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Planet Earth

Caesar for a Day

Artifact solves an ancient mystery.

By Jocelyn SelimJune 27, 2004 5:00 AM


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A third-century coin, recently excavated in southern England, has brought to light an unknown chapter of Roman history: the troubled reign of Domitianus, an emperor whose hold on power was so fleeting that the only other archaeological evidence of his existence is a similar coin found a century ago and dismissed as a hoax.

The new coin was found fused to others amid a hoard of 5,000, a location impossible to fake. “There are only a few vague text references to a military officer named Domitianus who was tried for treason,” says Ian Leins, a British Museum archaeologist who suspects Domitianus made a bold grab for power and then lost out. Domitianus ruled during a period of economic and political instability, when the outer reaches of the Roman Empire were unraveling. “Basically, anyone with an army could walk in and declare himself emperor, and there wasn’t much Rome could do about it,” Leins says.

Domitianus probably seized control of Gaul, Germany, and Britain for a short period before Emperor Aurelian firmly reclaimed the area for Rome. “Just about the first thing a new emperor did to demonstrate his position was start minting coins,” Leins notes. “If this Domitianus fellow had ruled for more than just a few days, I think we’d have found more of them lying about.”

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