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The Saeculares Games

Perhaps the more interesting series and therefore sought of the Roman coinage is the one that commemorates the first millennium of the founding of the Eternal City.

According to the Latin writer Marco Terenzio Varrone, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC. Accordingly, the year 1000 AUC (Ad Urbe Condita) should correspond to the year 248 AD, time when Rome was ruled by an obscure character named Marcus Julius Philippus, better known as Philip the Arab because of their ethnicity.

Splendid Bust of Philip I the Arab conserved in the Vatican Museums.

As a good imperial upstart, Philip was not to be less than their predecessors in the Roman throne, which had been held every century that begins a solemn games in honour of the gods. Known as the Ludi saeculares or Centennial Games, were characterized by their unusual lavishness and deployment of resources to the point that, according to Suetonius, who was attending them could be sure that he would not attend in the rest of his life to a show like this one (a logical thing since the Roman saeculum, our century, was fixed on the basis of what was considered the maximum life of a man: 100 years). Needless to say how these annals where expected with a high expectation for the Roman plebs, always eager for excitement through which copes a little better the boredom of his dreary unoccupied existence.

Bust of Otacilia Severa, wife of Philip I. Berlin.

Although the Saeculares had been celebrated in time of the Republic, the character of those remote celebrations was more religious than ludic. However, since Augustus, whom reinstated them after a long period of absence, the Centennial games were invested with the cheerful and spectacular character with which we associate them today.

In the case of saeculares at AD 248, they had the added importance that not only gave way to a new century in the history of Rome but also to a new millennium, reason because it was expected its magnificence was such that any previous celebration fell completely obscured. Well, judging by the testimony of contemporary writers, Philip didn’t disappoint his audience, offering three days and nights of continuous entertainment, during which fought no less than two thousand gladiators both among themselves and against a long series of wild animals which included lions, hippos, leopards, giraffes, elephants and, unheard of in his time, a rhinoceros. Apparently Philip was fortunate to meet great part of the saeculares prepared by the former emperor, Gordian III –whose murderer must have been probably instigated by Philip--, who had met time ago most of the beasts and gladiators chosen to fight in the saeculares in order to celebrate a victory against the Persians that he wouldn’t ever see thus he would die before the end of war in 243 AD.

Gordian III. Louvre Museum, Paris.

As renowned beginning of the second millennium of the history of Rome could not pass without leaving its mark on the coinage of the time and, so, in the happiness of the modern collectors thus therefore may have in their hands a historical document of exceptional value. In fact, the Millennium Games were commemorated with a very interesting series of coins consisting of five main types and a distinct themed sixth, they all coincident in the reverse legend: saecvlares avgg, SAECVLARES AVGVSTORVM constraction, or what is the same: "The Saeculares of the Emperors" referring to Philip and his son, the young Philip II, raised to the imperial purple some time before the celebration of the games.

Philip II the Younger. Found in Asia Minor.

These coins were minted in the six offices that had the mint of Rome at that time, four of them (I, II, V, VI) dedicated to Philip the Arab, one (III) to the young Philip II and the other (IIII) to his wife and mother of Philip II, Otacilia Severa. Although the best known of these coins are the low grade silver antoninianus, also bronzes were struck – chiefly sesterces – with this iconography.

The five main types, extremely illustrative of the ephemeris which celebrated, are representations of some of the animals appeared in the Games. Specifically a lion, two types of gazelles, a deer and one hippopotamus. The fifth represents an aspect more official and propagandistic, although still very interesting: the Capitoline She-Wolf. Know some examples of these exciting coins:

Antoninianus coined in the first office of the Rome mint in the name of Philip the Arab with a standing lion to tight in reverse and the office number in the exergue (I). In obverse appears the radiated bust of emperor looking to right with short legend as corresponds to the second phase of Philip´s issues.

Antoninianus coined in the second office of the Rome mint in the name of Philip the Arab with a representation of the famous Capitoline She-Wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. Office number in exergue (II).

Antoninianus coined in the second office of the Rome mint in the name of Philip II the Younger with a standing goat looking to left. Office number in exergue (III).

Antoninianus coined in the fourth office of the Rome mint in the name of Otacilia Severa with a hippopotamus standing right. Office number in the exergue (IIII).

Antoninianus coined in the fifth office of the Rome mint in the name of Philip the Arab with a deer standing at right. Office number in the exergue (V).

Antoninianus coined in the fifth office of the Rome mint in the name of Philip the Arab with a gazelle standing at left. Office number in the exergue (VI).

These emissions with and office mark and animals in reverse should be struck in the last months of the year 247 and early months of 248 AD until April when the games were held. Later, as a remembrance of the millennium of the City, another two types, also very interesting, would be struck. The first of them would retained the past legend SAECVLARES AVGG, clearly referring to the Saeculares, complemented with a classic type of imperial propaganda (cippus with inscription celebrating the third consulate of Philip); meanwhile the second type seems to look forward, to the new century –SAECVLVM NOVVM— in the hope that bring success and happiness to an allegorically represented Rome inside a beautiful temple hexastyle: the famous temple of Dea Roma erected in times of Augustus and that so often we find in Roman numismatics as main icon of the Eternal City.


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