Family Matters: Caligula‘s Numismatic Focus on the Image as Successor of Augustus and Agrippa


Agrippa was no Roman Emperor. Nevertheless we are finding his portrait on a coin. Who was this man?



Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Rome. We are in the years between 37 and 41 AD.


It is not an emperor who is depicted on this coin. Take a close look at his wreath. This is not the usual laurel wreath. This one has a very distinct appearance.


It ends in a prora. Prora is how the Romans called the front part of a ship. Even in this small-scale depiction you can clearly see the ram and the prolonged bow.


The man shown on the coin’s obverse evidently had won a major naval victory.

That is confirmed by the reverse. There, Neptune is depicted, God of the Sea. In his left hand he holds a trident. A dolphin is lying in his outstretched right hand.


The trident was used by Roman fishermen to catch see brasses, giltheads, grey mullets and octopuses. As an attribute of Neptune, the trident became a divine weapon that could turn the smooth water surface into a storm-lashed sea in the blink of an eye.

The dolphin was the opposite. He was thought as being sent from Neptune, ensuring that the ship reached the harbor safely.


Together, trident and dolphin symbolized Neptune’s power over life and death. He granted the sailor either safe passage or sent him a devastating storm.

A man linked to Neptune that prominently on a coin had clearly been granted the favor of the god.


Indeed the man depicted on our coin had achieved important victories in naval battles. The inscription reveals his name:


M(arcus) AGRIPPA L(ucii) F(ilius) CO(n)S(ul) (tertium) translates to Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times Consul.


Originally, this Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa had merely been the good friend of a young man. The latter’s name was Octavian. In the aftermath of the assassination of his adoptive father Caesar this Octavian got entangled in the most vicious civil war the Roman world had ever experienced.


While Octavian did not get something out of the army, Agrippa was a born military commander. He fought many battles on behalf of his friend and defeated the fleet of Sextus Pompey. For that, he was awarded the Corona Navalis with which he is shown on our coin. Agrippa achieved his greatest victory in the naval battle at Actium though.


After that victory, Octavian assumed the name Augustus and became princeps of Rome, whose authority and range of power no other Roman could match. His reign would not have been possible without the support of Agrippa. The two men worked together congenially, even in family matters. When he failed to produce an heir, Augustus transferred that task onto his friend.


He made Agrippa divorce his wife and married him off to his only daughter Julia. Julia was 18 years old, Agrippa 43. The marriage was not happy but it produced the result Augustus had hoped for: five children. The two eldest sons were designated Augustus’ successors right away. Agrippa was to secure them their legacy in case the ailing friend would die first.


As a matter of fact, Augustus outlived them all. Agrippa was the first to die, in 12 B. C. He was followed up by Augustus’ two sons, Lucius in 2 AD and Gaius in 4 AD.


As a result, Tiberius, the unwanted stepson of Augustus, became emperor of Rome, succeeded by Caligula.


Even today, Caligula still has an image problem. The Roman senators considered him a mental weirdo because he was celebrating his person as if he was an Oriental king.

An outrage though that was in Rome, it was perfectly normal in the East. The kings there praised their descent in order to assert their claim to the crown.


Caligula was born 40 years after Augustus had officially assumed power. He thought the Republican fiction, upheld by his great-great-uncle Augustus with the utmost effort, redundant nonsense.


He believed his lineage to be the foundation of his power and promulgated his view on his coins. Caligula was the first to exploit ancestral portraits on coins for propagandistic reasons.


He had coins struck...


  • ...for his great-great-uncle Augustus.
  • ...for his mother Agrippina.
  • ...for his father Germanicus.
  • ...for his brothers Nero and Drusus.
  • ...for his sisters Agrippina, Drusilla and Iulia.


And, of course, for his maternal grandfather, for Agrippa.


Yet Caligula had underestimated the fact that Roman historiography was the unchallenged domain of the senators. They delivered their point of view to posterity in lurid scripts. The political agenda of Caligula, in contrast, can only be pieced together by means of his coins.


Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.

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