The lowest denomination coin. The As would pass through the hands of many different types of people, so the images on this coin would reach a wide audience. Even before the beginning of his sole rule in 180 AD Commodus appeared on coins. In coins minted in Rome we see can see images of Commodus dressed in military garb as early as 179. Considering the date of mint, this image may refer to wars Commodus and Marcus Aurelius waged prior to 180. It is interesting to note that at the dawn of his sole reign, Commodus chose to depict himself as a military officer. We can also observe a clean shaven youthful Commodus on the obverse of this coin. Later images will naturally depict him older and bearded.
Under Commodus, the As usually pictured the head of Commodus on the obverse, and different gods and deities on the reverse. While most Roman emperors followed this practice, it is important to note that deities are the most common images that appeared on the reverse of coins minted under Commodus. In this instance we see a bearded Commodus on the obverse and Roma holding Victory on the reverse of the coin. Whereas the previous coin simply had Commodus’ name and the title Augustus, this coin adds Pius to his list of titles.
One of Commodus’ most famous acts was his identification with Hercules. It is important to note that images of Hercules appear on the As in Italy as early as 183-184. In this case we see Hercules nude with lion skin draped over the left arms, leaning on a club, and a bow in his left hand. To read more about Hercules on coins minted under Commodus click here.
On the Sestertius we see similar trends in images that we saw on the As. Again, early in his reign Commodus fills his coins with images of gods ranging from Jupiter to Mars. These images emphasize Commodus’ piety, as titles such as “Pius” and “Virtus” appear around images of Commodus and the deities. While on the As we saw images of Commodus dressed in military garb, on the Sestertius we see Commodus in a performance hunting exotic animals dressed in military garb. This image clearly depicts a lion hunt in contrast to the earlier image on the As of Commodus in military dress. Commodus was well known for his love of the arena, and this image supports that notion. Also interesting is that this image is from the first years of Commodus’ reign, possibly suggesting that Commodus was disinterested in government affairs at the dawn of his rule. The fact that he is also hunting a lion could be a possible reference to Hercules, or possibly merely an exotic animal chosen to hunt.
Hercules also appears on the Sestertius as early as 183-184. According to the collection of the Online Coins of the Roman Empire, there are records of Sestertii with images of Hercules on the reverse but no pictures available online. Regardless, the records further support the importance of Hercules on coins minted under Commodus.
As the value of currency increased, there are slight differences in the images used on certain values of coins. Similar to the Sestertius and the As, images of deities are the most common pictures on the reverse of coins. Based on the coins in the database of the Online Coins of the Roman Empire, deities appear to make up most of the images found on coins minted in Rome until around 184-185. On the Denarius we once again see similar gods, such as Jupiter and Mars, but Hercules is the deity of particular interest. In the case of the Denarii minted in Rome, images and text of Hercules do not appear until 191-192. This could reflect the Senates distaste for the Roman Hercules. Higher denomination coins reach a wealthier audience, so it is plausible that Commodus would not advertise Hercules as aggressively on coins that reached the Senate. In the case below we see Commodus standing beside Jupiter, his hero’s father. With this coin Commodus shows piety and a connection with a powerful god. Commodus dresses togate here holding a globe and scepter in his hands, while Jupiter places his hand Commodus’ shoulder in a sign of approval. We can see Commodus increasingly identifying himself with deities towards the end of his reign.
We see Commodus presenting himself in a number of different outfits on the Denarius, ranging from togate to military garb. While we have seen on the lower denomination coins Commodus dressed in military garb, we begin to see him togate more often on the more valuable coins. As noted above, the Denarius was more likely to pass through the hands of wealthy and influential Romans, such as senators. In the coin pictured below we see Commodus togate clasping hands with the Genius of the Senate. This is significant because later in his reign the Senate would become increasingly annoyed with Commodus as he attempted to deify himself during his lifetime. By placing an image of the emperor in unity with the Senate, Commodus may have been attempting to improve his relationship with the Senate.
We observe similar messages portrayed on the Aureus and the Denarius which were minted in Rome during the reign of Commodus. One image we see on these coins, but not on lower denomination coins is the image of Commodus’ wife Crispina beginning around the time of their marriage in 177. For more on images of Crispina on coins click here.