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The Hadrianic Revolution of the Coin Legend

Sven Betjes

Radboud University Nijmegen

The reign of Hadrian saw a radical change in the selection of imperial titles on coins. Following years of an ever-expanding obverse legend, with those of Trajan even exceeding thirty characters in some instances, the portrait of Hadrian was surrounded by a much more concise formula. From 125 onwards coin legends on all denominations could even be as brief as HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS. This paper looks into both the context and the afterlife of this change. Indeed, the transformation proved to have a significant impact on the subsequent use of the coin legend in imperial coinage, and seems to be symptomatic of the development of the imperial position in general.

The condensation of the obverse legend in 125 came at the cost of many of the titles that from Augustus onwards had defined the position of the emperor as the supreme magistrate in Rome, those that Hammond called Republican titles in his seminal study of imperial titulature (1959: 58-127). Of all the titles that had surrounded the imperial portrait under Hadrian’s predecessors, only pater patriae and a reference to Hadrian’s third consulship remained. These changes have not gone unnoticed in modern scholarship, yet have generally been explained away as a return to the simplicity of the Augustan coin legends (e.g. Thornton, 1975: 439-443; Birley, 1997: 147; Beckmann, 2012: 413-414). However, such an explanation offers little guidance in understanding the sudden disappearance of such titles as pontifex maximus and tribunicia potestas, which had been so dominant under Hadrian’s predecessors, including Augustus himself. Scholars have also mostly ignored the fact that the transformation of the obverse legend was not limited to the reign of Hadrian, but was continued under his successors. Consequently, this paper examines the significance of these changes under Hadrian, taking both a short and a long term perspective. It demonstrates that the often overlooked coin legend can be a valuable marker of the transformation of emperorship.

Key to explaining the sudden change is a comparison between the titles that disappeared and those that remained. The first part of this paper therefore argues that the newly styled obverse legend was part of Hadrian’s broader scheme of redefining the imperial position in terms with empire-wide resonance without losing a focus on the city of Rome and its traditions. The result was a message that was traditional and innovative at the same time. In the second part I turn to the effects of this change of practice in later coinage. I argue that even though Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius immediately brought tribunicia potestas back to the obverse legend, this token of renewed attention to such Rome-centered political institutions was only temporary. The coinage of Hadrian’s reign sparked a redefinition of the place of Republican titulature, which subsequently also affected the reverse of imperial coinage. After a rapid decline in the third century, this kind of titulature completely disappeared at the beginning of the fourth century.

By focusing on a paramount change in coinage and its afterlife, this paper shows how long-term analyses of trends in Roman coinage could benefit the study of imperial representation. Such a longitudinal approach has been made possible by the recent digitization of the ten volumes of the Roman Imperial Coinage. As a consequence of this we are now able to visualize patterns in the emperor’s numismatic image, spanning the reigns of Augustus to Zeno (31 BCE – 491 CE). Combined with the increasing stress on the functionality of portraits of the emperors (King, 1999), the Hadrianic changes in the selection of coin legends give us a good idea of how Roman emperorship was constantly redefined in the first centuries CE. The emphasis on the emperor as the ruler of an empire rather than as supreme magistrate of Rome paved the way for the increasing importance of the emperor’s charisma, thereby burying forever the idea of the Republican emperor.

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