(270-5 AD)

Bust of AurelianWith this paper I want to hopefully expand a little on the reign of the Roman Emperor Aurelian, the emperor who defeated Tetricus, looking at the political events as well as numismatic events that oc cured during his reign and to perhaps allow us a better understanding of the times and the coins. In order to do this the paper is divided into four sections; The rise to power; The Moneyer's Revolt; The Coinage Reform and finally The Eastern Coinage.

The Rise to Power

Collectors of Roman coins will probably be familiar with the brief biographical sketch that appears at the start of David Sear's book Roman Coins and their Values but that really doesn't give much to go on in terms of fleshing out the man. One may also find that some of the biographical details given therein are inaccurate. Take, for example the data of Aurelian's birth. Sear suggests this was sometime in the year 207 but this is probably a little on the early side. Inscriptional and written sources suggest that the year of his birth was either 214 or 215, around the time that Caracalla instigated a monetary reform, reducing the weight of the gold aureus and introducing the double denarius piece. 

The place of Aurelian's birth is also not known with certainty, other than it was in the Balkan states, possibly around Serdica, Milan, Göbl 54modern Sofia. The area was a rich source for recruitment into the Roman army and the Edict of Caracalla extending citizenship to all free Romans meant that there were prospects for promotion to legionary command, rather than, as had previously been the case where pro vincials could only serve in auxilliary units. Indeed the area was becoming a breeding ground of military emperors from the mid third century onwards, for example Trajan Decius.

Nothing much is known of Aurelian's early life. He would probably have entered into a military career around the age of 20, thus around 235 the time of the accession of Maximinus I who lead a revolt in Germany against Severus Alexander and who supposedly doubled army pay during his three year reign. It may have been the consequences of this do ubling of pay which caused the successors of Maximinus to reintroduce the double denarius piece which had ceased to be issued some sixteen years previously.

Milan, Göbl 64The first we hear of Aurelian is during the reign of Gallienus during the campaign against Aureolus, the commander of the mobile field army based at Milan. Aureolus had revolted against Gallienus and openly supported Postumus who was established as emperor in Gaul, Germany, Spain and Britain, even striking coins in Postumus' name at the Milan mint. Gallienus laid seige to Aureolus at Milan during the course of 268AD. The seige was long and drawn out and there was growing dissatisfaction amongst the officers, in particular Aurelian, M. Aurelius Claudius (the future emperor Claudius II who had replaced Aureolus as the commander of the mobile field army) and Aurelius Heraclianus.

The histories tell us that early in September a trap was set for Gallienus. Cecropius, the commander of the Dalmatian horse brought word to Gallienus that Aureolus was on the move to attack. Without waiting for his usual bodygaurd Gallienus dashed out of his tent only to be killed by Cecropius. The conspirators then proceeded to elevate Claudius to the rank of Augustus.

Antioch with Vaballathus, Göbl 353During the reign of Claudius there were significant Gothic incursions into the Balkan region and after securing his flank from attack from the rulers in the west Claudius and Aurelian set off east to meet them. We know that the western front with the Gal lic Empire was secured because the name of the commander left in charge, Julius Placidianus, commander of the Equites or cavalry, is recorded on an inscription which also names Claudius and announces Placidianus' devotion to the official emperor, was discovered around Grenoble. However, after inflicting a defeat on the invaders the remnants of the Gothic rabble, short of supplies and weakened by hunger, fell victim to pestillence. Unfortunately this too spread to the Roman army and during August 270 Claudius died at Sirmium. A short civil war ensued between Claudius' brother, Quintillus and Aurelian but with diminishing support Quintillus committed suicide leaving Aurelian unchallenged.

The Moneyer's Revolt

As a collector of coins of this period one is immediately struck by the variability of the coins at this time. Two coins of ostensibly the same type and issue can have widly differing weights. This is particularly evident from the period of Gallienus' sole reign onwards. Besly and Bland when writing up the Cunetio hoard and Bland and Burnett when writing up the Normanby hoard chose to identify these coins as being official but of "poor fabric". Other writers, whilst acknowledging the competancy of the die cutters, see these as being fraudulent issues, predominantly from the Rome mint. A complication of the times is the large numbers of local radiates, previously called "barbarous radiates" that were also being produced. It is worth spending sometime clarifying the two series of imitative coins.

The local radiates are perhaps the ones that are easiest to identify, at least for the most part. For a start if the prototype coin is a coin of the Gallic Empire, or at least one side of it is then it cannot really be a fraudulent Rome mint issue. If we are dealing with a coin whose prototype is a Central Empire issue, probably of the Rome mint then things become a bit more subjective. Markus Weder perhaps gives us the best description as to how to differentiate these issues. He notes that the edges of these fraudulent Rome mint coins appear to have their edges files re lativley smooth in comparison with the official coins of the time and may be uncharacteristically round. A collector of milled coins may not fully appreciate how novel it is for a third century antoninianus to exhibit these features.

What is the time frame for these imitations being made? Whilst some examples are undoubtedly from the reigns of Probus to Diocletian, 276-300AD many are thought to be Aurelianic in date and coincide with another feature of Rome mint production during the reign of Aurelian.

Cyzicus, Göbl 337Goebl's organisation of the Rome mint issues highlights a factor recognised by others in that there is an interuption in the official output from the mint. After an initial issue of coins utilising basically the same reverse types at the twelve workshops that were used for the last issue of Claudius II and for Quintillus there is a hiatus. When production resumes the fabric of the coins has changed and so has the style of die cutting. It is as if the die cutters employed for the previous issue are no longer involved cutting dies.

The historical sources are of some help here. Aurelius Victor, for example, talks of a moneyers revolt led by Felissimus, the rationalis. The revolt was triggered, he says, because of Aurelian's anger at the issue of 'nummariam notam corrosissent', or an inappropriate coin type - the rash of fraudulent coins from the time of Gallienus onwards? Victor goes on to record that in the same manner as the defeat of the Gallic usurper (Tetricus) the mint workers of Rome were destroyed but on ly after fighting so serious a war that after fighting a battle on the Caelian Hill in Rome seven thousand troops were killed. It should be remembered that at this time this would probably account for the entire strength of two legions. Even if this is an exaggeration it would explain why there is an apparent change in the style of the output of the Rome mint.

Eutropius, given that his work is probably derived from the same source as Aurelius Victor may add a little to our understanding of the events when he says that Aurelian 'defeated and suppressed the revolt with the utmost cruelty and condemned very many nobles to death'. Is this evidence not only of a moneyers revolt but also signs of a rally by some other faction, maybe the supporters of the family of Claudius and Quintillus?

The Coinage Reform

A significant monetary reform of the base silver coinage appears to have taken place during the reign of Aurelian. It occured after the resumption of good coin production at the mint of Rome and, if Zosimus is to be believed, after the defeat of the Gallic usurper Tetricus. Zosimus records that Aurelian 'officially issued new money after arranging for the state to buy in the debased coinage to avoid confusion in financial dealings'. It has been suggested that as Zosimus, writing in the late 6th century, is predominantly interested in eastern affairs that the reform is only of the eastern coins. This, I feel, cannot be so as it is linked within the text to western events. Furthermor e there is a marked change in the alloy and issue marks of the base silver coinage throughout the empire.

Chemical analysis has shown that the radiate coins, struck during and after 274AD with the mark XXI or KA have a significantly improved precious metal composition. For example the Rome mint coins improve from c.2.5% silver to 4.3%. There is also some increase in weight.

A wide variety of interpretations have been given as to the meaning of the XXI/KA mark that now begins to appear. Some see it as a denominational mark tarriffin g the coin at 20 denarii, 20 sestertii, 20 asses or 1/20th an aureus. Others see it as an indication of the alloy composition. I tend to agree with Bolin, especially in the light of coins marked X et I of around 9.5% silver composition, that the XXI mark is a ratio of the base metal to silver composition, that is the are 20 parts base metal to 1 part silver.

The marks that are encountered on these "post reform" coins are not uniform throughout the Roman Empire. By that I mean that the Latin XXI is not just found in western mints and the Greek KA is not wholly an eastern preserve.

From the tables published by Göbl the following summary of mints and marks may be compiled for the reign of Aurelian.

No marks

XX marks

XXI marks

KA marks



















Rome, Göbl 130There is some geographical logic in whether Latin or Greek marks are employed under Aurelian, that is western and central min ts use the Latin characters, although by that logic Antioch does appear to be an exception. This pattern did change through time, for example, Rome is known to have used the mark KA from the reign of Probus. The mint which consistently did not mark their coinage in this way is Lugdunum, although other forms of marks were used to denote issue and workshop. This has been seen as significant by some.

Mattingly suggests that by the lack of mint mark on the post reform coins from Lugdunum that the new denomination was unpopular, particularly as the coins are so rarely found in Northern France and Britain. The unpopularity he suggests may be due in part to the circumstances of the monetary reform and the way the new current was introduced. The old currency that was circulating was predominantly that of the Gallic usurpers and therefore, he suggests, was redeemed at a disadvantageous rate.

There may be some substance to this in the writings of Zosimus:

"......Tetricus and the other insurgents were easily subdued and punished as they deserved. Now he officially issued new money after arranging for the state to buy in the debased coinage to avoid confusion in financial dealings" (Zos. I.61)

I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the name of the base silver coins produced by this reform. Many people still refer to them as "antoniniani" as they still bear a radiate male portrait and a female portrait resting upon a crescent. This is, I feel, in correct. It implies some sort of continuation and link to the older moneta ry system which isn't appropriate. The name "antoninianus" is a modern usage of a spurious ancient term anyway. It simply means a coin of Antoninus and the context in which the name first appears it refers to a gold coin three times out of four. Surely th e post reform coins of Aurelian ought to be graced with the name "aureliani" and, indeed, some authors are now beginning to call these coins such.

Antioch bicharacter, Göbl 380Are there any clues to the ancient name of these coins? Well I believe that there are. In Diocletian's Edict of Maximum Prices there is a hint. A fragment of the inscription from Aphrodisias found in 1970 bears a tantalising phrase. It talks of "Bicharactam Pecunia". The initial interpretation of this is that after the Diocletianic reform the money is struck for a second time, that is it is overstruck. There are no traces of such a thing happening in any great numbers to the radiates so I think that this explanation is unlikely. What I do believe is an explanation of the term bicharacta is obvious when one is famil iar with the coins and understand that the Price Edict is essentially an eastern document. The design utilised on many eastern radiates from the reign of Aurelian onwards is two standing figures, one usually the emperor, the other a deity, facing each other exchanging items of regalia. Bicharacta may thus be translated as the coin with two characters or figures on. It is a play on words of the reverse design.

The Eastern Coinage

Alexandria, Milne 4419The final aspect that I wish to cover is the Egyptian coinage from the mint of Alexandria. At the beginning of the third century there were a whole host of Balkan and eastern mints striking coins of a purely local nature and design. The inflation through the century and the expansion of Roman mints to provide the extra coins needed, particularly with respect to providing money to maintain the army's pay, caused the general demise of such local production. One of the few remaining mints was that of Alexandria and it was unusual as the coins it was producing were severely debased silver coins, similar in nature to the bulk of the Roman products. There may even have been some form of parity between the Roman radiate and the Alexandrian tetradrachm.

The aspect of this coinage that I want to touch upon is the anomaly with the chronology of the reign and the second is the monetary reform that was taking place with the Roman coinage.

When dealing with the chronology it would be fair to say that, with the epigraphy in general, there is confsion over the regnal titles, with some stone inscriptions making impossible pairings of consulship and tribunician titles. This confusion is also carried through into the Alexandrene coinage through the system of placing regnal years on the reverse of the coins.

270/1 Claudius 3 Quintillus 1 Aurelian 1 Vaballathus 4
271/2     Aurelian 2 Vaballathus 5
272/3     Aurelian 3  
273/4     Aurelian 4  
274/5     Aurelian 5  
275/6     Aurelian 6  
?     Aurelian 7 Probus 1
276/7       Probus 2

Regnal years A to Z, that is, 1 to 7 are recorded on the products of the Alexandrian mint yet we are faced with the fact that Aurelian reigned from autumn 270 through to late 275, nominally six years. Furthermore the last year recorded for Claudius II, his predecessor is year 3, gamma, 2 70-1AD. The Alexandrian year ran from August 29th each year so if we were to assume that Aurelians first year equated to the last of Claudius that would put Aurelian's last year as 276-7AD which coincides with the first Alexandrian year of Probus and thus ignores Tacitus and Florianus, even though Alexandrian coins of Tacitus are known!

Alexandria, Milne 4400The answer lies, I think, in a recalculation of regnal years by Aurelian once he regained control over the Alexandrian mint and a calculation of regnal year ignoring Quintillus (as well as the possibly erroneous strikings of Claudius II year 3 coins in anticipation that Claudius would survive into his third year) and starting it from the death of Claudius II during his second "Alexandrian" year.

Further Reading

Bird, H.W; 'The breviarium ab urbe condita of Eutropius' Translated Texts for Historians 14 (1993)

Bird, H.W; 'Liber de caesaribus of Sextus Aurelius Victor' Translated Texts for Historians 17 (1994)

Bolin, S; State and Currency in the Roman Empire to 300AD (1958)

Cope, L.H, King, C.E, Northover, J.P and Clay,T; 'Metal analyses of Roman coins minted under the empire' British Museum Occasional Papers 120 (1997)

Erim, K.T, Reynolds, J and Crawford, M; 'Diocletian's currency reform; a new inscription' Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971) pp. 171-7

Göbl, R; 'Die Münzprägung des Kaisers Aurelianus (270/275)' MIR 47 (1993)

Kienast, D; Römische Kaisertabelle (1996)

Mattingly, H; 'The Clash of the Coinages Circa 270-296' in Colemann-Norton, P.R; Studies in Roman Economic and Social History in Honor of Allan Chester Johnson (1951)

Milne, J.G; A Catalogue of Alexandrian Coins (1971)

Price, M.J; 'The lost year; Greek light on a problem of Roman chronology' Numismatic Chronicle7 13 (1973)

Ridley, R.T; 'Zosimus, new history' Australian Association for Byzantine Studies Byzantina Australiensia 2 (1982) p.19

Sear, D.R; Roman Coins and their Values 4th Edition (1988) p.280

Watson, A; Aurelian and the Third Century (1999)

Weder, M; 'The coinage of Aurelian and Roman Imperial mint forgeries' Numismatic Chronicle 154 (1994)

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