An Emperor of Special Numismatic Interest

By the year 270AD, the Roman Empire simply was not what it once was. Large portions of the North and East were controlled by usurpers; barbarian raids were a real threat on every border. Emperors were no longer selected for their aristocratic bloodlines but the current situation demanded a leader with an iron hand. Such a man was Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (270-275 AD). Neither aristocratic nor Italian (few rulers of the preceding century had been either), Aurelian was a soldier. Upon the death of Claudius II from 'plague' (most probably smallpox), Aurelian assumed the reigns of power and informed the Senate of his position. He then set about cleaning up the mess that was the Roman Empire. In five years, until he was killed in a plot concocted by his personal secretary, Aurelian made great strides in restoring Rome to a position of security.

As the Empire was in poor condition, so was the Imperial coinage. The standard silver coin in 270 AD was the silver antoninianus but debasement had reduced it to a scrap of silver plated copper with inconsistent traces of actual silver. The appearance of the coins had slipped to the point that official issues looked like barbaric replicas. Among the reforms Aurelian was to bring to the Empire was a great reform of the quality of the currency.

Actually, Aurelian made two reforms of the currency dividing his coins into three sections: Pre-Reform, First Reform and Second Reform. Pre-Reform coins were small and crude looking like those of his immediate predecessors. Our early example here even bears a portrait that looks a bit like Claudius II. Struck at the mint of Mediolanum (Milan) it is crudely struck on a small flan reminding one a great deal of the coins from this same mint from the revolt of Aureolus. Other mints of the Pre-Reform period were little better. At Rome, some mint workers were caught debasing Aurelian's coins beyond the officially allowed levels. This lead to a revolt of mintworkers under (or following the death of??) Felicissimus, the mint master. The revolt was put down harshly; the mint at Rome was closed temporarily and greater importance transferred t the mints by then spread across the Empire. Never again would the Rome mint be the most important producer of Roman coins. This would have been the case even had there been no revolt since the need for ready supplies of cash for the armies spread across the frontiers had moved the center of the Roman world out of Italy and divided the power among several large cities of the East. This would be formalized sixty years later when Constantine the Great founded his new capitol at Constantinople but had been becoming a practical fact ever since the time of the Severans. A century earlier, almost all coins were minted at Rome. Now the percentage was smaller than the mints of several other cities.

RIC recognizes mints under Aurelian at Antioch, Cyzicus, Lugdunum, Milan, Rome, Serdica, Siscia, Ticinum, Tripolis and an unattributed coastal city in Phoenicia. This last mint produced coins of distinctive style bearing a mint mark on a tiny dolphin in the reverse exergue (right). A few other cities sometimes used a mintmark to identify the mint city but none were quite as 'splashy' (sorry). Ticinum sometimes used a T but more frequently this letter would be used by other mints to indicate the 'tertius' (third) officina or workshop. Rome often included an R; Milan sometimes used an M etc. Serdica even has a few coins bearing SERD. Most coins, however, can be placed to mint by comparing the style, the manner by which the workshop was (or was not) numbered and the selection of obverse legends and reverse types. This process will still leave the beginner with a few coins that are hard to attribute and the experts with a few on which they will disagree. Mintmarks were intended for the use by mint officials not for the convenience of coin collectors 1700 years later! There was no consistent system across the several mints or within one mint for more than a few issues. Those looking for the simple, cut and dried, answer will not find it here. I only hope I have identified the samples shown here correctly (and ask experts to email me their corrections).

Another coin from the early days of the reign was struck at the Antioch mint which was under the control of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra and her son Vabalathus. Palmyra ruled the East as an independent state but paid homage to Aurelian by including him on the coins issued at Antioch. One of Aurelian's major accomplishments was restoring the Eastern lands to their position as a regular part of the Empire. On our sample coin, Vabalathus is shown with the legend: VABALATHVS VCRIMDR which is interpreted as Vir Clarissimus Rex Imperator Dux Romanorum. The reverse shows Aurelian with the officina letter (here H) under his bust. These coins are common and popular but most (like this one!) are poorly struck on one side or the other. An example equally sharp on both sides is a desirable item. Workmanship at the Antioch mint was still better than many others of the period. A final issue of coins for this prince eliminated Aurelian from the reverse and named Vabalathus Augustus. This must have been just before the forces of Aurelian recaptured the East taking Vabalathus and Zenobia captive. The mint at Antioch continued producing coins for Aurelian but the honor was taken away from the Palmyran royal family. A similar reconquest restored the Gallic Empire founded by Postumus to Rome. The mint at Lugdunum was restored to Roman control and struck coins for Aurelian. Other mints in the rebel regions were closed. The last Gallic Emperor, Tetricus, his son and the Palmyran pair were marched in golden chains in Aurelian's triumph at Rome. They were then retired with honor and allowed to live out their lives as Romans. The Empire restored, Aurelian could turn his attentions to economic reform.

The first phase of the reform took the form of a great improvement in the fabric and appearance of the coins. While they relied on a silver wash to make the low silver billon to look like good silver, these coins resemble the original antoniniani issued by Caracalla in 214 AD. They are big, round and pretty coins. Our example is from the mint at Cyzicus showing a star in exergue followed by a Greek letter for the workshop (here A?). It is not uncommon to find coins of the First Reform period that have retained most of their original silver coating. The weight is less than coins of better silver from the earlier part of the century but compared to coins issued a few years before, these antoniniani certainly must have done much to restore public faith in the currency of the Empire. Accompanied by price controls and expanded public availability of food at preset prices, the reverse of this coin, RESTITVTOR ORBIS, 'restorer of the world' was no empty claim to the populace recently ravenged by inflation. The star mintmark was also used by Rome, Siscia, Serdica and Tripolis so this coin requires considering style and legends as well as the mintmarks to find it in the RIC catalog.

The second phase of the reform introduced the marking of metallic value on the coins themselves. XXI and KA have a page of their own on my site so I will not discuss them here except to say that their presence places a coin to the period of the Second Reform. Our example is from the second (S=secundus in field) workshop of the Rome mint (RIC 62). As with the coins of the First Reform, the workmanship is generally good and many coins will show some or all of the original silver plating. This coin shows the god of the sun with captives. Here he is called Oriens, the rising sun, but other representations honor Sol, the solar disk. Aurelian promoted worship of the sun across the Empire and made the birthday of the son the most important holiday on the Roman calendar. This special date, 25 December, was later adopted in Rome for Christian use.

The dolphin mark shown above is taken as a sign that the mint city was on the coast. Another "Oriens" issue, assigned to Rome by RIC, has a mink mark of a lion. Based on style, the mint assignment seems correct. The same type coin exists in very similar design without the lion. In fact, RIC did not even consider the difference enough to merit a separate listing number (RIC 62 as are the versions with no lion including the coin directly above). In fact, a complete set of minor versions quoted by RIC 62 would be a collection of 31 coins! The type was issued from each of the seven officinae of which our example is from the second (S in field). I have been unable to convince myself on the meaning of the lion. Help or suggestions would be appreciated. Was the metal for this issue obtained from some special source? Were these issued to distribute at some special show in the arena? Chances are good we will never know. Most interesting is the moving of the XXI from the exergue to the field. At the time this issue was made, the XXI must have been considered important or it could have simply been omitted. Presumably, the lion would not fit in the field so the move was made.

Another example from the Second Reform period is this unusual left facing portrait from the Tripolis mint. The exergue bears the value mark KA (Greek for XXI). Long time visitors of this site know I have a fondness for the fancy bust types of Probus. By comparison, the portraits of Aurelian are much less varied but there are a few 'special' varieties that can keep the collection interesting. For Aurelian, left facing busts are considerably more scarce than are right facing ones. Sol (here as Invictus, the unconquerable) appears again as he does on so many of Aurelian's coins.

Toward the end of the reign, Aurelian honored his wife Severina with coin issues. When Aurelian died in 275 AD, some students assign Severina the role of caretaker ruler until the eventual successor, Tacitus, was selected. The length of this Interregnum and the degree to which the Empress actually ruled over the Empire is a matter of some controversy beyond the scope of this page. Our example shows an Antioch (workshop VI) antoninianus of Severina which very well could have been issued after the death of her husband. This coin has been stripped of all of its silver coating except for a tiny patch in front of the Empress' face. The reverse CONCORDIAE MILITVM is unusual for a female ruler. Earlier Severina coins with CONCORDIA AVG (or AVGG indicating a plural number of rulers including Severina!) showed the Emperor and Empress shaking hands. The Emperor's likeness was removed and the legend changed to honor the army for her last issue. Was the occasion the death of Aurelian? Was Rome actually ruled by a woman (Zenobia tried and failed)? Aurelian and Severina had no children to continue a dynasty and no provision was made for a successor. The Senate made an attempt for power and selected Tacitus who turned out to be a caretaker ruler until the armies would step in and dictate the identity of the ruler in the normal, Third Century manner. I will be interested to see the results of advanced studies by experts in the subject of Severina and her coins. I hope these will be published in my lifetime.

Another interesting point on the coinage reforms of Aurelian is made by this bronze coin of Severina (there are others showing Aurelian himself). The reform included issue of more than one size of bronze coin. There is some controversy on exactly what denomination these were intended to be but may people refer to these 25mm, 8g. bronzes as asses even though they may have been intended as sestertii. More study is needed. Later emperors issued a very few (very rare) bronzes for special occasions but the issues of Aurelian are the last easily collectable in the Roman bronze series. This coin shows Juno on the reverse.

Finally we will see an example of the other innovation of the reform of Aurelian. At the Rome mint, the denarius was restored to its place in the list of denominations. This coin was produced by the E (=5th) workshop. Since last produced in any numbers several decades earlier (during the time of Gordian III), the need for the denarius had been eliminated by inflation. Aurelian issued denarii in considerable numbers so they are readily available to collectors today. As with the bronze coins, subsequent rulers issued a few (rare) denarii for special occasions but the coins of Aurelian are the last of the series for regular issues in large numbers.

Coins of Aurelian are common and inexpensive in general but there are rarities as in any specialty. Some people consider Aurelian's coins to be a bit boring since they lack the extreme variations found on the coins of, for example, Probus. On the other hand, Aurelian was a very important historical figure in the survival of the Empire through those troubled times. Without his strong leadership, it would seem quite possible that the barbarian invasions that eventually brought an end to the Empire in the West (the famous 476AD) could well have come two centuries earlier. He was the man Rome needed to rule at that time of crisis. Certainly his coins include interesting items for study by modern numismatists. His reign suffered the only recorded example of a mint riot and and his reforms changed the look of coins for years to come. It is easy to see why coins of Aurelian belong in any collection.

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(c) 2000 Doug Smith