Bronze depicting Diocletian and the Genius of the Roman people (mint of Antioch, 294 CE)

Bronze depicting Diocletian and the Genius of the Roman people (mint of Antioch, 294 CE)
Bronze, AE1
294 CE
Antioch (Syria)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
American Numismatic Society; N° 1944.100.4080
Name of Ruler: 
Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Laureate head of Diocletian, looking right
Inscription: IMP(erator) C(aesar) DIOCLETIANVS P(ius) F(elix) AVG(ustus)

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Genius wearing modius on his head, nude, chlamys draped over left shoulder, standing left pouring liquid from patera in right and cornucopia in left
Inscription: GENIO POPV-L-I ROMANI // * / Δ // ANT

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

RIC VI, Antiochia, n° 44a, p. 618.

Livy’s account that the Genius of the Roman people was already worshiped in 218 BCE is probably the earliest attestation of the existence of this cult, and has been interpreted by many scholars as a proof that the cult must have been instituted at that time. The first figurative representation of the Genius of the Roman people probably appears on denarii minted in 100 BCE (Livy, History of Rome XXI.62; Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, representing Rome crowned by the Genius of the Roman People (100 BCE)). On these denarii, the Genius is represented as a semi-nude man partially draped, holding a cornucopia. It is not easy to distinguish on these denarii minted in 100 BCE if the man embodying the Genius of the Roman people was a young or a mature man. Another group of denarii minted in 74 BCE makes clear that the Genius was then represented as a mature bearded man (see Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Spinther, representing the Genius of the Roman people seated in a curule chair and crowned by Victory (74 BCE)). The representation of the Genius of the Roman people evolved during the imperial period, even if this Genius does not appear frequently on coins produced by the various emperors up to Diocletian’s reform. Most of the time when it appears on coins, it is during periods of crisis or political changes. For example, it appears after the fall of Nero. We actually know aurei and sestercii produced in Gaul by revolted groups opposed to Nero, and bearing on their obverse a representation of a bearded man, most of the time having a sceptre behind his head, bearing the legend GENIUS P R (RIC I, 2d ed., Civil wars, Gaul, n° 42-48, p. 207; see example). While in these types the representation of the Genius of the Roman people fits in with the continuity of its representation on the Republican sestertii, a change appears on coins produced by Galba who had then been proclaimed emperor in Spain. Galba used the image of the Genius of the Roman people on coins he produced in the framework of his anti-Neronian policy, as he wanted to appear as the defender of the Roman people. On the obverse of some of the coins produced in Spain during the civil war appears a representation of the Genius as a young man, beardless, most of the time with short hair, and having a cornucopia behind his head (RIC I, 2d ed., Civil wars, Spain, n° 16-22, p. 204-205; see example). It is also in Spain in this same period of 68-69 CE that the representation of the Genius of the Roman people underwent a major change and was modelled on the type, first attested under Nero, of the Genius of the emperor. The Genius of the Roman people actually appears on the reverse of a unique denarius as a young, beardless and hipmantled man, standing in front of an altar, holding a patera and a cornucopia (see RIC I, 2d ed., Civil wars, Spain, n° 1, p. 203). This type was then reused by Vespasian when he authorised the minting in 69-70 CE of aurei and denarii bearing on their obverse the effigy of the imperator Vespasian and on their reverse the type of Genius of the Roman people performing a sacrifice. The reuse of this type can be explained by the fact that at that time Vespasian had to assert his power and his capacity to rule the Empire (see RIC II/12, n° 1353-1356, p. 157). According to Jean Béranger, the fact that the Genius of the Roman people started to be reproduced while performing a sacrifice above an altar must have conveyed the message that this Genius was both the supernatural entity that one beseeched, but also that interceded for the collective entity he protected (see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 416). This representation of the Genius of the Roman people through the features of a young man continued to be in use under the Flavians (see Cancelleria’s Reliefs depicting the Adventus of Vespasian and the Profectio of Domitian (93-95 CE) in which the young beardless Genius of the Roman people matches with the mature and bearded Genius of the Senate) and the Antonine dynasty (perhaps under Trajan, surely under Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius; for the references see Callu, Genio Populi Romani, p. 13-14). However, the way in which the Genius of the Roman people is represented could vary. For instance, under Antoninus Pius, the Genius of the Roman People was represented naked to the waist, standing front facing, and holding a vertical sceptre in the right hand and cornucopiae in the left hand; there was no altar nor performance of a sacrifice anymore (see RIC III, Antoninus Pius, n° 70,71, p. 34). The Genius of the Roman people reappeared on coins minted under Septimius Severus; it was represented through slight variants of the classical type of the Genius standing and holding a patera in the right hand, a cornucopia in the left hand, while sacrificing or not over an altar (see for instance RIC IV/1, Septimius Severus, n° 26 and 43, p. 95, 97). The reappearance of this type of the Genius of the Roman people in coins minted in 293-294 CE can be put in relation to the elimination of Pescennius Niger and to the first Eastern operations, and has thus to be understood in a military context (on that point see Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 218, n. 36). At the end of Septimius Severus’s reign, that is in 211 CE, the Genius of the Roman people ceased to be represented on coins for a long period of time. Actually with the exception of debated bronze coins, bearing on their obverse the legend GENIUS P R, and on their reverse INTR URB interpreted by some scholars as referring to the entry of one emperor – perhaps Gallienus – in Rome or to an interregnum (on this debated numismatic issue, see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 420-422 who assigns it to Gallienus’s reign; in a different perspective RIC V/1, p. 35, 253, 360), it is not before Diocletian’s monetary reform of 294 CE that the Genius of the Roman people reappeared on the reverse of some coins. These tetrarchical coins, essentially of bronze, bearing the legend GENIO POPULI ROMANI show the representation of the Genius highly standardised, and were reproduced massively in all the mints of the Empire (for the importance of the production see the entry GENIO POP(ULI) ROM(ANI) in RIC VI, p. 700). Concerning the representation of the Genius of the Roman people itself, it follows the usual representation of a young man standing, holding a patera and a cornucopia (very rarely above an altar). On the coin presented here he is represented nude with a chlamys draped over the left shoulder, which is the most widespread representation for the whole tetrarchical period. Finally, the Genius of the Roman people carries on his head a modius, which is a cylindrical bushel made of wood staves that served as a grain measure. The modius has often been assimilated to the Greek calathos, an open, sometimes woven basket in which women put their wool work and that could serve to put flowers, cobs or fruits. Both the modius and the calathos were associated with some gods or goddesses (on that point see Malaise, “Le calathos,” p. 173-174). As rightly recalled by Jean-Pierre Callu, this type of the Genius wearing the modius or the calathos and represented nude with a chlamys draped over one of his shoulders corresponds in fact to a model that had been previously adopted by the emperor Trajan Decius in order to represent the Genius of the army (see Callu, Genio Populi, p. 15, n. 3).

In 294 CE Diocletian enacted a reform of the currency inspired by the monetary system of Nero. Its main concerns were as follows: first, the increase and stabilisation of the weight of gold and silver coinages and the improvement of their quality; second, the revival of the bronze coinage. This revival implied: 1/ the minting of a new bronze coin, the nummus, that corresponded to a large laureate coin made of bronze with a small quantity of silver (4 %) and weighing around 10g – this is the case of the coin presented here; 2/ the minting of a smaller radiate coin, the “neo-antoninianus,” recalling the aurelianus in its appearance, but which was lighter (around 3 g.) (on the dating of the reform see Sutherland, “Diocletian’s reform,” p. 116-119; on the reform itself see Corbier, “Coinage and taxation,” p. 335-336). Among the new bronze types produced in the aftermath of the reform, there was a clear change in the themes and legends selected. The period 284-293 CE was characterised by the diversity of the numismatic types produced, while the period 294-305 CE was characterised, on the contrary, by a standardisation of the production. For the bronze coinage, it was around the figure of the Genius of the Roman people. This new bronze coinage spread all over the Empire as all the mints produced it at the effigy of the Augusti and of the Caesares. As rightly recalled by Michel Christol, due to the massive production of this type dedicated to the Genius of the Roman people and due to the fact that it appeared mainly on bronze coinage, it must have been well spread among all the provincial populations. For instance, the mint of Antioch produced hundreds of coins of the type GENIO POPULI ROMANI, at the effigy of the Augusti Diocletian and Maximian, and of the two Caesares Galerius and Constantius during the period 294-305 CE (see for instance Bronze depicting the head of Constantius I and the Genius of the Roman people (296-297 CE)). The coin presented here is part of the earliest issues of the type minted there. We have chosen to select a coin from Antioch as that city had an important Jewish community during Late Antiquity, implying that the Jews of Antioch and its region must have been confronted with this coinage (on the Jewish community in Antioch during Late Antiquity see Soler, Le sacré et le salut, esp. p. 93-94). Finally, another particularity of the type GENIO POPULI ROMANI is that it had been produced during a very long period. Actually, the last issues were produced in 316-317 CE at London (RIC VII, London, n° 36-42, 50, 64, 85-87, p. 100-102), in 316 CE at Trier (RIC VII, Trier, n° 119-123, p. 178), and in 316 CE at Arles (RIC VII, Arles, n° 78, p. 240). For Antioch, production ended in 305 CE, that is the year Diocletian retired. This longevity of the production of this type is thus striking as it goes against the discontinuity that usually characterises the Roman coinage (on this point see Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 209-210).

Why did Diocletian bring back to life this figure of the Genius of the Roman people in 294 CE, when it had not been often used by emperors during the whole imperial period, and its last use went back to some types minted under Septimius Severus’s reign? The Genius of the Roman people was a sort of abstract and supernatural double of the collective entity formed by the Roman people, an entity which was worshiped and from which protection was sought. According to the words of Jean Béranger, the Genius of the Roman people represented the Roman people in its very core (see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 412). The fact that this standardised type was produced in all the mints of the Empire has been interpreted as a piece of evidence of the fact that at least in the years that followed his currency reform, Diocletian must have wanted to stress that he was going to restore the unity of the “Roman body politic,” both military and civil (on that perspective, see Sutherland, “Some Political Notions,” p. 15). However, this later interpretation is based on the spread of the type, and does not really explain the choice of the type itself. Jean-Pierre Callu has recalled that the Genius of the Roman people embodies a history determined by fate and that it guarantees the moral and physical unity and welfare of the Roman Empire (Callu, La politique impériale, p. 360, n. 4). As stated by Michel Christol, by re-using this supernatural double of the Roman people, Diocletian may have wanted to propose a certain look back on the exceptional trajectory of the Roman people who succeeded, thanks to his military victories and in spite of hardships, to create a universal Empire and to submit most of the nations. Actually, even though the Romans experienced hard times during many decades of the third century because of political instability and the numerous external threats, the message conveyed by the re-appearance of the figure of the Genius of the Roman people may have been to confirm the military rebirth and the reinstatement of the strengths of the Roman Empire (Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 212-215). This last interpretation is confirmed by the context of the year 293 CE, marked by the establishment of the Tetrarchy. The main aim of this new political system was actually to wage war more effectively and to guaranty that security and peace were going to endure in each province of the Empire. In 293 CE the urgent operations that had to be undertaken were the taming of the revolt of Carausius in Britain – what Constantius I did at the end of the year –, and the operations against Persia. Thus, the appearance of this type of the Genius of the Roman people in this context shows that the message probably conveyed by the choice of this type may have been to assert how the Roman Empire was going to experience a real renaissance under the Tetrarchs, a renaissance that passed through the reaffirmation of Rome’s collective military strength and the affirmation of the unity of the Empire (Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 220).

The final question that can be raised is what conception of the Roman people lies behind this choice of the Genius of the Roman people to symbolise the imperial policy of the Tetrarchs? Is it a traditional and narrow conception of the Roman people, namely the people from Rome or Italy who thanks to his numerous conquests and victories succeeded to constitute an Empire in which they had privileges and in which they could distinguish themselves from the rest of the inhabitants? Or, is it a wide understanding of the Roman people taking into account the fact that from 212 CE onwards, all the inhabitants of the Empire who had free status had become members of this Roman people? This question cannot be asked without making connections with other facts or sources. During the first half of the third century CE, the Greek author Herodian wrote about the end of the reign of Maximinus Thrax in 238 CE. Maximinus Thrax was a man of low birth from Thracia who had been proclaimed emperor by his troops in 235 CE. After the murder of Maximinus, Herodian puts in the mouth of Pupienus, a senator who had taken the lead in the revolt against Maximinus, an interesting reflection about how power and its prerogatives should be shared between the main actors of the principate, namely the emperor, the Senate and the Roman people. Interestingly, when Herodian mentions the Roman people, dēmos tōn Rōmaiōn, he refers to the people of Rome, that is the people linked to the Urbs which he recalls was still the preeminent centre of the Empire (Neri, Valerio, “Il populus romanus,” p. 227-228; followed in Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 224). Thus, the whole speech of Pupienus puts in opposition the people of Rome, living in the centre of the Empire, and the soldiers, living in the peripheries, who, for decades had had excessive powers and caused political instability. Herodian’s conclusion is thus that the soldiers should remain at their place and that they only had a secondary role in a res publica that remained dominated by the city of Rome, its people and the Roman Senate (see Herodian, History of the Empire VIII.7.4-6). As rightly recalled by Michel Christol, a significant number of the problems or tensions denounced by Herodian can be found again at the time of the Tetrarchs, even if at this time the answers and political justifications given to them were sometimes different. For instance, through the portrayal of Maximinus Thrax, Herodian implicitly criticised the fact that soldiers coming from marginal – nearly barbarian – regions of the Empire could be raised to the throne. Decades later, Diocletian and Maximian, who came from Illyria and Pannonia, accessed power thanks to their military career. In the two official speeches addressed to Maximian on the occasion of Rome’s birthday (Latin Panegyrics II (10) of 289 CE) and for his own birthday (Latin Panegyrics III (11) of 291 CE), the Pannonian origins of Maximian are presented on the contrary as a guarantee of virtus. Pannonia is presented as gathering the living forces of the respublica and as the actual source of Roman strength, while Italy is presented as keeping its preeminence only thanks to its seniority (on this point, see Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 222-223). This very idea of the translation of the source of Roman strength from Rome to the peripheral provinces of the Empire is confirmed by the fact that the city of Rome is also presented in various Latin panegyrics of the same period as losing importance to the benefit of other cities such as Trier or Milan, which benefitted from the presence of the emperors (see Latin Panegyric II (10).1 for Trier, and Latin Panegyric III (11) for Milan). The hierarchized Roman world described by Herodian, in which Rome dominated a hierarchy of provinces whose importance decreased the further away from Italy they were located, was thus challenged by a Roman Empire characterised by the variability of the places of power according to the moves of the emperors. This assessment has thus led Michel Christol to conclude that the populus Romanus who appears on the bronze coins produced after the monetary reform of Diocletian is not the people of the city of Rome, but it rather refers to a more global conception of the populus Romanus encompassing all the inhabitants of the Empire who supported the policy – especially the military one – led by the Tetrarchs. The opposition highlighted by Herodian between the army and the people of Rome was no longer valid. In 294 CE, Diocletian, himself a soldier-emperor coming from Illyricum, restored the type GENIO POPULI ROMANI and decided that it had to be spread all over, in most of the provinces of the Empire, because it conveyed the message that the Empire was entirely united behind the programme of military re-conquest (see Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 223-225).

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Le GENIUS POPULI ROMANI dans la politique impériale,”

Béranger, Jeanarticle-in-a-bookPrincipatus. Études de notion et d’histoire politiques dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaineJean Béranger411-427“Le GENIUS POPULI ROMANI dans la politique impériale,”coll. Paschoud François and Ducrey PierreGenèveDroz1973

“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”

Christol, Michelarticle-in-a-bookIdentità e valori fattori di aggregazione e fattori di crisi nell’esperienza politica antica. Vol. 3 Alle radici della casa comune europea Alberto Barzanò, Cinzia Bearzot, Franca Landucci, Luisa Prandi, Giuseppe Zechini209-225“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”RomeL’Erma di Bretscheinder2001
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