The One Who Died
| The study of the ancient world introduces many figures that were extremely influential on the progress of history. Other persons were very important in their time but, as things worked out, are remembered only as footnotes to the main story. Such is the situation with Publius Septimius Geta, the younger son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. Born in the Spring of 189 AD, Geta was only a year younger than his brother Caracalla. The only thing most people remember about Geta is that he was murdered in the presence of his mother by centurions under orders of his brother. Septimius Severus had left the Empire to the brothers jointly but Caracalla was unable to share power. The whole story is filled with questions that lack concrete answers: Why did Septimius set up this situation? Did he not know the brothers' relationship was filled with hate? Why had he made Caracalla Augustus in 198 AD but delayed elevating the one year younger Geta until late in 209? If he had prefered Caracalla be his sole successor, why did he change at that late date? Was Septimius' invasion of Britain based on the needs of the Empire or on a desire to provide the boys with a project they could do together? ... and (the big one) - How would history have changed if Geta had lived?
We must read histories of the period very carefully. The hate and guilt of Caracalla prevented any objective contemporary description of the situation; mention of Geta's name was punishable by death. Hatred of Caracalla by the Senatorial class historians colors the best sources. Later histories (e.g. Scriptores Historia Augusta) invented details as seemed to fit their purposes and can be discounted as early versions of the historical novel. Geta is held by some as a 'good' character simply because this theory contrasts nicely with the 'evil' Caracalla. Truth, if it is ever to be known, will not be found easily.
Coins of Geta were produced from two mints distinguishable by style: Laodicea ad Mare (198-202 AD) and Rome (198-211 AD). These issues show Geta at ages ranging from 9 to 22. This range is not as extreme as available for Caracalla (8 to 29) but still provides an interesting series of portraits. The realistic style of the period captures a sequence from cute boy to awkward youth to handsome teen. Opinions may vary on the point but Geta seems to have been the more handsome of the brothers. Certainly he bore a closer resemblance to Septimius. The early closing of the Laodicea mint prevents assembling a complete Eastern denarius series to match the Roman. Earliest issues from both mints used the praenomen Lucius (L) for Geta in place of the correct Publius (P). The second coin from the left above illustrates this variety. Possibly this reflects a change of Septimius' mind whether he should change Geta's original praenomen to his own. Part of the problem may stem from a desire to avoid confusion with Septimius' brother (Publius Septimius Geta) and make certain everyone understood the point that the elder Geta was NOT Caesar. Coins showing 'L' are relatively more scarce and bear the youngest portraits of Geta.
The full range of Geta portraits is, however, available from various mints of the Provincial series. Septimius Severus was a Provincial at heart. Under his administration, cities of the East gained privileges and prestige greater than seen in the earlier periods. The number of mints striking coins was huge and many mints struck for all members of the family including Geta. Our few samples here are hardly representative of the variety available. The small (AE18) coin shows a young Geta as portrayed at Nicopolis ad Istrum in Moesia. Apollo provides the reverse type. The upper coin, an AE28 of Tomis in Moesia, shows a particularly handsome Geta paired with a legionary eagle and standards. Below is an AE32 of Serdica in Thrace (now Sophia, Bulgaria). This late (209-211 AD) coin shows a laureate bust of Geta as Augustus and Athena. Even though the coins of Geta as Augustus were produced for a rather short time, there are many varieties easily available to collectors. After the murder, Caracalla ordered the erasing of Geta's inscriptions and the destruction of his portraits. There are a few twin bust coins showing the Geta portrait erased from the die but the vast number of Geta coins surviving suggests that this measure was not widely or successfully applied to coins. Worn coins of Geta suggest they circulated for years following his death.
Coins of Geta from Rome are also available in bronze. These larger size flans allowed exceptionally beautiful portrait art. High grade bronze coins, rare or common, are in high demand and carry very high pricetags in the market. Through much of the Severan period, special issues of asses were produced to honor special occasions. This broad, medallic flan as bears a very rare left facing portrait and lovely scene of Septimius and the brothers on horseback. It was probably produced as a New Year's donative issue for the consulship shared by the brothers in 205 AD. Collectors who specialize in Geta will have to decide whether they should collect such low condition coins. I see this as an item of great beauty and interest that is simply not available in higher grade. Certainly I would prefer the coin in Extremely Fine condition but the fact remains that I feel fortunate to have it at all.
Following the death of Septimius, Rome was divided into factions who supported one or the other of the brothers. Geta's murder was followed by a bloodbath of his supporters. However good or bad an Emperor Caracalla would have been had he been an only child will never be certain. As it is, Geta's place in history is simply the one who died. Caracalla would never escape history's tag of fratricidal monster.
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(c) 1999 Doug Smith