The dawn of the year 2000 prompted many people to think about the past, the present and the future. It was a time for reflection, the central question being what the third millennium would bring.
More than 1750 years ago, the Romans asked themselves precisely the same questions. In 248 AD they celebrated the millennium of the city of Rome which, according to legend, was founded on 21 April 753 BC by Romulus and Remus. On the one hand, there was a general feeling of gratitude for the greatness of the Roman Empire, but there was also a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty over what the future might bring. Would Rome manage to survive the next millennium, reckoning with the tension along its borders and the frequent changes of power?
With this medallion, Emperor Philippus Arabs (244 – 249) is trying to reassure the people that Rome’s future is secure for the next millennium. It does so by showing, on the obverse, that the succession to the throne is assured, while on the reverse it depicts the gods being asked for protection.
The portraits of Emperor Philippus Arabs and his wife Otacilia Severa appear on the obverse, facing their son Philippus II. In 247 AD Philippus II was made joint emperor by his father, to ensure a peaceful succession in the event of his death and thus avoid anarchy. Owing to the tension along the borders, this was vital to the survival of the Roman Empire. The wording ‘Concordia Augustorum’, the concord between the emperors, also emphasises that the emperors were necessary and important as key figures for the prosperity of the Roman Empire.
The reverse of the medallion depicts a sacrificial ceremony in which Philippus Arabs and Philippus II, on the right and left of the altar respectively, are making a libation. By this sacrifice, the emperors are asking the gods to continue protecting the Roman Empire in the new millennium. The wording ‘Saeculum novum’, the new era, also indicates that the emperor is asking for protection in the coming centuries.
Despite the sacrifices and the assured succession to the throne, the people’s anxiety was justified: in 249 AD both Philippus Arabs and his son Philippus II were killed in their battle against Trajanus Decius (249 – 251). Decius, commander of the troops on the Danube, was proclaimed emperor by his own army, and this led to an encounter at the battle of Verona.
The rest of the third century AD brought a period of political and military turmoil as well as economic instability, with frequent changes of power. Despite several periods of relative peace and prosperity during the subsequent centuries, such as in the days of Constantine the Great (306 – 337), the Roman Empire never regained its former glory. On the contrary, in 476 AD Emperor Romulus Augustulus (475 – 476) was toppled from his throne by the German Odoaker, and this is traditionally regarded as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Thus, despite this medallion issued by Emperor Philippus Arabs, the new millennium brought little or no prosperity for the Roman Empire. Quite the reverse. Let us hope that the third millennium goes better for us.
Jeroen De Meester
Member of the museum staff
- Mattingly H. & Sydenham e. a., The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol IV part III: Gordian III – Uranus Antoninus, London, 1968, p. 59 ;
- Toynbee J.M.C., “Roman medallions”, in Numismatic Studies, Vol. 5, New York, 1980, 268 p.