Power Behind the Throne
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I've always had difficulty passing up a Salus reverse (Goddess of Health) , and even more so in this year of COVID-19. This coin is from a youthful Severus Alexander who replaced his cousin Elagabalus as emperor (also called Heliogabalus, or Antoninus). I particularly like the youthful portrait from his first year - the youngest emperor, until Gordian III in AD 238 - I also like the bold snake on this coin. Severus Alexander was about 14-years-old when he became emperor - I am trying to imagine my own children at 14 as emperor. This coin also has a question mark hanging over it: was it minted in Rome? The portrait style looks somewhat like the style of Antioch, but has the legend found on the coins from Rome mint.
Severus Alexander, AR denarius, 222-235 AD, Rome (possibly Antioch?), 222 AD Obv: IMP C M AVR SEV ALEXAND AVG, bust laureate, draped, cuirassed right Rev: P M TR P - COS P P, Salus seated left holding patera to snake rising from altar, left elbow on arm rest Ref: RIC 298 (Severus Alexander) different reverse legend OR RIC 14c different mint A few pages of Herodian are interesting to read describing the plans of Julia Maesa to stay relevant as Heliogabalus (Elagabalus) became increasingly unacceptable, how Alexianus became Alexander, and the control exerted by Maesa and Mamaea over the young emperor:
"...the emperor was dominated by his mother and obeyed her every command. One might bring this single charge against Alexander, that his excessive amiability and abnormal filial devotion led him to bow to his mother in matters he personally disapproved." -Herodian, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius, 6.1.10
And here are coins of the real power behind the throne from before the start of his reign: his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and mother, Julia Mamaea. A coin of his grandmother (SAECVLI FELICITAS ~= Times of Good Fortune):
Julia Maesa, AD 218-224,Rome, AR Denarius
Obv: IVLIA MAESA AVG, draped bust of Julia Maesa to right
Rev: SAECVLI FELICITAS, Felicitas standing facing, head left, holding patera over burning altar in right hand and long caduceus in left, to right, star
and when Julia Maesa died in AD 224 his mother began her sole reign (FELICITAS PVBLICA ~= Good Fortune of the Roman Public":
Julia Mamaea, Issued by Severus Alexander, 222 - 235 AD, AR Denarius, Rome Mint Obv: IVLIA MAMAEA AVG, Bust of Julia Mamaea, diademed, draped, right Rev: FELICITAS PVBLICA, Felicitas, draped, seated left, holding caduceus in right hand and cornucopiae in left hand Ref: RIC IV Severus Alexander 338
Here's a nice overview of the Four Roman Julias: Powerful Women of Imperial Rome.
The fates of the five emperors in the Severan dynasty were all strongly influenced by these Julias.
The Severan Dynasty lasted forty two years (AD 193 - 235) and ends with Severus Alexander, of whom the Historia August reports:
"He ruled for thirteen years and nine days, and he lived for twenty-nine years, three months, and seven days. He did everything in accordance with his mother's advice, and she was killed with him. "
- Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander, Part 3.60