NGC Ancients: Coins of the Romano-Gallic Empire

Posted on 3/13/2018

Although many coins were issued in the Romano-Gallic Empire, the billon double-denarius is the one collectors encounter most often.

The late 3rd Century A.D. was one of the most difficult periods in Rome’s long history. In 260 the Roman Empire was unraveling at both ends: in the East the emperor Valerian I (253 to 260) had been taken hostage by the Sasanians, and the West had succumbed to the revolt of a Roman governor in Germany named M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus (A.D. 260 to 269).

The central government was so overwhelmed with its own concerns that it turned a blind eye to the needs of its westernmost territories – modern-day Britain, Spain, France, Germany (and neighboring nations).

When the emperors Valerian I and his son Gallienus (253 to 268) had come to power in 253, they faced multiple crises, which caused Gallienus to remain in Europe and Valerian to lead an army to Asia. Both fought tirelessly on their own fronts. However, when Valerian’s army was so disabled by plague in 260 that the emperor was taken captive by the Sasanians, Gallienus was on his own.

Double-Denarius of Valerian I

Double-Denarius of Gallienus

As the East descended into chaos, the West also was spun out of control, leaving regional governors and commanders to fend for themselves. It was in this chaotic environment that Postumus’ rebellion took place.

Double-Denarius of Postumus

Double-Denarius of Postumus

Postumus ruled his ‘separatist’ empire, the Romano-Gallic Empire, with much success considering his limited resources and the threats he faced on all sides, from both Romans and barbarians. In all, nearly fifteen years elapsed before the empire Postumus created was reclaimed by the Roman government in the spring of 274.

A great many coins were issued in the Romano-Gallic Empire. Although gold and silver coins were struck, the only ones commonly available are the billon double-denarii (antoniniani) of its four longest-reigning emperors and, under Postumus, base metal coins, such as the ‘double sestertius’ pictured below.

‘Double-Sestertius’ of Postumus

Seemingly in 267 or 268, near the end of the reigns of both Postumus and Gallienus, Postumus forged an alliance with Aureolus, Gallienus’ cavalry commander at Milan, in northern Italy. While Gallienus was fighting Goths in Greece, Aureolus revolted against his emperor, in the process striking coins in the name of his new ally, Postumus.

Double-Denarius issued by Aureolus in the name of Postumus

Aureolus’ coins are different from all other issues of Postumus in thier style and fabric, their use of mint officina marks, and their unusual reverse inscriptions (which typically end AEQVIT, EQVIT or EQVITVM). They are easily distinguished from Postumus’ own issues, and can be securely attributed to the mint of Milan.

The revolt in Milan was quickly put down, but in the process Gallienus was murdered in a coup, and was replaced as emperor by his cavalry commander Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ (268 to 270).

Double-Denarius of Claudius II ‘Gothicus’

In the first half of the following year, 269, new troubles were brewing for Postumus in the West. A Spaniard named Laelianus, then a governor in Germany, raised a rebellion in the city of Mainz.

Double-Denarius of Laelianus

Laelianus’ revolt was short-lived, and seemingly was put down by Postumus without too much difficulty. The usurper’s coins are reasonably rare, and they bear a distinctive portrait with a long, pointed beard.

Even with his success against Laelianus, Postumus’ regime still was not secure, and soon afterward he was murdered by his soldiers. In the aftermath, a soldier names Marius (who is said to have been a blacksmith) was hailed emperor by dissatisfied soldiers in the summer or fall of 269.

Double-Denarius of Marius

Marius’ reign also was brief. His coins are scarce, yet enough survive that historians believe his reign probably lasted about three months. In the aftermath of Marius’ bid for power, a man of greater qualification came forth: Victorinus (269 to 271), the tribune of the guards at Trier and formerly a consul in the Romano-Gallic senate.

Double-Denarius of Victorinus

Victorinus was hailed emperor and ruled for two years during troubled times as the central empire gained steam in its bid to reclaim the West. Even so, the central Roman government was occupied with many difficulties of its own – not the least of which was the death of the emperor Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ by plague in 270.

Claudius II was replaced by his brother Quintillus – an unfortunate emperor who reigned just two or three months late in 270 before he fell victim to a rebellion by Rome’s next emperor, the cavalry commander Aurelian (270 to 275).

Double-Denarius of Quintillus

Double-Denarius of Aurelian

Within his own realm, Victorinus also suffered a disturbing event – a rebellion by a man named Domitianus, who as a contender for the Romano-Gallic throne is attested only by coinage. At present, just two of his billon double-denarii are known.

Though Victorinus or his soldiers must have defeated Domitianus rapidly, the political environment was charged, and Victorinus was murdered in Cologne sometime in 271, apparently for having made one too many advances on his officers’ wives.

The governor of Aquitania, Tetricus I (271 to 274), was hailed then emperor in his place. Though he ruled longer than his predecessor, Tetricus I was destined to be the last Romano-Gallic emperor.

Double-Denarius of Tetricus I

Soon after being crowned, Tetricus I raised his young son, Tetricus II, to the subordinate rank of Caesar, and issued large quantities of coins in his name.

Double-Denarius of Tetricus II as Caesar

The vast majority of the young Caesar's coins describe him as holding the rank of Caesar. However, some very rare pieces pair Tetricus II’s distinctive, youthful portrait with the title of Augustus, suggesting – perhaps – that late in his father’s reign, in 274, he was raised from Caesar to Augustus.

However, the barbarous quality of these pieces cast doubt upon their officiality. For example, the peculiar style and fabric to the two pieces pictured below - one perhaps official, the other unofficial - are comparable.

Possibly barbarous Double-Denarius of Tetricus II as Augustus

Barbarous Double-Denarius of Tetricus II as Caesar

Though a variety of military, social and economic forces conspired in the early 270s to bring an end to the Romano-Gallic Empire, the fact that Rome now had a capable, energetic, and fortunate emperor – Aurelian – only hastened matters.

By late 272, Aurelian had recovered Rome’s lost territories in the East from the usurpers Zenobia and Vabalathus (267 to 272), who ruled from the desert-oasis of Palmyra. Then, he traversed the length of his empire, from Palmyra to Gaul, to commence his invasion of the West.

Double-Denarius of Zenobia

Double-Denarius of Vabalathus

Aurelian’s offensive was successful, ending in the spring of 274 with a pitched battle at Châlons-sur-Marne, at which Aurelian’s army won the day. Though it was a significant conflict, many historians believe that Tetricus I, realizing there no longer was any point in resisting the central empire, had intended to surrender.

Regardless of how the outcome was achieved, Aurelian succeeded in uniting a Roman Empire that for the previous fifteen years had been fractured. Upon returning to Rome, Aurelian held a glorious triumph in which Zenobia, Vabalathus, Tetricus I and Tetricus II were paraded before euphoric citizens who lined the streets of Rome.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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