One of the most fascinating series of ancient coins is the so-called “legionary denarii” issued by Marc Antony between 32 and 31 BC. These silver coins were minted to pay Antony’s soldiers during his campaign against Octavian, who would later become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
The coins feature a portrait of Antony on the obverse, and a legionary eagle between two military standards on the reverse. Each coin also bears the name and number of one of Antony’s legions, ranging from I to XXX.
In our collection you will find and example of an Legionary Denarius of the 5th Legion
What makes the “legionary denarii” so special ?
The “legionary denarii” are remarkable for several reasons:
- First, they are the only Roman coins that explicitly name and depict the legions, the backbone of Rome’s military might. They reveal the loyalty and pride that Antony’s soldiers had for their units, as well as Antony’s attempt to secure their support by appealing to their identity and honor.
- Second, they are the largest series of identical coins ever produced in antiquity, with an estimated output of over 3.5 million pieces. They demonstrate the enormous scale and cost of Antony’s war effort, as well as his access to silver sources in the East.
- Third, they are the last coins issued by Antony before his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial era. They are witnesses to a pivotal moment in Roman history, when two rival leaders fought for control of the Mediterranean world.
The raise of Marc Antony and the Battle of Actium
After Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C., his two leading supporters, Marc Antony and Octavian (Augustus), became unwilling allies. By 32 B.C., however, they got tired of their unwanted alliance and became sworn enemies.
Antony took over the command in the east of the Mediterranean, and Octavian in the west. Their final battlefield was at the port city of Actium, on the western coast of Greece.
Some believe there was a mobile workshop that moved with Antony’s army in northwestern Greece, while others say the coins were struck at the town of Patras, which served as Antony’s winter headquarters.
The Legionari Denarius
All of the legionary denarii appear to have been struck circa 32 to 31 B.C. while Antony was in Greece preparing for his war against Octavian. The silver content of Antony’s legionary denarii is low for the era, seemingly because Antony had to stretch his limited resources.
The poor silver quality and content of these coins made them unpopular at the time and so unwanted in commerce that they remained in circulation for a very long time. When in the early third century A.D., silver coinage had declined significantly in weight and purity that a slick legionary denarius became of similar fundamental value to a current denarius.
The legionary denarii where stuck in 39 distinct issues. The obverse of all issues shows a galley, sometimes described as Antony’s flagship. The ship has a single bank of eight to 12 oars (the number of oars was probably left to the notion or patience of the die cutter).
The inscription above the ship ANT AVG abbreviates the name Antonius along with one of his titles, Augur, a priest of the Roman state religion.
Below the ship is his other title III VIR. R.P.C. (tresviri rei publicae constituendae), which loosely translates as “Triumvir for the Reorganization of the Republic”.
In this case triumvir was a member of the “Second Triumvirate” an informal power-sharing arrangement formed in 43 BCE between Marc Antony, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and designated heir Octavian and the last high priest of the Republic and Caesar’s political ally Marcus Aemilius.
The reverse shows a legionary eagle between two standards, with an inscription identifying one of the units in Antony’s army. The gilded bronze eagle mounted on a pole was the legion’s sacred emblem – its loss in battle was the worst disgrace a unit could suffer.
A full-strength legion in this era had about 4,800 men, and a foot soldier earned 225 denarii a year, paid in three installments.
Although there were just 23 numbered legions in Antony’s army, there are rare examples of coins with higher numbers. These have generally been dismissed as die engraver’s errors or forgeries, but some may be an early example of “operational deception” intended to exaggerate the army’s true size.
The “legionary denarii” are also very diverse and attractive, as each legion had its own emblem and motto, which were sometimes engraved on the coins. Some examples are:
- LEG II AUGUSTA (the second legion favored by Augustus)
- LEG III CYRENAICA (the third legion from Cyrenaica)
- LEG V ALAUDAE (the fifth legion of the larks)
- LEG X EQUESTRIS (the tenth legion of the cavalry)
- LEG XVII CLASSICA (the seventeenth legion of the fleet)
- LEG XXX ULTOR (the thirtieth legion of the avenger)
The by far the rarest of all the coins in the legionary denarii series, with only three genuine examples recorded, is the one for the First Legion at recent auction prices that ranged from $6,700 to $8,100 USD.
Coins inspired by Antony’s legionary designs
The next great occasion for reusing Antony’s legionary designs was the bicentennial year of Actium, A.D. 169, for which denarii were struck by the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. A commemorative near-replica of the Legion VI denarius was issued then.
The obverse depicts a rather squashed warship, with the name ANTONIUS AUGUR spelled out in full. The reverse legend is ANTONINVS ET VERVS AVG REST LEG VI – “Antoninus and Verus Restore Legion VI”.