‘The public image of the Severan women’, Papers of the British School at Rome 79 (2011), 241–73; C. Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period (Cambridge, 2012), 19–31. See also, with a different methodological approach, E. Manders, Coining Images of Power. Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors on Imperial Coinage, A.D. 193–284 (Leiden, 2012).

10 Noreña, ‘Coins and communication’ (above, n. 6), 248–68.

11 On the methodology, see I. Carradice, ‘Towards a new introduction to the Flavian coinage’, in M. Austin, J. Harries and C. Smith (eds), Modus Operandi. Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Rickman (London, 1998), 92–112; Noreña ‘The communication’ (above, n. 9), 147–52; C. Noreña, ‘Medium and message in Vespasian's Templum Pacis’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 48 (2003), 25–43; O. Hekster and E. Manders, ‘Kaiser gegen Kaiser: Bilder der Macht im. 3 Jahrhundert’, in K.-P. Johne, T. Gerhardt and U. Hartmann (eds), Transformationsprozesse des Römischen Reiches im 3. Jahrhundert und ihre Rezeption in der Neuzeit (Stuttgart, 2006), 135–44; C. Rowan, ‘Becoming Jupiter: Severus Alexander, the temple of Jupiter Ultor and Jovian iconography on Roman imperial coinage’, American Journal of Numismatics 21 (2009), 123–50; F. Kemmers, ‘Out of the shadow: Geta and Caracalla reconsidered’, in S. Faust and F. Leitmeir (eds), Repräsentationsformen in Severischer Zeit (Munich, 2011), 274–80; Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 28–36.

12 V.A. Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money (Princeton, 1997), 18.

13 For a full listing of the hoards used, see the Appendix.

14 H. Mattingly, ‘The consecration of Faustina the Elder and her daughter’, Harvard Theological Review 41 (1948), 147–51. On the Faustina issues found in the hoards and their iconographic composition, see Rowan, ‘Communicating a consecratio’ (above, n. 9), 991–8.

15 SHA Hadr. 24.3, 27.4; SHA Ant. Pius 2.3–8. See also the Epitome of Dio 70.2; Bryant, The Reign of Antoninus Pius (above, n. 2), 29; C.H. Dodd, ‘The cognomen of Antoninus Pius. Its origin and significance considered in the light of numismatic evidence’, Numismatic Chronicle 11 (1911), 6–41; T. Ulrich, Pietas (Pius) als Politischer Begriff im Römischen Staate (Breslau, 1930), 65–72; M. Manson, ‘La pietas et le sentiment de l'enfance à Rome d'après les monnaies’, Revue Belge de Numismatique 121 (1975), 50–2; Rémy, Antonin le Pieux (above, n. 2), 258–9. On pietas more generally, see Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 71–7.

16 Epitome of Dio 70.2; SHA Ant. Pius 2.3.

17 On gold coinage in the Roman Empire, see F. Millar, ‘Les congiaires à Rome et la monnaie’, in A. Giovannini (ed.), Nourrir la plèbe: actes du colloque tenu a Genève les 28 et 29 Sept 1989 en hommage à Denis van Berchem (Basel, 1991), 143–59; R. Wolters, ‘Bronze, silver or gold? Coin finds and the pay of the Roman army’, Zephyrus 53–4 (2001), 579–88; and E. Lo Cascio, ‘The function of gold coinage in the monetary economy of the Roman Empire’, in W.V. Harris (ed.), The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford, 2008), 160–73.

18 Pius with globe: RIC 206 (24 instances), RIC 213 (one instance), RIC 226 (seven instances), RIC 233 (six instances), RIC 241 (two instances), RIC 256 (twelve instances). Double portrait type of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius: RIC 415 (four instances), RIC 417 (one instance), RIC 418 (one instance), RIC 421 (three instances).

19 RIC 177 (32 instances).

20 On aequitas and the mint, see R. Mowat, ‘Le bureau de l’équité et les ateliers de la monnaie impériale à Rome d'après les monuments numismatiques et épigraphiques', Numismatische Zeitschrift 2 (1909), 87–116; A. Wallace-Hadrill, ‘Galba's aequitas’, Numismatic Chronicle 141 (1981), 20–39; Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 63–71. On the other associations of aequitas, see H. Lange, ‘Die Wörter AEQVITAS und IVSTITIA auf Römischen Münzen’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte 52 (1932), 296–394; F. Pringsheim, ‘Aequitas und bona fides’, in Gesammelte Abhandlungen (Heidelberg, 1961), 154–72; G. Schiemann, ‘Aequitas’, in H. Cancik and H. Schneider (eds), Brill's New Pauly (Tübingen, 2007) (online). On aequitas types under Pius, see Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 126, 142.

21 Also demonstrated by Noreña's study of the coinage of Vespasian — a peak in pax types can be connected to the completion of the new Temple of Peace in Rome, indicating that coins were topical and chosen so that they might interact with the imperial messages communicated by other monuments. See Noreña, ‘Medium and message’ (above, n. 11), 41.

22 RIC 175 (279 instances), RIC 204 (148 instances), RIC 221 (254 instances), RIC 231 (295 instances), RIC 239 (300 instances), RIC 249 (154 instances), RIC 260 (180 instances), RIC 262 (102 instances), RIC 274 (170 instances), RIC 275 (149 instances).

23 H.L. Axtell, The Deification of Abstract Ideas in Roman Literature and Inscriptions (New York, 1907), 32–4; Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 27; G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1980), 267; P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, 1988), 225; Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 111–26.

24 Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 120.

25 Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 121.

26 SHA, Ant. Pius 8.1.

27 Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 122.

28 Rowan, ‘Communicating a consecratio’ (above, n. 9), 992–3.

29 Rowan, ‘Communicating a consecratio’ (above, n. 9), 991–6.

30 SHA, Ant. Pius 8.1–2.

31 The percentage comes from Elagabalus's coins as found in hoards. See Rowan, Under Divine Auspices (above, n. 9), 166, fig. 56.

32 Fronto, Principia Historiae 2.10, with E. Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome (London, 1980), 85.

33 RIC 111 (203 instances).

34 A.R. Birley, ‘Hadrian to the Antonines’, in A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey and D. Rathbone (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History XI (second edition) (Cambridge, 2000), 152.

35 Mentioned in a later panegyric given to the Emperor Constantine in ad 287 (Panegyrici Latini VIII (4) 14.2), discussed in Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome (above, n. 32), 85. On the Panegyrici Latini more generally, see R. Rees, Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric (Cambridge, 2002), 15–18.

36 On the series, see Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 39.

37 Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 39–40.

38 The Cappadocia type (RIC 1056) is undated, but presumably belongs to the period ad 139 or ad 140–4.

39 D. Walker, ‘The Roman coins’, in B. Cunliffe (ed.), The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath II: the Finds from the Sacred Spring (Oxford, 1988), 281–358; A.S. Hobley, An Examination of Roman Bronze Coin Distribution in the Western Empire ad 81–192 (Oxford, 1998); Noreña, ‘Coins and communication’ (above, n. 6), 249–50.

40 M. Todd, ‘Romano-British mintages of Antoninus Pius’, Numismatic Chronicle 7 (1966), 147–53.

41 F.A. Walters, ‘A find of early Roman bronze coins in England’, Numismatic Chronicle 7 (1907), 353–72.

42 Search performed on 09.08.2012.

43 On the correspondence between the PAS data and coin hoards, see P.J. Walton, Rethinking Roman Britain: an Applied Numismatic Analysis of the Roman Coin Data Recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Doctoral thesis, University College London, 2011), 135.

44 F. Kemmers, ‘From bronze to silver: coin circulation in the early third century ad’, Revue Belge de Numismatique 155 (2009), 146. It has been suggested also that silver coinage may have had regional variation. See R.P. Duncan-Jones, ‘Empire-wide patterns in Roman coin hoards’, in C.E. King and D.G. Wigg (eds), Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World (Berlin, 1993), 139–43; R.P. Duncan-Jones, Money and Government in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 1994), 176–8; R.P. Duncan-Jones, ‘Implications of Roman coinage: debates and differences’, Klio 87 (2005), 474–8. See also C. Howgego, ‘Coin circulation and the integration of the Roman economy’, American Journal of Archaeology 7 (1994), 1–21 on the significance (or not) of regional coin populations for the understanding of the Roman economy.

45 F. Kemmers, Coins for a Legion. An Analysis of the Coin Finds from the Augustan Legionary Fortress and Flavian Canabae Legionis at Nijmegen (Mainz, 2006), 240.

46 Hobley, An Examination of Roman Bronze Coin Distribution (above, n. 39), 130–1.

47 Kemmers, Coins for a Legion (above, n. 45), 237.

48 See most recently the collection of essays in C. Howgego, V. Heuchert and A. Burnett (eds), Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces (Oxford, 2005).

49 Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 149.

50 W.E. Metcalf, ‘Whose Liberalitas? Propaganda and audience in the early Roman Empire’, Rivista Italiana di Numismatica e Scienze Affini 95 (1993), 344–5.

51 Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 90–2.

52 For the gold eighteen out of the 25 examples found in the hoards had a scene of distribution. For the bronze, fifteen out of the 24 examples from the hoard were of the personification type. The sample remains small, but it will be of interest to see if future quantitative research on other reigns demonstrates similar patterns.

53 See Metcalf, ‘Whose Liberalitas?’ (above, n. 50), 344; Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 91.

54 LIB II (ten instances), LIB IIII (seven instances), LIB V (six instances), LIB VII (one instance), LIB VIIII (one instance).

55 LIB IIII (six instances), LIB V (thirteen instances), LIB VI (one instance), LIB VIII (three instances), LIB VIIII (one instance).

56 LIB IIII (327 instances), LIB VII (301 instances), LIB VIII (22 instances), LIB VIIII (28 instances), unnumbered (nine instances).

57 The dates are approximate and based on the catalogues of Mattingly, Roman Imperial Coinage (above, n. 8) and Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8).

58 RIC II (Hadrian) 445–58, 990–1.

59 RIC 546 (21 instances).

60 RIC 12 (48 instances).

61 SHA Ant. Pius 4.10 with discussion in Strack, Untersuchungen (above, n. 8), 40.

62 RIC 574–96.

63 Noreña, Imperial Ideals (above, n. 9), 190–200.

64 One wonders, however, whether a rare or unusual numismatic type may have also occasionally caught a user's attention, similar to commemorative or unusual coin types in the modern day.

65 For a further discussion of these ideas, see Rowan, Under Divine Auspices (above, n. 9), 28–30, 60–5. As a parallel, many inscriptions also may have not been ‘read’ or have been particularly ‘readable’ (for example, the Arval acta or the record of the ludi saeculares), but this does not diminish the importance associated with recording the event for posterity. On the ‘readibility’ of inscriptions, see M. Beard, ‘Writing and ritual: a study of diversity and expansion in the Arval Acta’, Papers of the British School at Rome 53 (1985), 137–44; and J. Scheid, ‘Déchiffrer des monnaies. Réflexions sur la représentation figurée des jeux séculaires’, in F. Dupont and C. Auvray-Assayas (eds), Images romaines: actes de la table ronde organisée à l'École Normale Superieure, 24–26 Octobre 1996 (Paris, 1998), 14.

66 Chueng, ‘The political significance of Roman imperial coin types’ (above, n. 5), 57–8.

67 Dio 65.6.1, with discussion in Chueng, ‘The political significance of Roman imperial coin types’ (above, n. 5), 57–8.

68 T.V. Buttrey, ‘A hoard of sestertii from Bordeaux and the problem of bronze circulation in the third century A.D.’, American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 18 (1972), 33–58.

69 Buttrey, ‘A hoard of sestertii’ (above, n. 68), 49.

70 See Rowan, Under Divine Auspices (above, n. 9), 47–9.

71 See Rowan, Under Divine Auspices (above, n. 9), 55–6 and appendix 1 on pp. 253–7.

72 Hobley, An Examination of Bronze Coin Distribution (above, n. 39).

73 Hobley, An Examination of Bronze Coin Distribution (above, n. 39), 27–9, 35–6, 44–7, 58–62.

74 Hobley, An Examination of Bronze Coin Distribution (above, n. 39), 89–95, 100–2.

75 Rowan, Under Divine Auspices (above, n. 9), 246–52.

76 S. Segenni, ‘Antonino Pio e le città dell'Italia (riflessioni su HA, v.Pii, VIII, 4)’, Athenaeum 89 (2001), 355–405; E. Thomas, Monumentality and the Roman Empire: Architecture in the Antonine Age (Oxford, 2007); Boatwright, ‘Antonine Rome’ (above, n. 3), 169–97.