World Coins

How to build a set of Twelve Caesars coins

The silver denarius of Tiberius is popular because of its supposed role as the “tribute penny” from the Bible. This Near Extremely Fine example realized $566 in a June 27, 2015, Nomos auction.

Coin images courtesy of Nomos.

Editor's note: this is the second part of a feature story about collecting coins of the Twelve Caesars that appears in full in the April 2016 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. 

Many options are available to the collector, and a completed set of Twelve Caesars coinage can be very expensive or fairly moderate in price. 

None of the rulers is prohibitively rare, but several are quite scarce, and if you decide to focus on just one size, denomination or composition, you can face a real challenge in obtaining one ruler or another, depending on whether you are seeking gold, silver, or bronze. 

Considerations for the set can include whether it will include only portrait coins, and whether pieces struck in Roman provinces “count” toward the set, or if it will be limited to only pieces struck in Rome. 

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Bronze coins can be as rare or rarer than gold coins for some rulers — for instance, Julius Caesar and Otho did not strike bronze portrait coins, but examples struck at provincial mints are available. 

The silver denarius is the most popular ancient denomination, so they are always in strong demand.

The most efficient way to complete a set at a modest cost is to allow various denominations and metals, and choose the most available type for each ruler. Otherwise, a bronze set of mixed provincial issues is also possible and collectors can select coins of about the same size. 

Once a set has been built, collectors might consider upgrading, or shifting to a set of all silver denarii coins, for instance, and collectors with the means can pursue gold aureii for all rulers.

Other considerations

The exercise of building the set can be framed around other factors as well. 

Most coins of Julius Caesar do not feature his portrait. Like other Republican issues, they avoid the “regal’’ practice of portraying a living individual, and were minted before Caesar was absolute master of Rome. 

After becoming dictator for life, though, Caesar broke with tradition and allowed his portrait to appear on coins. 

Naturally, most people building a Twelve Caesars set like to have a portrait coin if they can. Unfortunately, the only portrait type of Caesar was issued posthumously, by Octavian, and is very rare. 

All coins of Caesar were struck by moneyers other than Caesar himself, and other specialists in the Republican series who want one coin from each moneyer compete with Twelve Caesars enthusiasts for the available coins.

Octavian presented himself first as a restorer of the Republic and sought approval from the Senate to maintain his position, and the Senate responded by offering him the title “Augustus,” a term by which all subsequent emperors became known.

Many of his coins do not bear a portrait on the obverse, so some collectors allow nonportrait types for him as well in their Twelve Caesars collection.

Compared to Augustus, Tiberius issued far fewer types of coins, but among them, by far the most plentiful and most popular is a denarius featuring him on its obverse and depicting Livia (his mother) on the reverse.

These denarii are in greater demand than might be expected, because of their link to a Bible account involving a “tribute penny.”

According to the New Testament, when Jesus was asked whether taxes should be paid, he requested a coin for illustration and asked his questioner whose portrait it bore. “Caesar’s,” was the reply, and he advised his listeners, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

We don’t know the exact coin presented (the term “penny” is a medieval English translation of the Roman word “denarius”), but since Tiberius was emperor of Rome during the time of Jesus, and since the surviving population of this particular denarius outnumbers survivors among all his other denarii combined, most numismatists regard it as the most likely candidate for the “tribute penny,” and it is often termed that when offered for sale. 

The association with the scriptures makes the type very popular among collectors who specialize in biblical numismatics, in competition with those who collect Roman portrait coins. The result is a price that is somewhat higher than the rarity of the coin itself would normally generate.

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