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Not the Usual "12 Caesars"

Suetonius is responsible for setting the 12-Caesars benchmark that all ancient coin collectors have to live with. There are other sets of rulers to pursue - but inevitably the "12 Caesars set" has captured to attention of collectors for generations. Although I have been collecting Roman and Roman republican coins for a long time, I still hadn't collected coins of all 12 Caesars. That changed with a couple of recent arrivals for Julius Caesar and Otho.

Suetonius' De vita Caesarum or "About the Life of the Caesars" was published around 121 AD during the reign of Hadrian. It is a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. The list of 12 is easy to find in the Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian

I have two problems with the list and how it is generally collected (12 portrait coins - see CoinWorld article and NGC has a nice set in gold):

First, it includes Julius Caesar, a difficult portrait coin - hard to come by except very worn or very expensive.

Second, it includes Galba, Otho, Vitellius, who were only transitional rulers as they lasted for a short period during the turbulent year after Nero's death, and as a result, less interesting to me than other figures when it comes to the arc of Roman history.

All of that said, I found myself wanting to satisfy this "requirement" of a collector of Roman coins - which maybe speaks to the power of peer pressure. In the end - despite my reluctance - I am quite pleased with my "12 Caesars Set". It isn't the usual: a set of all silver, all issued in Rome, or a all Bronze, all issued in Rome. Instead it is a set that hints at the breadth of Roman influence and samples artistic diversity from the Iberian peninsula to the middle east and includes 6 bronzes (if I count a dark toned BI - billion or silver alloy - tetradrachm of Galba from Alexandria Egypt as a bronze) and 6 silver coins from roughly a century of Roman emperors:

12 Caesars, provincial style with a Vitellius from Rome to represent the city. Would it be understatement to say that Vitellius' main contribution to Roman history was uniting astrologers and comedians against the emperor? "he was especially hostile to writers of lampoons and to astrologers, and whenever any one of them was accused, he put him to death without trial, particularly incensed because after a proclamation of his in which he ordered the astrologers to leave the city and Italy before the Kalends of October, a placard was at once posted, reading: "By proclamation of the Chaldeans [astrologers], God bless the State! Before the same day and date let Vitellius Germanicus have ceased to live." -Suetonius, The Life of Vitellius, 14.4

I am especially pleased to have a rare portrait of Julius Caesar and Augustus on a Roman provincial coin with a bit of a mystery about its date and mint (top left in the image). Here is a close up with the attribution:

Macedon, Thessalonica or Unknown Asia Minor mint, Augustus, with Divus Julius Caesar, 27 BC-AD 14, Æ (21mm, 8.66g, 6h)

Obv: ΘEOC, bare head of Divus Julius Caesar right

Rev: CEBACTOY ΘE, bare head of Augustus right

Ref: BMC 61; Varbanov 4154; RPC I 5421 (uncertain mint)

Rarity: 12 specimen are listed in in RPC online and my example is the second heaviest and nicer condition and style in my view than the other examples with photos. Varbanov lists the coin 4154 as R5 = 100-200 examples.

The Mint: CNG describes these coins (CNG Auction 108 Lot 449 16-May-2018) as "enigmatic", and that Barclay V. Head (British Museum numismatist) assigned this coin to Thessalonica, but Touratsoglou (Die Münzstätte von Thessaloniki in der römischen Kaiserzeit [1988], p. 43, no. 69) rejected this attribution and suggested an uncertain mint in Asia Minor. Touratsoglou bases his case on die axis and style. The coins are similar to the Thessalonican issues with Divus Julius Caesar/Augustus, which Touratsoglou attributed to the time of Domitian and RPC dated to the time of Augustus.

The Puzzle: There is an important question about the ΘE on the reverse of this coin: is it an abbreviation of ΘEΣΣAΛONIKEΩN or does it identify Augustus as a θEOC, indicating that this coin was issued after the death of Augustus and after his deification?

Interestingly, the most recent article also reverses and earlier CNG (Classical Numismatic Group 75 23-May-2007, lot 798) suggestion of die link evidence: "It should be noted the die links claimed in CNG 75 are erroneous, and there is no clear indication that the reverse legend was recut. Thus the present piece offers no conclusive evidence that this issue was struck in Thessalonica, as was stated in the 2007 sale."

The Solution: I find the connection with the two coins below (both RPC I 1555) pretty compelling, even conclusive, where Thessalonika is spelled out (ΘΕCCΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΩΝ) although not properly described by Gorny & Mosch in Auction 274 Lot 2543 20-November-2020:

and this coin also spelling out iΘΕCCΑΛΟΝΙΚΕΩΝ and properly described in a Naumann auction in 2017 (Auction 56 Lot 318 06-August-2017):

Die axes reported in RPC are varied for these two coins. I think that RPC 1555 safely put to rest any ambiguity on the location and date of these coins - ΘΕ clearly not a reference to deified Augustus and the mint clearly Thessalonica from the lifetime of Augustus. One other data point that I found interesting, but haven't quite decided how to apply: there are not that many coins in the ACSearch database that reference Augustus and spell out CEBASTOY or ΣEBASTOY - only 180 total, most of which are AEs, and many of which are from Rhoemetalkes I with Augustus from Thrace which have similar, crude cartoon portrait style.

For Otho, this a tetradrachm of Antioch which is a nice hefty silver coin. Otho looks very Nero-like, to me, in this portrait.

Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, Otho, AD 69, AR Tetradrachm (26mm, 14.09g, 12h), dated "New Holy Year" 2 (AD 68/9)


Rev: Eagle standing left on wreath, with wings spread, holding wreath in beak; palm branch to left, crescent between legs, [ЄTOYC A] (date) below

Ref: McAlee 316; Prieur 101; RPC I 4199

My Julius Caesar portrait was issued after his death - I don't think I am likely to add a lifetime portrait of Julius Caesar any time soon - although I do have a lifetime coin issued during his dictatorship that celebrates his families ancestors and claims to divinity with Aeneas and Venus.

Julius Caesar 47-46 BC

AR Denarius (19mm, 3.6g), North Africa mint

Obv: Diademed head of Venus facing right

Rev: CAESAR, Aeneas advancing left, carrying his father Anchises on left shoulder and palladium

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