A Golden Age

Graham Barker, Imperial Legitimation. The Iconography of the Golden Age Myth on Roman Imperial Coinage of the Third Century AD. Spink Books, London 2020. 160 pages, colour illustrations. Hardcover, 24 x 15.2 cm. ISBN: 978-1-912667-47-5. £30.00.
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The 3rd century AD: A devastating time for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Enemies were about to storm the ramparts at the borders on all sides of the Empire. Added to this, there were all the usurpations of the generals hoping to hold the imperial office a little longer than their predecessors. Inflation, epidemics, tax increases – there wasn’t really a reason for Roman citizens to be optimistic about the future. And yet we come across many coins bearing the inscription FELICITAS SAECVLI, a phrase that is difficult to translate and which could be best described as ‘good fortune of the age’. Good fortune of the age? How is it possible to find the connection between the historical reality and these words? Graham Barker provides us with the numismatic, historical and literary background.

He starts with the Golden Age Myth and explains how Augustus used it masterfully to convince the inhabitants of Rome, which had been morally disillusioned by the civil war, that the Golden Age had dawned again with his rule. Obviously, this had already been a lie at the time of Augustus. Nevertheless, it was a very effective lie and later emperors tried to imitate it. Many coins bear testimony to it. The most famous ones are probably those of Augustus. Then there are rare coins of Domitian and – from the 3rd century – issues of Septimius Severus, Philip the Arab, Gallienus and coins issued under the Tetrarchy.

The author compiled the coins of the 3rd century and analysed their depictions, occasionally juxtaposing them with issues of Augustus and Domitian, on whose model later coins were made. He also used written sources and thus provides a historical commentary on the individual coin designs. The first chapter deals with the myth, the second is dedicated to his interpretation of issues of Septimius Severus and Philip the Arab and the third chapter focuses on coins of Gallienus and those of the Tetrarchy.

The second part of the book – chapter 4 – revolves around the inscription SAECVLI FELICITAS and various motifs that were combined with this good fortune of the age, i.e. the children of emperors, stars, victorious emperors and, of course, the personification of Felicitas.

The work ends with further images that belong in this context, i.e. depictions of Tellus Mater, Aion, the four seasons and the phoenix.

Graham Barker’s compilation of all sources is highly commendable: even though many authors dealt with the Saecular Games celebrated under Augustus, I suppose that only a few of them are aware of how consistent later emperors used this idea to raise the moral of the troubled Roman people. Many images used on coins that one considered to be insignificant before reading the book will gain a new meaning.

So, if you’re not only interested in possessing issues of all Roman emperors but also in the coins and their images, you will appreciate Barker’s compilation as a stimulating work, which is not only supposed to be read by academics as Barker’s excellent British style of writing demonstrates.

My favourite text is right at the end: The author puts himself in the perspective of an eyewitness and describes what he might have witnessed in Rome between the 23 May and the 10 June 204, combining the meticulous study of sources with his vivid imagination.

After reading it, you will gladly pay twice as much for a coin dedicated to these Saecular Games.


You can order your copy on the Spink website for the modest price of 30 pounds.