Revolt of Nepotian: 351 instead of 350 AD?

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In a talk at the Chicago Coin Show, Rosemont, IL, at 11 AM on 24 April, I will be exploring the possibility that the revolt of Nepotian at Rome should be assigned not to 350, as stated by the ancient chronographers and hence accepted by all modern scholars, but to the following year, 351.

That redating would solve many problems, though unfortunately I have not yet found any undeniable proof that it must be correct!

Magnentius issued a substantial number of bronze medallions at Rome before the revolt of Nepotian, that is, on the traditional chronology, between 28 Feb. and 1 June 350. However I have been able to show from the imperial titles on second-century bronze medallions that virtually all of them were struck in Nov.-Dec. of each year, but dated ahead to 1 Jan. for use as New Year’s gifts. I think third- and fourth-century bronze medallions, and then the contorniates, were overwhelmingly produced at the same time of the year for the same purpose. Thus a substantial issue of bronze medallions by Magnentius in March-May 350 would be highly anomalous. But if Nepotian actually rebelled in 351, then Magnentius’ first issue of bronze medallions could be assigned to late 350 and New Year’s 351, as expected. It was this difficulty with the medallions that first suggested to me the possibility of redating Nepotian’s revolt.

The sequence of the coinage shows that Magnentius elevated his brother Decentius to the Caesarship immediately after the revolt of Nepotian, and therefore, it would appear, in June or July 350. That early dating causes some problems, however. For example, if Decentius became Caesar in summer 350, why did he not assume the ordinary consulship with Magnentius on 1 Jan. 351, following a long established tradition for newly appointed Caesars of mature age? The fasti show that Decentius instead assumed the consulship with Magnentius only on 1 Jan. 352, suggesting that his elevation to the Caesarship, and hence Nepotian's revolt against Magnentius, occurred in the course of 351, not 350!

Questions and objections from Forvm members will be welcomed, either here or in person from those who can attend the talk!

Rick Witschonke of the ANS has recently sent me scans of an important article concerning this problem, namely D. Gricourt, Une maiorina inédite de Decénce, Cahiers Numismatiques 85, 1985, 72-76.

Gricourt publishes the first coin of Decentius to be coupled not only with the Roma seated type of Nepotian, but with Nepotian's legend too, VRBS ROMA, making it really impossible to propose that there was a nine-month gap between the end of Nepotian's coinage and the beginning of Decentius', as John Kent argued!

Moreover, this article turns out to be quite important to me for two other reasons.

First, I hadn't realized that there are two ancient sources which strongly support my idea that the revolt of Nepotian belongs to 351 not 350!

A. Aurelius Victor: Constantius persuaded Vetranio to abdicate and took over command of his army [25 Dec. 350]. But the harsh winter weather and the impassable Alps made him postpone his invasion of Italy. Meanwhile at Rome Nepotian revolted and was suppressed by Magnentius after ruling for 28 days. Even before then, anticipating the civil war, Magnentius had made his brother Decentius Caesar and put him in charge of Gaul, and Constantius had made Gallus Caesar [15 March 351] and given him command of the East. In a war that lasted over two years, Constantius then defeated Magnentius and Decentius and made them commit suicide [first battle between Constantius and Magnentius: Mursa, 28 Sept. 351].

B. Epitome de Caesaribus: Vetranio proclaimed himself emperor after Magnentius' revolt, but Constantius quickly persuaded him to abdicate [25 Dec. 350]. Constantius proclaimed Gallus Caesar [15 March 351], and Magnentius made Decentius Caesar and gave him command over the provinces north of the Alps. Around this time Nepotian made himself Augustus in Rome, but Magnentius suppressed the rebellion on the 28th day. Then Constantius won a victory over Magnentius at Mursa [28 Sept. 351].

Aurelius Victor and the Epitome have so many similarities that they are thought to derive from one and the same lost history. But it seems clear that that history narrated the events of Magnentius' reign in this order:

Abdication of Vetranio [25 Dec. 350]. Winter and Alps prevent Constantius from immediately invading Italy.

Caesarship of Gallus [15 March 351]; Caesarship of Decentius, around the same time.

Revolt of Nepotian.

Battle of Mursa [28 Sept. 351].

I hadn't realized this, but Gricourt points it out in a footnote, whereupon I checked the two texts on the internet!

Second, the possibility of moving Nepotian's revolt to 351 occurred to Gricourt too, but because of the weight of tradition, he couldn't accept it!

p. 76 in his article: If Magnentius made Decentius Caesar in spring 351 as Kent thought, then we would have to redate the usurpation of Nepotian too to the early months of 351. "But that would contradict the assignment of Nepotian's revolt to 350 in the Consularia Constantinopolitana, which seems indisputable and which was accepted as fact by both Kent and Bastien."

So Gricourt had the solution to the problem in his hand, but couldn't accept it simply because the ancient chronographer, surely in error as I think, assigned Nepotian's revolt to 350 rather than 351. Gricourt should have considered that the same chronographer assigns the abdication of  Vetranio to 351, a clear error for 350, as was realized by modern historians centuries ago, and which everybody has accepted ever since. Similarly if the testimony of ancient sources is so unimpeachable, shouldn't Gricourt have accorded more weight to Aurelius Victor and the Epitome's dating of Nepotian's revolt to between 15 March and 28 Sept. 351, instead of merely commenting in his footnote 4 that these authors epitomize the confusion prevalent in the surviving written sources?

So I am beginning to think that my redating of Nepotian's revolt from 350 to 351, since strongly confirmed by Aurelius Victor and the Epitome, is absolutely correct, rather than just a possible alternative!


I'm always glad to learn something new, and I thank Dr. Clay for this new information.

Kudos, Curtis! I hope that you will publish your findings, and submit a transcript of your lecture in Chicago for those of us unable to attend. This is another example of how careful numismatic scholarship is able to write, or in this case, correct written history.  Archaeological research relies heavily upon coins to date their findings, and your expertise in this field lends credence to the importance of numismatics as a part of the larger picture of historical erudition.

Congratulations on your findings!

Quote from: goldenancients on April 19, 2010, 09:05:02 pm

This is another example of how careful numismatic scholarship is able to write, or in this case, correct written history.

Thanks for your praise!

You remind me of a passage in Eckhel's wonderful Preface to his Doctrina Numorum, which I try to follow as well as I can.

"In my choice of material I shall strive for brevity, in order to place some limits on a work that could treat so many matters. I have tried to achieve brevity in various ways, by omitting material that is of no importance, or far fetched, or boring, or inappropriate"... Thus I will not describe or comment on the trite types such as Victoria and Spes that are repeated reign after reign but contribute nothing to our knowledge. "No less inappropriate is the annoying diligence of many authors, who in their explication of coins assume duties that are not theirs, and bore the reader with extensive treatments of historical or mythological topics, ignoring the fact that the purpose of numismatic scholarship is not to give lessons in history or mythology, but rather to correct, illustrate, or enrich with additional examples, the various facts that we already know in each of those disciplines."

This goes on for two more pages, every sentence so right and so beautifully and concisely written (the Latin is much simpler and more powerful that my attempted translation!) that they bring tears to my eyes when I read them, ending with the assurance that brevity must not be overdone, and that he will not hesitate to treat matters in detail when those details are needed to present the history of the question and the evidence and arguments relevant to its resolution. "Therefore far from fearing the censure of scholars when I treat matters in detail, I am confident that I will earn great gratitude from them on that account."

Rick Witschonke and the editor with whom he spoke hope that I will be able to publish these Magnentian arguments in an article in the American Journal of Numismatics.


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