Antoninus Pius

The Role Model for Rulers

As a group, Roman Emperors were men addicted to power, often ruthless and capable; sometimes insane and vicious. Few showed the kind of overall personalities that we, today, would consider an appropriate role model for our children. Prime among the exceptions is the man who ruled over Rome at its pinnacle of peace and prosperity: Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). No Emperor ruled more through statesmanship balancing political skills with compromise rather than using the military leadership and raw power that dominated the reigns of most Roman Emperors. Pius was a 'Good Guy'. Certainly some groups will disagree with this statement due to some individual policy of Pius but this is similar to the situation with even the most respected US Presidents (Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR come to mind).

Why, then, do so few collectors specialize in the coins of Antoninus Pius? Why does this great man get so little respect from historians? Why do so many collectors prefer coins of the other 'adoptive' emperors? These questions could be better addressed in a thick volume than on a light weight web page like this but we will look at a few very ordinary coins and, hopefully, spark a little interest in this vastly underappreciated period of Roman history.

One thing is certain, there is NO lack of interesting varieties of coins of Antoninus Pius. The catalog of the British Museum collection lists over 2000 coins (admittedly some are minor variations). The photo below shows 9 rather ordinary examples (far from the best or the most interesting types, to be sure). Each will be discussed in a short paragraph in the hope of showing a small bit of the fun to be had studying coins of Antoninus Pius.

Following the death of his selected heir Aelius Caesar, Hadrian offered the position to Antoninus. There was a catch. Pius was required to adopt both the young Marcus Aurelius and the even younger son of Aelius, Lucius Verus. This would assure Hadrian could pass the Empire on as he had intended even though the boys were too young to rule. Antoninus was to be a caretaker. Not only did he accept but kept his word and made no move to change the scheduled sequence of power. On the death of Hadrian, Antoninus requested his deification by the Senate. The Senate resisted the move since Hadrian had executed Senators (never a popular move to the rest of the Senate!). Antoninus retaliated by refusing the title Augustus leaving the Empire without an Emperor. This was issued during the time before the Senate conceded and lacks the abbreviation AVG on either side. Antoninus was a devout practitioner of the Roman religion and may of his coins honor on their reverses. This example shows Diana holding a bow and arrow.

After the Senate agreed to the deification of Hadrian, Antoninus accepted the title Augustus and was also given the name Pius for his devotion to his predecessor. Before the end of 138 AD, these new titles were placed on the reverse. In addition, Pius announced that he would assume a second consulship on 1 January 139. This 'designated' consulship was added to the reverse legend as COS DES II. The reverse figure is the of fair dealing Aequitas bearing a balance and cornucopia. Both of our first two examples show the bare headed. Later coins are more frequently shown with a laurel wreath but, under Pius, some issues as Augustus show the bare headed portrait reserved in many reigns for lower ranking Caesars.

C: ANTONINVS AVG PIVS PP TRP COS III / GENIO SENATVS - Genius of the Senate - 140-143 AD
Later coins moved the titles AVG and PIVS to the obverse. Interestingly enough, although this rule is known to history as 'Antoninus Pius', coins bearing this exact name belong to one of the later rulers also named Antoninus Pius () while coins of (the first) Antoninus Pius have the title AVG separating the names. This coin honors the Senate during a period where the Emperor and the Senate worked together more closely than usual during the Empire.

Many coins of Pius are dated to a year by the number following the abbreviation . Under Pius, this number was incremented in December of each year making this coin date to December 147 to December 148. The reverse honors the completion of the first decade of Pius' rule.

E: ANTONINVS AVG PIVS PP / COS IIII - Clasped hands, caduceus & grain - 145-161 AD
While dated less exactly than issues bearing TRP numbers, many coins of Pius can be placed by the apparent age of the portrait. Pius was 52 when he became Emperor and in his mid seventies at death. The changes shown as the Emperor aged were not as obvious as with rulers that were children when first issuing coins but there is still a progression of age shown. This coins shows a more aged face. The clasped hands reverse, again, addresses the theme of peace and cooperation. Hands are the most difficult part of the body to draw and compared to many hands on coins these are well done. Notice that the fingers remain extended rather than wrapping around the other hand as is the practice with a modern handshake. Is this evidence that the Romans shook hands differently than you and I or does this indicate a diecutter unable to cope with a difficult subject? Little questions like this are available for research by collectors who wish to be students of their coins rather than simply accumulators of objects. I don't know ... yet.

F: DIVVS ANTONINVS / DIVO PIO - Antoninus seated - 161 AD
Following his death, Pius was honored with a huge issue of several types of commemorative coins. Obviously, there was no resistance in the Senate for deification of so dedicated and 'pious' an Emperor. Most of the types used the standard reverse legend CONSECRATIO but some, like our example, used the dative DIVO PIO: 'to the divine Pius'. A collection of coins of Pius certainly should include at least one of the post mortem issues.

Devoted as he was to his duties of state, Antoninus Pius was also very much in love with his wife Faustina (known as Senior or Faustina I to distinguish her from their daughter 'Junior'). Her death in 141 was commemorated with a huge issue of consecration coins of many reverse types. Coins issued before her death bear the obverse legend FAVSTINA AVGVSTA. Many of the family stories of the Roman Emperors are, at best, dysfunctional; it is somewhat refreshing to have an example of an Imperial marriage that worked. Fortunately, the size of the issue of coins for Faustina make it easy to obtain specimens of interest. Our example showing Juno, queen of the gods, bears the legend AETERNITAS: 'forever'. It is little wonder that these coins are considered first choice as Numismatic Valentines Day gifts.

In addition to the hundreds of varieties of silver denarii, Antoninus Pius issued a huge array of bronze coins. Our first example is a brass (orichalcum) . The large flans gave room for exceptionally artistic treatment of the subjects (here the personification 'Peace'). Included in the series of bronze coins are many varieties not found in the silver. There special issues are somewhat rare and popular (therefore, higher priced) but available for collectors who have outgrown the common and wish to move forward in their specialty collection. Few Emperors issued as many interesting bronze coins as did Pius. A specialty collection of these would be a fascinating pursuit.

The bronze series was not limited to the large sestertii. Fractions like this (1/4 sestertius) provide a budget version of the larger bronzes but are still larger than the silver denarii. Many bronze coins that survive are very worn from many decades of circulation. Increasing debasement caused the silver of the period to be hoarded after relatively few years in circulation but the bronzes remained in daily use until many were simply worn slick. Bronzes in perfect condition are quite high priced; the very worn are so inexpensive and plentiful that I know a dealer who glued magnets to the reverses and sold them as refrigerator decorations (even some coins get no respect). In the middle are coins like our examples which are very collectable and reasonably priced.

Why, then do so few people specialize in coins of Antoninus Pius? I fear the answer is that many people consider him a bit boring. Certainly his reign is short on racy scandals that spice up the study of Caligula/Elagabalus class madmen. Adding to the problem is the fact that the period is not extensively documented by surviving ancient histories. Too late to make it into Suetonius and not covered by surviving volumes of the better later historians, the reign of Pius requires a little more effort to study. Time may bring forth more primary documents but, compared to the popular first century '12 Caesars' the history of the second century is written on fewer pages. Still there is enough that the study can be made and found to be surprisingly interesting. Certainly the coins of this period are not boring. The massive variety, decent metal and fine workmanship make them interesting to collect.

New collectors reading this page may note that I took little effort to explain the various titles and abbreviations as well as other basic information needed to read and understand these coins. These subjects have been covered previously on my pages now available on ACM as well as my Geocities pages. A few are linked in the above text but other questions are addressed there and may be worth your effort to seek out. If you have questions, I would be happy to receive your email.

Quiz shows have taken over US prime time television. Were our subject today be covered on one of these shows it might take the following format: Why do so few collectors specialize in coins of Antoninus Pius?

A. They prefer coins of nasty perverts to good guys.
B. They prefer a few easy to catalog types to a huge array of different varieties.
C. The second century requires a little more work to study than do the 12 Caesars.
D. Antoninus Pius reminds them of Rodney Dangerfield (the guy that gets no respect). ;)
E. All of the Above

The answer, sadly, is E.

There is a silver lining to this cloud: The people who do specialize in the issues of Antoninus Pius have less competition for the 'good stuff'. The combination of large numbers and smaller demand make nice looking coins of Pius more reasonably priced than the similar issues of the more popular rulers of his century. Rarities do exist in the series but, with fewer specialists, even these can be found more easily by those who know the series. If you have not selected a specialty, consider Pius.

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(c) 2000 Doug Smith