The “Golden Age” of the Roman Empire had been disintegrating for 30
years by the time the Emperor Commodus was murdered in a palace coup
on New Year’s Eve, A.D. 192.
As much as the overthrow of this inept emperor was a cause for
celebration, the four years that followed were hardly an improvement.
The initial response was promising. Power was assumed by Pertinax,
a consul and the prefect of the city of Rome. He introduced reforms
that seemingly would benefit the empire, but that threatened the
interests of officials who had thrived on the graft and corruption
Pertinax was murdered after a rule of only 86 days, but not before
he struck a good number of coins in gold, silver and base metal. These
coins are scarce or rare today. Exceptionally rare coins were also
struck in Alexandria, Egypt, for his wife and son.
What followed his murder may be the lowest moment in Roman
history. The right to rule the empire was sold at a public auction by
the praetorian guards — the very men responsible for the emperor’s
protection. The highest bidder was Didius Julianus, a wealthy nobleman
who had more money than scruples.
For all his wealth and ambition, Didius Julianus was not up to the
task. Not only did he fail to produce the funds he had promised the
praetorian guards at the auction, but he was unable to oppose
rebellions that in the meantime had been raised by generals in the provinces.
Three frontier generals responded to pleas sent throughout the
empire by citizens of Rome. One general, Clodius Albinus, was based in
Britain; another, Pescennius Niger, was at the other end of the Roman
world, in Syria. A third, Septimius Severus, was in a far better
position, for he was stationed at Carnuntum, a legionary stronghold in
the northeastern part of modern Austria.
Only a few days’ march from the capital, Septimius Severus was the
greatest threat to Rome’s new emperor. He had command of more than
three legions in Pannonia and soon gained the support of all the
remaining legions stationed along the Rhine and Danube, totaling more
than 16 legions. The praetorian guards would be no match for the
seasoned Pannonian legions commanded by Septimius Severus.
Didius Julianus was murdered 65 or 66 days after he’d purchased
the throne. His coinage is very much like that of Pertinax, consisting
of standard imperial issues in all three metals, though they are even
more difficult for collectors to locate. The same may be said for the
coins he struck for his wife, Manlia Scantilla, and his daughter,
Upon arriving in Rome, Septimius Severus took command. The Senate
reluctantly hailed him emperor, and the praetorian guards handed over
the men responsible for the murder of Pertinax. Soon enough, Rome’s
new emperor replaced the entire praetorian guard with a force of men
loyal to him and numbering twice as many as in the old guard.
Now secure in Rome, Severus began to issue coins in his own name
and that of his wife, the Syrian noblewoman Julia Domna. Severus even
struck some very rare coins in memory of the slain Pertinax, whom he
had forced the Senate to deify.
However, Severus still needed to tie up loose ends. Clodius
Albinus and Pescennius Niger had both been hailed emperor by their
legions, and they seemed eager to stick to their claims. Severus put
Albinus at bay by granting him the subordinate title of Caesar, which
allowed Severus the freedom to deal with Niger.
Under this arrangement, Severus issued many coins at the Rome Mint
on behalf of Albinus as Caesar. Meanwhile, far more substantial
emissions continued for Severus and Domna as they led an army east. In
a series of engagements in Thrace and Asia Minor, they defeated
While there, they struck imperial coins at mints in the East,
including Laodicea and Emesa in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. The
distinctive style of these coins — principally silver denarii —
distinguishes them from the Rome Mint issues. Most of Niger’s imperial
coins were produced at Antioch, though it seems that a second mint,
perhaps Caesarea in Cappadocia, issued a smaller quantity of his
The civil war with Niger ended by the fall of 194, but the Severan
family remained in the East for a year or more afterward to lead
punitive expeditions against those who had supported Niger.
Upon returning to Rome late in 195, Severus made his move against
Albinus, who in the meantime had loyally remained in Britain as its
governor. Severus declared Albinus a public enemy and instead raised
his eldest son, Caracalla, to the rank of Caesar. This dashed all
hopes in the Senate for a restraint against Severus, who through this
act had established a family dynasty.
Albinus reacted quickly, preparing for the inevitable war by
crossing the channel and basing himself in Gaul. Meanwhile, Severus
stopped issuing coins for Albinus and, presumably early in 196, began
to strike coins for Caracalla. Also, Albinus began to strike his own
coins, which bore his name and the title of Augustus.
With Albinus producing such coins, there was no doubt that he and
Severus would have to launch the empire into another civil war to
resolve their differences. The mint of Albinus’ coins as Augustus has
been identified as Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons, France) based upon
historical circumstances and the fact that one issue of denarii has a
reverse type celebrating that city.
Lugdunum was a principal mint for Roman gold and silver coins
under the Julio-Claudians in the first century A.D., but had been
inactive since the late 70s A.D. The lack of recent experience is
clear, for the Lugdunese coins are quite different from the
contemporary Rome Mint issues in both style and production quality.
The civil war ended when Severus defeated Albinus in a pitched
battle outside Lugdunum in February 197, by which he consolidated his
grip on the empire. In the following year, 198, Severus also began to
strike coins in the name of his youngest son, Geta, whom he had raised
to the rank of Caesar to round out his family dynasty. ■