Ancient Greek & Roman Coins

This Site's First Article Revised


This WWW site was begun in February 1997 for the specific purpose of having a place to post the following photos. The matter of whether or not these coins show the use of stirrups is no more decided (and never will be, IMHO) than it was then. If nothing else, this has been proof that two people can look at the same thing and see something completely different. The original posting is in black type; material added for the Feb 98 update is dark red; later additions light red.

Stirrups(?) on a coin of Constantius II (c.350 AD)

Constantius II - Bronze (once silvered) Centenionalis or Majorina - 21mm diameter
Roman soldier spearing bearded and pigtailed Gothic horseman who reaches back toward him
RIC 132 (Vol VIII page 523) - - Antioch mint workshop 15 - ANEI

A question recently arose on an internet mailing list regarding the first use of stirrups. Stirrups were not used in Western Europe until the middle ages. The interpretation of this coin could push back the earliest known use of the stirrup. The reverse type shows a Roman soldier spearing a barbarian horseman. The style of clothing and hair suggests that this particular enemy was a Goth. There is a row of dots running in front of the left leg of the horseman that ends in a loop passing around the foot. Whether this is a stirrup or some fancy decoration on the trousers is a matter that has not received 100% agreement. This one student's opinion is that the coin definitely shows a rider using a stirrup. The dotted line is probably a rope while the loop around the foot is a wooden stirrup.

Most coins of this general type do not show a stirrup. The only examples known to me are of the Antioch mint from the highest numbered officiae. This is Antioch mint officinae 15 (ANEI in exergue).

Constantius II - Bronze (once silvered) Centenionalis or Majorina- 21mm diameter
Roman soldier spearing bearded and pigtailed (? )Gothic horseman who slumps over horse
RIC 135 (Vol VIII page 523) - see plate 27 - Antioch mint workshop 9 - AN (theta)

In the year since the first posting of this discussion I have received little input on the matter. The coin shown here certainly shows the dotted line running along the leg but really does nothing to answer the question on whether this is a rope bearing a stirrup or a fancy decoration on the pants. The coin is sharply struck and clearly shows the dotted line arching over the back of the horse (consistant with either explanation) but a large lump of 'patina' (now removed) obscured the foot area and left an unclear view of the stirrup, if there ever was one on the coin. What this coin does do is extend the officina using the dotted line device down to #9 (theta). I have seen an ANBI (#12) with no dotted line so certainly all of the higher officina were not consistant on this detail. If you have coins of this mint and type I would greatly enjoy receiving a report or photo on the presence or absence of the dotted line or loop around the foot.

This photo posted (1 May 1998) extends the officina seen to E and ends the idea of the device was limited to the higher officina. The coin is quite clear on the rope but, unless we see the cuff on the pants as the loop, shows nothing going around the foot. It proves the 'fancy pants' theory as strongly as it does the 'stirrup'.

Unfortunately for the best of theories a coin has turned up that doesn't fit the "only at Antioch" pattern. This slightly later Alexandria mint issue (with '.S.' in the reverse field - RIC 78 p. 544) clearly shows the dotted line running down the front of the leg but retains no trace of a stirrup if there ever was one on the die. Worse yet for the theory, the horseman does not fit the bearded, pigtailed pattern expected of a Goth but has a rounded haircut and no beard.

What does all this mean? Nothing, really. Those who support these coins as evidence of the use of stirrups in 350 AD certainly do not contend that the Romans used or knew of them. The person or persons who cut these dies could have seen something in their personal experience (either in battle against Goths or as a Gothic captive pressed into service at the mint) that they indicated on these coins. Whether that 'something' was a stirrup cannot be proven. If the dotted line 'rope' was part of a 'stirrup' we can make no assumption that the device was in any way similar to modern stirrups, attached to a saddle or anything else so no real information is provided. It would even be possible that the rope was attached to the pants and feet of the rider to provide leverage on horseback but was not tied to the horse. While it is important not to read anything into these coins, it is equally important not to close our minds to the possibility of further information coming to light about the Goths, their culture and horsemanship.


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1997 Doug Smith