Valerian II & Saloninus

While preparing these weekly Featured Coin pages, I seem to return regularly to the same few points that I consider important. This week we revisit the need to use common sense, read critically and avoid blind acceptance of the 'word' from any source. When dealing with matters clouded by so great a span of time, even the most respected experts will occasionally err and the standard references will require revision. Percy Webb stated the universal truth of ancient numismatics on page 36 of RIC Vol. V (part 1): 'Our knowledge of the period under consideration is as yet far from complete.'

We have previously noted Emperors attempting to establish a dynasty by appointing their son as co-emperor (Augustus) or heir-apparent (Caesar). Valerian (254-260 AD), certainly in need of help running the troubled Empire, named his son Gallienus Augustus. He went one step further and appointed Gallienus' son Publius Licinius Cornelius Valerianus (Valerian II) Caesar. The boy, however, died soon thereafter and was replaced as Caesar by his younger brother Publius Licinius Cornelius Saloninus Valerianus (Saloninus).

Valerian II Caesar - Billon (low grade silver) antoninianus - 254-5 AD - Cyzicus? mint - 3.3g
Prince standing next to trophy of arms - Cohen 67 (Saloninus), RIC 49

Our problem as collectors has been to separate the coins of three people named Valerianus. Current (to my knowledge) scholarship has adopted the common sense position that all coins (Caesar or Augustus) bearing 'SAL' or 'SALON' belong to Saloninus while all coins of a Caesar not so marked belong to Valerian II. Since we have no evidence that Valerian II was ever Augustus, coins not marked as belonging to Saloninus are attributed to Valerian I. These distinctions were not made during the last century when Cohen (among others) attributed many coins of Valerian II to Saloninus and some youthful looking Valerian I issues to Valerian II. Can we find any evidence that suggests this current attribution is correct?

Saloninus Caesar - Silvered antoninianus - c.256 AD - Cyzicus? mint - 3.8g
Spes (hope) & Prince, star above - Cohen 95, RIC 36

The reign of Gallienus, both as joint emperor and during his sole reign, was the final chapter in the progressive debasement of the antoninianus. When first issued by Caracalla in late 214 AD, the denomination was a good looking coin of about 50% silver. By the joint reign of Valerian and Gallienus the metal used was an unattractive low silver mix collectors call 'billon'. By the sole reign of Gallienus, the silver in the antoninianus was mostly in the form of a light wash on the surface with the appearance of the coin itself being essentially copper. During the period of the two brothers (mid 250's AD) the final steps in this progression were being taken.

Our coin of Valerian II is clearly billon of the type used in the first years of the reign. The alloy is uneven and grainy. The portrait shows a young person but not necessarily a small child. The Saloninus, however, is copper in appearance with the yellowed remains of the silver wash clinging to the low places on the coin. This would suggest a date a bit later than the billon coin. If there is a difference, however, the portrait looks younger. If we were to accept the old assignment of both coins to Saloninus, we would need to explain the Caesar's growing younger over time.

Unfortunately the matter is not all that simple. Such a comparison is made difficult by several factors. Coins of this period were issued from several different mints. Each of these employed several die cutters and adhered to the weight/fineness standards to varying degrees. Even the work of one die cutter varied from day to day and die to die. For the illustrations here I attempted to select coins from the same mint (Cyzicus?) but other natural variations were certainly at play. Until recently few coin catalogs paid much attention to minor variations of style and metal. Recent improvements in non-destructive analysis will open new avenues to be explored by the next generation of numismatists.

What does this prove? Absolutely nothing! Certainly a scientific study can not be done with just one pair of coins. (I really hope this is obvious!) Given, however, an extended study of thousands of coins, evidence of this type will allow us to reevaluate the assumptions of past scholars and, occasionally, fix errors. Please do not take this as a criticism of Cohen. Errors or not, his work was truly monumental and filled with great information.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith