World Coins

Year of Five Emperors offers rare ancient coins

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.

A Pertinax silver denarius in Nearly Extremely Fine to EF condition realized $998.75, including 17.5 percent buyer’s fee, in Heritage’s April 9, 2015, auction.

In gold, perhaps the finest known aureus of Pertinax was once part of the Lexington Collection. It was graded by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., receiving 5/5 for strike and 5/5 for surface. The coin realized $129,250 (including 17.5 percent buyer’s fee) in a 2014 Heritage auction. 

Slightly more affordable options are available, however — collectors should consider fourrées (a forgery employing a silver-plated copper core).

Given his brief reign, it may seem remarkable that ancient counterfeiters found time to create fourrées of his coinage, but they exist but are rarely offered in auction.

A rough example was offered by Heritage in 2012, realizing $99.88 after the buyer’s fee. In a 2013 Heritage auction, it failed to meet its reserve, only gaining a top bid of $60, and afterwards, a collector’s offer to buy it for $160 was rejected by the owner in May 2014, according to Heritage. 

A much nicer example, graded Very Fine, realized a hammer price of €650 (about $933 U.S.) in H.D. Rauch’s May 11, 2011, auction (the buyer’s fee is unknown).

Fourrées are an affordable alternative to the precious metal versions.

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