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Ancient Coins: Coinage of the Barbarian Invaders

Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) “Waiting for the Barbarians”


IN THE FOURTH century, the Eurasian Steppe was a vast sea of grass extending for thousands of miles, from Mongolia in the East to the Danube in the West. Nomadic tribes roamed the steppe, fighting over grazing rights, women, and honor. Occasionally a leader would emerge, unite the tribes, and lead them to pillage the farms and sack the cities of their more “civilized” neighbors, who called these nomads “barbarians”.

The Huns

The people we know as Huns were one such confederation. Around 370 CE, they appeared on the horizon of the Roman world (on the steppes north of the Black Sea), setting in motion waves of migration that German historians call the Völkerwanderung – the “wandering of the peoples.”

Coins give us a unique window into this chaotic era. Some were coins that barbarian invaders minted themselves. Others were coins they looted or extorted from the Romans.

In the case of the Huns, this might have included the rare solidi issued by Valentinian III in the name of his sister, Honoria.

Justa Gratia Honoria solidus

Once upon a time, there was a princess.

Her name was Justa Gratia Honoria. She was born to Emperor Constantius III and Empress Galla Placidia on April 7, 416 in Ravenna, Italy. Her brother became Emperor Valentinian III in 425 and during his reign, the empire was torn by civil unrest and threatened on all sides by invading barbarians.

Bored at her brother’s pious imperial court, Honoria amused herself by having affairs. To stop that, Valentinian ordered her to marry a respectable elderly senator.

In the spring of 450 (or possibly 449) Honoria sent a palace eunuch to deliver her signet ring–along with a plea for rescue–to Attila, King of the Huns. Attila took this as a proposal of marriage and demanded the lady, along with half the Western Empire as her dowry. Enraged, Valentinian nearly had his sister executed. The last great Roman general, Flavius Aëtius, joined Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, to crush Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451.

After pillaging Italy in 452, Attila died of a nosebleed after celebrating his marriage to Ildico, a Gothic princess. Sources are silent about Honoria’s fate.

Between 430 and 450, Attila and the Huns extorted some 40 thousand pounds of gold from the Romans as “tribute” or protection money. At 72 gold solidi to the Roman pound, that would be 2,880,000 coins.

The Goths

In our day, a Goth is a sensitive young person who favors dark music, attire, and makeup. In the waning years of the Roman Empire, it meant something different. For centuries, Gothic tribes lived along the Roman frontier, often as enemies, sometimes as allies.

As early as the third century, these tribes minted crude copies of Roman coins. Known today as “Uncertain Germanic” issues (see below), they are difficult to classify and have been little studied.

Coinage of Uncertain Germanic Tribes

Toward the end of the fourth century, the Goths split into two branches: the Ostrogoths, who initially joined the Huns; and the Visigoths, who invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 410 but later became Roman allies. After Attila’s empire broke up, the Ostrogoths became allies of Constantinople.

The Ostrogoths

Theodoric the Great (454-526) was brought up as a noble hostage at the imperial court in Constantinople. He became King of the Ostrogoths in 475.

In 488, Emperor Zeno ordered Theodoric to invade Italy with an army of Goths to overthrow Odovacar (also spelled Odoacer), the barbarian general who, in 476, had deposed the last Roman emperor in the West. In 493, Theodoric negotiated a treaty with Odovacar and then killed him with his own hands at a banquet. In theory, Theodoric ruled Italy as viceroy for the Eastern Emperor Anastasius (Zeno died in 491), and issued gold solidi at Rome with the Emperor’s name and portrait.

The coinage of Ostrogothic Italy is, for the most part, markedly superior to that of Constantinople, the coins being carefully designed and struck in higher relief.” (Grierson, 34)

Theodoric the Great

We see Theodoric’s portrait on a unique medallion of three solidi (13.5 grams, or about half an ounce) found near Senigallia on the Adriatic coast in the 19th century. He wears a rich cloak over a coat of mail, and his long hair is carefully arranged in a very un-Roman manner. He also has a mustache – something no Roman ever sported without a beard–there isn’t even a word for mustache in Classical Latin! But his title is merely “Rex” (king), showing deference to the one-and-only Emperor. In antiquity, a pin (now removed) was soldered to the back of this piece so it could be worn as a brooch.

Theodoric’s nephew Theodahad succeeded him in 534. Theodahad placed his own portrait on a remarkable bronze coin struck at Rome. A dying gasp of classical art, this is the last realistic profile portrait that we will see on a European coin for seven hundred years (when Frederick II, King of Sicily, tried to revive imperial imagery on his superb gold augustalis of 1231). The long hair, mustache, and richly ornamented helmet tell us this is a barbarian ruler, but the winged victory on the reverse–and the letters SC (Senatus Consultu – “by consent of the Senate”)–attest to the continuing prestige of Roman ideals.

OSTROGOTHS. Theodahad. 534-536

The Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy survived until 552 when the last king, Teia, was killed fighting the Byzantines.

The Visigoths

Fritigern, a Visigothic leader, struck a deal with the Eastern Empire. In exchange for aid and sanctuary, the Goths would serve as warriors. The deal fell through due to mutual suspicions and corrupt Roman officials, and the Visigoths rebelled. On August 9, 378 near Adrianople, Emperor Valens and many of his legions fell in combat against Fritigern’s warriors.

Alaric II (484-507) Tremissis (Top); LEOVIGILD (575-586). Tremissis (bottom)

The Visigoths went on to establish a kingdom in southern Gaul and later conquer Spain, where they ruled until the Muslim invasion in 711. Visigothic kings struck gold in the name of the Roman emperor, in an increasingly erratic and crude style until the reign of Leovigild (569-586), the first Visigothic ruler to place his own name on coins (often backward or misspelled, suggesting the die cutters were illiterate). They also featured the proud boast REX INCLITUS, or “illustrious king”. The portrait became almost abstract, and the reverse figure of winged Victory bearing a palm branch and wreath gradually degenerated into an insect-like stick figure.

The Vandals

The Vandals have gotten a raw deal from history, their name synonymous with mindless destruction (though it is true that King Genseric of the Vandals sacked Rome for 14 days in June 455). By then, the Vandals were mostly Christian, and Pope Leo I (reigned 440-461) persuaded them not to massacre people or burn the city.

Hilderic, 523-530. 50 Denarii, Carthage

After ravaging Gaul at the beginning of the fifth century, the Vandals passed through Spain, crossed to North Africa, and established their kingdom in Algeria and Tunisia. They never minted gold (obtaining large amounts through Roman tribute), but they did issue silver and bronze in a crude, vigorous style with classical themes.

On the reverse of Hilderic’s silver 50 denarii the allegorical figure of Carthage hold ears of grain in each hand, with the inscription KARTHAGO FELIX (“Lucky” or “Happy Carthage”). The reverse of Gelimer’s 50 denarii bears a Christian cross, and the Roman numeral “L” for 50.

The Byzantines conquered the Vandal kingdom in 534. Paraded in chains through Constantinople, Gelimer sadly exclaimed, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes, 1:2).

Other Germans

The Suevi. Tremissis, uncertain mint in northern Spain mid 5th century

On the last day of 406 (or possibly 405 – chronology in this era is often confused), the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi swarmed across the frozen Rhine near Mainz to pillage Roman Gaul. The fierce Suevi (or Suebi) eventually settled in northern Spain and Portugal, where they carved out a short-lived kingdom.

King Rechiar may have been the earliest barbarian ruler to have his own name inscribed on a coin, a very rare silver siliqua with the image of Western Emperor Honorius (dead for at least 15 years) on the obverse. The reverse proclaims “by order of King Rechiar” in ungrammatical Latin.

Silver siliqua of Rechiar, Suevic King of Galicia (448–55)

Rechiar was later captured and executed by the Visigoths, and the Suevi disappear from history.

The Burgundians’ lasting contribution to civilization was to give their name to one of the world’s great wine-growing regions. Like other Germanic tribes, early in the fifth century, Burgundians fled across the Rhine from the Huns, establishing a kingdom in the upper Rhône valley. They struck imitative gold in the name of the distant Eastern emperor, at the great former Roman mint of Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France) and other centers.

Theodebert I, (534-548). Solidus. Reims

And last but not least are the Franks, perhaps the most successful of all the Barbarian invaders. Frankish kings ruled a shifting collection of kingdoms for centuries before ruling over what would become the nation of France.

Theodebert I (born c. 500, ruled 533-548) allied with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great against the Ostrogoths, collecting a rich subsidy in gold. At his capital of Reims, he had some of this gold struck into solidi bearing his own name: DN THEODEBERTUS VICTOR (“Our Lord, Theodebert the Conqueror”). This appropriation of traditional imperial iconography shocked contemporary chroniclers.

But the solidus was an impractically large unit for an economy rapidly evolving toward feudalism. For another century or so the increasingly-debased tremissis (1/3 solidus) was the main denomination struck by barbarian kings, and even it disappeared around the year 680.

Collecting the Coins of the Barbarians

Barbarians are glamorous. Therefore, coins of the Migration era with a definite barbaric attribution usually command a higher price than the equivalent imperial issues they imitate.

But “definite attribution” is a problem, since experts may disagree whether the style (or, rarely, the provenance or pedigree) identifies a particular coin as imperial or “pseudo-imperial.” Collectors must often content themselves with descriptions like “uncertain Germanic tribe” or “unbekannte munzstätte” (“unknown mint”, since these coins are most likely to appear in the sales of German dealers.)

In auction catalogues and reference books, barbaric coins fall at the end of Roman or the beginning of Medieval. Grierson and Blackburn is the standard reference work in English, but much of the relevant numismatic literature is in German, French and Italian.

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Cavafy. C. P. Collected Poems. (Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard, transl.) Princeton. (1992)

Gibbon, Edward (1737-1794). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London. (1789)

Grierson, Philip and Mark Blackburn. Medieval European Coinage: 1 The Early Middle Ages. Cambridge (1986)

Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. Seaby (1991)

Harl, Kenneth. Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 BC to AD 700. Johns Hopkins (1996)

Herwig, Wolfram. History of the Goths. UC Press (1988)

Metlich, Michael A. The Coinage of Ostrogothic Italy. Spink (2004)

Tomasini, Wallace. The Barbaric Tremissis in Spain and Southern France: Anastasius to Leovigild. American Numismatic Society (1964)

Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of the Coins of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Lombards. British Museum (1911)

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Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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  1. Was disappointed that there was no mention of the Lombards and their coinage, but otherwise a very rewarding read.


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