Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus
Date: 184 AD
Reference: RIC III Commodus 94a
OCRE Online: http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.3.com.94a
Provenance: Nomos Numismatics Zurich, Switzerland (Auction 28, Lot 1294)
Obverse: Head of Commodus, laureate, right
Inscription: M COMMODVS ANTON AVG PIVS
Translation: Marcus Commodus Antoninus Augustus Pius
Reverse: Three-legged modius with seven stalks of grain
Inscription: P M TR P VIIII IMP VII COS IIII P P
Translation: Pontifex Maximus, Tribunicia Potestate Nona, Imperator Septimum, Consul Quartum, Pater Patriae
Translation: High priest, holder of tribunician power for the ninth time, Imperator for the seventh time, consul for the fourth time, father of the nation.
Comment: Modius (bushel measure) was a Roman volume measure that is already mentioned in the Bible in the parable of the light under the bushel. It corresponded to the metze. For dry goods, which is what it was intended for, the measure was called 1 modius = ⅓ amphora. For liquid goods, 1 modius = 16 sextaries = about 8.7 litres. The modius itself was a wooden vessel with staves and fittings that frequently appears on Roman coins as an attribute of the goddess Annona and Ceres. In the case of the former, a motif frequently used for Annona coinage. The Roman emperors minted these coins to indicate their achievements and the imperial generosity for the grain supply of the city of Rome by securing supplies from the provinces. In connection with Annona, ears of corn often protrude from the top of the vessel, in connection with Ceres poppies. The modius occasionally appears as the sole coin image, for example on the Quadrans small bronzes under Emperor Claudius – or also as on the Denarius of Commodus presented here. On Greek coins of the Hellenistic period, the modius was also used as a headdress of Greek gods when they were related to the grain harvest or fertility, such as Demeter or Serapis.
The cura annonae (from Latin cura “care”, “supervision” and annona “annual yield”, “food”) was the supervision of the grain donations (annona civica) of the city of Rome in antiquity. The original cura annonae was the responsibility of the curule aediles in republican times. One of their tasks was to buy grain on behalf of the state in the event of famine and to sell it on to the citizens at a favourable price. The office also included setting the market price for grain regardless of yield and demand. With the growth of the urban Roman population and the simultaneous decline of agriculture in Italy, grain increasingly had to be brought from more distant provinces. The city of Rome had held a monopoly on grain from Sicily since the Punic Wars. At the end of the Republic, grain was distributed free of charge. Since the establishment of the monarchy by Augustus, the supervision of grain distribution was the responsibility of an administration led by praefecti annonae appointed by the emperors. In this way, the emperors, who since Augustus were ultimately responsible for the annona civica, allowed themselves to be celebrated as benefactors and providers of the city of Rome. Only those Roman citizens who were registered in certain lists were entitled to receive it; it was not a matter of need. In the early and high imperial period, the grain was distributed in the Porticus Minucia on the Field of Mars, and from the 3rd century onwards also in other places. From the high imperial period onwards, the annona civica included not only grain, but also North African olive oil, pork and wine from Italy. The grain now came mainly from North Africa and Egypt; in late antiquity, however, the grain from the Nile went to Constantinople, whose population also received an annona civica from the 4th century onwards.
Was Commodus’ full-bodied announcement of a happy age and his striving for the favour of the people the trigger for the severe plague epidemic in Rome? This is the thesis and conclusion reached by Morris Silver in his publication “the plague under Commodus as an unintended consequence of Roman grain market regulation”. The intervention of the Roman state in the free market economy, for example in the grain market, was a delicate instrument (as is still the case today when the state apparatus intervenes in the free market). If the state makes certain products available free of charge or at reduced prices, imposes upper limits on prices or places products under legal regulation – this may be done out of good will, but it often leads to the opposite, the destabilisation of the corresponding market. It was no different with regard to the secure supply of grain for the population. Roman emperors distributed grain free of charge, capped prices, prohibited speculation, confiscated hoarded grain, prohibited exports or forced traders to hand over certain quantities of grain. These state-imposed steps brought a short-term solution to the problem of a threatening grain shortage and the resulting threat of hunger – but sometimes led to more far-reaching problems in the months and years to come. State intervention had made the grain trade too uncertain for many landowners and middle-class merchants. Government intervention – through price caps or confiscations – often averted the threat of famine in the short term, but as a result the economic interest of producers and traders to engage in the grain market in the future declined. This subsequently led to an even greater shortage. Only speculators continued to try to make a profit – which further destabilised the market.
Commodus promised the people an unprecedented golden age of prosperity and happiness. This included, as depicted on this denarius, securing the supply of grain – be it free of charge or at a reduced price. Necessary for this was, as already mentioned, an intervention in the free market economy, as had already happened under the emperors before Commodus – in itself nothing unusual. According to Herodian, however, under Commodus the state apparatus went one step further – perhaps one or two steps too far. In order to present Commodus in an even better light to the people, his Praefect and Camerarius Marcus Aurelius Cleander is said to have devised a plan to buy up and store grain and then distribute it generously at the first sign of shortage. This artificial intervention probably led to a destabilisation of the grain market. In larger quantities than usual, even the citizens of Rome began to hoard grain in their private houses; trade came to a standstill, the situation got more and more out of control and a great famine was looming. Now, according to Cassius Dio, the grain prefect (praefectus annonae) Marcus Aurelius Papirius Dionysius came into play. In 189 AD, the cabals of the go-getting Cleander caused Dionysius to be relieved of his duties as prefect of Egypt and reinstated as the aforementioned grain prefect. In revenge for the humiliation, the prefect exploited his office to artificially force a looming famine in Rome by deliberately withholding Cleander’s grain reserves through deception. In doing so, he probably triggered a revolt in the Circus Maximus during a horse race and managed to portray Cleander as the responsible trigger of the unrest. Commodus then had the apparent author of the food shortage and his son killed in order to calm the angry crowd. In the same year, Dionysius met the same fate. He was probably executed at the emperor’s behest because of the events connected with his office as grain prefect.
After famine, political unrest and purges, the outbreak of the plague occurred immediately afterwards; probably the bubonic plague. Cassius Dio reports: “Moreover, a plague occurred, the greatest that I know of, for in Rome two thousand people often died in a single day”. Herodian adds: “Around this time, the whole of Italy was ravaged by the plague. In Rome the suffering was particularly great, as the city, which received people from all over the world, was overcrowded. The city suffered great losses of people and animals”. In his publication, Morris Silver sees a connection between the failed regulation of the grain market and the outbreak of bubonic plague in Rome under Commodus. At the very least, however, it was at least conducive to the spread of the epidemic. Large quantities of grain were stored by the state apparatus, but also by speculators. Above all, however, Roman citizens hoarded considerable quantities – more than usual – of grain in their private houses. Large grain stores and improperly stored grain in private rooms not designed for this purpose are ideal conditions for rats and thus breeding grounds for diseases. The high number of weakened people after the famine did the rest to let the bubonic plague rage in Rome. Thus, Commodus’ – certainly well-intentioned – striving for a golden age of happiness and prosperity may have led to the opposite in the end due to intrigues of his minions and officials.
This silver denarius is dated by the ninth Tribunicia Potestate, which began on 10.12.183 AD and ended on 09.12.184 AD – and the seventh proclamation as Emperor, which took place in 184 AD. Thus, the coin and its minting can be dated to the year 184 AD.