World Coins

Collecting coins of the Twelve Caesars

Collectors looking for a portrait coin of Julius Caesar will have to search and be ready to spend — this Very Fine, off-center example (struck with a cracked die) realized $1,614 in a June 14, 2015, Obolos (by Nomos) auction.

Coin images courtesy of Nomos.

Editor's note: this is the first part of a story by Jeff Starck exploring the options and approaches to building a collection of the coins of Twelve Caesars of Rome. The full story appears in the April 2016 monthly issue of Coin World.

Coins of the Twelve Caesars, a group of Roman rulers as described by an ancient author, are generally considered among the most desirable coins sought by collectors of ancient coins.

This set of rulers received its classification in the ancient work De vita Caesarum, which translates literally from Latin to “About the Life of the Caesars.”

Early in the second century A.D., Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus authored this 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.

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These men ruled in a volatile and formative period of Roman history, overseeing the collapse of the Republic, civil war, and the rise of an empire that would dominate the Mediterranean world.

The biographical series remains a primary source of Roman history.

Compiling a set of coins of the Twelve Caesars is a common goal, but the set is costly to finish, making completion a challenge for buyers on a budget.

Who are the Twelve Caesars?

Julius Caesar needs no introduction to those familiar with the foundations of Western Civilization, nor does his successor, Augustus (Octavian), who actually established the empire. 

Tiberius reigned during the life of Christ. Caligula, Claudius, and Nero are all emperors known for their eccentricities. These six men comprise the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

That dynasty fell in the summer of A.D. 68, when civil war erupted after almost a century of domestic stability. War raged for nearly two years, and four men — Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian — were hailed emperor by the senate in the year 69. Though less familiar than the Julio-Claudians, these civil war emperors are no less remarkable.

 Last to rule in the period of the Twelve Caesars were the three emperors who formed the Flavian Dynasty. 

Founded by the aforementioned Vespasian, who came to power at the end of the civil war, it was maintained by his two sons, Titus and Domitian. After the murder of Domitian in a palace coup, the period of the Twelve Caesars came to an end and a new era of Roman history began, commonly known as that of the adoptive emperors.

The twelve are not an unbroken, consecutive sequence of Rome’s rulers. Suetonius left a gap from 44 to 27 B.C.; he begins with Caesar’s biography, omits the various forces that battled for supremacy following the assassination, and continues with Augustus, who became Rome’s first emperor.

From Suetonius’ point of view, however, his sequence was continuous, because Augustus was the nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, and the account of his life includes events of the period between 44 and 27 B.C.

The division between Republic and Empire, which modern scholars place in 27 B.C., was not nearly so apparent to the Romans themselves, noted Wayne Phillips, writing in the Feb. 6, 1991, issue of Coin World

Nevertheless, a Twelve Caesars “set” can be considered something of a hodgepodge from the viewpoint of a historian or a numismatist. It contains one coin that is cataloged with Republican issues, namely the coin of Julius Caesar, and 10 coins (Tiberius through Domitian) that are listed in the multi-volume Roman Imperial Coinage

The remaining coin, representing Augustus, can be either Republican or Imperial, depending on whether a collector chooses a coin minted before or after 27 B.C. 

The earlier coins, minted when Augustus was still called Octavian, are listed in Michael Crawford’s Roman Republican Coinage; his later issues, as Augustus, are found in Roman Imperial Coinage.

The fact that only 12 caesars are included in the set is merely an accident of Suetonius’ birth and death; had he lived a generation later, the lives of the emperors Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian might have been included

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