Barbarians and Coins

"Barbarian" was a term applied to any people not of Greek or Roman origin. By the time of the late Roman Empire, what was considered barbaric in one generation would frequently become more civilized and be adopted into the Roman "family" to the point that Roman Emperors after the first century AD were rarely of Italian lineage. The history of last three centuries of the Roman Empire in the West was filled with almost constant warfare with one tribe of barbarians or another. Throughout this time, Roman armies included recruits or whole units of "friendly" barbarians (frequently from an ethnic group who recently had been the enemy). By the fifth century AD the real power in the empire frequently fell to barbarian military advisors to the emperors. These men were considered ineligible to be emperor due to their race (often German) or religion (Arian) but some of them made and deposed puppet emperors seemingly at will.

One barbarian group, the Vandals, have the interesting position in history as a people who gave their name to a behavior. There is really nothing about the activities of the Vandals that shows more "vandalism" than any other of the tribes. When they sacked Rome in 455 AD they certainly stole everything that was not nailed down but there is no evidence that they wantonly destroyed what remained. By a standard of barbarian raids, few buildings were burned. True, the widow of Emperor Valentinian III (Eudoxia) and her two daughters were carried off with the plunder but she had invited the Vandal king Gaiseric to free her from a forced marriage to her husband's murderer (Petronius Maximus). The whole thing could be considered just another twist in the politics that make the last century of the Western Empire a fascinating study. Gaiseric issued coins for his independent kingdom in North Africa that were crude copies of Roman prototypes (below left).

Gaiseric the Vandal - 428-477 AD
Silver siliqua - 14x16 mm diameter, 1.5g
Copying Honorius' Urbs Roma type of Ravenna
Vandals - 498 AD or later
Bronze 4 nummi - 9x11 mm, 1.2g
Bust left, hand holding palm before / N IIII

While many coins of barbarian tribes are imitations of Roman issues, some were original designs. Above right is a coin from a later period of the independent Vandal kingdom. Some attribute it to Gaiseric's son Huneric (477-484 AD - bridegroom, by the way, of one of the daughters taken in the sack of Rome). Since the design includes a large mark of value for the reverse type, a feature standard on Byzantine bronzes after the monetary reform of Anastasius in 498 AD, a later date seems more likely. The Vandal kingdom in Africa was destroyed in 535 AD by forces of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Coins of the various barbarians who aided in the fall of the Western Roman Empire form an interesting numismatic bridge between Antiquity and the Dark Ages.

Footnote: A method of dealing with barbarians other than fighting was the payment of "subsidies". Whether this was a only form of foreign aid or outright bribery is a matter of point of view. It was the course selected by the advisors of the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II in dealing with the latest and greatest barbarians on the frontiers: the Huns. Receiving a massive subsidy in the form of these gold coins, Attila, king of the Huns, was freed the need of raising funds by looting in the areas controlled by the Romans. In fairness, it should be mentioned that he never really gave up raiding and plundering but only cut back to a level more tolerable to the Roman government. The coin is dated to the 42nd year of the reign (443 AD), the point at which Theodosius exceeded the record for length of reign bettering the 41 years of Augustus. The use of IMPerator for number of years is not consistent with earlier periods but the yearly incremented title TRibunica Potestas had fallen from use long before this date. Subsequent record setting years were not dated. Some consider this type to have been issued specifically to pay Attila but whether this was a special issue only for that use is unclear to me. At the very least this coin was produced at the time of the subsidies to the Huns and was needed in huge quantities for that purpose.

Footnote to the footnote: The gold solidus shown here is a good example of a situation found all too frequently with these coins. The coin was once used in jewelry and bears unmistakable traces of the mount that was removed. In this case there are marks of a four prong mount with the two at 9 and 3 o'clock on the reverse being strong. While such a coin is still collectable, the price paid should be greatly reduced. Removed mounts and filled holes are quite common on ancient gold coins. Buyer beware!

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith