Featured A Pescennius Niger with a bit of a mystery

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Limes, Jul 25, 2021.


The reverse figure is:

  1. MARS

    16 vote(s)

    2 vote(s)
  3. Cannot be identified

    0 vote(s)
  4. Other (please explain in the commentsection)

    0 vote(s)
  1. Limes

    Limes Supporter! Supporter

    One of my latest acquistions has proven to be quite a mystery. It's a denarius of Pescennius Niger. According to the auctioneer, the coin is unpublished, and possibly unique, which however is not unique when it comes to denari of Pescennius Niger, I’ve noticed. Also, I think the auctioneer made a mistake in their description, and since I lack quite a few reference books I turn to the members of this board and their infinite wisdom for help.

    First, the coin in question:

    Now for the mystery. The description of the auctioneer is the following: "Pescennius Niger AR Denarius. Caesarea(?), AD 193-194. [IMP CA]ES C PESC NIGER IVST AVG, laureate head to right / [V]IRTVTI AVG, Mars standing facing, helmeted, with cloak over shoulder, head to right, holding spear and parazonium. Unpublished; for discussion of the criteria for distinguishing coins struck at Caesarea in Cappadocia, cf. J. Van Heesch, “Les Ateliers Monétaires de Pescennius Niger” in RBN 124 (1978), pp. 57-72. 2.14g, 19mm, 12h."

    Due to, or perhaps inspite of, being described as ‘unpublished’, I’ve been trying to identify this coin as much as possible. In that effort, I’ve concentrated on the following elements:
    - the figure on the reverse
    - the objects accompanying the figure

    When comparing my coin with the description, a few things become evident. First, I’m confident there’s no cloak. Perhaps the auctioneer mistakenly identified the shield as a cloack. Second, I’m not convinced the figure is MARS. So, below is the thought process I went through:

    The figure on the reverse:
    Since the figure on the reverse appears to be wearing only a helmet and has a warrior like look, Mars does come to mind instantly. However, another candidate would be Virtus. As may be concluded from the various descriptions of ‘VIRTVTI AVG’ types found on acsearch, VIRTVS and MARS are both used to describe the figure on the reverse of these cointypes. I have analyzed the various description and pictures of coins of Pescennius Niger bearing the ‘VIRTVTI AVG’ reverse, and have placed them in the following table:

    table PN.PNG

    Unfortunately, as the table shows, there is no clear conclusion to be drawn from the examples online for the description of the figure. Both MARS and VIRTVS are used when describing a naked or armored figure. There are many variations mentioned in the positioning of the figure, the arms, and the shield. However, it’s also evident that what makes my coin (for now) unique, is the position of the shield and the item held in the hand, at ‘hip height’.
    And when it comes to the figure being nude, it appears that MARS is more often shown nude in comparison to VIRTVS. But that’s no guarantee that the reverse figure on my coin is MARS, apparently.

    So, to be able to identify the reverse figure, I’ve continued my search by looking closer in the OCRE and wildwinds database (Again, I don’t own a lot of reference works...). Wildwinds - when searching for the above mentioned reverse legend, shows RIC 92type RSC 80; RIC 92a var; RIC 92b; RIC 92type RSC 80a-v; RSC 81. OCRE shows ‘RIC IV92; RIC IV 93; RIC IV 94. Of the five descriptions of wildwinds, four mention Virtus (RSC 80; RIC92a; RSC 80a-v; RSC 81). Only RIC92b mentions MARS. The three descriptions of OCRE all mention MARS. Notice the lack of the RIC numbers in the wildwinds database, and OCRE database, that are mentioned by the auctioneers. I was hoping the be able to draw a conclusion based on these descriptions, but it’s still uncertain. Wildwinds consistently uses VIRTVS in combination with ‘tunic’. OCRE however shows only MARS in the descriptions, either nude or wearing a ‘military dress’.

    So, next I concentrated on the attributes accompanying the figure: a spear, a shield and what appears to be a parazonium (the item at the waiste). The spear is evident. The description of the auctioneer, mentioned above, also describes a cloak, but I’m unable to see it. Unless the seller saw the shield as cloak, but I’m confident it’s a shield. Although the auctioneer mentions the parazonium, I felt in necessary to dive deeper into this item, shown on the reverse.

    First, when looking in my reference books and online, I found the following descriptions of both MARS and VIRTVS:
    - MARS is shown with the attributes: spear, shield, trophy, helmet; appears naked but for a cloak and helmet or fully armoured.
    - VIRTVS frequently appears in armor, stressing the military virtue of the emperor. Usually holding Victory or parazonium and spear, or spear with shield. Sometimes appears on association with honos.
    As can been seen on my coin, items are shown which generally belong to both MARS and VIRTVS, but for the parazonium. So, can one conclude then, that the figure is VIRTVS, but naked?
    The first obvious question is whether or not it indeed is a panazonium. However, contrary to my coin, when searching online for coins and parazonium, the results often show the parazonium as a sort of short staff resting on a knee, or being held upwards in the arm of either MARS of VIRTVS. There are examples where a figure is holding the parazonium in a similar manner as the reverse figure on my coin: e.g. the reverse of a denarius of Titus, with a radiate statue on a column (RIC 46). Another example is the sestertius of Nero, with Roma seated. But the imagery on my coin appears to be the exception to the rule. A text found on forumancientcoins however explained the general imagery of the parazonium: “A weapon similar to a dagger but longer (about 35 to 50 cm in length), and semi-triangular in shape; always carried in a sheath which is usually attached mid-body.” The text also mentions coins in which a parazonium is shown resting on a knee, or side, or across both shoulders in the form of a quiver. And, according to the sources mentioned in the text, these exceptional cases of the manner in which it appears upon coins to have been carried, however, do not interfere with the more usual acceptation of the word as signifying a short sheathed sword, worn at the girdle. Given the examples online and the text on forumancientscoins, I’m pretty sure the item indeed is the parazonium.

    So, where does this lead to? First, nudity is not exclusively reserved for MARS of VIRTVS. Both are depicted naked on coins, if we are to believe the various descriptions mentioned above. Second, the parazonium seems to be an item most often shown together with VIRTVS. But that’s not enough to base a conclusion on, as a simple online search shows: the parazonium is also decpicted in combination with other deities, and even emperors. And I’m pretty sure that the auctioneer used MARS in their description based on the ‘cloak’, which is not present.

    In conclusion, I’m unable to draw a conclusion! Who is depicted on the reverse? And I wonder if there’s even a conclusion to be drawn at all. To quote Van Meter, in his Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins on coins of PN: “There are a great many varieties in the spelling of the obverse legends, including some rather amazing misspellings of the emperor’s name, as well as irregular abbreviations of his latin titles. Likewise, the deities appearing in the reverse designs vary widely in their depictions, sometimes bearing the wrong or confusing attributes and often wearing Eastern garments. Apparently, the workers at the Antioch mint were skilled neither in the Latin language nor the nuances of its mythology.”

    Please share your thoughts by voting. And please explain your choice in the comments. And show your coins of MARS, VIRTVS, Pescennius Niger and/or showing the parazonium.

    Some sidenotes:
    - Pescennius Niger was a succesful servant of the empire, a consul during the reign of Commodus and governor of Syria when Didius Julianus was murdered. The Syrian legions proclaimed him emperor, upon which he took the surname ‘JUSTUS’ (hence, the IVST in the obverse legend of my coin). However, the more powerful armies in the west (Danube, Rhine) proclaimed Severus emperor, and PN proved no match. The final battle took place in 194 AD, on the plains of Issus, and led to his defeat. He retreated to Antioch, but was captured by agents of Severus and killed.
    - The mints of PN were located in the East, Antioch, Caesarea and Alexandria. All the mints were unaccustomed with striking Roman currency, hence the many ‘unique’ coins. Likely a huge amount of coins were struck to support his strive for the throne. And many coins were taken out of circulation after the victory of Severus. Today, coins of PN are not particularly rare, but as mentioned, there are many variations and (mis)spellings of the legends, indicated the massive amount of coins struck and the unfamiliarity of the mints with Roman coinage.
    - I think because of these circumstances, my coin is ‘unique’ too. I’m not particularly interested in the fact that its ‘unique’, although it’s led to a very interesting research effort. Although coins of PN are not exceedingly rare, they demand quite a premium. This coin got into my collection simply because it appears that there was no strong competition for this one during auction. I guess it was not appealing enough for most, who knows... I’ve been searching for coins of the emperors during the civil war of 193 - 194 AD. I’m still lacking a coin of Didius Julianus and Clodius Albinus as emperor.
    Egry, Trebellianus, svessien and 21 others like this.
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  3. Alwin

    Alwin Supporter! Supporter

    Same case...
    MAXIMINUS II, Follis
    MKV Cyzicus, 308
    6.92 g - 26 mm
    GAL VAL MAXIMINVS NOB C, Laureated head right
    RIC 49: Mars advancing r. naked but for floating chlamys, r. holding transverse spear, trophy over l. shoulder.
    Cohen 211: Mars nu, le manteau flottant, marchant à droite, portant une haste et un trophée.
    S. 14796: Mars, naked, advancing right holding transverse spear and trophy over shoulder.
    Ricardo123, PeteB, ominus1 and 8 others like this.
  4. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    @Limes - I enjoyed your write up and your coin is one I would happily own - attributed, published, or not.

    I don’t have a copy of RIC with me - worth checking details on variants that online can be missing.
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2021
    Limes likes this.
  5. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Virtus is female. Mars is male.
  6. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    I see no reason to doubt the ID as provided by the seller. The figure is Mars. Human soldiers tend to be shown with clothing and Virtus is a female personification quite often shown with one breast exposed. Too many people read the legend and insist that the figure must be Virtus. These two denarii of Septimius Severus from the mint known as 'Emesa' show Virtus with her right breast exposed. Sorry, I do not have one that is high grade enough to make this obvious.
    rg5000bb0823.jpg rg5150bb2525.jpg

    There are probably more rare/unique types of Pescennius Niger than any ruler. It was like the die cutters found something to change on every die they made so minor variations abound. I did not research this particular one but the only things that seem to affect price on these is condition and metal quality. You got this because of the damaged edge. The poor metal used for these makes damage par for the course.

    The common type assigned to Caesarea is IVSTITIA AVG. Only rather recently have we seen coins assigned to this mint rather than being lumped into Antioch. The city is indicated by the existence of a coin with a Latin obverse of this style and a Greek reverse from his issue of drachms.

    A typical 'Antioch':

    A point regarding coins of Pescennius Niger and all Eastern mint coins of the period. There was an unfortunate tendency of scholars of the past century to make up 'rules' for how things were done at the mint sometimes based on how things were done at Rome and sometimes seeming to have been pulled out of thin air. I doubt there ever will be a complete die study of the coins of Pescennius. He made a lot of coins. One theory is that they were demonetized and made illegal to possess by Septimius Severus. This would explain the large number of different dies for the relatively small number of surviving coins. The great hoard from Reka Devnia was reported as having 54 coins of Pertinax, 11 coins of Didius Julianus and not one single coin of Pescennius Niger. This might quite likely attest to the theory that many coins of this hoard were stolen before the catalog was written (almost certain) but it could also suggest that the coins did not circulate 'normally' as if they had been recalled. Pescennius had every bit as good a claim on being emperor as did Septimius Severus. His memory was not 'encouraged'.
    Egry, svessien, eparch and 15 others like this.
  7. Alwin

    Alwin Supporter! Supporter

    About this, Cohen wrote: "… les légendes sont si incorrectes en général que je n'en ferai plus observer les fautes." i.e. approximately "the legends are so incorrect in general that I will no longer point out any faults in them."

    One of those incorrect legends:

    Caesarea, 193
    3.52 g - 19 mm
    S 6126 v. - C 75 v. - RIC 88d
    IMP CAES C PESC NGER IVS M, Laureated head right
    VICTORIAE AVG, Victory std left
    Curtisimo, PeteB, ominus1 and 10 others like this.
  8. Ryro

    Ryro The last of the Diadochi Supporter

    Great new coin of one of Rome's "couldabeens"!
    I voted Mars for the reasons you listed, but double down after reading Doug's post. Gotta be Mars.
    Here's my pesky Pescennius:
  9. Limes

    Limes Supporter! Supporter

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to reply, voting, and sharing your coins!

    @dougsmit @Roman Collector, interestingly, the male/female difference does seem to be applied consistently in practice. Perhaps also due to quite a few coins being worn and making it very difficult, if not impossible, to see the difference in look. Even more interestingly, two auctioneers of two denarii of PN, with very similar reverses, describe the figure as either MARS or VIRTVS. Perhaps its best not to further this quest but accept the input given: it's MARS! (And I'm quite sure the figure on my speciment is male)
    So thank you for that.

    The edge is pretty damaged indeed, and overal the obverse and reverse suffer from erosion/wear. It didn't bother me. For me the more important factors were the legible obverse legend (esp PESC NIGER), the portrait which is well defined, and the fact that this coin was afforable for a PN. Every coin gets the owner it deserves, and vice versa.
    Downside was that due to the brexit, import fees were levied. C'est la vie.
    ominus1, DonnaML and Roman Collector like this.
  10. ominus1

    ominus1 When in Rome, do as the Romans do Supporter

    purdy neat coin @Limes ...i was just reading up on him and the other yahoos of that year...and i still short (but always working on it)4 for the year of the 5...:)
  11. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    I see the figure as male, and thus agree that it's Mars.

    I've posted this interesting article in the past about the personification of Virtus being female, with a number of examples: https://www.forumancientcoins.com/moonmoth/reverse_virtus.html. Regarding a VIRTVS legend sometimes being accompanied by a male personage such as Mars or the emperor, the article also addresses that type of image, arising from the tension inherent in having a female personification of the manliest of virtues, i.e., martial valor -- essentially, manliness itself. See https://www.forumancientcoins.com/moonmoth/reverse_virtus.html :

    "Virtus embodies manly courage and strength of character. There were powerful female figures in Roman culture, but these were generally goddesses like Minerva, not mortals. So, having a female personification of these qualities sometimes presented difficulties to the propagandists. As a result, coins often showed, not Virtus herself, but a soldier or the emperor with a "VIRTVS" legend to indicate that the army, or the emperor, was valorous and manly. In fact, a whole range of characters were brought into play. Here are some. . . ."

    The article proceeds to give various examples of coins with a VIRTVS reverse legend accompanied by images not of VIRTVS herself but of the emperor, or a soldier, or Mars.

    Here's my own obviously female example of Virtus on this Hadrian dupondius, with her bare right breast (although I think the placement of the parazonium is no coincidence, speaking of manliness):

    Hadrian dupondius, Virtus reverse with parazonium.jpg

    This portrayal of Virtus on a coin of Trajan [not mine] is also clearly female, but also has a rather suggestively-placed parazonium to lend some ambiguity to the scene.

    Virtus trajan denarius (on sale by aegean).jpg
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2021
    svessien, lordmarcovan, Limes and 6 others like this.
  12. ominus1

    ominus1 When in Rome, do as the Romans do Supporter

    ..NOTE: make that 3...you've motivated me to start that quest...:D
    Limes likes this.
  13. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & Eccentric Moderator

    Wow, Pescennius Niger. There’s one I never had, and am perhaps unlikely to ever acquire. I went with Mars and unwittingly found myself in the majority. I say “unwittingly” because my sole rationale behind the identification of the reverse personage was that it sort of resembles some I’ve had of Mars on my own coins, is all. I’d be unschooled on the Mars/Virtus distinction.
    Limes likes this.
  14. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    That is one great aquisition, Limes. Congratulations!

    My vote is on Mars. Here is the typical depiction of Virtus:

    Looking at that statue, one has to wonder how many Roman deities were put into one on the first Standing Liberty Quarter. But that’s another discussion:) Great new old coin!
  15. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    When the first Standing Liberty Quarter appeared, the average person was more aware of things from ancient times. Latin was taught in most schools and an educated person would be able to tell Mars from a dozen other classical figures. Today, more people can tell characters from Pokemon and whether an animal is Ender Dragon or the Fortnite Llama. I'm not saying one is better than the other; these are just the facts. It is hard to deny the reference to antiquity on the SLQ.
    DonnaML likes this.
  16. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    Limes, Interesting article with excellent research :happy:! I voted for VIRTVS. There can be no doubt that the image on the reverse of my Constantine I nummus is MARS, as the reverse inscription confirms ;).

    Constantine I, RIC VI, p. 218, 775-8.jpg
    Constantine I as Augustus, AD 307-337 (struck AD 307-308), Trier Mint. AE Nummus: 6.65 gm, 26 mm, 6 h. RIC VI 776. Ex Spink 169, July 2004; Ex CNG 465, April 2020.
  17. Limes

    Limes Supporter! Supporter

    thanks for the additional replies.
    @svessien, little doubt that's Virtus. And @Al Kowsky, little (no phun intended) doubt that's MARS on your coin. A lovely one that is.
    The overall opinion is MARS however. Which somehow is unfortunate, because I don't have a coin showing Virtus (yet). Then again, this is merely my third MARS-coin, and the only one on which he is fully depicted.

    Just wished Pescennius Niger would have cleaned his ear, before appearing on a coin... :D
    svessien likes this.
  18. Egry

    Egry Supporter! Supporter

    Gotta love the unpublished Pescennius Niger denari. Here is mine:

    Pescennius Niger, Roman Emperor from 193-194 AD, Silver Denarius (2.98g, 21mm), struck at Antioch 193 AD. Obverse: Laureate Head of Pescennius Niger facing right, legend around, “IMP CAES C PESE NIGER IVSTI AV”. Reverse: Jupiter seated facing left on backless throne, holding sceptre in left hand and Victoria, who holds spear and wreath, in his right, legend around, “IOVI PRAE ORBIS”. As Sear-6111 (different legend); RSC-43b var. A problem free denarius of Pescennius Niger with near perfect centring – features a curiously different obverse legend and a scarcer reverse.
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