Year of Five Emperors offers collectors rare ancient coins

Five rulers vied for Roman rule in A.D. 193
By , Coin World
Published : 11/20/15
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Editor's note: this is the first part of a series by Coin World Senior Editor Jeff Starck about the ancient coins from the Year of Five Emperors. This story appeared in the December issue of Coin World.

The assassination of Commodus on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31, A.D. 192) sparked a civil war that would rage for four years.

The year 193 became known as the Year of Five Emperors as a procession of men vied for the title, with an another assassination, the purchase of a throne and other intrigue all pieces to the plot line.

The rapid succession of rulers means that many of these coins are rare, but that doesn’t mean they are out of reach for the average collector. 

The Year of Five Emperors should not be confused with similarly titled years reflecting a later year when six emperors ruled (A.D. 238) and an earlier year when four emperors ruled (A.D. 69). Those years also present collecting challenges, but are outside of our focus. 

The story of 193 began on the eve of the new year. 

Commodus’ murder brought the end of the “golden age” of the Roman Empire, according to David Vagi in Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1. However, the empire’s glitter had been wearing thin during the previous two decades and longer.

“What followed [the assassination] was a disgraceful display of greed, power lust and vanity that lasted six months,” Vagi writes.


The first of the new rulers was Pertinax, a consul and the prefect of the city of Rome and a “man of good intentions who was murdered by corrupt men whose special interests he threatened,” Vagi wrote.

Though regarded as something of a self-made man of some virtue, Vagi notes that Pertinax held the highest two posts under the reign of Commodus when Commodus was at his most wicked. 

Pertinax was no doubt in on the coup that thrust him to the throne, as the conspirators spread a rumor that Commodus died of natural causes and that Pertinax had been hailed the new caesar. 

According to Vagi (Coin World, Sept. 3, 2012, issue), Pertinax introduced reforms that would benefit the empire, but that threatened the interests of officials who thrived on graft and corruption under Commodus.

“His brief principate represented an opportunity for deliverance from the injustices of Commodus, but its quick failure only served to demonstrate how deeply ingrained corruption had become,” according to Vagi’s book.

Pertinax was murdered after a rule of only 86 days, but not before he struck a large number of coins in gold, silver, and base metal. These coins are scarce or rare today and of unusually high artistic quality, according to the catalog for Heritage Auctions’ April 10, 2014, sale. Rarer yet are the coins struck in Alexandria, Egypt, for Pertinax’s wife and son.

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