Father of the Country
Updated: Sep 20
"Whenever you desire to cheer yourself, think upon the merits of those who are alive with you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, of another some other gift. For nothing is so cheering as the images of the virtues shining in the character of contemporaries, and meeting so far as possible in a group. Therefore you should keep them ready to your hand."
-Marcus Aurelius Meditations, VI.48
In my last post on one of the earliest coins of Hadrian, I mentioned that the featured coin inappropriately carried over the titles of Trajan on the coin of Hadrian. This was perhaps a result of poor succession planning and the hurried efforts during the transition from Trajan. The titles were soon removed from coins.
There is one title,"Pater Patriae" or "Father of the Fatherland or Country", that I focus on today, which appears on my latest Alexandrian drachm. From the time of Augustus, there was a ritual of "recusatio" or refusal of the title of "Pater Patriae". Augustus refused the title until 2 BC, by which time he had been emperor for about 25 years.
This journal article provides an interesting overview of the use of this title throughout the history of the empire: Stevenson, T. (2007). Roman Coins and Refusals of the Title "Pater Patriae". The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-),167, 119-141. Another paper by Stevenson, provides a summary of the modern debate on the role of the title Pater Patriae, "Andreas Alfӧldi on the Roman Emperor as Pater Patriae". A simple thought that stays with me is that the ritual of refusing the title, until earned, was a way for the emperor to show humility and deference to the traditions of the republic and the senate, albeit with no obvious consequence to his power. Hadrian in particular needed to show a bit of deference to the senate early in his reign.
Perhaps also more modest than most, Hadrian takes a longer time to accept this title than all predecessors but Augustus, about 11 years. Hadrian became emperor on August 8 or 9, AD 117. This coin (RIC II Hadrian 916) was struck between AD 134 and 138 and has P. P. in the legend.
AR denarius from the last years for Hadrian's reign AD 134-138
Obv: HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS P P. Laureate head right.
Rev: COS III. Victory seated left, holding wreath and palm.
Size: 18.5-19.5mm 3.24g
Ref: RIC II Hadrian 916
There is an earlier variant of this coin, Hadrian 858, that omits the title P.P. on the obverse, like the obverse that starts this post (a COS III Neptune reverse from AD 124-128). Historia Augusta relates this about Hadrian:
"Later, when the senate offered him the triumph which was to have been Trajan's, he refused it for himself, and caused the effigy of the dead Emperor to be carried in a triumphal chariot, in order that the best of emperors might not lose even after death the honour of a triumph. Also he refused for the present the title of Father of his Country, offered to him at the time of his accession and again later on, giving as his reason the fact that Augustus had not won it until late in life." - Historia Augusta, Hadrian 6.3
Not everyone got titles right. This inscription from Eleutherna, Roman Crete, declares Hadrian "πατρὶ πατρίδος" (highlighted in the image below) from a statue dated to AD 117/8, before he had accepted the title.
Translation: "To the Emperor Caesar, son of the divine Nerva Trajan, grandson of the divine Nerva, Trajan Hadrian Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, (exercising) tribunician power, consul for the second time, pater patriae, the city of Eleutherna (dedicated this statue)."
When Hadrian did accept the title in AD 128, it was added to coins in Rome discreetly. In Alexandria, they were more exuberant in declaring on his coins (RY 12 and 13):
Egypt, Alexandria, Hadrian, BI Tetradrachm, dated RY 12 = AD 127/8
Obv: AYT KAI TPAI AΔPIA CEB, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right
Rev: ΠATHP ΠATPIΔ[OC] (== Pater Patridos), clasped hands; L IB (date) above and below hands
Ref: Dattari (Savio) 1524
In the Dictionary of Roman Coins acknowledges the reality of the "honor" with absolute power of the emperor largely unchecked by a senate:
"bestowed, as in the previous instances, sometimes on princes who possessed claims on the public gratitude, but much more frequently awarded to unworthy and even odious men in a spirit of servile flattery by a frightened and degraded senate."
This is a useful reminder of the importance of the three separate but equal branches of government established by the authors of the U.S. Constitution: the legislative branch (makes the law), the executive branch (enforces the law), and the judicial branch (interprets the law).
It is interesting to see this same title applied to George Washington ~1800 years later on a Revolutionary War button. This button sold at a Heritage Auction in 2018 for $225,000) and for more description see the write-up by Robert J. Silverstein.
Pater Patriae representing, in its ideal form. authority that is earned and popularly granted, in contrast with REX, which was a title associated with authoritarian and tyrannical rule that was not preferred by either Roman citizens or American colonists from their governors.