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Son of Caracalla

Ann Johnson writes about the challenges of differentiating provincial coinage of Caracalla and Elagabalus: Johnston, A. (1982). Caracalla or Elagabalus? A case of unnecessarily mistaken identity. Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society),27, 97-147. My latest provincial is just such a coin, attributed in error by the auction house to Caracalla.

Julia Maesa might be pleased to know that >1800 years after his reign people are still confused by similarities between her grandson, Bassianus a.k.a. "Elagabalus", and her nephew Caracalla. She promoted the resemblance to take power through her grandson and restore a Severan as emperor. Julia Maesa eventually had both Elagabalus, and her daughter, his mother, Julia Soaemias, killed, but that comes later.

Julia Soaemias, mother of Bassianus, a.k.a. Elagabalus, Augusta, AD 218-222, AR Denarius, Rome mint. Struck under Elagabalus, AD 218-220

Obv: IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG, draped bust right

Rev: VENVS CAELESTIS, Venus Caelestis seated left, holding apple and scepter; to left, child standing right, raising hands

Ref: RIC IV 243 (Elagabalus)


The Rebellion

At first, the young Bassianus seemed a promising way to take back power from Macrinus, for the Severans. Maesa, shrewdly, waited to strike until the emperor Macrinus had made peace with the Parthians. She organized a rebellion near Emesa, passing her grandson Bassianus as the son of Caracalla.

Macrinus, AD 217-218, AR Denarius (18mm, 2.75g, 12h), Rome mint, 3rd emission, AD 218

Obv: IMP CM OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG, laureate and draped bust right, wearing long beard

Rev: P M TR P II COS P P Annona standing left, holding grain ears over modius and cornucopia

Ref: RIC IV 26c (draped and curaissed); Clay Issue 3; RSC 47a (Antioch)

Macrinus, AD 217-218, AR Denarius, Rome mint, 3rd emission, AD 218

Obv: IMP C M OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right

Rev: AEQVITAS AVG, Aequitas standing left, holding scales and cornucopia

Ref: RIC IV 53

Note: coin split in half


He is known as "Elagabalus" because he was a priest of the sun god, worshiped in Emesa with the Phoenician name Elagabal. The followers worshiped a large black stone from Zeus as divine and linked to the sun god.


Herodian tells the story in book five of his history of the Roman Empire. He highlights Maesa's wealth, and Bassianus attracting attention for both his beauty and his curious priestly rituals.


"...Maesa, either inventing the story or telling the truth, informed them that Bassianus was really the son of Caracalla, although it might appear that he had another father. She claimed that when she was living in the palace with her sister, Caracalla slept with both of her daughters, who were young and beautiful."

-Herodian, 5.3.10


The Engravers of this coin

Overall the Syrian tetradrachms of Elagabalus are puzzling as engravers known from multiple cities seem to share obverse dies. Two possibilities, either all the engravers were either relocated to Antioch or all obverse dies were cut in Antioch and shipped to various mints. Prieur, in The Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachsm, favors the former hypothesis, that engravers were moved to the mint in Antioch. [Addendum: McAlee, The Coins of Roman Antioch, CNG, 2007, p.285/6, makes a compelling argument that the consolidated mint may have been Emesa or Laodicea and leans toward Emesa]


This coin is listed as a previously unknown reverse engraver, while others from the same period are engravers operating in Antioch from Emesa, Carrhae, and Lodicea. This coin has "dotted wings" style reverse and seems a good match with 264 in Prieur's catalog. The rebellion of Elagabalus against Macrinus, started in Emesa with Julia Maesa, then about 50 years old, bribing the soldiers of the Legio III Gallica. (See Prieur, Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms, 2000, p.49).


The portrait on this coin is, in my view, particularly fine style - here is my photo of the same coin:

Elagabalus, AR Tetradrachm of Antioch, Syria. AD 218-222

Obv: ΑYΤ Κ Μ Α ΑΝΤωΝΕΙΝΟC CΕΒ, laureate head right, with slight drapery

Rev: ΔΗΜΑΡΧΕΞ YΠΑΤΟC ΤΟ Β, eagle standing facing with spread wings, head and tail left, holding wreath in his beak; Δ-Ε across upper fields, star between legs

Ref: Prieur 264 with 6 examples known at time of publication

Maesa arranged the marriage of Elagabalus to Cornelia Paula from an important aristocratic family, the gens Cornelia, to improve his acceptance in Rome. She became Julia Paula.

Julia Paula, Augusta, AD 219-220, AR Denarius, Rome mint, struck under Elagabalus, AD 220

Obv: IVLIA PAVLA AVG, draped bust right

Rev: CONCORDIA, Concordia seated left, holding patera; star to left

Ref: RIC IV 211 (Elagabalus)


However, the marriage didn't last long before Elagabalus scandalized Roman society by divorcing his wife and marrying a Vestal virgin. This was hastily repaired by Julia Maesa with another marriage to a friend of hers Aquilia Severa (for more on this see: this 2016 article on the politics of Elagabalus' rise and fall). This next coin depicts Elagabalus wearing a "horn" that was identified as a bull's penis in this 1997 paper:


Krengel, E. “Das sogenannte “Horn” des Elagabal – Die Spitze eines Steierpenis”, Jahrbuch fur Numismatik und Geldgeschichte 47 (1997)

Elagabalus (218-222), AR Denarius, Rome, AD 221

Obv: IMP ANTONINVS - PIVS AVG, laureate, horned, cuirassed and draped bust right

Rev: P M TR P IIII COS - III P P, emperor standing left, sacrificing out of patera over altar and holding branch on left, star above patera on his right, two standards on his left


Roman politics were brutal. Julia Maesa, seeing her hold on power threatened by her grandson, arranged another change in control to her next grandson, Severus Alexander. Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were murdered by the praetorian guard. Herodian who lived through this time, AD 170 - c. 240, gives a contemporary account.


"They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus [a.k.a. Elagabalus] and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber."

-Herodian, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius, 5.8.9


Caracalla was not subjected to damnatio memoriae after his death, but Macrinus did make some modest efforts to remove the emperor's statues from public display. Elagabalus was given a more official erasure from history than his look-a-like.


For coins of Severus Alexander: see The Last Severan Emperor.

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