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Who was Trajan Decius
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.