NGC Ancients: An Empire in Crisis

Posted on 5/14/2013

This month, NGC Ancients examines the politics and coinage of the Roman Empire during the late 3rd Century AD.

By the middle of the 3rd Century A.D., the Roman Empire was in dire straights. Political uncertainty had been growing in Rome for the better part of forty years, though one could argue that the process had really begun during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and had gained fatal momentum during the sole reign of Commodus (180-192). The 240s and 250s bore witness to a staggering array of emperors and pretenders to the throne as increasing instability on the home front rendered the empire ever more vulnerable to attack from outside forces.

In 259, the emperor Valerian (253-260) was locked in a struggle with Persian armies in the East. Meanwhile, his son and co-emperor Gallienus (253-268) was tied up on the Danubian frontier (modern-day Central Europe). This billon double-denarius, minted between 256 and 260, depicts Valerian as emperor on the obverse, and Valerian and Gallienus clasping hands on the reverse.

Because he was desperately needed elsewhere, Gallienus could not aid his father in the East and had to leave his young son Saloninus (258-260) as titular head of the army that protected the Rhine frontier. This desperate arrangement would have disastrous consequences. This extremely rare coin, a billon double-denarius minted between 258 and 260, depicts the doomed Saloninus as emperor, a lofty title he held briefly in early 260.

Meanwhile, Valerian was forced to surrender to the Persian king Shapur I and was taken captive for the remainder of his life (he was the only Roman emperor to suffer that fate). Upon hearing this news, the Roman army on the Rhine revolted against Saloninus and proclaimed one of their own, Postumus (260-269), emperor. By the summer of 260, Saloninus had been eliminated and Postumus ruled most of Gaul and the two Germanias, with Britain and Hispania soon following suit.

Postumus immediately sought to establish his legitimacy as a ruler by producing coinage. This billon double-denarius was struck at Trier (in Germania) during the period 260-261. It features a bold portrait of the newly-hailed Romano-Gallic emperor on the obverse, while the reverse depicts Hercules holding a club, lion skin, and bow.

Interestingly, the “rule” of Postumus in the Western territories went relatively unchallenged until the year 268. Though he did not share the fate of his father Valerian, Gallienus was too busy recovering Rome’s Eastern provinces to seriously challenge Postumus in the West. Two relatively minor attempts were made in 265, and both were repulsed. So chaotic was the situation that Gallienus’ commander at Milan, Aureolus, defected to the side of Postumus in 267-268. This piece was struck at Milan in 268 by Aureolus, who portrays Postumus rather than himself on the obverse. Its reverse features Hercules.

The years 268-269 were fateful for both Postumus and the Roman Empire. In the summer of 268, Gallienus was assassinated while besieging Aureolus at Milan and he was replaced by one of his commanders, Claudius II (268-270). Soon afterward the Gallic armies turned against Postumus and replaced him with a certain Laelianus early in 269. This billon double-denarius, struck in 269 for Laelianus, shows Victory advancing on the reverse. It is interesting to note that the usurper’s portrait is quite similar to that of Postumus. In a political climate where the threat of invasion was always imminent, there must have been little time to devote to developing the artistry of the coinage.

After the revolt of Laelianus, the Romano-Gallic Empire witnessed a succession of rulers between 269 and 274, including Victorinus (269-271) and Tetricus I (271-274) and II (as Caesar, 271-274). Their coinage varied little from that of their immediate predecessors in both style and fabric. An especially interesting figure from this branch empire is the usurper Domitianus, thought to have held power briefly in 271. His existence is only known through two coins, one discovered in 1900 and the other in 2003.

Meanwhile, time was running out for the short-lived Romano-Gallic Empire. In addition to his great victory over Gothic forces in 268, Claudius II made significant progress towards recovering the provinces of the Gallic Empire. Since Claudius II died of the plague, his task would finally be accomplished by the next emperor, Aurelian (270-275). This billon double-denarius was struck between 268 and 270 at Cyzicus, and displays a left-facing bust of Claudius II on the obverse and Hercules leaning on a club on the reverse.

In 274, Aurelian (pictured on this billon aurelianianus) was able to bring the western provinces back into the Roman fold. This he accomplished by leading an army westward and through extensive negotiations with the last “Gallic emperor,” Tetricus I. In doing so, he bought the empire another two centuries of life, until Rome fell to German mercenaries in 476.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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