• Gareth Harney

A Denarius of Claudius - ‘for having saved the citizens'

Updated: Feb 20

"Having spent the greater part of his life as a figure of ridicule, he became emperor in his fiftieth year by a remarkable freak of fortune. When the assassins of Caligula shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest. Later, in great terror at the news of the murder, he stole away to a balcony nearby and hid among the curtains which hung by the door. As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about, saw his feet, pulled him out and recognised him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he hailed him as emperor."

(Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 10)

Most collectors of Roman coinage will at some point ask themselves if they wish to embark on that most enticing and ready-made of collecting goals: a coin of each of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars - beginning with Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian. While not my immediate goal, it is always satisfying to fill a difficult space in that gallery of Rome’s most infamous and colourful rulers.

I was recently fortunate enough to add a denarius of an early emperor whose silver coinage has always proved a unique challenge for the collector. After the bloody assassination of his nephew Caligula at the hands of the Praetorian Guard, Claudius was pulled from relative obscurity and from behind a curtain to become the most powerful man in the empire. Despite being as blue-blooded as they came: grandson of Mark Antony, brother of the beloved Germanicus, Claudius was afflicted with various physical infirmities and a stammer that meant he was kept out of the public eye and never seriously considered as a potential ruler. In the event, Claudius went on to surprise everyone with a dynamic and ambitious 13-year reign that expanded Rome's horizons and, while not without its scandals, may be seen as an era of stable administration between the cruelty of Caligula and the excesses of Nero.

Claudius put his name to many achievements but one naturally resonates with me the most: I have Claudius to thank for bringing my home nation under Rome’s sway. Looking to quickly build his prestige and put his stuttering, stumbling persona behind him, the emperor set his sights on the mysterious, far-flung island of Britain – visited briefly by his ancestor Julius Caesar a century earlier. As Suetonius says, “He desired the glory of a legitimate triumph and he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it.” Claudius assembled a huge invasion force of four legions which crossed the channel in 43 AD under the leadership of Aulus Plautius. The initial offensive a success, Claudius promptly visited the island in person, even bringing with him war elephants for added shock and awe over the natives. Combining military might and skillful diplomacy with tribal chiefs, Claudius was able to declare an initial victory and establish a new Roman capital at Camulodunum before returning to Rome - all in under 6 months. The conquest of Britannia was a public relations coup for Claudius who celebrated a lavish triumph in Rome and even named his young son ‘Britannicus’ after his newly acquired province.

Any reign of good length and stability would usually be reflected in a robust economy and a wealth of coinage struck in all metals, as can be seen in the mintage of rulers such as Vespasian or Trajan whose varied coins survive in large numbers to this day. The coinage of Claudius on the other hand has long presented an enigma to the numismatist; his bronze issues being easy for a modern collector to find while his coins in silver and gold are excessively rare. It is in fact easier to find coins of emperors who reigned for mere months than it is to find denarii of Claudius who ruled for 13 years. Various explanations have been proposed for this anomaly, such as Nero’s debasement of the silver content in coinage leading to ‘bad money driving out the good’ and higher quality coins of earlier rulers being hoarded or melted down. A relocation of the Roman mint to the city of Lugdunum (modern Lyon, birthplace of Claudius) for unknown reasons also appears to have caused disruption to the supply of coins under Claudius. One cause or perhaps symptom of this disruption may be the huge spike in silver coinage being counterfeited in Claudius’ reign, especially in his new province of Britannia where Roman coin appears to have initially been in short supply; these convincing “fouree” denarii with cheap, copper cores remain much more common today than his genuine denarii, perhaps even representing semi-official issues, sanctioned by the Roman state to combat a short-term economic crisis. Ultimately, no explanation for the lack of Claudius coinage has yet proven satisfactory and it may simply be the case that far less coins were minted in precious metals.

Even the most eagle-eyed collector might therefore go a long time without seeing a genuine, silver denarius of Claudius on offer, which makes it all the more pleasing to add such a fine example to my collection:

AR Denarius Rome or Lugdunum, 46-47 AD 3.88g, Obv: Laureate head of Claudius (R) TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG P M TRP VI IMP XI, Rev: SPQR P·P OB CS on three lines within oak wreath tied at bottom. RIC 41; RSC 87; BMC 46

This well-centred silver denarius shows a strong and characterful portrait of Claudius about five years into his reign, when he had been hailed as ‘imperator’ eleven times following his victories in Britannia. The reverse design is framed within an oak wreath known as the ‘corona civica’, traditionally bestowed on a Roman citizen who saved another citizen in battle and awarded to Augustus in 27 BC for saving the entirety of the Roman state. The infamous Caligula had actually received the corona civica from the senate on his accession in 37 AD and displayed the symbol on his coinage during the earlier, happier days of his reign. Just a handful of years later, Claudius again revived it to advertise his rescuing of the state from the madness of Caligula. The abbreviated legend within the wreath reminds the viewer why the honour was conferred: ob cives servatos - ‘for having saved the citizens’.

The tumultuous accession of Claudius at the whims of the Praetorian Guard shocked contemporaries, starkly revealed the fragility of an emperor’s position and set a disturbing new precedent for the transfer of imperial power. On this coin however, Claudius reconfigures the bloody business of his acclamation by the Praetorians as a necessary act that prevented a return to dreaded civil war. Rather than a bewildered and physically infirm man in his fifties being effectively held hostage by a ruthless band of mutinous soldiers, Claudius recast himself as a shrewd negotiator who heroically navigated the state through a near-disaster. As Suetonius says, “Claudius made a decree that all that had been done and said during that period should be forever forgotten”. In reality, the whole unpleasant episode had just emboldened the Praetorians and confirmed them as the state’s true power brokers. Today we can also see the rise of Claudius as a nasty glimpse into the future of the empire, where in subsequent centuries it could be argued that emperors might have been safer without their bodyguard.

I’m particularly happy to add this denarius as an excellent example of a pure silver, official issue of the Roman state under Claudius, attested by its heavier weight, rather than a contemporary counterfeit of which so many were made at the time. The portrait is also executed in a fine, naturalistic style, hard to come by on the coinage of Claudius which can often show the emperor as a shrunken, indistinct caricature. My research on the coin, of which I have yet to identify any matching dies for either the obverse or reverse, lends me to suspect it was struck with higher-quality dies intended for gold aurei coins. Under Claudius I have observed these aurei dies are carved with a slightly higher level of craft and realism that appears to match the style of this coin. More research is needed on the prevalence of dies being used across both silver and gold issues but it is not unheard of.

Portrait comparison with bust of Claudius in Naples Museum © Roger Ulrich

The stammering, underestimated Claudius made an entertaining return to the public consciousness with the outstanding 1976 television drama “I, Claudius”, adapting the classic books of Robert Graves. These imagined words spoken by the newly acclaimed Claudius to assembled senators do a good job of capturing the contradictions of this fascinating character; presumed a feeble, half-witted family embrassment, he soon proved himself an able, intellectual and ruthless leader - complexities captured in the humane portrait on my denarius:

“Senators, it is true that I am hard of hearing, but you will find it is not for want of listening. As for speaking, again, it's true I have an impediment. But isn't what a man says more important than how long he takes to say it? I have little experience of government. But, then, have you more? I at least have lived with the imperial family who has ruled this empire ever since you so spinelessly handed it over to us. I've observed it working more closely than any of you. Is your experience better than that? As for being half-witted: well, what can I say, except that I have survived to middle age with half my wits, while thousands have died with all of theirs intact. Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity. Senators, I shall do nothing unconstitutional. I shall appear at the next session of the senate, where you may confirm me in my position or not as you wish. But if it pleases you not to, explain your reasons to the Praetorians, not to me.”

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