World Coins

Struggle for succession continues: Ancients Today

In the last “Ancients Today” coumn, we traced the loss of potential heirs suffered by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14). We now carry that story forward into the reign of Augustus’ successor Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37), who for more than two decades also had to deal with the thorny issue of succession

Seven meaningful candidates for the throne arose during Tiberius’ long reign, six of whom perished before they had the chance to become emperor. In A.D. 37 Tiberius was succeeded by a most unqualified candidate, Caligula (Gaius), who reigned briefly and disgracefully until he was murdered in a palace coup.

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Germanicus, brother of Claudius 

The first of Tiberius’ potential heirs to fall was his nephew Germanicus. He had been much admired by Augustus, but when that remarkable emperor died in A.D. 14, Germanicus proved no match for the older and more experienced candidate Tiberius.

Even so, Germanicus was wildly popular with the Roman legions in Germany, where he led daring campaigns from A.D. 14 to 17. He was then recalled to Rome, where tension between political factions intensified. Soon Germanicus was sent on a diplomatic mission to Roman provinces in the East, where he died in A.D. 19 under suspicious circumstances.

This gave rise to an enduring conflict between Tiberius and Germanicus’ widow, Agrippina Senior, which caused considerable grief and political instability. Germanicus is portrayed on a considerable variety of gold, silver and base metal coins struck during his lifetime and in his posthumous memory at both Imperial and provincial mints.

Tiberius’ son Drusus

After Germanicus’ death, next in line to Tiberius was the emperor’s only natural son, Drusus. Until then, Drusus had remained largely on the sidelines because, as long as Germanicus lived, Tiberius had to satisfy those who were loyal to the recently departed Augustus. For them, Germanicus had been the heir of choice, for he was father to several children, all of whom were direct descendants of Augustus.

Drusus had been born to Tiberius’ first wife, Vipsania Agrippina, who had been divorced years before. 

Drusus was somewhat estranged from this father, and his transition into the imperial fold must have been difficult. If we believe the ancient accounts, Drusus’ lifestyle was poor, and his relationship with his wife, Livilla, was strained. He died in A.D. 23 either of natural causes or as a victim of poison, which may have been administered by Livilla.

Drusus’ provincial coins are few in number and generally are quite scarce. The best way to acquire a coin of Drusus is with the Imperial bronzes of A.D. 22 or 23, one of which bears a fine portrait of the young heir that was created within weeks or months of his untimely death.

Germanicus’ sons

After Germanicus and Drusus died, no suitable heir of sufficient age remained in the royal family. The three sons of Germanicus were too young and Tiberius’ nephew, the future emperor Claudius, though in his early 30s, was thought unsuitable due to his disabilities. Stepping into the void was Tiberius’ most trusted soldier, his praetorian prefect Sejanus, who led the political war against the widow Agrippina and her three sons.

The eldest of Agrippina’s sons, Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar, were the first to fall. Though Tiberius paid them slight public honors, he offered them no support as Sejanus leveled charges against them. The result was that the senate declared the boys public enemies and arrested them, one after the other. The elder, Nero Caesar, was exiled to a remote island, where he died in A.D. 30 or 31. The younger, Drusus Caesar, was imprisoned in Rome, where he died in A.D. 33. 

The brothers are best represented by a brass dupondius issued by their surviving younger brother, Caligula, who became emperor in A.D. 37. It portrays the two young men on the backs of rearing horses, a scene thought to represent a monumental statue that Caligula commissioned in their honor.

Sejanus, praetorian prefect of Tiberius

After the Emperor Tiberius himself, Sejanus was the most powerful man in the Roman world. The written histories portray him as a ruthless, crafty and ambitious soldier who tried to overthrow Tiberius and become emperor himself. Fortunately for Tiberius, the coup was revealed and defeated in time, and Sejanus was executed along with many of his supporters.

Only one coin series is known to refer to Sejanus: provincial bronzes from Bilbilis in Spain. On the obverse they portray Tiberius, and on the reverse they record Sejanus’ name as one of the two consuls (along with Tiberius) of the year A.D. 31. Often his name is preserved, but with almost equal frequency, these coins survive with his name having been “erased” in ancient times, in a formal procedure known as damnatio memoriae.

Tiberius Gemellus

The last candidate for the Tiberian succession to fall was the emperor’s only surviving grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. He had been born in A.D. 19 with a twin brother, Germanicus Gemellus, who died as a toddler. Tiberius is said to have doubted the paternity of his grandsons, believing they had been sired by Sejanus rather that by his son, Drusus.

Almost nothing is recorded of this boy’s childhood, but by A.D. 35 the ageing Tiberius had selected both Germanicus’ son Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus to jointly succeed him. By the time Tiberius died two years later, Caligula had already gained the support of the praetorian prefect, which allowed him to be hailed emperor alone. In just a matter of months, Tiberius Gemellus was executed.

The most common coin depicting Tiberius Gemellus is a sestertius issued A.D. 22 to 23 for his father, Drusus, which shows the cherubic heads of the twin boys set upon crossed cornucopias. A mature portrait of this heir, however, likely occurs on rare small bronzes struck circa A.D. 35 to 37 at Philadelphia-Neocaesarea in Lydia. 

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