Featured Coin

An Antoninianus of Probus:
An exercise in looking closely

Condition is everything to some collectors. One thing is for sure: a coin in great condition shows much fine detail that would be lost on a worn or poorly struck example. While far from perfect, this week's Featured Coin is a detailed piece worthy of close examination. The coin is well struck over most of its surface with weakness in both legends on the left. The only detail of the type obscured by this striking flaw are the fingers of the emperor's right hand (obverse). The coin was originally silvered (see the Featured Numerian from two weeks ago) but has, over time, shed most of this thin layer leaving a copper coin (probably 4-5% silver) . What silver remains has toned somewhat producing a slightly confusing mix of copper, yellow toned silver and gray silver.

Probus 276-282 AD Military bust left / Horseman and captive - Cohen 69
VIRTVS PROBI AVG / ADVENTVS PROBI AVG - KA delta - 4.6g - inverted axis
Insets: (Top) Medusa face from breastplate - (Bottom) Horseman from shield

Legends on this coin are unusual in their departure from the traditional formula used on Imperial coinage for the preceding 200 years. In place of a simple name with titles, we are given a tribute to the 'Virtus of Probus, the emperor.' Virtus could be translated here as ' manly excellence' which, to the Romans would include moral rectitude, bravery and general goodness. The reverse legend also includes the name of Probus just in case anyone might forget whose arrival (Adventus) was being celebrated by this coin. :) Reverse naming of the emperor had been done before but is still rather unusual. Both legends insert breaks after the 'P' of 'PROBI' even though there was room on the die to allow a break at the start of the word or for a continuous, unbroken legend. Could this have been some sort of secret mark of the mint? I simply have no idea. The letters are heavily serrifed and distinguished by the construction of the pointed letters 'A' and 'V' from parallel lines looking rather like 'H' and 'II'.

The mintmark is in Greek letters 'Kappa Alpha Delta'. That all three are to be taken as Greek letters is certain from the meaning. 'KA' is the Greek numeral for 21. Most mints of the period marked antoniniani with the Roman numeral 'XXI' or 21. A few mints translated this into Greek. What is the significance of 21? I wish I knew certainly. One theory offered in the past was that it expressed a ratio that 20 of these coins had the value on one (what?) unit. Some coins show a dot between the 'XX' and the 'I' or the 'K' and the 'A' adding credence to the theory that the number should be taken as 20:1 rather than as 21. I now prefer the alternate theory that the ratio expresses the silver content of the coins which are about 20 parts copper to one part silver or 4.77%. I'm sure some among you will disagree with this. The 'delta' is reference to the 4th officina of the mint at Serdica. Serdica used KA rather than XXI (as did Tripolis and, sometimes, Rome??). I do not have proper references on this period to be certain of this attribution. The numeral meaning of 'A' shows that the letter form 'H' was simply a matter of style rather than confusion of alpha and eta as might be suspected if the die cutter were Greek. Both sides of the design are enclosed in a border of dots.

The portrait of Probus is shown wearing a helmet with visor, crest and radiate crown. The helmet is worn pushed back on the head revealing a stern faced expression. Hair and beard are indicated by short lines consistent with a short hair style. The radiate crown, included as a mark of the denomination, is worked into the design of the helmet with the points not extending above the top. Between the points is a design of wavy lines and dots matching the motif of the rim of the shield. On the shield is a horseman carrying a spear. Comparison to the larger medallions of Probus that show the details clearly confirms this is the correct interpretation. Under the horseman is a series of knobs ('bosses') separated by comma shaped marks which I am taking as overlapping metal disks that made up the surface of the shield. While mentioned on other coins offered, the selling dealer (same one that provided the last two Features; I promise something different next week) did not describe the Medusa head decorating the throat area of the body armor ('cuirass'). There are coins of Probus that show this much more clearly but it is indicated weakly on this specimen. This tiny detail is the highest point on the coin and is the first thing lost to wear. The spear held over the shoulder shows clearly a division between the metal point and the wooden shaft.

The reverse scene shows the emperor on horseback. Now shown without helmet, he wears a 'laurel' wreath (in a generic sense of the term - I do not claim to identify the species of plant used for this wreath) and standard military attire with flowing cloak. The right hand is raised holding something (what? - or is he making a hand gesture with a much oversized hand?). The left arm holds a spear turned across the back and pointing downward on the right side of the horse. The point of the spear is down indicating he scene is a peaceful arrival in friendly territory rather than a victorious entry of an enemy city. The point of the spear appears to end in a ball. Is this a 'safety' or is it just an artifact of a starting point (drilled) ? The opposite end of the spear also has a ball but no point. The horse is bridled but wears no blanket, saddle or stirrups. ;) The captive is hunched forward with arms tied behind his back and is wearing a curved, Eastern, hat. The coin would seem to commemorate the return from the Persian campaigns (277 AD?).

Did I miss something? Have you been looking closely at your coins? You never know what is waiting for you to discover.

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