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Recalling Days of Good Governance

[photo by Diliff used under CC BY-SA license]

The Julio-Claudian dynasty began with the end of civil war and Octavian becoming the first emperor emperor, Augustus, in 27 BC. The family dynasty ended after 5 emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Nero's suicide in the 9th of June, AD 68, at roughly 30 years of age, ended his miserable reign. A recent Smithsonian article debates whether Nero was evil or incompetent, but even this more forgiving view of Nero doesn't claim that he was good for Rome.

Coins were an important imperial communication channel: Laffranchi (1911) describes: "At that time coins were the official journal that brought news of all political, economic and military events of the day. Not only that, but even many years after an important historical event, it was also the coins that recalled, daily, the memory of past events to the eyes of the people."

My coin of interest this week is from Vespasian, and the reverse struck me as unusual and appealing, bringing to mind more modern coins showing trees e.g. the US quarter of the State of Connecticut with its Charter Oak, hiding place for the state's constitution (US Mint photo - not my coin):

or this 1652 Pine Tree Shilling from the State of Massachusetts (ACSearch photo - not my coin):

My coin of interest today is described in RIC (2nd edition) as "archaising" - consciously imitating a very old or old-fashioned style. For Vespasian this coin imitates similar coins from Augustus, especially this one RIC 51 (ACSearch - not my coin):

Laurel trees in Imperial Rome were associated with Julius Caesar, with Victory, with Apollo and the trees in front of Augustus' residence were recognizable symbols of the power and the era of concord achieved under Augustus:

"Now Caesar [Augustus] had received many privileges and honours even previously, when the question of declining the sovereignty and that of apportioning the provinces were under discussion. For the right to place the laurel trees in front of the royal residence and to hang the crown of oak above them was then voted him to symbolise that he was always victor over his enemies and the saviour of the citizens."
-Cassius Dio, LIII 16.4

and in the words of Augustus himself:

"In my sixth and seventh consulships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy" (Res Gestae 34).

There is a 1973 book on the subject from Andreas Afoldi that unfortunately is not available in electronic form, Die zwei Lorbeerbäume des Augustus. Vespasian recalls the great days of August's reign and draws parallels to Augustus with this coin:

Roman Imperial, Vespasian, AD 69-79, AR Denarius, Rome mint, struck AD 74

Obv: IMP CAESAR VESP AVG, laureate head right

Rev: COS V across field between two laurel trees

Ref: RIC II 681 (rare)

The weathered look of the obverse portrait on this coin brings to mind the coarse description from Suetonius (Suetonius, born approximately in the year that Vespasian became emperor, was clearly not the most reverent or respectful of biographers):

"He was well built, with strong, sturdy limbs, and the expression of one who was straining. Apropos of which a witty fellow, when Vespasian asked him to make a joke on him also, replied rather cleverly: "I will, when you have finished relieving yourself."
- Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 20.1​ 

In a 1972 article, Buttrey discusses the imitative types across Vespasian's reign and challenging an earlier argument of Laffranchi (1911) on these coins and the civil war between Antony and Octavian. Plates 12 & 13 show side by side the related coins he refers us to the Laffranchi article for coins not shown.

Laffranchi's Plate VIII shows side-by-side the coins of Augustus and Vespasian. The Vespasian coin with a somewhat trapezoidal flan shape, similar to mine, and not unusual for this issue, seen also in the plate coin.

Although it is available online, Lodovico Laffranchi's article on this period is much nicer as an yellowed, somewhat fragile, set of pages ("Estratto dal Fascicolo IV") from 1911.

"La moneta era in quell'epoca il manifesto uffi-ciale che recava notizia di tutti gli avvenimenti, politici, economici e militari del momento, non solo, ma anche a molti anni da un avvenimento storico importante, era ancora la moneta che lo rievocava quotidianamente a gli occhi del popolo, il quale si abituava perciò a considerare la memoria del fatto e la moneta come un corpo solo inscindibile."
-Laffranchi, L. (1911). "Un Centenario Numismatico nell'antichitá", Revista Italiana di Numismatica, Milano.​

"The coin was at that time the official journal that carried news of all the political, economic and military events of the moment, not only, but also many years after an important historical event, it was still the coin that recalled it daily to the eyes of the people, who therefore got used to considering the memory of the event and the coin as a single inseparable body."

Vespasian and his sons funded ambitious building projects in Rome, one of the most lasting of which is the Colosseum. After an evil or at least inept emperor, and a period of civil war, Vespasian's coins shared the message, daily, that the good governance of the Flavians, a new era like that of the Augustan age of 100 years earlier.

For a coin of Vespasian setting up his sons as successors see the second coin in this Note: "Coins of Vespasian from Ephesus".


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