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The “legionary denarii” of Marc Antony

The “legionary denarii” of Marc Antony are amid the most identifiable and collectible of all ancient roman coins.

It is called “legionary denarii” because of its advertisement of large military units.

In our collection you will find and example of an Legionary Denarius of the 5th Legion

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.

The coins were issued under Mark Antony to pay Marc Anthony´s Legions and there are two theories about where these coins were minted.

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.

Off all the coins which Marc Antony produced from 44 to 31 B.C., the legionary type is by far his most abundant and most famous. As Marc Antony struck millions of his legionary denarii, they became also the largest issue of silver coinage produced in the late Republican period.

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 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.

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”.

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