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Vabalathus and the Palmyrene Empire

Lucius Julius Aurelius Septimius Vabalathus Athenodorus was the son of the Palmyran king Odenathus and his wife Zenobia. Through the scheming of his gifted mother, Vabalathus was given the titles his father held, but which had been refused him by Gallienus. The abbreviated titles of Vabalathus found on his coinage most likely were, Vir Clarissimus Romanorum (or Rex) Imperator Dux Romanorum. In 271 A.D., Vabalathus was declared Augustus but Aurelian defeated his forces. Vabalathus and Zenobia were taken to Rome where they lived in great comfort.

Coins of Vabalathus and the Palmyrene Empire for sale in the Forum Ancient Coins shop.

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 context.

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 rulers.

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 to Syria.

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.

Date                           Event
211 or 212 Palmyra becomes a Roman Colonia under Emperor Caracalla
c. 220 Odenathus born
229 J. Aurelius Zenobius governor of Palmyra, possibly related to Zenobia
c. 240 Hairan born, eldest son of Odenathus
c. 241 Zenobia born
before 251 Odenathus becomes "Chief of Palmyra"
253 Valerian becomes emperor, appoints Gallienus co-emperor
c. 255 Odenathus marries Zenobia
c. 256 Vabalathus born
257 Capture of Antioch by the Sassanian King Shapur I
c. 258 Odenathus appointed governor of Syria by Valerian, appointed Clarissimus Consularis
259 Capture of Valerian by Shapur I, Gallienus becomes sole emperor
early 261 Usurpers in Syria: Macrianus and Quietus
261 Odenathus assumes title King of Kings
late 261 Odenathus defeats army of Macriani at Battle of Emesa
262 Successful battles by Odenathus against Shapur I. Given titles Dux Romanorum and Restitutor Totius Orientis
266 Odenathus captures Sassanian cities of Nisibis and Carrhae, besieges Ctesiphon
267 Odenathus and oldest son murdered while hunting, Vabalathus becomes King of Palmyra under regency of his mother Zenobia
268 Murder of Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus new emperor

late 269-early 270

Zenobia invades Egypt and Palestine, holds against armies sent by Claudius
270 Zenobia expands territories to include eastern Asia Minor
270 Claudius dies of plague, Quintillus briefly rules, Aurelian new emperor
270 Antioch mints coins with Aurelian as Augustus and Vabalathus with titles. Alexandria mints coins showing year 1 of emperor Aurelian, year 4 of Vabalathus
270/1 Antioch continues dual ruler coinage, Alexandria shows years 2/5.
late 271 Aurelian leaves Rome with army to Palmyra, another army under future emperor Probus recaptures Egypt
summer 272 Battles of Antioch and Emesa
August 272 Palmyra conquered by army of Aurelian
late 272 Revolt in Palmyra under Zenobia's relative (named Achilleus according to Historia Augusta : Aurel 31.2)
spring 273 Palmyra razed
December 273 Tetricus surrenders to Aurelian after Aurelian's 7-month march from East. Aurelian returns to Rome
274 Zenobia and Tetricii marched in Aurelian's triumph
275 Aurelian murdered

Antioch Mint

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.

Alexandria mint

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's Triumph

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.

Numismatic References

Roman Imperial Coinage - Antioch Mint

Bland, R. "The Coinage of Vabalathus and Zenobia from Antioch and Alexandria" in NC 171 (2011).
Cohen, H. Description historique des monnaies frappes sous l'Empire Romain, Vol. 6: Macrianus to Diocletian & Maximianus. (Paris, 1886).
Estiot, S. Monnaies de l'Empire Romain Volume XII.1, D'Aurlien Florien (270-276 aprs J.-C.). Bibliotheque nationale de France. (Paris, 2004).
Robinson, A. Roman Imperial Coins in the Hunter Coin Cabinet, University of Glasgow, Vol. IV. Valerian I to Allectus. (Oxford, 1978).
Mattingly, H., E.A. Sydenham & P. Webb. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol V, Part II, Probus to Amandus. (London, 1933).
Monnaies de l'Empire Romain / Roman Imperial Coinage AD 268-276 (RIC V Online) http://www.ric.mom.fr
Robinson, A. Roman Imperial Coins in the Hunter Coin Cabinet, University of Glasgow, Vol. IV. Valerian I to Allectus. (Oxford, 1978).
Sear, D.R. Roman Coins and Their Values, Vol. 3: The Accession of Maximinus I to the Death of Carinus AD 235 - AD 285. (London, 2005).
Vagi, D. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. (Sidney, 1999).

Egyptian Coinage - Alexandria Mint

Burnett, A., M. Amandry, et al. Roman Provincial Coinage. (1992 - ).
Curtis, J. The Tetradrachms of Roman Egypt. (Chicago, 1969).
Dattari, G. Numi Augg. Alexandrini. (Cairo, 1901).
Emmett, K. Alexandrian Coins. (Lodi, WI, 2001).
Geissen, A & W. Weiser. Katalog alexandrinischer Kaisermnzen, Kln. (Cologne, 1974-1983).
Milne, J. A Catalogue of the Alexandrian Coins in the Ashmolean Museum. (Oxford, 1933, reprints with supplement).
Pool, R. A Catalog of the Greek Coins in the British Museum, Alexandria. (London, 1892).
RPC Online - http://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/
Savio, A. ed. Catalogo completo della collezione Dattari Numi Augg. Alexandrini. (Trieste, 2007).
Sear, D. Greek Imperial Coins and Their Values. (London, 1982).
Sear, D. Roman Coins and Their Values. (London, 1978 - ).
Skowronek, S. Imperial Alexandrian Coins. (Cracow, 1998).
Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Denmark, Aarhus University, Part 1: SNG Aarhus. Collections of Herman Ernst Freund and William Larsen. (Copenhagen, 1986).
Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Denmark, The Royal Collection of Coins and Medals, Danish National Museum, Vol. 8: Egypt, North Africa, Spain - Gaul. (New Jersey, 1994).
Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Great Britain XII, The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, Part 2: Roman Provincial Coins: Cyprus-Egypt. (Oxford, 2008).
Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Italy, Milano XIII, Civiche Raccolte Numismatiche, Aegyptus (Egypt), Part 3. Commodus - Galerius Caesar. (Milan, 1992).

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:

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.

Other reverses:

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).

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