'Coded' Antoniniani


An interesting sidelight of collecting Roman antoniniani was mentioned briefly on an earlier page on this site. The identification of joint Emperors Diocletian and Maximianus with the gods (respectively) Jupiter and Hercules was documented by a strange series of silvered antoniniani from the mint at Siscia. The mint was divided into only three workshops using Greek numerals A, B and G. In addition to the numeral, each workshop added one third of the name of the appropriate god (I have not seen error coins using Jupiter with a portrait of Maximianus, for example). To explain how this works, we will examine a few examples of coins from this series.

Our first example was struck by the first workshop as shown by the A placed in the left field of the reverse. In exergue, we see the XXI refering to the 20:1 copper/silver alloy used for these coins and the letters HP which is the 'code' that identifies this coin an example of the series. The name of Hercules spelled in Greek letters (but not translated into the Greek Herakles) is HRKOULI; the first third of the name, therefore, produced the code HP. Of the three coins of Maximianus shown here, this seems to be the latest style. The Emperor is shown with the thick 'bull' neck that became standard on the post reform folles. The coded coins were issued over a period of several issues as we will see when we examine the other samples.

The second workshop is designated by a Greek numeral B. Our example coin positions the B in exergue just left of the XXI and the code letters to the right. The second third of our word reads KOY. Lacking the patina of our first example, this coin shows more clearly the reverse scene. On the left, the Emperor wearing military garb and laurel wreath holds a long spear and pours a libation on a small altar. On the right, Hercules, nude, leans on his club and pours a similar sacrifice. The scene is the same on all three coins but the thick patina on the first coin obscures the fact that each figure holds his own patera.

The third workshop places the numeral G after the XXI and before the final third of the code word LI. Making things easier to read are the dots separating the sections of the mark. Surrounding the scene is the legend CONSERVATOR AVGG crediting the god with 'saving' the joint Emperors. All of the coded series coins bear this reverse type. The obverse IMPerator Caesar Marcus Aurelius VALerius MAXIMIANVS Pius Felix AVGustus is shown on the last two of our examples while the first legend lacks Felix. Both legends are found from each workshop. RIC lists the coins as dating to 289-290 AD but I can offer no evidence other than all antoniniani date to the pre currency reform period c. 286-296 AD. All are credited to the mint at Siscia. .

Coins of Diocletian from this series are similar except the nude god shown is Jupiter and the code word is IOBI. Again the name is expressed in Greek letters but not translated into the Greek (Zeus). The short word resulted in the first two workshops' share of the code being only one letter. Our one example of this series is the final part showing G before the XXI and BI following. Again dots separate the sections. As with the Maximianus series, workshop letter placement is found in three positions. I regret that my file of images does not include the other two positions which would combine XXI.I and XXI.O with some position of A and B respectively.

Why? I simply do not know. Certainly this was part of the policy to identify the Emperors with the two gods. Perhaps the coding was part of a secret mark system to foil counterfeiters but it seems more likely that there was a mystical meaning intended that is hard for modern minds to understand. A good question, to me, is how many people who spent these coins had any idea of the meaning of those extra letters. By the time of these coins, the use of marked workshop numbers was decades old and probably understood by the man on the street. The need or desire to go beyond this in any form, let alone splitting Latin words spelled in Greek letters, is a question that will require more than a little contemplation or speculation. What do you think?

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(c) 1999 Doug Smith