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The Shadow of Commodus on Pertinax’s Coinage

Nathaniel Katz

University of Texas at Austin

As Ramage shows, some emperors used coins to denigrate predecessors. I begin by observing that, following assassinations, emperors denigrated predecessors only implicitly. Using Pertinax’s coinage as a case study, I show how implicit denigration worked. Then, I explain its prevalence as a result of coins’ unsuitability for condemnation and of the difference between civil war and assassination. While war could not be hidden, Pertinax could elide assassination and the concomitant diminution in the emperor’s perceived inviolability.

The clearest example of this implicitness is RIC IV Pertinax 6. Its reverse shows Libertas, which was absent on Commodus’ coinage and fits other evidence for Pertinax’s celebration of liberty (Hdn. 1.15.1; Mattingly; Pasek). It does not, however, name Commodus, let alone explicitly criticize him or connect liberty’s return to his death. It could, therefore, be read either as condemning the past or celebrating the present. His other coins—e.g., RIC IV.1 Pertinax 3 and its allusion to the date but not the manner of Pertinax’s accession—also operate implicitly. This is surprising given Rome’s well-developed tyrannicide rhetoric; RIC  12 Civil Wars 24, for instance, evoked Caesar’s assassination with its pileus and daggers (Gallia; Pina Polo; Scheid).

Two, complementary factors explain this. First, coins were ill-suited to condemnation, since they circulated widely and protractedly, lingering after a regime wished to celebrate itself in addition to condemning the past. Secondly, I contextualize the coins within Pertinax’s broader self-presentation, which downplayed violent change: his accession notice omits Commodus’ fate (BGU 2.646), his regime claimed Commodus had died naturally, and Pertinax prevented the senate’s public mutilation of the corpse (HA Com. 17-20; Hdn. 2.2.6). His refusal is striking when compared to civil war emperors, who often mutilated foes (e.g. Suet. Vit. 17.1-2; HA Pesc. 6.1-3). The coin’s implicitness thus helped Pertinax elide rather than celebrate the assassination.

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Usurpers Rivals and Regime Change: The Evidence of Coins

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