Ancient coins with animal designs struck to mark Roman civilization's millennium

Ancients Today column from the Sept. 1, 2014, issue of Coin World
By , Coin World
Published : 08/18/14
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The archaeological record shows that the site of Rome has been inhabited since about 1000 B.C., but in ancient Roman lore, codified by Varro, its official foundation date was April 21, 753 B.C.

A thousand years afterward, Romans empire-wide thus celebrated the millennium of their civilization.

The reigning emperor, Philip I (A.D. 244 to 249), did not miss the chance to preside over magnificent games and to associate his family with the dawning of a new age on his nation’s 1,000th birthday. He issued attractive coins for the occasion, which are avidly collected for their historical interest and their varied designs.

Other emperors had reigned at times when secular games (ludi saeculares) were held. The dates were determined according to the Roman 100-year cycle or the Etruscan 110-year cycle, representing the lifespan of the longest-lived person born on the day a city was founded.

The emperor Claudius (A.D. 41 to 54) initiated games in A.D. 47, Antoninus Pius (138 to 161) in 147, and then Philip I starting on April 21 of 247. Though secular games were not held again, the emperors Constans (337 to 350) and Constantius II (337 to 361) marked Rome’s 1100th anniversary in 347/348 with new coin denominations and new designs accompanied by the inscription FEL(icitas) TEMP(orvm) REPATATIO — “happy days are here again.”

The millennium of 247 to 248 was a unique chance to celebrate Rome at a time when many wondered if the empire would survive to see its 1,100th birthday. Rome’s borders were constantly under attack by aggressive barbarians, and the millennial year afforded no special protection.

Careful study of Philip’s coins suggests that the emperor delayed the opening of his games because he was on the Danube front battling invasions by Germans and the Carpi. With these distractions, he likely could not have participated in the festivities until after the beginning of 248.

Millennial coins were struck in gold, silver and copper and in several denominations. They bear on their obverse the portrait of a member of the royal family: Philip I; his wife, Otacilia Severa; or their son, Philip II, who in 248 was raised from the rank of Caesar to be co-emperor with his father.

The reverses of these millennial coins usually are inscribed SAECVLARES AVGG, which suggests the celebrations marked the close of one age and the beginning of another.

Two other inscriptions on millennial coins are SAECVLVM NOVVM, meaning the “new age” and MILIARIVM SAECVLVM, which refers to the thousandth year. These two inscriptions each are used with a single design (though both also were used with the main inscription, SAECVLARES AVGG).

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