Roman Provincial Coins and Imperial Chronology

by Sebastian Heath

While dates are commonplace, and even expected, on modern coins, relatively few cities and states of the Ancient Mediterranean world marked their coins with the year they were issued. And of course, when ancient authorities did use dates, these were based on their own systems of annual reckoning, not on the Christian era in widespread use today. But dates are welcome when they do appear on ancient coins, and this article will look at a few examples of dated coins struck for the subject cities, or in one case a province, of the Roman Empire during the third century AD. In each case, the date provides an extra piece of chronological information that helps establish a fuller historical context for these coins. There is no doubt that history and numismatics have always been complementary disciplines, this article explores just how close that relationship can be.

Caesarea ad Libanum

Our first example (fig. 1) was struck for the city of Caesarea ad Libanum in Phoenicia during the reign of the emperor Elagabalus but in the name of his adopted son Severus Alexander, who was born in the city in 208. Neither Elagabalus nor Severus Alexander, both members of the family of Septimius Severus’ Syrian wife Julia Domna, has been judged particularly kindly by modern historians. Elagabalus, whose official name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, is well-known as the emperor who tried to introduce the worship of the stone Elagabal into Rome, just one example of his extreme behavior. Alexander Severus’ reign is often faulted for failing to confront the looming military threats that would grab the attention of subsequent emperors over the course of the third century.

Fig. 1. Phoenicia: Caesarea ad Libanum, Severus Alexander, AE, AD 221-222. Rougier 738var. (ANS 2002.21.8, anonymous gift) 24 mm.

The obverse of the ANS specimen is barely legible, but Alexander’s name can be made out on close inspection, and the portrait type matches better preserved examples. The reverse type is a temple façade from which two flanking stairways descend on the left and right. A river-god swims between the stairs, and within the temple a male figure is crowned by a goddess standing to his left. This is one of the standard types of the city, and while the identities of the figures in the temple are not certain, it may be that statues of the goddess Astarte and Alexander the Great are depicted in this composition.

Below this scene is a date consisting of the Greek letters “Gamma-Lambda-Phi.” These represent a number in the Greek system and are equivalent to our number 533. A brief explanation of how the ancient Greeks wrote out numbers is available on-line at Readers who own a copy of David Sear’s Greek Imperial Coins and Their Values will find a good introduction to the topic in that work as well. For the coin under discussion, what matters is that 533 is a year in the Seleucid era, which was initiated by Seleucus I in 312 BC, after he took control of the eastern parts of Alexander the Great’s empire. Although details of ancient calendars are often obscure, it is generally thought that, under the Roman Empire, Seleucid Era years began in the fall, perhaps during our month of October. Accordingly, a coin showing the Greek numeral for 533 would have been struck between the autumn of AD 221 and the autumn of AD 222. This range is interesting when compared to the date of Alexander Severus’ elevation from Caesar under Elagabalus to Augustus in his own right.

By late 221, Elagabalus’ eccentricities were becoming unbearable to his subjects. The historians Cassius Dio and Herodian, along with the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta, report many salacious details of his time in Rome, and it seems that Elagabalus’ marriage to the vestal virgin Aquilia Severa was particularly offensive to the Roman public. Worse than this civilian displeasure, in 221 legions began to revolt, and, in the aftermath of this threat to his power, Elagabalus was forced to adopt his cousin Alexianus, who was given the name Alexander, and appoint him Caesar. Loyalty was shifting so that when he plotted to have Alexander assassinated, Elagabalus was instead himself killed on March 12, 222, along with his mother Julia Soaemias. Their bodies were then thrown into the river Tiber. Just a few days later, on March 22, Severus Alexander was elevated to the imperial office by acclamation of the Senate.

This turn of events helps shorten the timeframe during which a coin struck in the name of the Caesar Alexander and dated to Seleucid year 533 was likely to have been produced. Using the framework established above, strict logic would say that the earliest this example went on the anvil was late October of 221. The latest possible date is March 22, 222, only six months after the beginning of the Seleucid year.

There are many qualifications that can weaken this straightforward logic. Elagabalus was killed in Rome, and our coin was struck in Phoenicia, some 1200 miles to the east. The mint would not have heard this news right away, leaving an opportunity for a coin to be minted in the name of the Caesar Alexander after he had already become Augustus. It is also not impossible that the coin was struck before the year 533 had actually begun. Despite these uncertainties, which come with the territory when studying the ancient Mediterranean, the opportunity to narrow down the likely period in which this coin was struck is a welcome one.

Diva Paulina

The Emperor Maximinus Thrax ruled from AD 235 to 238, and the limited record of his reign suggests that he was not well-liked by the senatorial elites, who looked down on his military career and Balkan origins. Little is known of his career prior to his becoming emperor, though the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus does indicate that he was married (14.1.8). Our second example of a dated coin (fig. 2) helps answer the question “who was the emperor Maximinus Thrax’s wife?”

Fig. 2. Cilicia: Anazarbus, Diva Paulina. AE, AD 236. Ziegler 651. (ANS 1973.191.110, purchase) 26 mm.

The city of Anazarbus in Cilicia, now part of southeastern Turkey, struck this coin in the name of “Thea Paulina,” the Greek equivalent of the Latin “Diva Paulina,” and dated it to the year “Delta-Nu-Sigma,” or 254, of that city’s era. This is not a Seleucid era date, and, in fact, Anazarbus began its civic era from the year of Augustus’ refounding of the city in 19 BC. The correspondence between civic years and imperial reigns can be seen in Anazarbus year 235, when the city struck coins for the short-lived emperor Macrinus. He ruled from April 217 to June 218. The end of Anazarbos year 235, which stretched from our year 216 into 217, would therefore have overlapped with the early part of Macrinus’ reign. Returning to the coin of Diva Paulina, year 254 in the civic era of Anazarbos equals 235/236 in our modern calendar. While that could possibly overlap with the reign of Severus Alexander, there were no known female members of his family who went by that name.

“Diva Paulina” is, furthermore, the contracted form of a full name that appears on an inscription from Italy as “divae Caeciliae Paulinae piae augustae” (ILS 492), which can be translated as “to the divine Caecilia Paulina pious Augusta.” It indicates that there was an imperial wife named Paulina. Additionaly, the coin of Anazarbus struck in this woman’s name in AD 235/36 is compelling evidence that she was the wife of Maximinus. That in both instances Paulina is called divine means that she was dead when the coin and inscription were produced. Later Christian authors held that Maximinus was responsible for the death of his wife, but that accusation is unproven. It is more likely that the coin and inscription were part of an effort to promote Maximinus’ dynastic ambitions, which are also seen in the appointment of his son, Maximus, as Caesar. That Anazarbus struck a coin for the Maximinus’ deceased wife shows that the cities of the Roman Empire were often willing to repeat whatever propaganda the current emperor and his officials were promoting at the time.

Aemilian Aemilianus and Balkan Eras

Our first two examples of dated coins have shown the utility of closely correlating civic calendars and historical context to look at single coins from single cities. Our third example addresses the dates of the Roman Emperor Aemilian, whose chronology was unclear until Martin Jessop Price, late Keeper of Greek Coins at the British Museum, brought convincing numismatic evidence to bear on the problem. The next paragraphs of this article lean heavily on the chronological framework that Price established in a 1973 article in the Numismatic Chronicle.

The family origins of Aemilian Aemilianus are obscure, though it is likely that he and his wife, C. Cornelia Supera, were natives of Rome’s African provinces. He pursued a successful military career that found him in command of Roman legions in the province of Moesia, along the Danube river, in the early 250’s, when Trebonianus Gallus held the imperial office. During this time, Aemilian earned the loyalty of his troops by leading them against Gothic marauders. Following this military success, his troops proclaimed Aemilian emperor, and the next step was to lead his army into Italy where he defeated the legions of Trebonianus Gallus and his son Volusian. The Senate at Rome then recognized Aemelian as legitimate emperor, but he soon had to deal with a rebellion himself when Valerian, who had been put in command of the Gallic legions by Trebonianus Gallus, marched into Italy intent on seizing the purple for himself. Valerian was quickly successful when the prospect of fighting his superior legions caused Aemilian’s troops to desert, kill their commander, and recognize Valerian as emperor.

When, and over what length of time, did this series of events take place? The standard historical sources are somewhat vague, but do help establish greater precision when combined with numismatic evidence. Looking first at two Balkan mints shows that Aemilian’s hold on the imperial office was brief in the extreme. One of these, Viminacium in Moesia, first began issuing coins with Latin legends when it was refounded as a colony in AD 239, during the reign of Gordian III (d. 244). These coins bear dates according to a civic era in which year 1 equals AD 239 (fig. 3). Year 14 at Viminacium was a busy one for the city’s mint in that it struck coins for four imperial individuals. The coins shown in figures 4 and 5 have obverse portraits of Trebonianus Gallus and Aemilian. One can see from their reverses that these coins were both dated to year 14, as shown by the ‘AN XIV’ in the exurgue. Although the ANS does not have an example, there are also coins of Aemilian’s successor Valerian struck in this year. The fourth person for whom year 14 coins were struck at Viminacium was Trebonianus’ son Volusian. These clearly dated coins mean that Aemilian’s time as emperor fell entirely within civic year 14 at Viminacium.

Fig. 3. Moesia Superior: Viminacium, Gordian III, AE, AD 239, AMNG 78. (ANS 1944.100.15180, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 20 mm.

Fig. 4. Moesia Superior: Viminacium, Trebonianus Gallus, AD 253, AMNG 168. (ANS 1944.100.15221, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 25 mm.

Fig. 5. Moesia Superior: Viminacium, Aemilian Aemilianus, AD 253, AMNG 179v. (ANS 1944.100.15224, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 24 mm.

The dated coins issued for Roman province of Dacia, which bear the reverse legend “PROVINCIA DACIA,” tell a similar story. This series was initiated under Philip the Arab (d. 249) after his re-assertion of Roman control of the territory north of the Danube, a process that was complete by 248. For this mint, the specific location of which is not certain, Aemilian’s time in office fell into its civic years VII and VIII. An interesting point to make is that, while Viminacium’s civic year entirely encompassed Aemilian’s reign, for the provincial era of Dacia, the change between years occurred during his reign.

We can narrow down the beginning of Provincia Dacia’s year by considering a feature of the way Alexandria, the principle city of Roman Egypt, dated its coins. The Alexandrian fiscal year began in what we would call late August. Coins were dated by the regnal years of the current emperor as calculated according to the Alexandrian fiscal year. This means that if an emperor was elevated in July, coins struck after the next August would bear the Greek letter “Beta,” equal to the number two. The reason for this is that the coin was struck during the second Alexandrian fiscal year during which that emperor served.

This seems to have been what happened in the case of Aemilian. There are no known Alexandrian coins of Aemilian struck in year “Alpha,” or one. There are Alexandrian coins struck for Aemilian in year “Beta,” or two (fig. 6). This helps prove that Aemilian was in power in August of 253 when the Alexandrian fiscal year changed over. When one adds to this puzzle the observation by the ancient historian Aurelius Victor (31.2) that Aemilian died only four months into his reign, one gains increasing confidence that his time in power was short and took place late in the year. To complete this logical circle, we can further suggest that the provincial year of Provincia Dacia also changed over in late summer or fall.

Fig. 6. Egypt: Alexandria, Aemilius Aemilianus, AD 253, Dattari 5141. (ANS 1944.100.67207, bequest of Edward T. Newell) 21mm.


Discussions of ancient chronology can be both lengthy and detailed. This is particularly true of the Roman Empire in the third century. So as to keep this article from becoming too long, I have not traced every thread of possible logic, and it may seem that some of the arguments here are circular. That is, in part, also a consequence of the relative scarcity of hard information for the events being examined. Readers who do want to pursue these matters further are encouraged to read Prices’ 1973 Numismatic Chronicle article. M. Peachin’s 1990 work Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, AD 235-284 will also interest anyone wanting to learn more about how the details of Roman history at this time are established.