Severus Alexander, 222 – 235
Aureus 226, AV 5.86 g. IMP C M AVR SEV ALEXAND AVG Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust r. Rev. P M TR P V COS II P P Nymphaeum of Severus Alexander above building of which both sides are seen in perspective; in centre, three arches, the central arch containing two statues, the side arches one statue; on roof facing quadriga, to l. and r. three pieces of statuary; below, open space with figure; underneath, five arches alternately large and small; on either side of space, wing of building in three tiers, in each wing, top and centre tiers of two arches, each containing statue; each wing is surmounted by standing figure; semi-circular basin in front of building. C 298. BMC 323 note. RIC 58.
Of the highest rarity, apparently only the second specimen known and the only one
in private hands. A coin of tremendous fascination and importance featuring
a spectacular portrait and monument. A perfect Fdc
Ex NAC sale 11, 1998, 492.
When the Emperor Elagabalus was killed by the Praetorian Guard at the behest of his grandmother in A.D. 222, he was succeeded by his popular 13-year-old cousin, Severus Alexander. The reign of Severus Alexander, strongly influenced by his powerful mother, Julia Mamaea, was generally prosperous for Rome and the Empire, but miscalculations with respect to the army ultimately brought it to a bad end.
In a conscious attempt to distance Severus Alexander from the excesses of Elagabalus, the young emperor was surrounded with able advisors like the famous jurist Ulpian and the senatorial historian Cassius Dio. Such men assisted him in reorganizing the municipal administration of the capital and in legal reforms, many of which were aimed at improving public morals and reducing displays of excessive luxury. New laws enacted under Severus Alexander also did much to protect the property rights of soldiers and their ability to pass on their possessions to heirs of their own choosing. In A.D. 229-230, he also raised the purity of the silver denarius from 43% at the outset of his reign to 45% and then 50.5%.
In A.D. 230, Ardashir, the first of the Sasanian monarchs, invaded Roman Mesopotamia and besieged Nisibis, prompting Severus Alexander to lead a campaign against the upstart Sasanian Empire. The emperor arrived in Syria in A.D. 231, where he first attempted to negotiate a return to the borders that had existed under the late Parthians. When the negotiations collapsed in the following year, Severus Alexander and Ardashir moved on to open war. Several inconclusive battles were fought and the emperor was successful in forcing the Sasanian Persians to withdraw from Mesopotamia, but he could do nothing to overthrow Ardashir or his dynasty.
In A.D. 233 Severus Alexander returned to Rome where he celebrated a grand triumph as a latter-day Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Persia. However, even while this was going on new trouble was brewing in the North. The Germanic Alemanni overran and destroyed the Roman limes (frontier fortifications) near the Black Forest, threatening invasion deeper into Roman territory. The emperor marched to the Rhine frontier to halt their advance, but once there he tried to put an end to their onslaught through diplomacy and bribery. This soft approach rankled with the legionaries, who thought such negotiation to be dishonorable, and on March 19, A.D. 235, members of Legio II Parthica and Legio XXII Primigenia mutinied and killed both Severus Alexander and his mother at Mogontiacum (Mainz). The mutineers proclaimed Maximinus Thrax, a rough and ready prefect of Legio II Parthica, to be the new emperor.
The murder of Severus Alexander was a watershed moment for the Roman Empire. It not only brought an end to the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus in A.D. 193, but marked the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century and the destructive age of the Barracks Emperors.
This stunning and exceedingly rare aureus of Severus Alexander advertises some of his improvement works in Rome as it shows on the reverse the features of the Nymphaeum divi Alexandri, one of the three nymphaea explicity listed by name (the others are Nymphaea Tria on the Aventine and the Nymphaea Iovis beneath the present-day Piazza S. Silvestro) of the fifteen assessed in the city of Rome, according to the catalogue of the regionses of the fourth century AD.
It was constructed in A.D. 226 as the terminus of a new aqueduct—the Aqua Alexandrina—built on the Esquiline Hill as part of a project to enlarge the old Baths of Nero. The castellum (tower) of the Nymphaeum is still visible in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle to this day (at the fork of the Labicana and Collatina streets) and is fed by the Aqua Iulia (the “Mostra”). Originally, as depicted on the coin the Nymphaeum took the form of a triple triumphal arch surmounted by an image of the emperor riding in a quadriga, although in A.D. 226 Severus Alexander had yet to win a notable military victory or celebrate a triumph. Victories flank the main building while statues stand within the arches and in smaller arches below. The water from the fountain gathered in the pool enclosure at the base.
The same Nymphaeum types also appeared on contemporary denarii, sestertii, and asses. Divergent details on some asses led to scholarly debate about whether some examples depicted the Nymphaeum and others the Baths until it was discovered that the “Baths” issues were really Nymphaeum asses with tooled modifications.
Severus Alexander’s achievements in civil engineering are summarised in the “Life of Alexander Severo” (Chap. 25) contained in the Historia Augusta, as follows: “He rebuilt the edificies raised by his predecessors and saw to the erecting of many others, including the Thermea named after him, sited next to the old Thermae of Nero and fed by the aqueduct now called Alexandrine”.