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.

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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.

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“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.

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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).

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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.

 

Sawhill_portrait

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.”

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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.

The Curious Case of Claudius’ Missing Denarii

The silver denarius was the workhorse of the Roman numismatic system. The most common denomination minted for many successive centuries and the perfect value coin with which to pay salaries and manage everyday transactions. New arrivals to the “Hobby of Kings”: Roman coin collecting, are often surprised how easy it is to acquire a silver denarius of a well known emperor for their collections.

As a general rule, emperors who ruled for many years had longer to mint their coins, which will therefore survive in greater numbers than an emperor who ruled for months or even weeks. On occasion, an emperor was unlucky enough to have their memory damned – “damnatio memoriae” – and concerted efforts were made by the state to collect and melt down their coins (e.g. Caligula) so rarity of these rulers is understandable.

Yet the coinage of one famous emperor presents a unique conundrum to modern numismatists; a mystery I was reminded of upon seeing a particular numismatic beauty that has recently come up for auction:

Denarius of Claudius in Roma Numismatic’s Auction X.

Denarius of Claudius

Denarius of Claudius in Roma Numismatic’s upcoming Auction X. AD 41-42. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG GERM P M TR P, laureate head right / CONSTANTIAE AVGVSTI, Constantia seated left on curule chair, feet on stool, raising hand. RIC 14; von Kaenel Type 9; RSC 6. 3.77g, 18mm, 8h.

Another thing new coin collectors quickly learn is that unless they have recently won the lottery or are happy to part with a kidney, they should lower their expectations of ever getting a genuine silver coin of the fourth emperor and conqueror of Britannia: Claudius.

To put it simply and to use a phrase from my father, silver denarii of Claudius are “as rare as hen’s teeth”. Many well established collectors have seen only a handful in shows and auctions over the years and those who dare to attempt the Holy Grail of Roman coin collecting – “The 12 Caesars” – will be accustomed to the frustrating gap between Caligula and Nero.

Why is it far easier to find a denarius of emperors that ruled for mere months such as Galba, Otho and Vitellius, (successive emperors in 69 CE), than it is to find a denarius of Claudius who ruled for 13 years?

Various theories have been put forward to try and explain the tiny amount of Claudian denarii that survived through the ages but none seem to provide a clear answer.

  • Nero’s debasements and “Gresham’s Law” – Claudius’ successor Nero lowered the silver content and therefore the value of the denarius;  1/84 of a pound, or 3.90 grams, was reduced to 1/96 of a pound or 3.41 grams. “Gresham’s Law” that “bad money will drive out the good” could have come into play during Nero’s reign, with those in-the-know hoarding or melting the “good” higher silver content denarii of Claudius and circulating the “bad” lower value coins of Nero. Yet, this fails to answer why earlier high-value denarii of Tiberius, Augustus and even the Republic stayed in circulation often for centuries and survive today in healthy numbers.
  • Moving the Mints – Claudius appears to have minted much of his gold and silver coinage not in Rome but in Lugdunum (Lyon), his city of birth. Did Lugdunum struggle to mint coins at the same rate? Nero brought the minting of these coins back to Rome so perhaps there were problems with the Lugdunum mint? Claudius seems to have had a particular problem with official mints counterfeiting coinage during his reign, minting very convincing “fouree” denarii with cheap copper cores. These fake denarii are actually easier to find today than the genuine ones!
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Ancient “fouree” counterfeit of Claudius with visible copper core.

  • Less denarii minted – Perhaps Claudius simply minted far less denarii than his predecessors? Did he hold more trust in the stable value of bronze or just judge that there was enough gold and silver already in circulation when he came to power? On the other hand, Provincial eastern mints such as Ephesus seem to have continued minting in steady numbers in all metals.
  • Nero’s ego – Though his reign was a surprising success and Claudius’ reputation has survived largely unblemished over the millennia, perhaps his successor Nero jealously indulged in an unofficial damnatio memoriae against his grand-uncle. Nero may have melted down the most recently minted and easily collectible silver coins to create his own but there is no evidence for this and again, why just focus on denarii?

It’s a puzzle that will continue to confound numismatists until an all encompassing answer is found, which seems unlikely. In the meantime, I have for sale: 1 kidney in good working order if anyone is interested?

The Didcot Hoard

The Didcot Hoard on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Didcot Hoard on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This incredible hoard was found by metal detectorist Bill Darley in 1995, near the Oxfordshire town of Didcot.

Whilst hoards of bronze and silver coinage are relatively common from Roman Britain, (with some notable examples found in just the last few years) this hoard instead consists of 126 gold coins or aurei. The aureus (from the latin for “golden”) was the standard gold denomination of the Roman Empire and was valued at 25 silver denarii. Though the aureus was the same size as the denarius, the increased density of gold gave it twice the weight, usually between 7-8 grams in the first century. The aureus is also known for its consistently outstanding purity level, near to 24-carat gold in excess of 99%, putting many more modern “gold” coins to shame.

The practical usage of the aureus in antiquity is still debated but its high value and small size meant that it was:

  • A practical way for the rich to store long-term savings.
  • Used in large scale payments in big business, taxes and government level transactions.
  • Often used to pay wages of the Roman Army.
  • Given as “gifts”, donatives from a new emperor.

The dating of the hoard is another singular aspect that makes it stand out amongst the hoards of Roman Britain. Most hoards were buried in times of economic and military crisis; in an age before modern banking, this was often the most reliable way to store personal wealth, yet in these dangerous days many owners never returned to retrieve their secreted treasure. Such hoards have given us an immense amount of historical knowledge and usually speak of the increasing instability of Britannia through the 4th and into the 5th centuries.

The Didcot Hoard on the other hand, dates from a comparatively much more stable period. Represented are the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian and his two sons Titus and Domitian, as well as the whole span of the “Good Emperors” (& some of their wives), Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius – figures who, though they fought wars in their own right, presided over two centuries of great internal peace.

As the latest coin in the hoard dates from 160 CE, the final year of the reign of Antoninus Pius, it has been proposed that perhaps the hoard represents a donative on the accession of the new emperor, Marcus Aurelius. It had become a tradition for new emperors to inaugurate and cement their new reign with generous gifts to high ranking officials, miltary officers and common soldiers.

The fact that the hoard was equivalent to 10.5 years salary for a Roman legionary of the time (300 denarii per year from the time of Domitian), emphasises the huge loss this hoard must have represented to the person/s involved. We can never know why exactly an individual buried this pot of gold in rural Oxfordshire two millennia ago but we can theorise:

Is this a donative from Marcus Aurelius to an official of Roman Britain, who buried it for safe keeping but died soon after? Is the hoard a result of theft or perhaps “skimming off the top” local corruption? Or are these simply just the savings of a rich local or a very prudent Roman soldier? What do you think?

Silver Denarius of Gaius Caligula Found with Metal Detector!! Joe Geranio

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Caligula Denarius Found with Metal Detector

Found with Metal Detector!! Caligula

Frank, a member of our Julio Claudian group was blessed enough to find this silver denarius with Germanicus reverse. I did not want to lose the information so I finally got around to putting into the Juio Claudian pool, Amazing find Frank!!  Could you imagine finding a piece of Julio Claudian history in the terra!

Here are some details of the find. In fact, this denarius of Caligula is part of a small treasure of 20 denarii, scattered over a small area of semi-arid scrub land, near the ancient roman city of Nemausus (today Nimes). Thanks to the calcarious soil the coins did not suffer corrosion. Besides some broken roman tiles, the area was virgin. It was evidently a site where was located a small country house, modest in all ways and deserted ever since the first century AD. Through the wear of the coins…

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