A Case of casus belliRIC 113var, Imperial Coin of the Month

May 13, 2017



RIC 113var
AE As (28mm, 13.69g, 5h). Rome mint, struck 82.  IMP CAES DIVI VESP F DOMITIAN AVG P M, head laureate right; TR P COS VIII DES VIII P P, Flavian Minerva standing left, with thunderbolt and spear, shield at her left side (M3).  RIC 113var, reverse inscription COS VIII DES VIII.  Ex Numismatik Naumann.
Image result for ornate initial letter THE EMPEROR DOMITIAN HAD HAD just about enough of the father of Claudius Etruscus (Ian Carradice, "The banishment of the father of Claudius Etruscus: numismatic evidence," LCM 4.5 (May, 1979), 101-3, some of which this paragraph will attempt to summarize). The mint master had whined and dragged his feet over every change for the better that the young emperor had tried to institute, raising the percentage of silver in the denarius to pre-Neronian standards, increasing the weight of the gold aureus, and creating a totally new reverse iconography in the precious metal issues to honor the goddess Minerva, to name only three.  Simply retiring the old gentleman and hiring someone new and compliant might have been the best way to go, but Domitian didn't stop at that. Not only did he want his 80-year-old veteran secretary a rationibus out of the picture, he wanted it to sting. So in 82 Domitian officially banished him! To wine country, to Beneventum (in my opinion) in Campania, not exactly a seaside resort, though not far from several, but not unpleasant either; and whence he recalled him not too long after.
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          The College of Fetiales was an ancient priesthood whose chief function was to ensure that the wars the Romans waged were just wars. Generally speaking a just war needed to be defensive in nature; Rome itself or an ally needed to have been attacked or threatened. In the old days Rome would make alliances with weak foreign countries with the expectation that when inevitably a more powerful neighbor attacked one of these weak countries, Rome would step in, defeat the aggressor, and annex the ally for its own protection all in one move.  The initial attack by the powerful neighbor, the casus belli, is what made a war of Roman aggression a just war.
          Now the emperor, as pontifex maximus, was the de facto head of all of the priestly colleges, including the College of Fetiales. The emperor Domitian was a very pious man. Perhaps this priesthood influenced his outlook greatly.
          Because banishment was a serious punishment reserved for serious crimes. Domitian couldn't banish the father of Claudius Etruscus simply because he didn't like the old guy, not justly. To remove him from office was a simple matter since the mint master served at the emperor's pleasure, but to banish the old gentleman Domitian needed the judicial version of a casus belli.
          It is possible that sometime after March in 82, fresh from flexing a little muscle in the direction of the Chatti in Germany (a just war, since the Chatti threatened Roman borders), the emperor was home again in Alba. The atmosphere in the imperial residence was tense. To lighten the mood a visitor from the city called Domitian's attention to a goofy little mistake made by one of the engravers on the Senatorial side of the mint, RIC 113var, a coin from the same batch as the specimen pictured above.
          Note that on the reverse of this month's Imperial Coin of the Month, instead of COS VIII DES VIIII (eighth consulship, designated ninth consulship) P P, the coin reads, "COS VIII DES VIII P P." (It isn't immediately apparent.  Since the inscription trails off the edge, the observer has to count letter stems--in fact, this less than obvious inscription is probably all that saved this particular example from the smelting pot.)
          This coin was exactly what Domitian had been hoping to find. The imperial eye sparkled, that the hint of a smile curled the imperial upper lip. It wouldn't be difficult to feign offense at this! Examined from exactly the right angle, this coin could suggest that, in the father of Claudius Etruscus's opinion, the eighth consulship, the current consulship, was all that Domitian could aspire to, an eighth consulship followed by what? Another eighth consulship? This was an insult to the throne, a case of maiestas, a capital offense or, through the exercise of the emperor's own leniency, a just reason to banish the father of Claudius Etruscus.
          In my opinion, this coin could have been the casus belli.

          Next: RPC 2220 var: A twice-published unpublished coin


© Jim Hazelton, 2018