World Coins

Son honors his mother on ancient coins: On the Block

Caligula honored the memory of his mother with a parade of her ashes, a scene recalled on the reverse of this circa 37 to 41 A.D. bronze sestertius struck in Rome.

Coin images courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica.

One of the most tragically unfortunate women in Roman history was honored by her survivors on a series of coins.

One of those coins is featured in Numismatica Ars Classica’s auction No. 97 in Zurich on Dec. 12.

Agrippina Senior, wife of Germanicus and mother of Gaius (known as Caligula), began life a favored member of the Julio-Claudian family, under the reign of her grandfather Augustus. Upon her marriage to Livia’s grandson Germanicus, she seemed destined to achieve the highest status.

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However, her life took a turn for the worse as the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius saw supreme power shift from the bloodlines of the Julii to the Claudii. 

Though her marriage represented an ideal union of Julian and Claudian, it was not destined to survive Tiberius’ reign. 

“Germanicus died late in 19 under suspicious circumstances, after which Agrippina devoted the next decade of her life to openly opposing Tiberius until in 29 he deprived her of freedom, and in 33 of life itself,” according to the auction house. 

She had been imprisoned on the island of Pandataria, along with her son Drusus, who would also die in captivity. Another son, Nero, would commit suicide soon after. 

Three issues of sestertii were struck in her honor, including the first type, which was produced by her son. Her brother Claudius issued a series, which was later modified to feature inscriptions for the emperor Titus for the third type. 

Coins celebrate her memory

The circa 37 to 41 bronze sestertius in the December auction was issued by Caligula and struck in Rome. A hallmark of his issues is the carpentum, a two-wheeled carriage with an arched covering, drawn by two mules.

The inscription on Caligula’s coin describes her as the daughter of Marcus (Agrippa) and the mother of Gaius (Caligula). According to the auction house, “It is also worth noting that on the issue of Caligula, Agrippina has a slender profile like that of her son.”

The carpentum is a reference to measures taken by Caligula to honor his family at the outset of his reign, all victims of persecution during the reign of Tiberius.

Upon returning to Rome, Caligula, with his own hands, transferred to an urn the ashes of his mother and brother Nero, before interring the ashes at the Tomb of Ancestors. Following the ceremony, Caligula held Circus games in her honor, at which a statue of her was paraded in the type of covered carriage seen on the coin. 

The coin has a brown patina and is “very gently smoothed,” but otherwise is in Good Very Fine condition.

The most recent public auction appearance of the example offered was Oct. 7, 2015, during Classical Numismatic Group’s auction, where the coin realized a hammer price of $5,000.  

In the December auction, the ancient coin has an estimate of 5,000 Swiss francs ($4,995 U.S.). 

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