A 'Follis' of 'Maximianus Noble Caesar'

Looking Closely at a Coin - an Exercise

Collecting Ancient Roman coins can be a great deal more educational than many people believe. Compared to modern issues, there are hundreds of factors to consider when studying a coin fully. Beginners frequently settle for identifying the ruler who issued the coin and hoping only someday to find a 'better' specimen of the same ruler to 'upgrade' the collection; many never progress beyond this stage. If this is what you enjoy, the hobby can be satisfying and cause few headaches. If, however, you prefer to look a little more deeply into your coins, there are many detailed areas to be investigated and many questions whose answers will not be immediately found. In fact, many of these coins ask questions that have not yet been answered completely. In a detailed study of ancient coins, there rarely is a 'final' answer. Progress in the study is being made in institutions and homes around the world by professional numismatists and amateur collectors who love their coins enough to want to know everything they can about them.

Our featured subject of this page is a relatively nice coin but far from a perfect specimen. It is interesting but not extraordinarily fascinating compared to most ancient coins. It is neither extremely common nor rare. It is, therefore, just an example of a coin you might be able to add to your collection. If you are already a collector of ancient Roman coins and know something about the subject, I'll ask you to look at the photo below and identify the ruler, an approximate date, the denomination (hint: the coin is 29mm diameter and weighs 9.5g.) and assign a grade to the coin. If you are a complete beginner to these pages, you may skip this quiz and proceed to the discussion of the coin that follows the photo.

In exergue: XXI SIS - In fields I - B

Our first task is to attribute the coin to the ruler responsible for its issue. Reading the obverse legend we see it must be Maximianus. Wrong! The ruler that issued this coin is known to modern scholars by another of his names: Galerius. Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus was a soldier of great ability (but, by birth, a peasant) who rose through the ranks under Aurelian and Probus and was named Caesar as part of the First Tetrarchy serving the Augustus Diocletian as ruler of the East. He married Diocletian's daughter Galeria Valeria and took the family names of his new in-laws. I do not know his name at birth (does anyone?). We know this coin belongs to Galerius since Maximianus never held the junior grade of Caesar (being appointed directly to Augustus by Diocletian). Maximinus II did not use the extra A in his name (spelling counts!). Save a few of the earliest issues, most coins of Maximinus II would be more likely to weigh about 7g. or less. Other coins of Galerius use the abbreviations GAL VAL as part of the name (but so did those of Maximinus II). A more complete discussion of this matter was posted on my Maximinus and Maximianus page. Perhaps this would have been easier if Galerius were called Maximianus II, a name of which he would have been proud, but historians of the past were not so kind to collectors. The combination of CAES and MAXIMIANVS on our coin leaves no doubt: it belongs to Galerius.

The portrait is of little help in the identification. The Post-Reform coins of the First Tetrarchy bore formalized portraits considerably less realistic and individual than those found even on the Pre-Reform coins of the same rulers. This coin has a fine example of the bull necked, formal likeness depicting the idea of 'Caesar' more than the specific person 'Galerius'. A few years ago I corresponded with a collector whose interest was the dots that decorate the ties of the laurel wreath on these coins. Here we see each with two dots but other examples will vary in number and placement. It appears that there is a code attached to these but I regret I am unable to explain the meaning of these dots. Perhaps someone is still working on this matter and would care (please) to inform me.

This coin shows the most common reverse type of the period. Genius of the Roman People (GENIO POPVLI ROMANI) stands wearing a modius on his head and chlamys over his shoulder. He holds a patera and cornucopia. Genius personified the spirit of the People of Rome. He combines in one person all that was good and necessary for the success of the state. The patera was a small dish used for pouring libations that symbolized piety and dutiful attention to religious matters. The chlamys was a short cloak that was used as part of military uniforms. Its appearance here probably would call to mind proper order and position in society. The modius was a measure for grain and, along with the cornucopia, reminded people that the state cared for their needs by providing abundent grain supplies. The coins of the Tetrarchy provide collectors with fewer choices of reverse types compared to earlier times. This Genius is by far the most commonly seen type of the period.

If the period is wanting for major types, there is no shortage of minor varieties. Foremost cause of this is the fact that coins of this general type were issued for several years from fourteen different mints scattered across the Empire. This coin is clearly mintmarked in exergue SIS for Siscia, a major town of Pannonia (now Croatia). For the first time in Roman numismatic history, most (not quite all) coins of the Tetrarchy are mintmarked with the mint city initials. These initials are usually found in exergue combined with officina letters or other mintmark components. These include SM or M (Sacra Moneta) and, rarely, XXI (see below).

Table of Mint City Initials for Genius Types
London - (none) LN LON Treveri - TR Lugdunum - L LC LG
Ticinum - T TT Aquileia - AQ Rome - R
Siscia - SIS Serdica - SD Thessolonika - TS
Heraclea - H HT Nicomedia - N Cyzicus - K
Antioch - ANT Alexandria - ALE

Carthage (K et al.) and Ostia (OST) operated in this period but issued no Genius types.

The mints were divided into workshops which were openly coded on the coins using one of several systems. In the right reverse field of our example is a Greek numeral Beta indicating it was produced by the second workshop or officina. Other series and other mints used initials for Roman ordinals (#2 would be S for Secundus) or Roman numerals. In the left field of our example is the letter I. I really wish I could explain the meaning of this letter but the satisfactory explanation of this series indication is not known with certainty. What I can tell you is that this coin exists with L, S and C in place of the I. RIC quotes more than one theory about this code but leaves the matter as one needing further study. Students have placed this series in sequence with others of the mint. Combined with evidence of weight standards (weight was reduced as time progressed) a date of c.300 AD was assigned to this coin. This would make the issue contemporary with Diocletian's Edict of Maximum Prices which fixed allowable prices on many items across the Empire. Other issues had other 'secret' marks including crescents and stars as well as letters. These are used to separate issues from each other but, in most cases, the exact meaning of the codes has yet to be explained.

Table of Officina Numbering Systems
Greek Numerals (1-15) - A B G D E S Z H Q (ED) I IA IB IG ID IE
Roman Ordinals (1-6) - Primus Secundus Tertius Quartus V VI (to avoid confusion with 4 and 2)

Multiple letter numerals are sometimes found in reverse order (EI for IE). Antioch (the mint with the most workshops) often avoided the unlucky Q by using ED or 5+4=9. Other mints did not use enough workshops to use all of these numerals.

This coin was not considered 'bronze' by those who used it in commerce. The coin contains a mixture of 1 part silver to 20 parts base metal (copper and traces of others). The coin contained the true value (in theory, anyway) of its denomination in silver with an additional surfacing of better silver that made the new coin look like a bright and shiny half dollar. Compared to the earlier small antoniniani, these impressive pieces could have been a boost to the morale of common people hard hit by the pressures of 'bad' money. It is important that people should have confidence in their money; if appearance had anything to do with it, this issue should have done the trick. The alloy was specified on this coin, as it often had been on pre-reform antoniniani, with the ratio mark XXI in exergue. Relatively few post-reform coins bear the XXI mark. Other coins of this period will be found with only some part of the marks shown on our example. By now it should be obvious that this coin was selected for this page because it packed the most 'educational opportunities' into a small space. Unfortunately the true test of money is not appearance but buying power. Prices continued their climb and subsequent issues of these standard unit coins were made smaller and smaller. The coinage reforms of Diocletian were not a rousing success but they certainly did provide collectors with some big, pretty coins.

The denomination of this coin is traditionally called 'follis', a term that has no actual meaning when applied to this issue. 'Follis' properly refers to a bag of coins dating to a century later when the tiny AE4 coins were packaged to cover the need for larger denominations not then in production. 'Follis' is also applied, but much more properly, to the large bronze Byzantine 40 nummi coins. Recently, it has become fashionable to call this large coin of the tetrarchs a 'nummus' (plural: 'nummi'). This is better in one sense since it recognizes that these coins were the first step in the series of diminishments that led to those tiny 5th century coins that led to the need for the Byzantine follis of 40 nummi. 'Nummus' simply means 'coin'. We do not know what the denomination was called at the time of its issue. The slip of weight standards must have been recognized in the language of the 4th century man on the street but aligning the few surviving references to coin sizes to the coins themselves is not a matter that is fully understood. Neither follis nor nummus is a particularly satisfying way of referring to the denomination but it is what we have at present. Realization that the situation was confusing lead earlier numismatists to create the diameter scale for late Roman bronze coins:

AE1 = over 25mm
AE2 = 21 - 25mm
AE3 = 17 - 21mm
AE4 = under 17mm

At least this scale will allow collectors to read a description and know how big the coin is. Certainly not perfect, it seems a way of separating the large coins from the small ones that followed without applying a tern know to be incorrect. The coin on this page will be called Follis, Nummus or AE1 by different people. All are a bit right and a bit wrong; any is acceptable if we understand the situation that led to the terminology.

This coin shows almost no wear but still does not deserve an extremely high grade. A combination of the thin fabric and a slightly weak strike failed to drive metal into every recess of the reverse die. As a result there is no detail on the torso of Genius. Head and feet are fully formed but the middle of the figure is what collectors call a 'flat' strike. This will lead some people to lower the grade as far as 'Fine'. The obverse seems fully detailed with only a little weakness to some letters of the legend and a tiny amount of wear on the highest points of the laurel wreath. Most collectors would assign a grade to this side of the coin at least 'Very Fine Plus' and coins worse than this are sold by many dealers as 'Extremely Fine'. Perhaps a fair compromise here would be a split grade 'VF/F' or a modified grade 'VF, weak reverse center'. Grading a coin is a very subjective matter with perfectly valid differences of opinion being a common situation. More of concern with this coin is the uneven degree of loss of the original silvering leaving a patchy and not very attractive coloring on the surface. Perhaps the coin could be cleaned completely and retoned replacing the mixed surface with an even tone. A poor attempt would be quite likely to ruin the coin leaving a porous and ugly surface. Many coins of this period have been treated in this manner; others have naturally lost more of the silver to wear so the overall appearance of the coin is better. Each collector of this series needs to decide on a personal preference and buy coins that are personally satisfying. To me, eye appeal is more important than technical grade. I value the correctness of the silver surface remaining but the coin at the top of this page certainly would be prettier if it were all one color. Does this affect the value of the coin? You bet it does! With full original silver, this coin would be worth several times the price of it in the present state. Professionally 'processed' (like the Diocletian illustrating this paragraph - I do not know how they do it!), even bronze colored surfaces would be very attractive and accepted by many collectors for slightly more than coins with partial silvering. Replated or poorly stripped, it would appeal to a much smaller number of collectors and would sell, fairly, for almost nothing. These large coins circulated for a rather short period of time before being hoarded in great numbers. There are great quantities of nice coins available to collectors. People bothered by the patchy silvering on a coin will probably collect something other than coins of the Tetrarchy.

My, we have expended a large number of words discussing this coin! While I'm sure we have bored and lost a number of those who began reading this page, we certainly have not covered every aspect about this one coin. Neither have we touched on the hundreds of other varieties of these 'folles' let alone the thousands of other ancient coin types. Collecting ancient coins is a bit more complex than pushing a new state quarter into a hole in a map every few weeks! Certainly, the enjoyment of collecting ancient coins does not require you to dissect every coin to the degree we have here. Many collectors enjoy the hobby giving no attention to these details. However, for those interested, there is a world of history and a lifetime of study available on these little pieces of metal. My favorite college professor (Dr. John F. Charles, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana) used to say, " It's more fun to know than not to know." I hope those of you who agree will visit my pages and share the fun I have had preparing them. Links on this page will take you to some of my favorites and help if you do not already understand these subjects. Those of you more advanced than I in this study (the Tetrarchy is not my strong suite!) are asked to write and straighten me out on any point I may have misstated. My intent on these pages is to share the information shared with me by Dr. Charles and a host of other scholars and collectors. I hope you will come to agree that antiquity is too wonderful a subject to be lost in this Information Age.

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(c) 2000 Doug Smith