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Pertinax: The Perils of Power

Pertinax (AD 193). AV aureus (20mm, 7.18 gm, 6h).  Rome, 1 January-28 March AD 193. IMP CAES P HELV PERTIN AVG, laureate head of Pertinax right / PROVID  DEOR COS II, Providentia standing facing, head left, raising right hand toward star in upper left field, resting left hand on breast. RIC 11a. BMCRE 11 (same dies). Calic√≥ 2389a variant (different portrait style). Cohen 42.  Rare. An expressive portrait of great power, struck in high relief, with fully lustrous fields. Perhaps the finest-quality Pertinax in existence. NGC Gem MS 5/5 - 5/5, Fine Style.

From the Lexington Collection. 

The brief, tragic reign of Helvius Pertinax stands as evidence of how far talent and hard work could take an individual in the Roman world, as well as the dangers of high office. Pertinax began life as the son of a freed slave. Given a good education, he first became a school teacher, then began a career with the Roman Legions and rose quickly. He won the confidence of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius during the Marcommanic War, when he took charge of a legion and intercepted a barbarian horde invading Italy. He was made a senator and heaped with honors, including the governorships of Moesia, Dacia, and Syria. With Commodus descending into megalomania, a conspiracy formed and the plotters saw the elderly, widely respected Pertinax as the ideal candidate to replace him. Whether he was privy to the plot is uncertain, but immediately after the murder of Commodus on December 31, AD 192, Pertinax went to the Praetorian camp, promised the guard a bonus, and was proclaimed emperor. The Senate enthusiastically ratified his elevation and he initiated a number of popular reforms against the excesses of Commodus, including a crackdown on military indiscipline. This, along with his failure to pay the promised donative, alienated the Praetorians, who held true power in Rome. Although one plot against him was thwarted, Pertinax made the mistake of trying to quell another mutiny by addressing the guard in person. In the middle of the address, a soldier hurled his spear and transfixed him. Pertinax had ruled all of 86 days. Due to the brevity of his reign, the coinage of Pertinax is quite rare, but of unusually high artistic quality. 

The obverse portrait of this beautiful gold aureus bears a powerful portrait of the elderly emperor, his blunt features recalling his lower-class origins. The reverse depicts Providentia reaching toward a star, perhaps indicating the new emperor's belief that the stars foretold his accession. The rating of Gem MS is the highest possible grade assigned to ancient coins by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, placing this among the finest known aurei of Pertinax. 

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April, 2014
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