Twelve Caesars coins: Some issues are tougher than others

The availability and price of coins depends on ruler and metal
By , Coin World
Published : 03/29/16
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Editor's note: this is the third and final part of a feature about collecting coins of the Twelve Caesars that originally appears in full in the April Monthly issue of Coin World:

Early in the second century A.D., Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus authored a set of 12 biographies, the stories of the dictator Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire, covering history from 49 B.C. to 96 A.D. These dozen rulers have become a popular focus for building a set of ancient coins — a Twelve Caesars set. The first two parts have covered approaches to building such a set, and we take up here with the fourth caesar, the mad Caligula:

The fourth emperor in the Twelve Caesars series was the madman Gaius (A.D. 37 to 41), better known to history as Caligula.

The reign of this ruler can present quite a challenge, as many of the coin types of his reign show, not the emperor, but his family. Among the few types that do bear his portrait, all the gold and silver issues are very rare.

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In gold or silver, Caligula is one of the most elusive on the list. Accept a bronze coin, and the task of filling his slot becomes much easier (but not necessarily more affordable if a portrait con is required). 

The only easily available portrait coin for this emperor enjoys tremendous demand, from collectors building the Twelve Caesars set and from those who are working on an Imperial portrait series.

Coinage of the next man, Claudius, is more extensive than that of his two predecessors, but a collector seeking to build a set of the Twelve Caesars in gold or silver will find Claudius a real challenge.

In base metal, several types appear in the marketplace with nearly equal frequency. All of them are asses, the copper coins of about half-dollar size that constituted one-sixteenth of a denarius. 

Sestertii and dupondii are also available but are scarcer than asses. If having the emperor’s portrait is not vital, a quadrans (plural: quadrantes), a tiny copper coin equal to one fourth of an as, or 1/64 of a denarius, can represent his reign.

The “Greek Imperial” coinage (local coinages struck in Greek-speaking parts of the Empire) is more extensive during this reign, making it somewhat easier and less expensive to obtain the emperor’s portrait if you don’t mind a coin with Greek legends instead of Latin ones. 

Last in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty was the infamous Nero (A.D. 54 to 68).

Most of Nero’s early coinage was struck in gold or silver, and many issues can be dated to specific years. Gold aureii were struck throughout Nero’s reign, with dated issues for every year except the last, A.D. 67 to 68. Consequently, relatively speaking, Nero is one of the easier emperors to obtain in gold.

Little base metal coinage was needed under Nero, so the mint merely counterstamped coins of Claudius (and occasionally those of his predecessors) for circulation. 

Nero’s coinage also includes an extensive issue of Greek Imperials, and collectors have no difficulty in obtaining an example.

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