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FORVM`s Classical Numismatics Discussion Board  |  Numism  |  Reading For the Advanced Collector  |  Topic: Barbarous radiates and other Imitatives of the Late Roman Empire 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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« on: November 20, 2007, 03:37:31 pm »

Barbarous Radiates and other Imitatives of the Late Roman Empire

I have posted comments on several New Ancient Coin Collector and ID Help threads about the prevalence of imitatives and unofficial strikes in the late 3rd and early to mid 4th centuries AD.  Other members have asked for references for some of my comments.  I started to look up the specific references for what I had said and decided I needed to note it all down once and for all.  In the end it seemed easier to combine my notes into this posting which I offer as an introduction to the subject.  (For the sake of simplicity, I am using the term bronze throughout to refer to all copper alloys.)

The references in the text refer to pages in the following works:

D1 – Georges Depeyrot, Le bas empire romain: Economie et Numismatique (284-491).
D2 – Georges Depeyrot, La monnaie romaine, 211 av JC – 476 apres JC.
DJ – Richard Duncan-Jones, Money and Government in the Roman Empire.
RR – Richard, Reese, The Coinage of Roman Britian.


Although Barbarous Radiates (BRs) are perhaps the best known of the late Roman “bronze” imitatives, they are not the only types.  Indeed, the term Barbarous Radiates is an old one dating to 19th century numismatists and is a poor choice for two reasons.  First, given that there were three main phases of the mass production of imitatives in the late Roman Empire, only the first of which involved copies of radiates (thus called because the Emperors on the obverses of these antoninianii all wore the radiate crown), the term can not apply to all imitatives.  Second, the original view that these coins were minted by the “barbarians’ beyond the limes, or frontiers of Empire, is now discredited.  Many clearly come from within the Empire.

The term Copies is not specific enough.  There have been copies made from early antiquity to the present day.  It can also be read to imply that these coins are counterfeit, which they are not really.  Likewise, the longer term Unofficial Strikes is also not accurate since in some cases these coins were made with the approval of the local Roman administration, while in other cases they were made by usurpers.  The term Semi-Official Strikes is better, but I personally find it unwieldy.  Thus I have chosen to use the term imitatives.  Instead of answering the questions of who issued them, how and for what purpose, the name describes the fact that they are strikes made to imitate official, regularly produced, Roman coins.

Usage:  Why Were These Imitatives Made?

The purpose of Roman imitative coins has sparked many theories and much debate.  In the 19th century, imitatives were seen as barbarian copies made by the barbarian tribes living beyond the Roman frontier.  In the early 20th century, it was believed that many imitatives were made by the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms of Western Europe who crudely modeled their coins on those of their more civilized Roman predecessors.   By the mid-20th century, imitatives were viewed mainly as contemporary counterfeits made for profit.  Even the late Roman billon coins had enough silver in them to make it profitable to melt them down, extract the silver, and re-coin the remaining copper.  The “stolen” silver was pure profit to the counterfeiter.  More recently, numerous scholars (including the three behind the books I am using for this article) have concentrated on the waves of imitatives which appear to be tied to shortages of officially produced small change. 

According to this theory, the bronze imitatives of the late Roman Empire were produced in order to fill a serious shortage of small change. (G1-p.46, DJ-p.22)  The semi-monetized economy of Roman society required high value coinage, such as gold and silver, to pay military and civil service salaries, taxes and to allow for the convenient transport of large sums.  However, it also required small change.  Markets, particularly in towns and cities, worked largely on a cash basis, unlike perhaps rural markets and village economies.  This meant that small change (coinage denominations which were small fractions of the silver denarius) were required in large quantities.  Silver was very inconvenient, and gold useless, for daily life.

Unfortunately, the official supply of small change, in the form of low denomination bronze coinage broke down several times.   The reason for these breakdowns could be an end to the production of a small change coin by official mints, or a conscious, or inadvertent, supply problem to some regions.  The results were the same.  Regions that did not have access to a sufficient supply of small change met their needs by making their own, either through minting of new imitative coin, or, in a few cases, by physically cutting up large bronze coins.  (DJ-p.22) These imitatives strikes ceased when the supply of officially produced small change resumed.  (G1-p.46)

The Aurelian Reforms

The “silver” coins of the 260s were in fact small change.  The nominally silver antoninianii “radiates” were tiny and had a silver content which was rapidly sliding to 2%.   True small bronze coins were non-existent.  Thus the antoninianii of Gallienus, Claudius II Gothicus and the Gallic usurpers Postumus, Victorinus, and the Tetrici, filled the role of small change. (RR-p.20) 

The situation changed in the 270s.  Aurelian’s reformed antoniniani, introduced in 274 AD, caused serious problems.   Its value was too high.  It may have been valued at 20 times the value of the tiny antoninaini then in use. (RR-p.48)  Since no small denomination was introduced at the same time, there was no longer any small change being struck.  There was nothing being produced that could be easily used in the markets and bars.

The answer to this dilemma was simple.  The old small radiates of Gallienus, Claudius II Gothicus and the Gallic usurpers were maintained in use to serve as small change.  However, with no new supply of small change being struck, these coins soon failed to meet the demand and so copies were struck locally.  These radiate imitatives are common in Britain, northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, but are much rarer in southern France and the Mediterranean basin. (RR-p.48 and 136) 

The types struck varied by region.  The region occupied by the Gallic usurpers produced copies of the coinage of Postumus, Victorinus and the Tetrici. (D2-p.150) Although their usurpation had already ended, the inhabitants of those areas had been used to the coinage of the usurpers since 260.  As these coins remained in use it was logical to imitate them.  The imitative radiates found in the rest of the Western part of the Empire are usually Claudius II Gothicus (RR-p.48), especially DIVO CLAVDIO issues (D2-p.150-151).  It is believed that these were struck in Italy, Spain and North Africa.  (D2-p.152)   Radiate imitatives have also been found in small numbers in places are far away as Beirut (Berytus) and Sardis.  (RR-p.136)

Generally these radiate imitatives are very crude.  They range from 15mm to 4mm diameter and weigh as little as 0.5 grams.  Lettering, if any is visible, is often very garbled.   Busts and reverse figures are often very crude.  (RR-p.48)  This is especially true of the “Gallic” coinage.  The imitatives of Claudius II Gothicus are generally of better qualityRadiate imitatives were struck either from new copper, or from brass from melted down sestertii.  (RR-p.48)  You can often spot the difference in examples that have been cleaned down to the metal.

Neither the reforms of 294, nor those of 317, resulted in the mass production of a low denomination coin. Reese believes that the average small copper (AE3) of the early 4th century was likely worth 5 nummi.  (Thus 1400 small copper coins, or 7000 nummi, to the gold solidus.)  He assigns this 5 nummi coin a rough modern value of 30-40 UK pence or 60-80 US cents and then notes that the old radiate imitatives which remained in use were valued at around 5 pence, which I assume means about ½ a nummi. (RR-p.127)

The radiate imitatives remained in use for many decades until small change coinage was again officially minted, in the required mass quantities, around 330 AD with the appearance of the GLORIA EXERCITVS coins. (RR-p.57) Thus the radiate imitatives had a very long lifespan – circa 274 to 330 AD.  It is unclear for how much of this period they were actually being struck, as opposed to simply remaining in circulation.  However, since new coins were regularly required to maintain the stock of small change, they must have been struck well into the 4th century.  This has interesting repercussions for collectors.  For example, the old debate about whether DIVO CLAVDIO CONSECRATIO types began to be issued under Quintillus, or not until Aurelian, is of less interest as a given example could in fact be an imitative struck many decades later.  The large number of hoards of these radiate imitatives from 4th century contexts can perhaps be explained by the fact that they were stashed away once they were no longer useful.  (RR-p.77)

A New Need in the West

The burst of officially produced small bronze coinage was short lived, at least in the west.  Western mints ceased mass production of small copper coins during the 341- 345/346 AD period.  This led to the widespread striking of imitatives in order to, once again, fill the need for small change. (RR-p.57)  The type most commonly imitated was the GLORIA EXERCTIVS (two soldiers facing with one or two standards in between).  (D1-p.47, RR-plates 33-34)  Other types imitated include VOTA issues (D1-p.47), and URBS ROMA and CONSTANTINOPOLIS city commemorative issues (RR-plates 32 and 35).

It is interesting to note that although this new burst of imitatives came only 10 years after the end of use of the radiate imitatives, which had been used for over 50 years, the new imitatives copied only the official designs of the last 10 years and not any of the radiate imitatives themselves.  This implies that the radiate imitatives did indeed disappear very rapidly (in less than a decade) once they were no longer needed in the 330s.

Not Enough Horsemen

In 348 AD, with the 1100th anniversary of Rome, a new series of copper coinage was introduced – the FEL TEMP REPARATIO coinage.  This series included some small denomination coinage.  However, not enough reached areas like Britain, so another wave of imitations was required to meet the demand for small change.  (RR-p.58)  The fact that the purpose of this wave of imitatives was to provide small change can clearly be seen by the fact that they were smaller, often much smaller, than the originals.  For example, British imitative FEL TEMP REPARATIO coins range from 15mm down to 3mm diameter while the originals were around 20mm diameter.  (RR-p.58 and plate 37)

These imitatives were no longer required by 364 AD with the appearance of the widely produced small copper coinage of House Valentinian, particularly the various victory walking left issues.  (RR-p.58) Nevertheless, a few of the older imitatives appear in hoards dating into the late 4th and early 5th centuries indicating some remained in circulation for quite a while. (RR-p.95)  It is not clear to me why they did not disappear completely and quickly like the radiate imitatives did at the end of the first phase.  Perhaps the poor quality of officially struck small copper coinage from this point on meant that even obvious imitatives were tolerated, and given the same value “on the street”.

Why No More Imitatives?

With the increasing breakdown of Roman administration in many parts of the empire in the late 4th and early 5th centuries it would seem that coinage supply problems, and thus the need to locally produce small change, would undergo a dramatic rise.  However, this was not the case.  The FEL TEMP REPARATIO imitatives were the last great wave.  There are very few imitatives after 364 AD.

The most plausible explanation to this dilemma is that, while there were indeed fewer and fewer small copper coins being supplied to the provinces, the need for such coins had also dropped dramatically and thus there was no reason to strike imitatives.  The Roman Empire was becoming less monetized, at least at the micro economic level.  Barter, which had always been existent, especially in rural areas, was increasingly the main mode of daily trade.  It is no coincidence that, in the Western part of the Empire at least, this period also witnessed a decrease in urbanization.  The provinces were also becoming more self-sufficient and less tied to each other.  An increasingly rural and local economy simply required less small change.

This can be seen especially starkly in Britain, with the withdrawal of the Roman military and official administration, which in effect meant the withdrawal of the Roman economy, in the first decade of the 5th century AD.  Despite no longer receiving any imported small change, no imitatives appear to have been struck.  With the withdrawal of “Rome”, Britain had no need for small change.

How Many Imitatives Are Out There?

More than most people think.  The huge scale of production of imitatives is something that is not understood and recognized widely enough among collectors.  Depeyrot notes that the production of imitative radiates in the “Gallic” territory was too large and too widespread to allow belief that these were truly the result of a clandestine production.  (D2-p.148)  More surprisingly, and importantly for collectors, Richard Reese states that after examining hundreds of thousands of coins from Britain and north-western Europe he has found that a greater proportion of several common types are imitatives than are official strikes.  This includes, for example, GLORIA EXERCITVS finds from Britain.  (RR-p.58) 

Where Do I Go For More Information

I have noted the page references for the four works I consulted for this article.  However, there is a great deal more information on imitatives out there.  RIC volumes VII and VIII contain information about imitatives, as do many other works on Roman coins.  The best online source by far is Warren Esty’s excellent site on “Ancient Imitations of Roman Coins”.  Its many sub pages cover imitations and contemporary counterfeits, including fouree denarii, from the Roman Republic to the late 4th century AD.

Shawn Caza

(Shawn Caza, Ottawa)
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« Reply #1 on: June 30, 2015, 02:46:59 am »


Though I wrote this piece over seven years ago there is not much that I would change.

I no longer agree with Reece's valuations - that Aurelian's reformed antoniniani was valued at 20 times the earlier antoniniani, or that early fourth century AE3s were valued at 5 nummi, etc.

Nor do I agree that Western mints ceased to strike bronze coinage 341 - 346.

However, neither of these points change the basic narrative about imitatives.



(Shawn Caza, Ottawa)
Joe Sermarini
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« Reply #2 on: June 30, 2015, 04:39:36 am »

I would like to turn this post into a NumisWiki Article. 

Joseph Sermarini
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