The Coins of Vabalathus of Palmyra
By Jim Phelps
Much has already been written about the "revolt" of Palmyra,
so I won't go to great lengths here to give the full history. What
follows is just a brief overview to learn a little about the times, the
region, and the sequence of events, to better put the coins into
Tadmor, called by the Greeks and the Romans "Palmyra", was a city on
the lucrative Oriental "silk road" trade route halfway between Emesa
and the Euphrates River. As such it amassed great wealth, and it's most
powerful citizens were those traders, or the leaders of the men who
protected the caravans. In the mid-3rd century the most powerful of
these was Odenathus.
Septimius Odenathus (whose name means "Little Ear" in Arabic) seems
to have risen to fame rather suddenly. Though his family is named in
detail on some of his monuments, they don't seem appear on other prior
records. His family must have gained citizenship during the reign of
Septimius Severus or his sons, as evidenced by his name. Exactly how he
came to power isn't known, but perhaps he was fortunate enough to have
amassed wealth at a faster rate than others, whether through landowning
or caravan protection. He became a great general, being entrusted by
Valerian and Gallienus with control of Syria, a buffer zone between Rome
and their perpetual enemy Persia, now under control of the new Sasanian
After the capture of Valerian, Odenathus attacked the Sasanians in
force, and had great victories. While on campaign in Asia Minor in 267
he and his oldest son (by his first wife) were murdered, leaving his
young son under the regency of his mother, Zenobia.
Zenobia (Bat Zabbai in Arabic, which perhaps means "daughter of the
one with beautiful long hair") was younger than Odenathus, and
apparently much more ambitious. While Odenathus seems to have been
content to fight on behalf of Rome, she invaded and ended up controlling
much of the eastern Roman Empire. With the capture of Valerian had
come a power vacuum in the East, as his son Gallienus had his hands more
than full with usurpers and invaders in the western part of the
empire. With the death of Odenathus the power in the east theoretically
fell on his son Vabalathus, but in reality the real power was his
mother and regent Zenobia.
Vabalathus is the Latinized form of his Arabic name, Wahballath, "the
gift of Allat." Allat was an important Arabic goddess, sometimes
equated with Athena. His Greek name Athenodoris reflects this. His
name appears on coins variously as Vabalathus, Vhabalathus, or
Vabalathus. His mother's rule was in his name, and if she were
cautious the rule could have lasted. Unfortunately this seems to have
been one of the few virtues she lacked.
Within 3 years of the death of Odenathus, Zenobia had invaded Egypt.
She eventually carved out a large portion of the empire for herself and
her son, which may be a reflection of the Gallic Secessionist Empire
which Postumus had been ruling. Neither Gallienus nor his successor,
Claudius Gothicus, were in a position to contest this. When the new
Emperor Aurelian came to power, he lost little time beginning his march
During this period, coins were minted in Syria and Egypt, with
Aurelian identified as the emperor and wearing the radiate crown
signifying both the denomination and the ruler. In a break from
convention, Vabalathus is featured on the reverse wearing a laurel
wreath and showing the abbreviation of the titles he had assumed, VCRIMDR. The exact meaning of these initials is debated, but the most logical arrangement would be Vir Clarissimus Rex Imperator Dux Romanorum
(Most illustrious (senatorial rank), king, leader of the army, duke
under Rome). This clearly demonstrates him putting himself in the lower
position of client king and acknowledges the rule of the emperor, but
the invasions and seizure of the eastern portion of the empire was not
something Aurelian would overlook. When war broke out in earnest, coins
identifying Vabalathus as the emperor and Zenobia as Augusta were
minted, though these are much more rare.
Though the armies of Zenobia were initially successful, they could
not stand against the full might of the Roman war machine, or the
strategic mind of Aurelian. Eventually both Syria and Egypt had been
recaptured, and Zenobia (and probably Vabalathus) were both taken into
custody and marched in Aurelian's triumphal parade in Rome.
|211 or 212
||Palmyra becomes a Roman Colonia under Emperor Caracalla
||J. Aurelius Zenobius governor of Palmyra, possibly related to Zenobia
||Hairan born, eldest son of Odenathus
||Odenathus becomes "Chief of Palmyra"
||Valerian becomes emperor, appoints Gallienus co-emperor
||Odenathus marries Zenobia
||Capture of Antioch by the Sassanian King Shapur I
||Odenathus appointed governor of Syria by Valerian, appointed Clarissimus Consularis
||Capture of Valerian by Shapur I, Gallienus becomes sole emperor
||Usurpers in Syria: Macrianus and Quietus
||Odenathus assumes title King of Kings
||Odenathus defeats army of Macriani at Battle of Emesa
||Successful battles by Odenathus against Shapur I. Given titles Dux Romanorum and Restitutor Totius Orientis
||Odenathus captures Sassanian cities of Nisibis and Carrhae, besieges Ctesiphon
||Odenathus and oldest son murdered while hunting, Vabalathus becomes King of Palmyra under regency of his mother Zenobia
||Murder of Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus new emperor
late 269-early 270
|Zenobia invades Egypt and Palestine, holds against armies sent by Claudius
||Zenobia expands territories to include eastern Asia Minor
||Claudius dies of plague, Quintillus briefly rules, Aurelian new emperor
||Antioch mints coins with Aurelian as Augustus and Vabalathus with titles. Alexandria mints coins showing year 1 of emperor Aurelian, year 4 of Vabalathus
||Antioch continues dual ruler coinage, Alexandria shows years 2/5.
||Aurelian leaves Rome with army to Palmyra, another army under future emperor Probus recaptures Egypt
||Battles of Antioch and Emesa
||Palmyra conquered by army of Aurelian
||Revolt in Palmyra under Zenobia's relative (named Achilleus according to Historia Augusta : Aurel 31.2)
||Tetricus surrenders to Aurelian after Aurelian's 7-month march from East. Aurelian returns to Rome
||Zenobia and Tetricii marched in Aurelian's triumph
The dual-bust coins of Vabalathus from the mint in
Antioch Syria show Aurelian on one side, and Vabalathus on the other.
The side with Aurelian is probably the obverse, in spite of the officina
mark below him. It was standard practice for the emperor to be on the
obverse, and these coins show Aurelian with the radiate crown which
identifies him with Sol, and also indicates the denomination of the coin
(referred to by modern numismatists as an "antoninianus"). He is shown
with the close-cropped beard typical of portraits of the military era,
and is cuirassed (armored). The legend reads IMP(erator) C(aesar) AVRELIANVS AVG(ustus)
During the reign of Gallienus, the Roman Imperial mints were
beginning a system of putting mint and/or officina (workshop within a
mint) marks on coins, a practice that was to continue throughout the
remainder of the Imperial period. Among other things, this might have
been needed for quality control, helping to trace irregularities in coin
weights and alloys. This practice quickly caught on and became more
standardized, and the coins of Vabalathus from the Antioch mint are
uniformly marked with the Greek numeral for the workshop number.
The other side of the coin features the young Vabalathus, probably in
his early teens judging from the portrait and lack of beard. He is
shown draped, and wearing a laurel wreath. The legend VABALATHVS V C R IM D R is discussed above.
Obv: IM C VHABALATHVS AVG - Draped bust right with radiate crown.
Rev: VICTORIA AVG - Victory advancing left, holding a laurel wreath aloft and a palm frond, star in left field.
A rare coin of Vabalathus as emperor ("Augustus"), issued between Aurelian's march to Palmyra in late 271 to the defeat of Zenobia in the summer of 272. A rare coin.
Aurelian and Vabalathus
Since the beginning of the Imperial period Egypt was considered the property of the reigning emperor, and was ruled by a governor appointed by him. The coins reflect this - they are not of the Imperial standard, but are the traditional tetradrachms, albeit much smaller (and in bronze) than in Ptolemaic times. This doesn't change until the Reforms of Diocletian.
The coins of Alexandria are dated by regnal year of the emperor, with the "L" somehow signifying the word "year". There is some debate about the meaning of this, with some of the opinion that the "L" is an abbreviation or monogram for the Greek word for year, others feeling that it represents the word "year" in Egyptian demotic script. Following this is the Greek numeral for the year. On the example coin we see year one (A) of Aurelian, and in a bold move, year 4 (D) of Vabalathus. The obverse legend reads "ΑΥΤ Κ Λ ∆ ΑΥΡΗΛΙΑΝΟC CΕΒ", with the reverse legends "ΙΑCΟ ΥΑΒΑΛΛΑΘΟC ΑΘΗΝ ΒΑCΙ" or "ΙΑCO ΥΑΒΑΛΛΑΘΟC ΑΘΗΝΟ ΥΑ...CΡω" .
Year two coins (B of Aurelian, v of Vabalathus) read "Α Κ Λ ∆ΟΜ ΑΥΡΗΛΙΑΝΟC CΕΒ", and "ΙΑCΟ ΥΑΒΑΛΛΑΘΟC ΑΘΗΝΥ ΑCΡ".
Aurelian minted a great number of coins showing various forms of triumph, such as the ubiquitous ORIENS coins. These are sometimes mistaken as referring to the Orient due to the similar spelling, but actually refer to the god Sol, Aurelian's patron, in his "rising sun" aspect. Aurelian DID mint coins directly referring to his Syrian campaign and victories though. PACATOR ORIENTIS shows the emperor trodding down a bound captive (left), while the RESTITVT ORIENTIS types show more peaceful scenes such as the emperor raising the personification of Syria or receiving a wreath (right).
The following catalogue references are used for the coins throughout this section of the website:
Van Meter - "The Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins" by David Van Meter (1991) - My favorite general reference. Inexpensive and indispensable.
RIC V - "Roman Imperial Coinage", Volume V, part 1 - by PH Webb, edited by H Mattingly & EA Sydenham (1927)
SRCV - "Roman Coins and Their Values" - by David Sear (1988)
There are many excellent resources for learning more about the rise and fall of Palmyra:
Palmyra and its Empire - Zenobia's Revolt against Rome - by Richard Stoneman (1994)
Innumerable websites also give much more thorough studies of the history of Palmyra than I've done here, and can be easily found by searching for Palmyra and Zenobia on any web search engine.
Dictionary of Roman Coins
View whole page from the Dictionary Of Roman Coins
|Please add updates or make corrections to the NumisWiki text version as appropriate.|
VABALATHVS or VHABALATHVS (Latin coins), VABALLATHVS (Greek coins). Vabalathus, son of Odenathus and Zenobia, called by Vopiacus Balbatus, governed Palmyra with his mother after the murder of his father AD 267. He probably perished in the war with Aurelian in AD 272.
The coins of Vabalathus are of two classes; those with his name and head without the titles of Caesar or Augustus, and on the reverse the name and head of Aurelian; and those with his name and head and the titles of Caesar and Augustus, and on the reverses various types. They were struck at Antioch with Latin inscriptions, and at Alexandria with Greek. As they offer some difficulty in their interpretation, it is advisable to give both series:
I. ROMAN COINS
A. Without title of Augustus.
1. Obv. VABALATHVS VCRIMDR, laureate bust of Vabalathus to right. Rev. IMP C AVRELIANVS AVG, radiate bust of Aurelian to right; below, one of following letters: A, B G, E, ς, Z, or H; billon.
B. With title of Augustus.
2. Obv. IM C VHABALATHVS AVG, radiate bust of Vabalathus to right. Rev. IOVI STATORI, Jupiter holding globe and leaning on spear; before him a star, at his feet an eagle; billon.
3. Rev. VENVS AVG, Venus standing left holding helmet and spear, and leaning on a shield; billon.
4. Rev. VICTORIA AVG, Victory walking left holding a crown and palm; in the field a star.
A. Without title of Augustus.
5. Obv. IAC OTABALLAQOC AQHN T ACP, laureate and diademed bust of Vabalathus to right; no date. Rev. A K L DOM ATPHLIANOC SEB, laureate bust of Aurelian to right; date LA (year 1).
6. Obv. IAC OTABALLAQOC AQHN T ACPW, as number 5; date LD (year 4). Rev. as number 5; date LA (year 1).
7. Obv. As number 5; date LE (year 5). Rev. as number 5; date LB (year 2).
8. Obv. IAC OTABALLAQOC AQHNO T ATT SPW, as number 5; dates LD (year 4) or LE (year 5). Rev. ATT K L D ATPHLIANOC CEB, as number 5; dates LA (year 1) or LB (Year 2).
9. Obv. ATPHLIANOC AQHNODWPOC, busts of Aurelian and Athenodorus facing each other, the former laureated, the latter laureate and diademed. Rev. LA (year1). LD (year 4), within a laurel wreath.
B. With the title of Augustus.
10. Obv. ATT K OTABALLAQOC AQHNO SEB, laureate bust of Vabalathus to right. Rev. LE (year 5), Providence standing left raising right hand and holding a double cornucopia.
11. Obv. Same legend and type. Rev. LE (year 5), radiate bust of the Sun to right.
From these coins it seems clear that in the fourth year of Vabalathus and the first of Aurelian, AD 269-270 (Numbers 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), Aurelian recognized the government of Vabalathus, and in the following year (AD 271) associated him as Augustus (numbers 2 and 3), but very soon after Vabalathus and his mother, Zenobia, revolted and struck independent coins, both at Antioch and Alexandria (numbers 4, 10, 11).