Deified Augustus the most influential man in Rome
- Published: Jun 23, 2014, 8 AM
The emperor Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14) was arguably the most accomplished and influential man in Roman history.
His impact on his own era — justly called the Augustan Age — was nothing less than revolutionary, and upon his death he was declared a god.
Before Augustus, his adoptive father Julius Caesar was the only Roman to have been honored with deification. Augustus became the first emperor to be deified, setting a precedent that allowed the practice eventually to become a standard feature of holding that office.
Augustus’ deification allowed later emperors to honor him with coins that described him as a god. Most were “imperial” issues struck at mints operated by the central government, though many other coins of this nature were struck in the provinces.
The next four emperors who reigned after Augustus belonged to the Julio-Claudians, the ruling family that he once headed. Three of them struck coins honoring Augustus as a god. Such coins were ideal for reinforcing the status of current members of the royal family by advertising their association with the divine Augustus.
The first to do so was Augustus’ adoptive son and successor, Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37). Of all Rome’s emperors, Tiberius had the most urgent need to honor Augustus, for there was some resistance to his succession. The memory of Augustus was fresh in the minds of all Romans, and Tiberius eagerly associated himself with the legacy of Augustus.
Though Tiberius had only one precious metal coinage for Divus Augustus — a gold aureus that he struck upon his accession — he issued untold millions of brass and copper coins honoring Augustus that circulated mainly in the western half of the empire.
Brass sestertii of Tiberius showing a statue of Augustus, either free-standing or set upon a cart drawn by four elephants, are quite scarce. However, his brass dupondii and copper asses with the head of Divus Augustus wearing a radiate crown were mass-produced. Seven reverse types for these coins were produced: a winged thunderbolt, an eagle standing on a globe, an oak wreath enclosing the letters S C, an altar, a temple, the figure of Victory advancing, and the seated figure of Augustus’ widow, Livia.
Whereas Tiberius’ program for Divus Augustus had focused mainly on base metal coins, that of his successor, Caligula (A.D. 37 to 41), focused mainly on gold and silver coinage. His types are not particularly original, as they merely pair his own portrait with that of Divus Augustus. Caligula had almost no experience in government or military affairs when he became emperor, and it was important for him to publicize his main qualification for office — being a great-grandson of Augustus.
Caligula’s brass coins for Divus Augustus are limited in scope and were not produced on a large scale. They consist of sestertii that show Caligula preparing to sacrifice a bull before a temple of Divus Augustus, and a dupondius with Augustus’ portrait.
After the reign of Caligula, honors paid to Divus Augustus on coinage were scaled down significantly. Even though the next emperor, Claudius (A.D. 41 to 54), had admired Augustus and was then leading the priesthood devoted to him, his only imperial coinage honoring Augustus was a brass dupondius bearing his portrait. The reverse of this issue shows the seated figure of Livia, whom Claudius declared a goddess in A.D. 42, some 13 years after her death.
The next to rule, Nero (A.D. 54 to 68), was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, and it is odd that he did not strike any imperial coins for Divus Augustus. For the next two centuries, the only imperial coins honoring Divus Augustus were “restoration” issues that merely duplicated earlier coin types — usually those of the type issued by Tiberius.
The first restorations were gold aurei and silver denarii struck anonymously during the civil war of A.D. 68 to 69 that was sparked at the end of Nero’s reign. Thereafter, restoration issues were issued by the Emperors Titus (A.D. 79 to 81), Domitian (A.D. 81 to 96), Nerva (A.D. 96 to 98) and Trajan (A.D. 98 to 117). The first three limited their issues to base metal coinages, whereas Trajan struck his restorations in gold and silver.
Finally, in the summer of A.D. 251, the Emperor Trajan Decius (A.D. 249 to 251) honored Divus Augustus and 10 other deified emperors in a truly unusual series of silver double-denarii. Though Augustus’ issues are perhaps the most common in this series, some of the types are quite rare and a complete collection is difficult to assemble. Within months of his launching this series, Decius and his eldest son Herennius Etruscus (along with most of their army) were killed while battling the Goths.
Perhaps even more interesting than the imperial coinages for Divus Augustus are those struck throughout the empire at mints in the provinces, as they have a remarkable variety
of designs. Most of those coins were struck in base metal, though there were noteworthy silver issues from Crete, Thrace, Cappadocia, Syria, and Egypt.
Such provincial coinages must have been well received, as the worship of deified emperors was popular among the elite in the provinces who wanted to demonstrate their devotion to the emperors. This was encouraged by the Senate and the emperors as a tool by which the provinces could be further Romanized and the loyalty of the provincial elite could be maintained.
Most provincial coins for Divus Augustus were struck by the Julio-Claudian emperors. A few obscure bronzes were produced under Caligula and Claudius, and near the end of his reign Nero struck in Egypt a great number of debased silver tetradrachms honoring Augustus.
The provincial coins struck for Divus Augustus by Tiberius are worthy of special mention. They include isolated bronzes from North Africa, Greece, Cyprus and Asia Minor, but also some truly substantial issues of bronzes from the cities of Emerita, Tarraco, and Turiasco in Spain. Larger still was Tiberius’ issue of billon tetradrachms in Egypt. Indeed, every tetradrachm that Tiberius struck there from A.D. 20 to 37 bore on its reverse the portrait of Divus Augustus.
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