Sestertius depicting Caius Caligula and celebrating the emperor for saving citizens (37-38 CE)

37 CE to 38 CE
copper alloy
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
British Museum. R.6434
Name of Ruler: 
Caius Caligula
Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Laureate head of Caius Caligula looking left

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: A crown of oak leaves around an inscription in four lines
Inscription: S P Q R / P P / OB CIVES / SERVATOS

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

RIC I2, Gaius, no. 37, p. 111.

On the obverse of this sestertius is depicted the laureate head of the emperor Caius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (here after named Caligula) and on the reverse the civic crown. It was minted during Caligula’s first year of reign, that is in 37-38 CE, with a group of denarii presenting the same reverse type (RIC I2, no. 19, p. 109). It is important, however, to note that this type with the civic crown (corona civica) associated with the inscription S(enatus) P(opulus)q(ue) R(omanus) / P(atri) P(atriae) / Ob cives servatos, “The Senate and the Roman people, to the father of fatherland, for having saved the citizens” on the reverse, continued to be minted in Rome throughout Caligula’s reign. We find emissions of sestertii in 39-40 CE (RIC I2, no. 46, p. 111); and of aurei and denarii in 40 CE (RIC I2, no. 27-28, p. 109); and of sestertii in 40-41 CE (RIC I2, no. 53, p. 111).

How can the choice to associate the figure of the reigning emperor with the civic crown and this inscription be explained? The civic crown was a crown made of oak leaves which, from the Republican period onwards, was bestowed to Roman soldiers who had saved the life/lives of a comrade/comrades in battle. During the imperial period, Augustus had been the first emperor to monopolise the civic crown. He actually received it from the Senate in 27 BCE in gratitude for having put an end to the civil war and restored the Respublica. In fact, a passage of the Res Gestae deals with that episode: “For this service (i.e. the restoration of the Respublica), I was named Augustus by resolution of the Senate. The doorposts of my house were officially decked out with young laurel trees, the corona civica (an oak wreath) was placed over the door, and in the Curia Iulia was displayed the golden shield (clipeus virtutis)...” (Res Gestae 34.2, translation taken from Zanker, The Power of Images, p. 92). As rightly stated by Paul Zanker, the civic crown as the laurel trees and the clipeus virtutis were “modest and simple honors in the old Roman tradition,” yet Augustus chose to re-use them because it fitted with the message that he wanted to convey and to associate with his person. Augustus actually represented himself as honouring and respectful of the traditions of the Republic and of its keystone institution, the Senate, as the latter was officially presented as granting him these honours voluntarily (Zanker, The Power of Images, p. 92). However, the oak leaf crown was not only an honour in the Roman tradition, it referred also to the tree sacred to Jupiter. As a consequence, the civic crown indirectly associated the character of Augustus with Jupiter. The corona civica was not simply an evocation of the Republican traditions, it was also a token of the new monarchical rule established by the new princeps (see Zanker, The Power of Images, p. 93-94).
After Augustus’s accession to power in 27 BCE, the civic crown, the laurel trees and the clipeus virtutis, were motifs that were usually depicted on gold, silver, and bronze coins minted throughout his entire reign. For instance, Augustean propaganda reuses these motifs – and in particular the image of the civic crown – in the framework of the celebration of Augustus’s successful negotiations with the Parthians that had led to the restoration of the lost Roman standards and to the freeing of numerous Roman soldiers. These motifs appear thus on coins produced between 19 and 18 BCE in two mints in Spain (possibly Caesaraugusta and Colonia Patricia; see Aureus depicting the head of Augustus and the Clipeus Virtutis (19 BCE)). Interestingly, the image of the civic crown with the legend OB CIVIS SERVATOS appears repeatedly (see RIC I2, Augustus, no. 29a, p. 43; RIC I2, Augustus, no. 40a, p. 44; there exist variants on which inside the civic crown there is the clipeus virtutis with the legend S P Q R /C LV inscribed on it, see RIC I2, Augustus, no. 79a, p.47). The image of the civic crown represented on the obverse or reverse of coins with the legend OB CIVIS SERVATOS appears also on coins – essentially bronze ones – minted at Rome during the period 19-15 BCE (see for example RIC I2, Augustus, no. 330, p. 65; RIC I2, Augustus, no. 387, p. 71). The reuse of this motif of the civic crown and its association with the legend OB CIVIS SERVATOS on these coins produced between 19 and 15 BCE may have had one objective: to insist upon the clementia and the paternal care of the princeps towards his Roman subjects.

The motif of the civic crown associated with the legend referring to the rescuing of citizens was reused by Augustus’s successors with a variant, as in the legend CIVIS becomes CIVES. Under Tiberius, it appears on the obverse of three types of sestertii minted between 34 and 37 CE,on which is depicted a shield inscribed OB CIVES SER(VATOS) within an oak-wreath supported by two capricorns, the shield being surrounded by the inscription DIVO AVGVSTO S P Q R, “To (the) deified Augustus, the Senate and Roman people” (RIC I2, Tiberius, no. 57, 63, 69, p. 98). These types were minted under Tiberius to commemorate anniversaries connected with Augustus. Actually, 34 CE was the year of the vicennium of Augustus’s death and consecration as divus; whereas 37 CE corresponded to the half-centenary of the new saeculum whose beginning had been celebrated in 17 BCE (see Grant, Roman Anniversary Issues, p. 43-47). By allowing the minting of these types that clearly recalled some Augustean ones, Tiberius must have wanted to honour Augustus, but also to associate his own person with the qualities that were connected to the shield of virtues and the civic crown.
Caligula continued the minting of types bearing the image of the civic crown with the legend OB CIVES SER(VATOS) during the very first year of his reign – as exemplified here. This choice can be explained by the fact that when he came into power, he made a huge effort “to forge an identity with Augustus, and thus to confer a legitimacy of sorts on his reign” (Barrett, Caligula, p. 94). This will to refer to Augustus went with a strategy to pass under silence the name of his predecessor and grand-father, Tiberius, a strategy that appears systematically on the coins produced under his reign (see the sestertii of 39-40 CE bearing the same motif on the reverse as the coin presented here but on which Caligula is simply presented as DIVI AUGUSTI PRON(EPOS), “grandson of the deified Augustus,” see RIC I2, no. 46, p. 111; this strategy does not concern inscriptions, see Hekster, Emperors,p. 166-167). This choice can be explained by the fact that in his legacy, Tiberius expressed that he wanted his two grandsons, Tiberius Gemellus and Caligula, to be co-heirs, even if the second was much older than the first (in 37 CE Caligula was 25 years old and Tiberius Gemellus around 17). Tiberius thus wanted Tiberius Gemellus and Caligula to share the imperial power and riches equally. However, after Tiberius’s death that occurred on the 16th of March 37 CE, Tiberius Gemellus had been immediately taken away from the succession by Caligula (on the troubled context of Tiberius’s succession, see Barrett, Caligula, p. 35-59). As a consequence, Caligula chose to emphasise his connection with his great-grandfather Augustus from the very beginning of his reign onwards, instead of recalling the memory of a grand-father who had not chosen him as his unique successor. This choice manifested itself in the production of coins bearing symbols and legends that echoed the ones present on Augustean coinage. This is the case of the sestertii presented here and of the sestertii minted in 37-38 CE that represent on their obverse a seated Pietas with the depiction of the temple of Augustus on the reverse. These sestertii had been minted to commemorate the dedication by Caligula of the Temple of Divus Augustus – a temple largely built and decorated under Tiberius’s reign – that took place on the 30th and 31st of August 37 CE (on this type see Sestertius depicting Pietas and Caligula sacrificing in front of the Temple of Divus Augustus (37/38 CE); see also Barrett, Caligula, p. 94-97). So, the coin presented fits in with Caligula’s policy that had consisted of exploiting Augustean symbolism.

There is, however, one element in the legend of the type presented here which differs from Augustus’s and Tiberius’s types, namely the mention in the legend on the reverse of P(ater) P(atriae), “father of the fatherland”. Cassius Dio states that Caligula “took in one day all the honours which Augustus had with difficulty been induced to accept,” and he adds that he accepted all the Augustean titles with the exception of pater patriae that was granted to him slightly later (Cassius Dio, Roman History LIX.3.2; remember that on the 16th of March Caligula was acclaimed by the praetorian guards; on the 18th of March the Senate approved the acclamation and on the 29th of March the Senate granted him the ius arbitriumque omnium rerum, the right to decide in every matter; on his accession to power; see Scheid, “L’investiture impériale,” p. 224-225). The fact that Caligula accepted the title of pater patriae is noteworthy, as before him Tiberius had refused to be granted this title (as stated in Tacitus, Annals I.72.2; Suetonius, Tiberius XXVI.2; Cassius Dio, Roman History LVII.8.1 and LVIII.12.8). A fragment of the Acts of the Arval Brothers actually shows that on the 21st of September 38 CE, rites were carried out in order to celebrate the fact that Caligula “had received the title of Pater Patriae offered to him with the consent of the Senate” (for the text see Broise and Scheid, “Deux nouveaux fragments,” p. 225-226). One can thus deduce that Caligula must have been granted the title of pater patriae on the 21st September 37 CE. In addition, as rightly recalled by Henri Broise and John Scheid, the fact that in the passage of the Acts of the Arval Brothers it is mentioned that Caligula was granted the title of pater patriae “with the consent of the Senate” (consensu Senatus) fits in with the fact that during the first year of his reign Caligula wanted to associate his accession to power and his person to Augustean ideology (Broise, and Scheid, “Deux nouveaux fragments,” p. 240-242). As a consequence, the sestertii and denarii minted in 37-38 CE and bearing on their obverse the civic crown with the legend referring to the title of pater patriae of the emperor can be interpreted as having been minted precisely to celebrate the granting of this title to Caligula by the Senate (in that perspective see Barrett, Caligula, p. 97-98). Finally, Anthony Barrett has also suggested that other honours must have been granted to Caligula on the occasion of this grant of the title of pater patriae on the 21st of September 37 CE, such as the grant of a golden shield that clearly recalled the one awarded to Augustus in 27 BCE. According to Suetonius, this shield had to be borne every year to the Capitol, on a precise day (possibly on the 21st of September), by the colleges of priests who were escorted by the members of the Senate (Suetonius, Caligula XVI.4). A civic crown might have been also granted to Caligula on the occasion of the granting of the title of pater patriae, a crown that might have been fixed on Caligula’s residence on the Palatine (Barrett cites one bust of Caligula wearing an oak crown exposed in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; also Suetonius, Tiberius XXVI.2 and Claudius XVII.3; for the whole reasoning see Barrett, Caligula, p. 98). If Caligula had actually been granted the corona civica when he received the title of pater patriae, then the motif appearing on the reverse of the coin presented here makes perfect sense.

In conclusion, the type presented here, produced during the very first year of Caligula’s reign and associating on its reverse the motif of the civic crown with the legend Ob cives servatos, attests to Caligula’s wish to present himself as a successor of Augustus by re-using motifs and a phraseology that echoed those of the Principate. When it appeared for the first time under Augustus, this motif conveyed the message that the new princeps conformed to the Republican traditions, and it also emphasised his clementia and his care for the Roman citizens. This motif then reappeared on some sestertii minted in the last year of Tiberius’s reign. These coins fitted in with a policy that consisted of honouring Augustus’s memory, twenty years after his death and fifty years after the celebration of the beginning of the new saeculum. Immediately after his accession to power Caligula re-used that motif in order to legitimate his power by presenting himself as the successor of Augustus, even if this implied downplaying the preceding emperor Tiberius. We have seen that whereas Tiberius had refused the title of pater patria, Caius Caligula was granted this title in September 37 CE, and it may have been to commemorate this event that the coin presented here was minted.

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Sestertius depicting Caius Caligula and celebrating the emperor for saving citizens (37-38 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Thu, 09/06/2018 - 20:08
Visited: Fri, 03/01/2024 - 19:55

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