Denarius depicting the head of Septimius Severus and the emperor on horseback hurling a javelin at a Caledonian enemy (209 CE)



209 CE




Name of Ruler: 

Septimius Severus

Obverse (Image and Inscription): 
Image: Laureate head of Septimius Severus looking to the right
Reverse (Image and Inscription): 
Image: Septimius Severus on horseback left, hurling javelin at a Caledonian enemy
Inscription: PM TR P XVII COS III PP
Weight (g): 
(RIC IVa, Septimius Severus, no. 231, p. 121)
This denarius, minted in 209 CE, depicts on the obverse the head of Septimius Severus and on the reverse the emperor, riding on a galloping horse, hurling a javelin to a British tribesman. The inscription refers to the emperor as Severus, Pius, Augustus, pontifex maximus, or high priest of the Roman state religion, holder of the tribunicia potestas for the seventeenth time, consul for the third time, and pater patriae, or father of the fatherland.
From 208 till 211 CE, till his death, Septimius Severus carried out a campaign in Britain against the Caledonians and the Maeatae. It seems that the original intention of Septimius Severus was to conquer Caledonia, a region which corresponds today to Scotland, and which lay north of Hadrian’s Wall. Cassius Dio does not provide much information (Cassius Dio, Roman HistoryLXXVII.11-15); however various archaeological excavations may offer the clue for the reconstruction of the different phases of the campaign (see e.g. Severus and the British insurrection). The first step undertaken by the emperor was to reinforce the Hadrianic and Antonine walls, which by then had fallen into disrepair; following years of building works to rebuild and reinforce them and their forts, the emperor ordered punitive campaigns “which appear to have rivalled those of Agricola in force and penetration,” and which clearly aimed at putting the revolt of the northern tribes to an end once and for all (Richmond, “The Roman Frontier Land,” p. 11). The entire imperial household decamped to Britannia in 208 CE, including Caracalla and Geta and their mother, Julia Domna, the “mother of the camp” (mater castrorum); according to Cassius Dio, the campaign was riddled with difficulties, and for the Roman army it was quite difficult to cope with the natural obstacles, especially water. By 211 CE Septimius Severus could make a treaty of peace with the hostile Caledonian tribes, posing as conqueror, claiming the area of the Central Lowlands, before his death at Ebaracum (modern York) in the same year.
The victorious campaign is celebrated on the reverse of the coin through the depiction of the emperor riding on a horse, hurling a spear at a fallen Caledonian. The origin of this scene, i.e. a horseman spearing a fallen enemy, must be sought in the late classical-Hellenistic iconography of the king hunting with a spear; the young Alexander is depicted as such on a wall painting from Philip II’s tomb at Vergina. This iconography appears also on imperial coins previously minted by Antoninus Pius (137-161 CE), Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE), and Commodus (180-192 CE). Moreover, this iconography appears on contemporary Jewish gems as well. These depict King Solomon, riding on a horse, dressed as a Hellenistic King or as a Roman emperor trampling under his horse feet a she-daemon (see e.g.  Israel Antiquities Authority Collection (1931.2); Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman period II, p. 227). The rider is commonly identified as Solomon, as the name Solomon sometimes appears round the horseman. On the reverse of the gem appear the words “Seal of G-d”. The message conveyed by the scene depicted on the obverse of the coin emphasizes the supreme power of the ruler, who is always victorious. A passage of Cassius Dio may associate the scene depicted on the coin with a speech given by Septimius Severus to the army. Thus, according to Cassius Dio, “Severus prepared for another protracted campaign within Caledonia. He was now intent on exterminating the Caledonians, telling his soldiers: “Let no one escape sheer destruction, no one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, if it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction” (Cassius Dio, Roman HistoryLXXVII.15). Both the scene depicted on the reverse as well as the speech is characterised by a pitiless attitude towards the enemy, which supported the overtly military nature of Severan power (Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 227). This denomination, a denarius, served probably to forward the message to the army, which shared together with the emperors the burdens of the campaign.

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