Sestertius depicting the head of Marcus Aurelius and Germania, the personification of Germany, sitting at the foot of a trophy (172-173 CE)



172 CE to 173 CE

Brass (Æ)



Name of Ruler: 

Marcus Aurelius

Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Laureate and cuirassed bust of Marcus Aurelius looking right


Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Germania sitting right at foot of trophy


Weight (g): 

(RIC III, Marcus Aurelius, no. 1054, p. 297)

This sestertius, minted between 172 and 173 CE, depicts on the obverse the laureate head of Marcus Aurelius, and on the reverse Germania, the personification of Germany, sitting desolate at the base of a trophy. The inscription on the obverse, “M ANTONINVS AVG TR P XXVI,” refers to the emperor as Marcus Antoninus Augustus, holder of the tribunician power for the twenty-sixth time, while the inscription on the reverse, “GERMANIA SVBACTA IMP VI COS III SC,” acknowledges the emperor as imperator for the sixth time, and consul for the third time, with the initials SC, standing for the words senatus consultum, indicating that the senate had given its assent to the minting of this bronze coin. Moreover, the words “Germania subacta,” or “Germany conquered/subdued” commemorate Marcus Aurelius’s victory over German tribes which had invaded the Roman empire in 170 CE. As Carlos Noreña acknowledges, between 69 and 235 numerous coins were minted celebrating victories over specific places/peoples, whether these were real or imagined (Imperial Ideals, p. 162), and this issue provides one such example. Indeed, the ideology of victory was so important to Marcus Aurelius that when his co-ruler Lucius Verus won campaigns in the east and assumed the honorary titles of Armeniacus, Parthicus Maximus, and Medicus, Marcus Aurelius assumed them as well (see Medallion depicting the head of Lucius Verus and the emperor on horseback trampling on the personification of Armenia (165 CE)). These military victories were therefore shared by both Augusti, despite the latter not having physically taken part in the campaigns (Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 161).

In 170 CE, several German tribes, such as the Marcomanni, crossed the Danube into the empire. The leader of the Marcomanni, Ballomar, defeated the Romans near Carnuntum, and no Roman army then stood between the Marcomanni and Italy. The barbarian tribes reached Italy and put the city of Aquileia under siege, while a Roman army under the command of the praetorian prefect Furius Victorinus was also defeated. Marcus Aurelius reorganized his military command, creating two new legions, the II and III Italica, whose official purpose was to replace the IX Hispania who may have been lost in the earlier Parthian campaign, but for Frank Mcylnn it is more likely that these new legions were raised because the emperor had intentions of going to war against the Germanic tribes. Mclynn argues that evidence suggests Marcus Aurelius had been planning to expand his rule into Germany from the earliest days of his reign, as early as 161 CE; for instance, he withdrew two important legates from the Parthian war (Mclynn, Marcus Aurelius, p. 325-326). The Romans mounted a counter offensive against the Marcomanni under the leadership of Claudius Pompeianus, and in 171 CE they were expelled from both Italy and the borders of the empire. In 172 CE the Romans crossed the Danube and continued their offensive in the area occupied by the Marcomanni, defeating them and their allies, the Varistae. It was after this victory that Marcus Aurelius assumed the title of Germanicus, which we read in the inscription on the present coin, to commemorate his military success (for a discussion of Marcus Aurelius’s campaign against the Germanic tribes and the aftermath of this, see Mclynn, Marcus Aurelius, p. 324-369). For Marcus Aurelius, the victory over the Germanic tribes was an important one, as Germanic tribes (specifically the Cimbri and the Teutones) had invaded Italy previously more than two-hundred and fifty years earlier in the Cimbrian War of 113-101 BCE, and been beaten back by Gaius Marius. Therefore, the propagandistic value of this particular victory was enormous.

On this sestertius, Germania, the personification of Germany, is depicted as a woman, draped in a long tunic, sitting desolate, at the foot of a trophy consisting of a cuirass, possibly a helmet, and two shields, a round shield on the left, and a long flat one on the right. The latter is the only piece of weaponry that can be specifically associated with the German tribesmen defeated by the Roman army. The depiction of a barbarian standing under a trophy probably originated in coins minted by Julius Caesar, which celebrated the conquest of Gaul (e.g. RRC 452/4 and 452/5: denarii with reverse type depicting a trophy with a bearded Gallic captive seated with hands tied below). More than a hundred years later, under Domitian, the depiction of a captive under a trophy had switched from the depiction of a Gaul to that of a German tribesman (e.g. RIC II/12, Domitian no. 274 and 351: sestertii with reverse type depicting a trophy and masculine Germanic captive standing beside, and the female personification of Germania kneeling beneath). The iconography remained very similar, with the enemy changing as Rome defeated different foes. The present sestertius forwarded a propagandistic message directed towards the populations of the Latin West, which emphasized the end of the barbarian peril. Parts of these populations had been witness to the invasion and war. Therefore, the primary purpose of the imperial propaganda was to reassure the population that victory had been achieved and that the barbarians had been chased out of the empire’s limes.

Bibliographical references: 

How to quote this page

Sestertius depicting the head of Marcus Aurelius and Germania, the personification of Germany, sitting at the foot of a trophy (172-173 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Samuele Rocca, Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 08/21/2018 - 17:58
Visited: Mon, 04/15/2024 - 14:12

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