Image: Laureate head of Septimius Severus looking right
Inscription: SEVERVS PIVS AVG BRIT
Image: Victory, winged, draped, walking right, holding wreath in extended right hand, and palm sloped over left shoulder held in left hand
Inscription: VICTORIAE BRIT
For the images: http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.4.ss.332?lang=ro
RIC IV/1, Septimius Severus, no. 332, p. 133.
This denarius, minted in Rome between 210 and 211 CE, depicts on the obverse the head of Septimius Severus wearing a laurel crown, and on the reverse Victoria, the goddess of victory. The message forwarded by the coin is one which celebrates military triumph, the specific context being Septimius Severus’s victory in Britain at the beginning of the third century CE. This issue is a denarius, a coin used to pay Rome’s troops, and so served to forward the message of imperial victory to the army.
The inscription on the obverse refers to the emperor as Severus, Pius, Augustus, Britannicus. The inscription on the reverse accompanying the goddess of victory reads Victoria Britannica, which can be roughly translated as “victory in Britain,” acknowledging the emperor’s success in the British Isles as a whole, rather than just a smaller sub-section of Britain. From 208 CE until his death in 211 CE, Septimius Severus waged a campaign in Britain against the Caledonians and the Maeatae. By 210 CE, when the present issue was minted, the war had reached its climax, and Septimius Severus’s invasions of Scotland enabled him to take the title “Britannicus.” The theme of the emperor’s success in the British Isles was commemorated through a number of issues featuring the goddess Victoria in a variety of poses (see Mattingly and Sydenham, The Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume IV.1, p. 70). The personified goddess of victory was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Nikè. She is depicted on this coin walking, holding a wreath in her right hand and a palm branch in her left, which falls over her shoulder. Both the wreath and the palm branch were used as prizes in athletic competitions, and so emphasized the concept of victory in a broader sense. Victory in war was therefore compared through imagery such as that on the present issue to success in an athletic competition. As Carlos Noreña has observed, Victory, who was always represented as a winged female, and had as her principal attributes the laurel wreath and the palm branch, was depicted on Roman coins in a variety of ways corresponding to warfare. This could include images of preliminary religious rites, with sacrificial symbols, to images depicting battle itself, such as weaponry and armour, legionary standards and vexilla, to imagery indicating the successful outcome of battles, which is what we have on the present issue. While the laurel wreath and palm branch are depicted on this coin, other issues could feature alternative symbols of military victory, such as triumphal chariots and globes to symbolise more worldwide triumph. Essentially, Victory reverse types such as this sought to “underline and magnify the relationship between victory and political power” (Imperial Ideals, p. 54-55, quotation at p. 55).
This iconography of Victoria, holding the wreath and the palm branch, was the most widespread on coin types featuring the goddess, and such coins were first minted by the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and Titus, to celebrate their victories in the Jewish War. Later, Domitian took up this imagery to commemorate his victories against the Chatti, and subsequent emperors followed suit, including all the members of the Severan dynasty. That the emperor on the obverse of the coin wears a laurel crown (mimicking the style of Hellenistic rulers) shows the princeps as having achieved a recognisable victory; moreover, that this laurel wreath is carried by the goddess Victory on the reverse sends the message that the emperor has divine support. One imagines the goddess crowing the emperor as his deserved reward for victory in battle. Indeed, as Erika Manders argues, coins types which alluded to (in one way or another) the connection between Victoria, military triumph, and the emperor hinted at the emperor’s close relationship with the divine, with his victories represented as a gift (Coining Images of Power, p. 82). However, issues such as this, where a very specific military triumph is alluded to, and there is a clear association with the emperor as the conqueror of a particular nation (in this case Septimius Severus as the conqueror of Britain) served to show his individual prowess and success as the head of the Roman army, even if Victoria supports him.