Septimius Severus: The Original "Hammer of the Scots" - plus, a bargain rarity!

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by The Meat man, Mar 30, 2023.

  1. The Meat man

    The Meat man Supporter! Supporter

    I don’t know who comes to your mind when you think of the quintessential Roman military Emperor, but for me, I think of this guy:


    (Bust of Septimius Severus, photo from Wikipedia)

    Through and through the military Emperor, Septimius Severus had no time for the niceties of the Augustan Principate. He seized the throne openly through military force in A.D. 193 (following the chaos after Commodus’s assassination) and held it for over 17 years.

    If there’s one thing you can say about Septimius Severus, it’s that he didn’t believe in doing things by halves. Massive armies and brutal campaigns became characteristic of his military style, right from the very beginning. Severus showed little mercy to his enemies and did not allow for second chances.

    A fascinating part of this history is Septimius Severus’s campaign in Caledonia - what is now northern England and Scotland.

    Gnaeus Julius Agricola, an energetic and accomplished general, had conquered much of northern Britain and Scotland some one hundred twenty years previously, under the Flavians. But pressure from the native tribes and the logistical problems of maintaining a secure border so far from the epicenter of the Empire led to the gradual abandonment of these areas. Famously, the Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138) built a wall across the northern part of Britain, much of which still stands today, in order to provide added security and control over the region.


    (Hadrian's Wall, image from Wikipedia)

    Later, Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius (138 - 161) built a second wall, about 100 miles north of Hadrian’s:


    (Image from Wikipedia)

    By the time of Septimius Severus, the native Caledonians had pushed their way south past the Antonine Wall all the way to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. Part of the problem lay in the fact that one of Septimius Severus’s rivals for the throne back in 193 had been the governor of Britain, a man named Clodius Albinus, and he had effectively stripped the province of soldiers to fight in the civil wars, leaving the frontier very thinly defended.

    In 208 Severus intended to put a stop to the raids and incursions. He travelled north with a huge army, numbered at 40,000 men, and accompanied by his sons Antonius “Caracalla” and Geta.

    First things first. Upon arrival at Hadrian’s Wall, Severus and his army stopped to strengthen and rebuild it. Up till now, much of the wall had been made of earth and timber; Severus replaced it with stone.

    That completed, Severus marched north to the Antonine Wall, simply steamrolling what opposition he encountered on the way. Another rebuilding project on that wall, and Severus marched north again, into the wilds of Caledonia.

    Here the going wasn’t so easy. Difficult terrain and the savage guerilla tactics of the barbarian defenders took a toll on the Romans. Severus began to retake the old forts built by Agricola, strengthening his own positions while at the same time conducting a scorched-earth campaign against the lands still held by the natives. In the face of this devastation, many of the tribes sought peace negotiations but were rebuffed by Severus.

    In A.D. 210, with the native population at the breaking point, Septimius Severus decided to deliver the final hammer blow. He sent his son Caracalla with an army north of the Antonine Wall on what can only be described as a campaign of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction - everything and everyone was to be destroyed.

    "Let none escape utter destruction at our hands. Yea, whatso is found in the womb of the mother, child unborn though it be, let it not escape utter destruction!" - Severus to Caracalla (Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 15.)

    Severus would then follow up with his own army and so, finally, subdue and occupy all of Caledonia.

    However, it wasn’t to be. Severus fell ill in 210 and retired to the city of Eboracum - modern day York - where he slowly became worse until, finally, Caracalla was forced to call off the campaign and return to the dying Emperor. There, on his deathbed, Septimius Severus is said to have told his sons Caracalla and Geta the words by which he himself had lived and ruled for 17 years:

    "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn everybody else." (Cassius Dio, Book 77, Part 16.)

    Now, what about the coins?

    Given his long reign and habit of paying enormous sums to the troops, coins of Septimius Severus are very plentiful and generally inexpensive. But of course there are the rarities, and one of the most interesting is this type, struck in bronze:


    Septimius Severus augustus, 193 – 211. As 208, Æ 10.28g. SEVERVS – PIVS AVG Laureate head r. Rev. P M TR P XVI COS III P P S C Bridge with arches, towers at both ends; below, boat. C 523. BMC 857. RIC 786a var. (drapery on l. shoulder).

    (Image from; Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG)

    The bridge depicted on the reverse is thought to represent a military bridge built by Severus’s armies during the campaign in Britain. Many speculate the bridge was over the Firth of Forth but there is not a unanimous consensus. If it was the Firth, that would make it a structure to rival the great bridge Trajan built over the Danube river in A.D. 105:


    (Reconstruction of the Roman Trajan's Bridge across the lower Danube by the engineer E. Duperrex in 1907; image from Wikipedia)

    As CNG notes, “This rare coin copies the Danubian bridge type of Trajan (RIC II 569), and is possibly the bridge over the Firth of Forth, built for Severus’ British campaigns.”

    An excellent article discussing the various theories about exactly which bridge/river, and their strengths and weaknesses, may be found here. I strongly recommend giving it a read!

    You saw the nice one. (Hammered for 10,000 CHF back in 2018, by the way. upload_2023-3-30_22-2-22.gif ) Now here is my new mint-state, FDC example:


    This coin caught my eye in a recent eAuction and I put it on my watch list, as I do with many coins which I find interesting enough to follow but not necessarily bid on. But as the end date grew nearer with the bidding still pretty low I decided to throw my hat into the ring, and ended up winning the coin for the princely sum of 26 EUR. Needless to say, despite the poor condition I am tickled pink at having been able to acquire such a rare coin type at such a low price!

    (Condition matters, right? upload_2023-3-30_22-2-22.gif )

    This is considered a very rare or extremely rare coin, but exactly how rare? listed it as R3, which according to Numiswiki means 6-10 specimens known in the examined collections. I did a search on asearch and came up with about a dozen different examples of this coin type; there is one currently for sale on VCoins; and OCRE lists 3 additional specimens. All in all this makes about 16-17 specimens I can find recorded online (including mine.) I wonder what the total population might be; perhaps @curtislclay could give us an idea. In any case, it is not only quite rare but the unusual historical and architectural reverse makes it highly sought after by collectors.

    It is almost cliché but when a coin is in this kind of condition, light angles and intensity can make a huge difference, and I will say that the coin does look (slightly) better in-hand than the photos!

    Thank you for reading! Please feel free to post your own bargain rarities, coins of Septimius Severus, or anything else related and relevant!

    Main sources:
    Wikipedia online article Septimius Severus

    Wikipedia online article Roman Invasion of Caledonia
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2023
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  3. Cherd

    Cherd Junior Member Supporter

    I like to think that, at least from a stability standpoint, Septimius was the best option to have come out on top from the Year of the Five Emperors mess. While effective in a lot of ways, it's difficult to appreciate emperors that dished-out more than their fair share of brutality (not to mention repeating Aurelius' nepotism related mistakes so quickly!).

    Starting his campaign against Niger by kidnapping the man's wife and children, and then ultimately executing them alone leaves a bad taste in the mouth for the rest of his accomplishments. But hell, this probably wasn't far-off par for the course back in those days, as even the most empathetic emperor was probably a total monster by today's standards :nailbiting:

    If it were possible to go back and rerun history to see "what would have happened", then it'd be fascinating to see how things would have went if Niger or Albinus had pulled it off. But, I'd actually be most interested in seeing how things would have played out if Domna and/or Maesa had been put in charge. When it comes to the Severans, the women seemed by far to be the most crafty, competent, and intelligent of the bunch!
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2023
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  4. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Excellent post about a fascinating emperor.

    My favourite Septimius Severus' campaign is the first one, in 193, when he took Rome and seized power from Didius Julianus.

    He was governor of Pannonia Superior back then, at Carnuntum on the Danube (today in Austria, near the Hungarian border). He was first declared Augustus by his legions and the legions of the neighbouring provinces in Illyricum, then organized an expeditionary force to walk immediately to Rome as fast as possible. Speed was his strategy: Julianus could not organize any defence because, by the time he was informed that Severus' army was moving towards Italy, it was already there... The cities were caught off-guard and opened their gates to the Danubian army. No battles, no sieges, no fights. The Senate sent delegates to negotiate with him at Ravenna but on arrival the delegates changed sides and supported Severus. When he arrived near Rome without a fight, he stopped and did not attack the city. Didius Julianus had prepared a defence with his Praetorian cohorts and even gladiators, but for several days nothing happened. Severus sent what we could now call special forces, soldiers in civilian clothes with hidden weapons who leaked into the city at night, delivering personal messages to some senators and officials, and fixing posters on the walls telling the Romans the new emperor was here to avenge Pertinax. The psychological effect was enormous: the Romans knew the invading army was already inside the city, but invisible. The Senate abandoned Julianus, rejected his proposition of negotiating with Severus and share power with him: first time ever an emperor was outvoted in the Senate! After this, the senators negotiated directly with Severus, the praetorians abandoned Julianus' cause and came back to their camp, and Severus entered the city without a fight, greeted by the population. The praetorians were rounded up, disarmed and dismissed. A zero dead operation.
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  5. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    I doubt very much this sestertius represents a bridge built in northern Britain. And I doubt also Trajan's bridge sestertius represents the bridge he built on the Danube.

    As a rule, architectural depictions on SC coinage of the Rome mint always represent buildings in Rome. The bridge on Severus' sestertius is obviously not a military crossing but a urban lavish monumental building. The two gates, with their three arches separated by columns and topped by a row of statues, are reproductions of Severus' triumphal arch on the Roman Forum.

    pont sévère.jpg
    There were 7 bridges in Rome under Septimius Severus : pontes Aelius, Neronianus, Agrippae, Aurelius, Fabricius, Sestius and Aemilius. Most of them were very old and had to be restored several times during the imperial era. I am convinced the bridges on Trajan and Severus' sestertii commemorate restorations and embellishments.

    Provincial monuments are never depicted on regular SC coinage but can be represented on exceptional medallions. There are medallions of Commodus minted in Rome but representing the harbour of Alexandria. There is a famous gold medallion of Constantius I, minted in Trier, representing the walls of Londinium by the river Thames. There is a unique lead medallion of Diocletian and Maximian, found in the Saone at Lyons, representing the bridge on the Rhine between Cassel and Mainz :
    upload_2023-3-31_10-12-0.png (BNF)
  6. The Meat man

    The Meat man Supporter! Supporter

    I see what you are saying but I don't find it particularly convincing. Considering how rarely bridges do appear on coinage, it would seem that it would require something much more than just a routine restoration, which must have happened more frequently than just once or twice. Moreover, the most famous Roman coins that depict bridges - this one, and the Trajan coins they resemble - were both struck at times coinciding with great military campaigns involving the building of such monumental bridges.
    Far more likely, in my view, that these highly unusual coins are part of a series celebrating the contemporary military achievements of the Emperor, as was very commonly done, than that they represent a mere rebuilding project on some random bridge in Rome.
    Eduard, DCCR and Cherd like this.
  7. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Obviously the bridge sestertii of Trajan or Septimius Severus did not celebrate "routine restorations". It was obviously a complete rebuilding on a monumental scale.
    Monumental bridges are considered landmarks in many cities. Imperial Rome had many monuments : temples, markets, circuses, an amphithetatre, etc. and these monuments were figured on coins since the Republican times. Why not the bridges?
    If the bridges on Trajan or Severus sestertii were not Rome bridges, whe should wonder why no Roman bridge was ever depicted on Roman coinage...
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