Trajan Decius: Double Your Money

An Antoninianus Overstruck on a Denarius

Trajan Decius became emperor midway through the third century and near the beginning of the chaos that characterized the period between the relative stability of the Severans and the formation of the Tetrarchy by Diocletian. Silver coins of this period declined year by year until there was almost no silver content. The most common denomination was the double denarius or antoninianus first issued by Caracalla late in 214 AD. By the time of Decius, the coin was still struck in silver alloy of a silvery color but the weight had fallen off from the earlier issues.

This coin was struck at Rome in the last months of Decius' reign. Earlier scholars attributed coins with this obverse legend to a branch mint at Milan but more recent die link information has shown these to be the final product of Rome.

Trajan Decius - Silver Antoninianus - Rome Mint - 251 AD
Radiate bust right / Two Pannoniae - each with standard

The coin is an uncommon minor variety from the last period of the reign. It shows the characteristic, late abbreviation (TRA) of the Emperor's name; earlier coins spelled out TRAIANVS. Other examples of the Pannoniae type show a single standard between the two figures. The coin is sharply struck and unworn but still presents a confusing appearance due to being struck on another coin. Areas of the original coin design that lined up in the blank fields of the new design were compressed leaving a harder, brighter slightly spread out remnant of the original. Areas that lined up with more deeply cut parts of the new design left some details but these are hard to separate with certainty from the new details. Identification of the original coin requires a little detective work. Most obvious of the traces of the original design are the letters PRIN found upside down in the reverse exergue (below the ground line) of the new design. Continuing clockwise around the edge of the coin we find EN in the gap between the PA and NN of PANNONIAE. The spacing of these letters suggested the reverse legend was some abbreviation of PRINCIPI IVVENTVTIS. Counting back from Trajan Decius we find that this type was used by Diadumenian and Geta. To help determine which this was, I went to my photo file and found a coin of Geta with legend PRINC IVVENTVTIS. Rotating the antoninianus so the overstruck design traces were positioned as on the Geta allowed matching up of several other design points.

The Decius Coin Rotated Geta Denarius 200-202 AD

The two images above have been tinted red in areas that I saw matches. Most significant was the obverse trace of a G near Decius' mouth and the forehead to nose profile peeking out from under Decius' radiate crown. The hair appears to be a bit longer than usual for Diadumenian and the correctly placed G clinches the ID in favor of Geta. Do you agree?

The reason coins were overstruck varied from example to example. This, however, was not an overstriking to destroy politically incorrect money (as would have been the case with Septimius Severus coins overstruck on those of Pescennius Niger) but simply an expedient way to double the value of the coin. Geta died before the issue of the first antoninianus. The original coin was a denarius weighing 3 grams. Overstriking produced a double denarius still weighing the same 3 grams (by this time an acceptable weight for the coin).

Overstriking is just one of the many subjects we call 'technical numismatics'. Many collectors will find this coin confusing and defective but I get great enjoyment out of looking again and again to find even more points of evidence of the undertype. Which hairs on Decius' face belong to his beard and which were Geta's? Some coin issues were regularly overstruck on earlier coins. One usurper, Regalianus, is always found overstruck, often so weakly that the original design is as strong as the new. Being able to identify the hidden undertype adds to the fun of what was already a nice coin.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith