Emperors’ Stress During Rome’s Civil War Revealed by Doctored Gold Coins

How badly was Rome affected by the ‘year of the four emperors’ in the first century, and the civil wars as their forces struggled? Were historians too harsh? The truth is revealed

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
הקיסר גלבה
A statue of Roman Emperor Galba.Credit: Gfawkes05
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

“The troops of Vitellius, scattering among the municipalities and colonies, indulged in every kind of robbery, theft, violence and debauchery. Their greed and venality knew no distinction between right and wrong” – Tacitus taking sides with Vespasian following the Civil War that began in the year 68, “Histories,” 2:56

From its establishment in the eighth century B.C.E., the story of Rome is a gory one. It began as a small Italic settlement that is traditionally, but not positively, dated to 753 B.C.E., and developed through treaties and intimidation into the capital of a mighty empire encompassing much of Europe and the lands around the Mediterranean. And featured on the long list of “enemies,” the Romans could also list themselves.

Historical sources describe the terrible disruptions caused during and, as we see, after the serial civil wars in 68-69, as the generals Galba, Otho, Vitellius and then Vespasian vied for control of the Roman Empire. All were slimed by historians of the time, accused of varying degrees of venality, vileness and corruption. This was how it went down...

On June 9 in the year 68, the emperor Nero committed suicide and was succeeded by Galba, the governor of Hispania. Galba was unpopular and was murdered by Otho just over six months later. Otho was better-liked, but as civil strife continued to rage, he committed suicide that April and was succeeded by Vitellius, who began well enough but wound up being killed by a mob. That said, some scholars suggest that his foul reputation as a slob, glutton and monster was based more on his rivals’ posthumous animosity than reality.

Gold aureus coins in the British Museum, London.Credit: Tiia Monto

Anyway, Vitellius was succeeded by Vespasian, though the civil war dragged on until the year 70 because not everybody accepted his authority. And thus was born the term “the year of the four emperors” of Rome, and if anything reigned, it was unrest.

“Ancient authors – Suetonius, Plutarch, Cassius Dio and Tacitus – make it very clear that this was a period of bloody civil wars and acute fiscal crisis,” write G.A. Green and K. Domoney of the University of Oxford, K. Ishida of Riken Nishina Center, T. Agoro of Aberystwyth University and A.D. Hillier of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility, in the journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. And now for the first time, they have identified evidence of that fiscal woe: not only debased silver, but adulteration of “gold coins” with silver and copper.

It had already been shown that the silver composition of silver denarii dropped from around 90 percent to 80 percent under Otho and didn’t recover under Vitellius and Vespasian, explain Green and the team. Now they show that ostensibly pure gold coins minted during the period of the civil wars and in the immediate aftermath were adulterated with silver and copper, some heavily – a phenomenon that had been thought to date to a later time of Roman decline starting in the mid-third century.

“The metallurgical evidence from the gold coinage now allows us to show that the 68-69 civil wars caused significant and sustained disruption to the Roman economic system,” the authors write.

In fact, it had been suspected that the “gold” coins minted during the period of war had been doctored; previous work on the coins produced in 68 and 69 did notice a “minor reduction” in the purity of the gold, to a drop to around 98 to 99 percent – “hardly evidence for sustained, significant disruption,” the authors say.

But now, helped by X-ray fluorescence analysis of 44 coins in the possession of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the team detected some “heavily debased” gold coinage issued during the civil wars as well as “slightly debased” coins issued right after the war.

A bust of the Roman Emperor Vitellius.Credit: M.Rais

One might wonder if the “contamination” was on the inside and the issuers sought to bamboozle by using purer gold on the surface. Not so; the team qualifies that with the help of muonic X-ray emission spectroscopy (since they didn’t want to drill into the coins for sampling and ruin them), they could confirm that the surface and interior composition of the “gold” coins were both adulterated.

“In all, there is no compelling evidence for the existence of surface enrichment in the coins analyzed,” the team writes.

There is precedent. In a different time altogether – some 3,200 years ago when the great civilizations around the Mediterranean collapsed, but before coinage had been invented – fragments of “hacksilber” (silver) used as currency were discovered to have been doctored, again with copper. Metal bits predating the Bronze Age collapse were almost pure silver; the bits after the period of the collapse were silver again; bits dating to the period of the implosion were alloyed.

Back in Rome, the team finds that the purity of the gold aurie only became consistent again from 73-74.

Gold aureus of Vespasian, struck in Antioch.Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme
A Roman coin featuring Emperor Otho, dating from the year 69.Credit: Alan Roche / American Numismatic

In short, the team believes that the debasement of the gold coins during this crucial period of the civil war speaks of the economic and social instability caused by the fighting. Of the six aurei minted under Galba’s reign, one was heavily debased (89.3-percent pure); of five aurei under Otho, one was only 83.7-percent pure (for shame); of the three aurei of Vespasian with an earliest issue date of 69 C.E. analyzed, two were debased at 93.9 percent. Following all that, it took a few years for Vespasian to restore the purity of the aureus, they say: the coins issued in the years 70 and 71 were better but “only” 97 percent pure – and that 99 percent goalpost was only achieved anew in the year 74.

In short, in the form of the heavily debased coins, the team believes it has provided a proxy proof of the economic stresses Rome was experiencing during and just after the civil war. “If [the debasement of the coins was] totally deliberate, then this represents clear evidence of the true scale of the fiscal crisis suffered by these various competing emperors during the immediate Civil War period,” the authors write.

A Roman gold coin featuring Emperor Galba.Credit: American Numismatic Society

Why might some coins, all issued together, be more debased than others? Possibly because of a decision to “stretch gold stocks” by heavily adulterating some, but not all, coins. Human error is ruled out because the evidence indicates that errors in metal concentrations in the coins during the 100 preceding years were “vanishingly rare,” the authors say.

Other evidence suggesting economic stresses include the accusations by writers of the time, including Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Tacitus, leveling various accusations against the four emperors.

A gold aureus of Emperor Vespasian, from the year 70.Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

“All our emperors seem to incur extraordinary expenses either to secure their position or to feed the vices of their inner circle,” the authors write and proceed to elaborate in exquisite detail – with the caveat that much or even all the venom spat out by these ancient pens may have been the balderdash of an “established pejorative canon.”

But the theory is that the four emperors, each in his turn, needed money, needed it badly (some may have even melted down gold artifacts to make money), and the metallurgy of the gold coins attests that there may well be some truth in all that mud. And under Vespasian, from 74 onward to his death reportedly from diarrhea in the year 79, none of the coins analyzed to date have been less than 99-percent pure.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism