Commodus As Hercules on the Denarius

Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, served as the Emperor of Rome from 180 to 192 A.D. During his reign, he came to associate himself with Hercules, minting coins of himself wearing the Greek hero’s trademark lion-skin headdress.


Decline of the Roman Empire

Marcus Aurelius reversed all of his accomplishment as a Roman Emperor in a single decision —selecting his son Commodus to succeed him. Rather than “adopting” a chosen successor, Marcus Aurelius selected his natural son, who was known as Lucius Aurelius Commodus prior to ascending to the throne. Commodus ruled alongside his father until he died in 180.

Unlike his father, Commodus was largely uninterested in philosophy and politics, preferring to enjoy the pleasures his position provided. Historian Cassius Dio wrote, “This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”

Commodus enjoyed relative peace during his reign. However, he faced several attempted coups, which made him a distrustful and brutal leader. Instead of proving his worth on the battlefield , Commodus entered the arena as a gladiator. He was always victorious, largely because his opponents would not seek to defeat the emperor. Commodus also enjoyed demonstrating his physical prowess by slaying animals from lions to elephants.

Towards the end of his reign, many believe that Commodus’ megalomania escalated into insanity. He declared himself as Hercules reborn, erecting statutes of himself wearing the lion’s head and renaming Rome “Colonia Commodiana” (Colony of Commodus).

Commodus was assassinated at the age of 31 in 192 A.D. His death helped usher in a series of civil wars that would weaken the Roman Empire and end its golden age (Pax Romana).

Coin Design

During his reign, Commodus devalued the denarius, reducing the weight from 96 per Roman pound to 105 per Roman pound. He also reduced the silver purity from 79 percent to 76 percent (and later to 74 percent).

Commodus minted the denarius in several designs during the course of his reign. The Commodus as Hercules denarius is among the most desirable. The obverse depicts the head of Commodus right, wearing lion-skin headdress. The reverse features the inscription HER CVL/ RO MAN/ AV GV in three lines divided by upright club and all within a wreath. Like the lion skin, the club commemorates Hercules accomplishments.

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