Who were the 12 Caesars?
In AD 121, the emperors Hadrian’s secretary, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus wrote “De Vita Caesarum” (About the life of the Ceasars) commonly known as “The 12 Caesars”. Technically he only wrote about 11 Caesars and the other figure was the dictator Julius Caesar.
The famous Julius Caesar was central to the ending of the Roman Republic. He was a general and statesman and was assassinated on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE. His portrait denarii are very eagerly sought after by collectors and often cost thousands of dollars. In fact, many numismatists speculate that putting his portrait on a coin was a contributing factor to his assassination.
Augustus was by many accounts a beloved emperor. He also has a special relevance to coin collectors as it said that he was a collector himself. Many coins of Augustus are common though they can be expensive because he was and is a very popular emperor.
Tiberius was the successor to Augustus because several heirs of Augustus died prematurely. He ruled at the time of the death of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate worked for him. His coins are famous for “The Tribute Penny” a silver denarius thought to be a coin discussed in the new testament.
Gaius Caesar (also known as Caligula) is an infamous historical figure. His father was the famous general Germanicus. His nickname “Caligula” means “little boots” and arose from his wearing of military garb as a child. He was supposedly cruel, depraved and perhaps even insane. He ruled for just under 4 years when he was assassinated by his own guards. His coins include the popular and common “Vesta” As and some lovely sestertii. His denarii are quite scarce and can be very expensive.
After the assassination of Caligula the praetorian guard (the emperor’s personal guards) went looking for a replacement and settled upon Claudius. It is written that he was to some degree physically disabled. Claudius successfully invaded Britain during his rule. Overall his tenure was a relatively stable period of early Roman empirical history. Base metal coins of Claudius are quite common though others, specifically his silver denarii, are quite rare and are very sought after by collectors.
After the death of Claudius, perhaps by poisoning, Nero became the next to take on the role of ruler. He was famous for being cruel and violent but also for undertaking immense building projects. He probably did not play the lyre as Rome burned, in fact he may not have even been in Rome at the time of the great fire. The high costs of construction caused Nero to debase the silver coins. His denarii minted before this change to the purity and weight of the coins meant that earlier silver coins were more valuable and so they were hoarded and melted down.
Nero committed suicide in AD 68. This exacerbated the instability of the empire. Galba a governor of Spanish territories took advantage of this and became ruler of the empire in AD 69. This began the year of the four emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian). Coins of Galba are available but some of his denarii are very scarce or rare. Also, getting one in really nice condition can be difficult and costly.
Otho, as a friend to Nero thought that he would become emperor after Nero’s death. When Galba took over instead, Otho raised an army and had Galba put to death. Otho did not mint any bronze coins so his denarii are highly sought after and with the exception of some provincial coins, are the only way to fill his space in a 12 Caesars collection.
While Otho was defeating Galba another contender for the position of emperor (Vitellius) was assembling an army. Vitellius defeated Otho’s army. Vitellius was notorious for his excesses including gluttony. When the people, and the army specifically, had enough they murdered Vitellius. The coins of Vitellius can be difficult to find. His silver denarii are often scarce and readily bought by collectors.
After the turmoil of AD 69 Vespasian came to power. His rule was noted for its stability. He was famous for his conquest of Judea and for starting the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater (also know as the Colosseum). There are many types of Vespasian coins available and they are fun to collect for the variety of interesting reverses they present.
Vespasian was the first ruler of the Flavian dynasty. The next was his son Titus. Titus was supposedly a good ruler who finished the construction of the colosseum. He ruled briefly so some of his coins can be scarce and harder to find than others of the 12. One famous coin of Titus is a sestertius with the colosseum on the reverse.
The final member of the Flavian dynasty and the last of the 12 Caesars is Domitian. He was not known for his kindness. His devotion to the goddess Minerva is evident from her many appearances on his silver denarii. Domitian also used many other interesting reverses on his denarii.
Collecting the coins the 12 Caesars is a fascinating numismatic journey. Holding one of these coins in your hands allows us to connect to the fascinating events and historical figures of a time long past.