The Three Month Reign of Otho.
After the suicide of Nero and the start of a civil war, Rome was struggling. The year AD 69 saw four emperors and their short tenure resulted in all of their coinage being rare. Each of these four had larger-than-life personalities which are reflected in the numismatic portraiture and told in historical accounts.
In the emperor Otho, as in his successor Vitellius, one can find little to admire. Born in AD 32 to a wealthy family, Marcus Salvius Otho grew up as a pampered playboy with a taste for the finer things in life. He had a peculiar abhorrence for bodily hair and removed all hair from his entire body, including his head. To cover his baldness, he then wore a carefully made wig, clearly visible in this outstanding coin portrait.
Otho was the first to openly attain office through the murder of his predecessor. When Nero’s regime collapsed in AD 68, Otho was governor of Lusitania, a position given to him by Nero which he resented. Otho was one of Galba’s earliest supporters and expected to be named successor to the then 70-year-old Galba. However, Galba chose a young aristocrat instead and Otho retaliated by immediately began plotting his assassination.
Otho took on a substantial amount of debt in order to bribe the Praetorian Guard to murder Galba, under whom they were suffering. After Galba’s brutal murder in public view, the terrified senate hailed Otho emperor. Otho’s reign was as brief, chaotic, and desperate as it was degrading. Few in Rome would have wanted to be emperor since the German governor Vitellius was leading his army toward Italy at a rapid pace.
His reign culminated in a battle at Cremona in the north of Italy where Otho and the Praetorian Guard attempted to hold the line against Vitellius at the River Po. The battle went decisively against Otho and as many as 40,000 Roman soldiers died.
His generals urged him to keep fighting, but being clearly disheartened by the carnage, he decided to spare Rome further bloodshed. Retiring to his room with a dagger, he stabbed himself in the heart the morning of April 16 or 17, AD 69. His noble end gained him a respect that had eluded him in life.
In a surprising omission, the late C. H. V. Sutherland, author of Volume I of Roman Imperial Coinage, does not list this issue among denarius types for Otho on the basis of a counterfeit example which had resided in the British Museum since 1867 (sharing an obverse die with a fake aureus) even though a number of perfectly genuine examples have long been known and are in both public and private collections.
The inscription “PONT MAX” refers to Pontifex Maximus, Otho claiming himself to be “the High Priest (Chief Pontif)”
BNF III 25; RSC II 11; BMCRE I 9 (BM specimen condemned as a modern forgery); RIC I -; SRCV I -, Attractive portrait, Superb EF, light toning on luster, good strike with fresh dies but very highest points a little weak, Rome mint, weight 3.614g, maximum diameter 19.7mm, die axis 180o, 9 March – 17 April 69 A.D.; obverse IMP OTHO CAESAR AVG TR P, bare head right; reverse PONT MAX, Ceres standing left, grain-ears in right, cornucopia in left; from the Jyrki Muona collection; rare;