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.

vandals
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).

Some Other Germans

suevi
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.

siliqua
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.

burgundians
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 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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References

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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1 COMMENT

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

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