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The 'Coin Emperors '

By Tom Buijtendorp

What will be called here the 'coin emperors ' are an important source of historical information, an example of the excitement ancient numismatics can bring. Some Roman emperors, due to their short reign, are not or hardly known from traditional sources, making coins a key source. The famous numismatic author Mattingly described some of these coins as 'almost our only chance of penetrating the thick darkness that still envelopes so much of the history of the third century. ' Excitement was high, for example, in 2003 in the UK: a new find for the first time confirmed the existence of the emperor Domitianus II who reigned in 271 CE. Although their reigns are brief, in many cases their presence marks important turning points in Roman history. Some examples of very rare coins will be discussed in chronological order below, most of them sold recently in the trade. It illustrates nicely how numismatics can improve our understanding of history, in this selection regarding political events in the period 238 – 350 CE.

Gordian I and II (238 CE)

Fig 1 Denarius of Gordian I Africanus (238 CE), minted in Rome. Obverse IMP M ANT GORDIANVS AFR AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse ROMAE AETERNAE, Roma seated left on shield holding Victory and sceptre, Weight 2.735 gram, maximum diameter 20.9mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH10942.

Fig 2 Denarius of Gordian II Africanus (238 CE) minted in Rome. Obverse IMP M ANT GORDIANVS AFR AVG, laureate and draped bust right; reverse PROVIDENTIA AVG, Providentia standing left, leaning on column, globe at feet; near perfectly centered and boldly struck. Weight 3.64 gram, maximum diameter 19.8 mm, die axis 180o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH SH03416.

Forum Ancient Coins sold two very rare denarii of Gordian I and II Africanus, minted in Rome. Father and son were proclaimed emperor 19 or 22 March 238 CE to oppose Maximinus Thrax (235 – 238 CE). The coins of father and son Gordian are quite similar, with exactly the same name and titles. However, father looks older than his 46 year old son. At the same time, father shows hair on the forehead while his son is presented bald at that part. Their reign would only last about 3 weeks. Father Gordian I, at that time past his eighties, was proconsul of North Africa and stayed with his son at Carthago. The coins being minted in Rome shows that the Roman senate supported their claim against Maximinus who was at Sirmium (Serbia). The reverse with Roma Aeternae symbolized this support (fig 1)

Things went wrong after they got attacked by the governor of the neighboring province Numidia who held a large army. During a battle at April 12th, Gordian II got killed and his father soon committed suicide. The grandson of Gordian I, still a child, would become the new emperor (238-244 CE) after a brief co-reign with Balbinus and Pupienus. As both Balbinus and Pupienus were murdered July 29th in Rome, their reign lasted only 3 months. However their coins are less rare, illustrating that the Roman mint produced in full speed for new emperors and was able to provide sizeable volumes in just a few months. Lacking newspapers and other mass media, coins played an important role in supporting new emperors.

Silbannacus (253 CE)

Fig. 3 Cast of the antoninianus of Silbannacus kept in the British Museum. Obverse IMP MAR SILBANNACVS AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VICTORIA AVG, Mercury standing, facing, holding Victory and caduceus. Weight 3.48 gram.

Fig 4. Antoninianus of Aemilian minted in 253 CE in Rome. Obverse IMP AEMILIANVS PIVS FEL AVG, , radiate draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse MARTI PROPVGT, Mars standing left in military dress, right resting on grounded shield, reversed spear vertical in left. Weight 2.879 gram, maximum diameter 20.9 mm, die axis 180o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH34977.

Silbannacus is a splendid example of a 'coin-emperor ': known only from a few coins. The British Museum in 1937 received an antoninianus said to be found in Lorraine, a region in the northeast of France close to Luxemburg (fig 3). The coin can stylistically be dated in the middle of the third century. The obverse shows the portrait of Silbannacus with the title IMP. MAR. SILBANNACVS AVG. The reverse shows Mercury holding a caduceus and (very special) a Victoria, with the legend VICTORIA AVG. Silbannacus is a Celtic name. And Mercury was popular in the West, especially Gaul and Germany. Estiot in 1996 published in the Revue Numismatique a second antoninianus of Silbannacus, a single find form the region Paris and part of the collection Scagnetti. The obverse die was the same, with a different reverse showing the legend MARTI PROPVGT (Mars Propugnator). She concluded that similarities with coins of Aemilian strongly point to mintage in Rome in autumn 253 CE. The same reverse legend MARTI PROPVGT was used by Aemilian, including the wrong abbreviation (fig 4). She reconstructs that Silbannacus took control in Rome after Aemilian left the city and was defeated, and Silbannacus reigned for just a few weeks. The few coins left Rome with the soldiers who went to the Rhine and the soldiers lost a few coins on their way, explaining the find spot of the 2 known coins. It is a splendid example of numismatics adding information to the historical picture.

Uranius Antoninus (253/54 CE)

Fig. 5 Extremely fine tetradrachm of Uranius Antoninus minted in Emesa (Syria). obverse AUTOK COUL CEOUHROC ANTWNINO C CE, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right, from behind; reverse DHMARC EX OUCIAC UP B, Aequitas (Dikaiosyne) standing left, scales in right, cornucopia in left, S - C across fields. Weight 9.925 gram, maximum diameter 28.1 mm die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH28906.

Uranius Antoninus is another example of a 'coin-emperor ' known from his rare coins only. The only possible reference is by Zosimus who writes about two usurpers in the time of Severus Alexander (222-235), the one called Uranius and the other Antoninus, maybe a mix of a single usurper about a quarter century later. What remains are rare coins of Uranius Antoninus. Some claim the style fits the time of Severus and his predecessor Elagabalus (218-222), including the reverse shown on some coins with the temple of Emesa with the secret stone. Others conclude however this must be a mistake. Some of the coins of Uranius Antoninus are clearly dated in the year 565 of the Seleukid era, 253/254 CE (fig 5). This was the time of the revolt against emperor Trebonius Gallus (251-253 CE), led by Aemilian (fig 4) who was proclaimed emperor, defeated Gallus and shortly after was killed himself after only 3 months of reign. On his coins Uranius did not use the title Augustus and Imperator Caesar, titles normal for an emperor. For that reason, it has been suggested that he did not claim the throne and only minted coins to pay the troops to defend the eastern part of the Empire against the Persians. The tetradrachms minted in Emesa (Homs in Syria) shows he was based in that city and probably controlled (large) parts of the province Syria. His name Uranius indicates a local Syrian origin. Next to the tetradrachms, some aurei are known and attributed to Emesa, although some have doubted their authenticity. In addition Numismatik Lanz sold a denarius of Uranius Antoninus not listed in RIC.

Regalianus (260 CE)

Fig 6 Antoninianus of Regalianus minted in 260 CE in Carnuntum (Austria). Obverse IMP C P C REGALIANVS AVG, radiate and draped bust right; reverse ORIENS AVGG, Sol, radiate standing left, cloak falling from shoulders, his right hand raised holding whip; overstruck on a denarius of the Severan period. Weight 3.328 gram, maximum diameter 19.5 mm, die axis 225o. Sold by Ancient Forum Coins nr. SH21382.

Regalianus is another intriguing example of a 'coin-emperor '. Forum Ancient Coins offered a coin of Regalianus authenticated by David Sear (fig 6). Like all coins known, it was an antoninianus produced with a crude die. It was an overstrike of a denarius of the Severan period. There is a brief reference by Aurelius Victor and the Epitome, mentioning a certain Regillianus who claimed to be a Dacian. The few coins known are minted in Carnuntum in Austria and registered finds are from the region around this city, indicating the small area he controlled. The obverse legend of the coin shows the name was spelled with a and not i as the written sources suggest: IMP C P C REGALIANVS AVG. And the reverse refers to ORIENS AVGG. AVGG was the abbreviation for AVGVSTORVM, suggesting that there was a co-reign. It illustrates how Regalianus was searching for political support. In the same style, and overstruck in the same manner, some coins are minted for his wife or mother, Sulpicia Dryantilla, with the title Augusta. This added to his prestige as her name is linked to an important senatorial family: Claudia Ammiana Dryantilla who was married with Senator Sulpicius Pollio. It offers some background of this coin-emperor.

Domitianus II (271 CE)

Fig 7 The in 2003 excavated antoninianus of Domitianus, minted in 270-271 CE. Obverse IMP C DOMITIANVS P F AVG, bust to the right. Reverse CONCORDIA MILITVM. Concordia standing to the left. Ex coin hoard Oxfordshire. Ashmolean Museum.

Fig 8 The antoninianus of Domitianus of (fig 7 right)) compared with an antoninianus of Victorinus (left), the emperor preceding Domitianus and with a very comparable portrait. Both in the style of mint I, e.g. with cuirassed bust. Obverse IMP C VICTORINVS [DOMITIANVS] P F AVG, cuirassed bust right. Braithwell hoard coin nr. 154 (this coin); Dutch private collection.

A coin found in 2003 in the UK for the first time confirmed the existence of the emperor Domitianus II (fig 7). A first example was found in 1900 as part of a hoard of antoniniani with the last coins dated around 274 CE, said to be found in Cléons close to Nantes. Unfortunately the coin got lost in the museum in Nantes and only old photos and a cast remained. It was suggested the coin was a reworked coin of Tetricus. The coin being lost, Domitianus II remained a large question mark until 2004. Not only was a second coin found in the UK, but also could Estiot and Salaün inform in Revue Numismatique of 2004 that the first coin was rediscovered by Salaün in the museum of Nantes. The style and weight fits the period 268-273 CE. with resemblance to the portrait of Victorinus (fig 8). The reverse shows the style of the second atelier of the Gallic Empire, while the obverse resembles more the first atelier with for example the cuirassed bust. This, according to Estiot and Salaün, suggests that Domitianus II controlled both minting ateliers. They conclude that Domitianus II took control after Victorinus (268-270 CE) was murdered. In the same journal, Andy could publish the new additional coin from the hoard in Oxfordshire with the same obverse and reverse dies. The coin was unworn and discovered in a gray ware jar containing 4,957 bronze radiates, the latest dated 279 CE.

Saturninus (280 CE)

Fig 9 Aureus of Saturninus minted in 280 CE in Antioch. Obverse IMP C IVL SATVRNINVS AVG. Laureate bust to the right. Reverse VICTORIAE AVG. Victoria with wreath. Ex Ben-Ha hoard. Collection National Library Paris.

Two aurei are known of Saturinus (fig 9), both found in Egypt in the hoard of Ben-Ha. Estiot studied the information, including much older references to coins of Saturninus. She reconstructed that in 1895 a hoard of golden aurei came to the market after being found in north Egypt, containing 2 aurei of Saturninus and about 20 aurei of Probus. One aureus of Saturinus is since 1897 in the National Library collection in Paris, the other was auctioned by Sotheby 's in November 1972 in Zürich (lot 205). Both are authentic and minted in Antioch with two different obverse dies and two different reverse dies. Estiot traced 6 other hoard coins from Probus also minted in Antioch. She concluded first aurei of Probus were minted, referring to a co-reign with the reverse legend AVGG (plural). Then Saturninus minted as sole emperor and finally coins for Probus as sole emperor were minted probably starting in the second half of 280 CE following the brief reign of Saturinus himself. It again offers an interesting example of the insights numismatics can generate.

Julian of Pannonia (284-285)

Fig 10. Antoninianus of Julian of Pannonia minted in 284-285 CE in Siscia (Croatia). Obverse IMP C M AVR IVLIANVS P F, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VICTORIA AVG, Victory walking left, wreath in right, palm frond in left, S A at sides, XXI in ex. Weight 2.817 gram, maximum diameter 22.4 mm die axis 0o. Sold by Ancient Forum Coins nr. SH10943.

Julian of Pannonia was a usurper in the same region as Regalianus about a quarter century later. Julian of Pannonia is known from his coins like the one shown (fig 10) with the title and name: IMP C M AVR IVLIANVS P F AVG. Unfortunately, written sources mention several usurpers with the name Julian. It seems the Julian who minted the coins, was defeated by the emperor Carinus (283 – 285 CE) early 285 CE. Some aurei are known and for the rest antoniniani, all minted in Siscia as indicated by the letter S in the field (fig 10). While this coin generally refers to VICTORIA AVG, another more specific type refers to the region: PANNONIAE AVG. It is assumed Julian was raised to emperor by the local army.

Domitius Domitianus (c. 297-early 298 CE)

Fig 11. Silvered follis of Domitius Domitianus minted in Alexandria around 296-297 CE with some silvering remained. Obverse IMP C L DOMITIVS DOMITIANVS AVG, laureate head right; reverse GENIO POPVLI ROMANI, Genius standing left, modius on head, holding patera and cornucopia, eagle at feet; A left, ALE in ex. Weight 7.4 gram, maximum diameter 26.1 mm die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH04595. Ex John Aiello collection.

Domitius Domitianus is another example of an almost unknown ruler (fig 11). As Kline suggests in a NumisWiki article, he may have been highly underestimated.[i] His short reign marks the social unrest in Roman Egypt at the end of the 3rd century during the central reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE). The exact timing of the revolt of Domitius is still a matter of debate. A follis of Domitius Domitianus sold recently is interestingly as it shows the transformation to the new monetary system (fig 11). The local tetradrachms were produced in Alexandria until 296/97 CE. He also minted a few golden coins. Of these aurei of Domitius, only 4 different obverse dies and 5 different reverse dies are known, indicating a small production volume. Given the errors in the first issue (‘VICTOI AVG '), it has been suggested the golden coins were minted in a great hurry at the start of the revolt. This kind of coin analysis may offer more clarity in the future. Currently, it is assumed Domitius started as emperor somewhere in 297 CE and was defeated early 298 CE.

Alexander Tyrannus (308-311 CE)

Fig 12. Follis of Alexander Tyrannus minted in Carthage. Obverse IMP ALEXANDER P F AVG, laureate head right; reverse ROMAE AETERNAE, Roma within standing left within hexastyle temple holding globe in right hand and scepter in left, P*K in ex. Weight 3.92 gram, maximum diameter 20.6 mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SHA574. Ex John Aiello collection.

The very rare coins of Alexander Tyrannus show that also usurpers ruling several years can remain hardly noticed in numismatic terms. Lucius Domitius Alexander, also known as Alexander Tyrannus, declared himself emperor in 308 CE while he was praetorian prefect in Africa. When he stopped the corn supply to Italy, emperor Maxentius (306-312 CE) decided to act and send an army and took control in 311 CE. After his defeat, Alexander was killed. Circulating at the rim of the empire, the coin evidence is scare. The coin shown is quite worn, but the name Alexander can be recognized (fig 12).

Martinian (324 CE)

Fig 13. Bronze AE3 of Martinian minted in 324 CE in Cyzicus (Turkey). Obverse IM CS MAR MARTINIANVS P F AVG, radiate and draped bust right; reverse IOVI CONSERVATORI, Jupiter standing left, Victory on globe in r., eagle tipped scepter in l., on ground eagle on left and captive on r, X / IIG r. field (=12 1/2 denarii communes), SMKA in ex. Weight 2.98 gram, maximum diameter 20.5 mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH01633.

The civil war of 324 CE created the very brief reign of Martinian, the commander of the bodyguard of Licinius. The war ended with the great battle of 4 July at Hadrianapolis (Edirne in Turkey) between Constantine the Great and Licinius. Licinius and his recently appointed co-regent Martinian fled and both surrendered in September. As a result, the reign of Martinian lasted only about 2 months. Of his extremely rare coinage, only the bronze AE3 denomination is known (fig 13). He minted only in Turkey: in Cyzicus and Nicomedia. The minting places demonstrate that his formal appointment as emperor of the western part of the empire was only a claim for the future, a dream killed during the battle of Hadrianapolis in the northwest of Turkey.

Nepotianus (350 CE)

Fig 14 Bronze AE3 of Nepotianus minted in 350 CE with legend error. obverse FL NEP CONST-ANTNS AVG, laurel and rosette diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VRBS ROMA, Roma seated left on cuirass, holding spear and Victory on globe, RE in ex. Weight 5.398 gram, maximum diameter 24.5 mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH22812.

The reverse of the rare bronze coin shown with Urbs Roma symbolizes the role of Rome in the 28 days reign of Nepotianus (fig 14). Leading a group of gladiators, he proclaimed himself emperor and entered as such Rome June 3th. At the end of the same month, June 30th, he was defeated by the forces of the Roman general Marcellinus and killed shortly after. The coin illustrates the stress of the time. Probably in a great hurry, the name of the usurper was wrongly spelled as 'Fl(avius) Nep(otianus) Constantns ', lacking the i and u in the last part of the last name. This was the family name which linked him to Constantius Chlorus (being the grandson). It could not save him. Like the other brief reigns discussed, they themselves played no large historical role, however in several cases marked moments of transformation of the Roman Empire.

Closing Remark

The historical value of these coins is translated in high prices. Unfortunately, this also stimulates the production of fakes like the 'Geneva forgeries ' including imitations of the coin-emperors discussed here. This means collectors should be extra careful in selecting suppliers when acquiring such rarities. In addition, the examples underline the importance of provenance information. Therefore it is important that this type of information is kept when available. These coins are part of our history, including the history of these coins themselves.

[i] K.R. Kline Jr, Lucius Domitius Domitianus: Egypt 's Roman Savior.


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