Imperator Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix
Date: 192 AD
Reference: RIC III Commodus 251
OCRE Online: http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.3.com.251_denarius
Provenance: Noonans Numismatics London, Great Britain (Auction 21, Lot 504)
Pedigree: From the Graham Collection of Roman Imperial Coins (Bt 1993)
Obverse: Head of Commodus, wearing lion-skin, right
Inscription: L AEL AVREL COMM AVG P FEL
Translation: Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix
Translation: Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, the pious and fortunate Augustus
Reverse: Club of Hercules with legend to either side in 3 lines within wreath
Inscription: HERCVL ROMAN AVGV
Translation: Hercules Romanus Augustus
Translation: Hercules, Roman Augustus
Comment: The last two years of Commodus’ reign were marked by many historical events. A fundamental change in Commodus’ self-image is evident in his change of name in 191 AD. The new name appears in Alexandria on coins of the 31st year and must therefore have been introduced before 29 August 191 AD. The inclusion of “Lucius Aelius” in the name was anything but pure arbitrariness. It was the original name of Commodus, which he had received in 161 AD in reference to Lucius Verus (after the death of Antoninus Pius). This step was a conscious (political and principled) cutting of the cord – also vis-à-vis his father Marcus Aurelius. Then in 191 AD a series of coinages of “Hercules Commodianus” appear. Hercules stands almost frontally with a naked torso and sacrifices on a burning altar against which a club is leaning. Such a depiction had not existed in the coinage of the Roman principate until then. However, the “Hercules Commodianus” is not identical with “Hercules Romanus” – who is Commodus himself, but with the genius of Commodus! The following year 192 AD can then be roughly summarised as follows: Fire and refoundation of Rome, fortnightly circus games, Commodus as Hercules Romanus and finally his assassination.
Ancient sources report that the fire of Rome, which lasted several days, occurred some time before the Great Games. It destroyed the Temple of Pax (where many Romans had deposited their savings), the Temple of Vesta, parts of the Palatium (including the library) and many other parts of the city. The fire only came to an end when it found no more food (Cassius Dio) or was extinguished by heavy rains (Herodian). After that, the people no longer began to look with affection on the emperor. In the second half of 192 AD, Commodus had 14-day games organised. Even from Italy and the provinces people flocked to see what they had never seen before. What kind of games they were is disputed. According to F. Miller, it was the “Ludi Romani”, Grosso argues for the “Ludi Divi Augusti” or for the “Ludi plebei”. It is more likely, however, that these magnificent games celebrated the re-foundation of Rome. According to the Historia Augusta, the great fire was the reason for “re-founding” the city and, along with Cassius Dio, also provides the city’s new name: “colonia aeterna felix Commodiana”. As if that were not enough, the senate was now given the name “Senatus felix Commodianus”, the legions were given the epithet “Commodiana”, all the months were renamed after the name of the emperor – and finally Commodus was given the name “Hercules Romanus” by the senate. With this, Commodus had risen to become the Hercules of the Romans who had refounded Rome. However, the identification of “Hercules Romanus” was not an ill-considered action by Commodus in the last two or three months of his reign. Everything speaks rather for a “long-term programme” of Commodus that was realised step by step.
The coinages of the year 192 AD can be roughly divided into three groups, which were apparently minted one after the other. The first group seems to date from the beginning of the year. The obverse sides still show the curly head of Commodus with the laurel wreath. The reverse sides show, among others, Fides, Mars, Victoria or Liberalitas. The second group of the first Hercules series seems to have been minted after the first group. The obverse sides again have the curly head of Commodus with laurel wreath. The reverse sides now show a standing Hercules wreathing a tropaeum – or a “Hercules Romanus”, his foot placed on a prora, he seems to be about to accept ears of grain from the personification of Africa opposite him. Finally, the third group and thus the second Hercules series, all of which show the head of Commodus with the lion’s skin, short-cropped hair and a shorter beard on the front – a hairstyle also shown on the head of Mantua. The backs of this last group are without exception dedicated to “Hercules Romanus”. This series refers exclusively to the great circus games towards the end of the year, during which Commodus, as “Hercules Romanus”, is said to have killed wild animals in the arena. The type of denarius presented here belongs to this aforementioned third group – and is thus one of the last coinages of Commodus before his assassination.
Recent research has increasingly come to the conclusion that the transformation of Commodus into the “Hercules Romanus” was not based on any kind of Caesar mania, but on a sober political calculation that was intended to send a message to the “plebs urbana” and the mass of the population throughout the empire. It seems to have been significant that hardly any ruler before him had gone as far as he did in identifying or even merging with a deity, both by appearing in person in the garb of the deity before a large audience and in the form of statuary representations in which the emperor was presented in the guise of Hercules.
What was the deeper meaning of this close assimilation or even identification of Commodus with Hercules in particular? Hercules was not only popular among the Roman population, but also an extremely versatile deity who was worshipped in numerous different aspects. Moreover, the gladiators had a special relationship with this martial god. As a human figure who had achieved immortality through his extraordinary deeds, Hercules was an ideal identification figure for an emperor who also strove for divine exaltation. At the same time, the constantly demonstrated victoriousness of the emperor, who appeared as Hercules Invictus, was intended to appeal to the soldiers, especially since otherwise there was hardly any warfare under Commodus. Finally, the Hercules Conditor could serve as a model for the re-foundation of Rome. In any case, it is clear that Commodus emphasised the Roman aspects of the god and it was no coincidence that he had himself explicitly dubbed Romanus Hercules.
The coin was a part of the famous Graham Collection of Roman Imperial Coins (Tinchant, Paul [a.k.a. “Graham, Richard J.”]; Jacques Schulman N.V. The Richard J. Graham Collection of Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Coins including a splendid series of Roman Bronze Medallions. Catalog of public auction , 8 June 1966. Amsterdam. 1966. [Clain-Stefanelli 3668 & 4978]).
* Meyer Zwiffelhofer, Eckhard: “Kaiser Commodus Hercules Romanus”
* Witschel, Christian: “Kaiser Gladiator Gott zur Selbstdarstellung des Commodus”
* Müseler, Wilhelm: “Commodus die Konstruktion einer Ikone”
* Kaiser, Maria Regina: “Die stadtrömische Münzprägung während der Alleinherrschaft des Commodus”Sources