Adoptio – The Controversial Accession of Hadrian


My latest acquisition highlights not only the insight Roman coins can provide into murky historical events around which our contemporary sources are often lacking but also their critical role as socio-political propaganda, affirming an imperial-approved historical narrative.


Silver denarius of Hadrian, late 117 CE, 3.24g, Obv: laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Hadrian (R) IMPS CAES TRAIAN HADRIANO OPT AVG GER DAC, Rev: Hadrian and Trajan stand facing each other clasping hands and exchanging scroll as sign of the adoption of Hadrian, ADOPTIO in exergue, PARTHIC DIVI TRAIAN AVG F P M TRP COS PP, RIC 3c RSC 4


The silver denarius bears one of the first numismatic portraits of Hadrian, shown in his early forties, and commemorates his adoption by the Emperor Trajan in 117 CE; a much-scrutinised event that has maintained a tarnish of controversy over the centuries.

After an inconclusive siege of the Persian city of Hatra (modern day Iraq) in which he suffered a bout of heat stroke and with his gains in the East coming under attack on numerous fronts, Trajan’s health began to fail him. Leaving the situation in the evidently capable hands of Hadrian, his cousin and fellow Spaniard, the imperial entourage boarded yachts at Seleucia Pieria at the mouth of the Orontes and set sail back to Rome in the summer of 117 CE.

The Emperor’s condition suddenly worsened as they skirted the coast of Asia Minor, perhaps suffering from a stroke, and soon after pulling into the nearest harbour of Selinus (modern Gazipaşa), Trajan expired. The official account places Trajan’s death around the 9th August, the same day that Hadrian received word of his official adoption in Antioch. Two days later, a blistering pace for news at the time, followed the news of Trajan’s death and his own accession.

It appears rumours quickly began to circulate about the authenticity of the adoption process, not helped by the obscure details surrounding Trajan’s death and documents signed by Trajan’s widow Plotina rather than the Emperor himself. An attendant of Trajan’s, Marcus Ulpius Phaedimus, also died at Selinus a few days later, adding to conspiratorial suspicions.

Hadrian had become a favourite of Trajan’s wife, Plotina and some theorised that together they had withheld news of Trajan’s death while adoption documents were forged or backdated. Yet no one could deny the imperial favour Hadrian had clearly enjoyed over the years: command of a legion in the Second Dacian War and subsequently the province of Pannonia Inferior, as well as marriage to the Emperor’s great-niece. Most objective observers agree that, despite the gossip no doubt peddled by hostile elements in the Senate, Hadrian was the clear and logical choice of successor.

Our silver denarius then gives us a privileged view into the social and political landscape in the immediate aftermath of Trajan’s death and Hadrian’s accession. Amid the backdrop of unpopular but necessary withdrawals of all his predecessor’s territorial gains in Mesopotamia and likely being tested by a sceptical Senate, the young, energetic new emperor is clearly trying to emphasise the absolute legitimacy of his position.

In a design, not seen before or after, the actual moment of adoption is shown, with Trajan and Hadrian clasping hands and exchanging the necessary documentation; a scene that almost certainly never took place. As if the message wasn’t clear enough to contemporary viewers the scene is emblazoned with the self explanatory declaration “ADOPTIO”. The fact this unique coin design was required at all shows us Hadrian clearly felt the need to publically and definitively tackle simmering conspiracy theories concerning his accession.

The 41 year old Hadrian is shown wearing cuirass armour, emphasising his military background, somewhat in contrast to the intellectual reputation he would later cultivate. He is also encircled by the numerous and by this stage, excessive titles he has inherited from Trajan such as “Germanicus”, “Dacicus” and “Parthicus”, which again reinforces the official status of his adoption. Such titles would gradually be removed from his coinage as he became more established on the throne, as would other ostentatious signs of imperial power such as the laurel wreath.

Though minted in a time of great stability and relative peace, the coin reveals an underlying anxiety about the very nature of imperial power and the exact manner in which it could be gifted to a successor, a problem the Romans were never to solve fully. It also shows a clear awareness of what rulers have found out the hard way for millennia; that the critical moment when this power is being passed on, is when it is at its most exposed and vulnerable.


“From the collection of…” – A denarius with a fascinating provenance.

Collectors of ancient coins soon learn to see themselves, not as owners, but temporary custodians of their beloved miniature works of ancient art. As with all antiquities, when a coin is unearthed a new chapter of its history begins and this modern tale can often be as enthralling as any ancient one. Coins specifically, can make their way through an impressive gallery of caretakers, every step enriching their history and narrative to a modern collector; many a time I have inspected the tag accompanying an ancient coin in the British Museum study rooms to read “from the collection of George III” or “Charles Townley”.

More than ever, a secure, interesting and long term provenance adds huge appeal to the collector. Even a common coin in average condition is elevated in every aspect by a confirmed modern history. Furthermore, thanks to the incredible size of many world renowned collections, it’s perfectly possible for a part of them to find their way to the palm of the most humble collector.


Denarius of Trajan, 114-117 CE, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust (r) Rev: providentia standing l. holding scepter, resting on column and pointing towards globe at her feet. RIC 362, old cabinet tone, from the collection of the Adams Presidential family and later E.E Clain Stefanelli of the Smithsonian.

This week I became the custodian of such a coin; it’s not rare or even in amazing condition but I know it will find a prized place in my collection. The denarius of Trajan began its modern life in the collection of the Adams family, the prominent Massachusetts political family that of course gave us the 2nd and 6th Presidents of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826) and John Quincy Adams (1767-1848).


John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), 6th President of the United States from 1825-1829


The Adams’ coin collection was auctioned by Stacks in March 1971 and like many of the pieces, my coin passed into the hands of Professor John A. Sawhill (1892-1976), a veteran of World War I and teacher of Latin, Greek and German at the James Madison University.



Professor John A. Sawhill (1892-1976) taught Latin, Greek and German language at JMU


Upon his death in 1976, the Sawhill collection was bequeathed to the James Madison University who then auctioned it, again through Stacks in March 1979.

The coin then passed into the hands of Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, long-time curator of the National Numismatics Collection at the Smithsonian. Here is an extract from the 2001 obituary of Mrs Clain-Stefanelli:

“Elvira Eliza Olinescu was an author, curator, critic and, above all, a survivor. Born in Bucharest, Romania, at the beginning of World War I, she and her family were forced to flee their village to avoid invading troops. At the end of the war, she returned home to the disputed territory between Austria and Romania. She would later earn a master’s degree in history from the University of Cernauti in Romania.

In 1939 she married Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli, a postgraduate student in Rome, who specialized in ancient coins. The couple were researching coins in Germany in 1942 when Vladimir was arrested by the Gestapo because his passport had been stolen and “used by an enemy of the state.” He was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he remained “a guest” until the end of World War II. Although pregnant, Elvira chose to join her husband in the camp. She later was released so their child would not be born in prison; however, after experiencing the bombings in Berlin, she returned to the camp, thinking it safer. She didn’t realize Buchenwald, the site of a V-2 rocket factory, was a target for Allied bombings.”


Elvira and Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli have been called “treasures of Numismatics” for their work in developing the National Numismatics Collection.

Starting a new life in America in 1951, the Clain-Stefanellis’ expertise in the field led to them becoming curators of the Smithsonian collection in 1956. They aggressively expanded the holdings of the collection from 60,000 to over 900,000 pieces, securing donations from many benefactors, turning the Smithsonian’s numismatic cabinet into a world class collection. After her husband’s death in 1982, Elvira became executive director, continuing her work developing the collection and going on to win many awards in the field of numismatics. Surely a life worthy of a more official biography?

After her death in 2001, the personal collection of the Clain-Stefanellis was dispersed to be enjoyed and studied by collectors around the world and pieces continue to fill lots at auctions. This is coin collecting is at its most satisfying: holding an already ancient work of art in your hand, now lustrously toned from many decades in the coin cabinet of heroically dedicated historians like the Adams’, Professor Sawhill and the Clain-Stefanellis.