Introducing the Follis

by Alexandru Marian

I would like to introduce you to the interesting coins of the Tetrarchy.  Many people seem to dismiss them, but I will make an attempt to show you they are wrong.

Let's start with a little bit of history. In the year 294 A.D., the four Tetrarchs initiated a monetary reform, which replaced the 80 years old Antoninianus with new denominations, the most important of which were the solid silver argenteus and the large billon follis. I must tell you that these were, and are, pretty impressive coins; large, 28mm diameter weighting app.10 grams, and with a beautiful shiny silver wash finish. They still had elements from the past: the good manufacturing technique, derived from the Aurelian's reform and the same metal as the Antoninianus, a mix of mostly copper, tin, and 3 to 5% silver. They were minted in huge quantities in no less than sixteen Imperial Mints. An interesting note is that even if one of the main purposes of these coins was to pay the large troops needed to defend the Empire, their portraiture rarely depicts the Emperors in a militaristic way. Most of the coins show a laureate bare head. It is obvious that the Tetrarchs wished to leave behind the bad memory of the Military Emperors which were slaves of their troops rather than Commanders. The new-style Emperor was not just a General, but a divine representative of the Gods.

Let's see an almost perfect example of these coins.

You can agree that this is one very impressive coin! It depicts the emperor Constantius I, while serving as Caesar between 293 and 305 A.D. It was minted in the city of Cyzicus, located in modern Turkey. The personage on the back of the coin is the "Spirit of the Roman People", the most commonly reverse type of the period.

The next coin is a bit different. This time the style is not so naive. It belongs to the earlier issues of Aquileia, a city in northern Italy. Notice the more realistic and sensitive portrait of the Senior Emperor Diocletian. Much care has been employed while carving the letters and the superb Genio on the reverse. Also notice the technical aspects: almost perfectly round flan and very good centering. One may observe some conservation aspects. While the first coin was kept in a pot along with many thousands other coins, this one is an isolate find. Notice the green patina showing especially on the highpoints. In the over 1700 years of burial, this coin was in contact with soil, air, water and various salts, developing a patina. Most of the times the patina will push away and destroy the silvering of a late roman coin, but in this case most of it survived:

And finally, will move on to another continent, Africa. The last coin was minted in the famous Alexandria, Egypt. You will see Diocletian's associate, Maximianus Heraclius, styled with a thick neck, representative for the period. On the reverse, his protector Hercules. In the right hand he holds apples, in the left his club, and on the shoulder the skin of the Nemean Lion. The third workshop of the Alexandrian mint surely had a very talented engraver. The portrait of Hercules is simply magnificent!

I hope that you enjoyed this very brief introduction the Tetrarchy folles. If you would like to see more, or buy a high quality example, FORVM has a vast selection. Look in the catalogue at the Emperors: Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, Constantius I, Severus and Maximinus II. If you would like to see even more, you can visit my site and see my collection.