Coinage, policy and civic life in the Roman imperial provinces AD218–244

A research project led by Dr Andrew Burnett, Senior Research Fellow at the British Museum, will provide a new perspective on the tumultuous political and civic life of the Roman Empire during the ‘third-century crisis’.

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Marble statue of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193–211), from Egypt. (BM1802,0710.2)

At the beginning of the third century AD, the Roman Empire extended from Spain to Syria and from Britain to North Africa. The Emperor Septimius Severus was a provincial—a native of Libya—and married to a member of the Syrian family of priests of the Sun-God. The Severan family would form the last imperial dynasty before Constantine in the fourth century; the death of Alexander Severus in AD 235 marked the start of a period of upheaval in the Empire known as the third century crisis and of the age of the so-called ‘soldier emperors’, directly chosen by the army.

When this period has been investigated in the past, the view from Rome has predominated. Even in recent publications, the historical picture of policy and civic life of third century Rome has largely been derived from the tradition established by often late, and sometimes biased, literary sources.

This new British Museum research project, Coinage, policy and civic life at the end of the Severan Age, AD 218–244, will adopt a different perspective: the view seen from the provincial cities. That view will be derived from the coins that these cities produced. These represent one of the richest sources of information for our understanding of the third century, but are poorly documented and, as a result, have never been systematically studied before. Issued by some three-hundred and fifty civic mints scattered across the eastern part of the Empire they feature over five thousand different designs. With Greek inscriptions and images from both Roman and Greek traditions, these coins represent a fusion between Hellenic tradition and Roman political ideology, often using complicated iconographies.

The study will explore the impact of the ‘crisis’ on different provincial cities and examine how they interpreted it, thereby allowing us to adopt a contemporary and ‘bottom-up’ perspective. It will provide a different view of the lives and achievements of the little-studied emperors of the period—Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, Maximinus and Gordian III—and investigate important innovations in the reality of power, such as the rise of a powerful class of imperial women and the emergence of Maximinus who became the first soldier Emperor.

This is a project of wide, novel, and indeed, risky scope. We are delighted that the Leverhulme Trust has supported what we hope will be a pioneering piece of interdisciplinary research, that will enable the realisation of some long-held scholarly ambitions.

Dr Andrew Burnett
British Museum