By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, so, too, did it not fall in one. It actually took three days, spread out over 66 years.
Theodosius the Great (reigned 379-395 CE) was the last man to rule the entire Roman Empire, both East and West. On his death, he divided the Empire between his two not-so-great sons: Arcadius (reigned 395-411) would rule the Eastern (“Byzantine“) Empire from Constantinople, while Honorius (reigned 395-423) would rule the Western Empire from Mediolanum (modern-day Milan), which had earlier replaced Rome as a capital of the Empire.
In 402, when Milan was threatened by the Visigoths, Honorius transferred his capital to the more defensible city of Ravenna. On August 24, 410, while Honorius cowered in his bunker in Ravenna, Rome fell to the Visigoths; this was the first of the aforementioned three days. After a few days of relatively gentle looting, the Visigoths left Italy and moved into southern Gaul where they soon became strong allies of what remained of the Roman Empire.
In 418 Honorius asked the Visigoths to recover for him the Roman province of Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal), which had been taken over by the Vandals, the Suebi, and the Alans. The Visigoths pushed the Vandals out of Hispania and into North Africa and virtually exterminated the Alans. The Suebi managed to hold out in northwestern Hispania but were largely subject to the Visigoths, who formally annexed the Suebic kingdom in 585. The Visigoths established their own kingdom in Hispania which endured until the Muslim conquest in 711.
VISIGOTHS. Gaul. Pseudo-imperial series. Struck in the name and in a type of Valentinian III (reigned 423-455), c. 423-507. AV Solidus. D N PLΛ VΛLENTI NIΛNVS P F ΛVC Pearl-and-rosette-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust imitating Valentinian III right, pearled ring above / VICTORI Λ ΛVGGG Valentinian standing facing, with a foot on a human-headed serpent, holding long cross and crowning Victory, R to l. and -V to r. (Ravenna mintmark). COMOB below (imitating Constantinople mintmark for gold coins). 4.44 g, 21mm, 5h.
VISIGOTHS. Gaul. Pseudo-imperial series. Struck in the name and in a type of Honorius (reigned 395-423), c. 415. AR Siliqua. D N HONORI VS P F AVG Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / VICTOR[I] A AVGG[G] Roma seated left on cuirass, holding Victory on globe in extended right hand, spear in left hand, pellet at inner right above left shoulder. 13mm, 0.83 g, 12h.
The first Visigothic coins appeared in Gaul, probably about 10 years after the sack of Rome. The Visigoths began by striking gold and silver coins in the name of Honorius, imitating the coins he was minting in Ravenna. These are generally referred to as “pseudo-imperial” coins because they imitated the official coinage of the Empire but were not authorized by the imperial government.
The Visigoths and other Migration Peoples (“barbarians” is not politically correct) did not want to destroy the Roman Empire, they wanted to join it -albeit with some local autonomy under leaders of their own choosing. This is why their coins referred to the Emperor as their sovereign lord, and why they imitated the practices and rituals (including the coinage) of the Roman imperial government.
The Visigoths continued to mint coins in Gaul until 507, when the Merovingian Franks forced them out of Gaul. The Visigothic kingdom in Hispania continued to flourish and for the time being the Visigoths continued striking pseudo-imperial coins. Eventually, however, the designs and inscriptions on the coins drifted further and further from the imperial originals.
VISIGOTHS. Portugal. Leovigild. 568-586. Struck circa 584. AV Tremissis D II LIVVICILDVS Diademed and draped bust right, upturned crescents above a cross on drapery / ELVOR + A RE+ ONO Latin cross pattée set on four steps. Elvora mint in Portugal. 17mm, 1.28 g, 6h. This coin imitates a solidus of the Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II (reigned 578-582); the ONO inscription at the bottom of the reverse is taken from the CONOB mintmark which identifies Byzantine gold coins minted in Constantinople. The coins from Leovigild’s reign contain .940 fine gold on average.
VISIGOTHS. Spain. Sisebut. 612-621. AV Tremissis + • SISEBVTVS RE Facing bust / + PIVS ISPΛLI Facing bust. Ispali (modern Seville) mint in Spain. 20mm, 1.48 g, 6h. The coins from Sisebut’s reign contain .870 fine gold on average.
VISIGOTHS. Portugal. Suniefredus. c. 700-701/702. AV Tremissis +IND• NE•SVNIEFREDV•RX Radiate head protruding from high color right / EGITANIA PIVS Cross potent on two steps, pellet between. Facing bust. Egitania (modern Idanha-a-Velha) mint in Portugal. 1.32g, 20mm, 12h. This is the only known coin of the Visigothic king Suniefredus (one other was known but has disappeared) . The gold content of the coins from the general period of Suniefredus’ reign fell from c. .700 fine to c. .580 fine on average.
In about 575, Leovigild (reigned 568-586) began striking coins that named the emperor on the obverse and, for the first time, named the Visigothic king on the reverse. The following year the emperor’s name disappeared from the coins; henceforth Visigothic coins would name and portray only the king.
Leovigild probably made the change in order to demonstrate his power and sovereignty. In 551, imperial troops had conquered the southeastern portion of Spain as part of the campaign of Justinian the Great (reigned 527-565) to recover the western provinces of the Empire; now, 10 years after Justinian’s death, Leovigild was aggressively retaking control of Spain. By replacing the emperor’s name and portrait on the coins with his own, Leogivild was announcing to the world who was actually in charge.
The coins of Leovigild and his successors were all gold tremisses (the tremissis was originally a Roman coin, equal in value to one-third of a solidus). They usually but not always portrayed the king on both the obverse and the reverse; his name appears on the obverse while the name of the mint city appears on the reverse.
The Visigoths struck coins at approximately 100 mints, about 20 of which have been identified only in the past 40 years, and four of which (Toledo, Mérida, Seville, and Cordova) account for more than half of all known specimens. Many of the lesser mints are known by fewer than a dozen coins, and a few by only one or two coins.
The coins are also somewhat rare: it is estimated that there are only about 10,000 Visigothic coins extant, spread among 18 kings and two pretenders (and those 100 mints).
A caveat for collectors: the coins of the Visigoths are probably the most forged of all Medieval coins. This is due in part to the simplicity (well, let’s admit it: crudeness) of the coin designs, which makes them relatively easy to forge. The scarcity of the coins also contributes to the forgery problem; with relatively few genuine coins known, it can be difficult to determine whether a “new” coin is a previously unidentified variety or a forgery.
And these forgeries have a long history – the collection of King Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643–1715) included a forged Visigothic coin. The heyday of Visigothic counterfeits ran from the early 19th century through the first decade of the 20th, when many skilled forgers–including Karl Wilhelm Becker (“Becker the Counterfeiter”)–were very active. The problem became so great, and forgeries so difficult to detect, that many coin dealers refused to carry Visigothic coins at all.
The situation became more manageable in 1952 with the Miles (1952) monograph on Visigothic coins. This work included an extensive appendix listing and describing in detail more than 100 forgeries, with good quality plates of many of them. Additional resources have appeared since 1952, but forgeries of Visigothic coins continue to appear in the numismatic markets from time to time. Collectors interested in the Visigothic series should deal only with trustworthy, knowledgeable sellers or develop their own expertise (or, preferably, do both).
Although Rome had long ceased to be the imperial capital by 410, its fall to the Visigoths was a devastating blow to Roman morale: it had been 800 years since a foreign invader had taken the Eternal City. But worse was yet to come, with the second of the three days of the Fall of Rome.
The Vandals, who had taken over the Roman possessions in North Africa after the Visigoths pushed them out of Hispania, captured Rome on June 2, 455. The Vandals were far more destructive than the Visigoths had been, and their name has come to stand for mindless, wanton destruction. After two weeks of pillaging Rome, they returned to North Africa.
Like most of the Germanic peoples assaulting the Roman Empire at this time, the Vandals were Arian Christians who generally (but not always, and not always severely) persecuted Catholic Christians. In 523, Hunderic (reigned 523-530) became king of the Vandals. He was the son of Eudoxia, daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, and like his mother and grandfather, he favored Catholicism.
This change in direction was too radical for the Vandal nobles, and in 530 Hunderic’s vigorously Arian cousin Gelimer (reigned 530-534) deposed Hunderic and took the throne for himself. The (Catholic) Emperor Justinian the Great objected to Gelimer’s deposition of Hunderic. Justinian’s general Belisarius invaded North Africa in September 533 and crushed Gelimer’s army in two quick battles. Gelimer’s surrender in March 534 marked the end of the Vandal kingdom.
VANDALS. North Africa. Pseudo-imperial series. Struck in the name of Honorius (reigned 395-423), c. 400-490. AR Siliqua. D N HONOR[I VS P F ΛVG] Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / [VRBS] ROIIΛ Roma seated left on cuirass, holding Victory on globe and scepter. [RVPS] mintmark off flan. Carthage mint. 1.74 g, 11h.
VANDALS. Pseudo-Imperial series. Struck c. 440-490, or later. Æ Nummus […](retrograde L)LVONΛO(retrograde S)ΛV Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / OII(retrograde C)VVIOIITO Cross with three pellets (or possibly III) in exergue. Carthage mint. .68 g, 9mm, 8h. The inscription is meaningless. The style suggests the coin dates to the reign of Hunnerich (reigned 477-484) but that is speculative; Hunnerich did not place his name on any of his coins.
The earliest coins of the Vandals appeared circa 440 in North Africa. Like the Visigoths, the Vandals struck their first coins in the name of Honorius (who had died in 423). Unlike the Visigoths, the Vandals apparently never minted in gold: pseudo-imperial gold solidi and tremisses that have been attributed to the Vandals were actually minted by the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes. The Vandals did have an extensive coinage in silver and copper. The first Vandal king to strike coins in his own name was Gunthamund (reigned 484-496), while the last was Gelimer.
VANDALS. North Africa. Gunthamund. c. 484-496. AR 100 Denarii. D N REX GV[N] THΛMVNDV Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / D N/C in two lines, — above, all within laurel wreath; pellet in wreath ornament. Carthage mint. (2.10 g, 6h). The D N/C on the reverse is a mark of value: D N is an abbreviation for “Denarii” while the C is the Roman numeral “100.”
VANDALS. North Africa. Gelimer. c. 530-534. Æ Nummus GE[ILAM]IR Diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / Gelimer’s monogram within wreath. Carthage mint. 0.73 g, 1h. Gelimer was the last Vandal king. This coin is much nicer than is typical for his reign.
One oddity of the Vandalic coinage is that the Vandals seem to have revived the ancient Roman denarius as a denomination, including using the denarius as a coin worth “ten” of something. “Denarius” literally means “containing ten”, and the silver denarius of the Vandals was valued at 10 copper nummi.
Another oddity is that the coin flans were typically very thick but smaller in diameter than the dies that were used to strike the coins – so that in many cases it is impossible to find a coin displaying a full image of the design. The earliest silver coins often follow the designs of Honorius’ coins so closely that the only way to tell that a particular coin was minted by the Vandals is that the flan is thicker than a product of Honorius’ mint in Ravenna and/or that the design does not fit entirely on the flan.
VANDALS. Municipal coinage of Carthage. Struck c. 523-533. Æ 4 Nummi. Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust left, holding palm frond / IIII with barred N above. Carthage mint. 0.92 g, 11mm, 2h. The IIII N on the reverse is a mark of value: IIII is the Roman numeral “4” while N is the abbreviation for “Nummi.”
In addition to the pseudo-imperial and royal coinage, the Vandals struck “Municipal” coins. These coins do not identify a king nor an emperor as the issuing authority, but instead, seem to be issues of the city of Carthage, the Vandal capital, itself. These are all small denomination copper coins.
The final collapse of the Roman Empire in the West came on September 4, 476, the third of the three days of the Fall of Rome. On this day, Odovakar (or Odovacer, or Odoacer), whose ethnic identity is uncertain, led an army of Herulian, Rugian, and Scirian foederati (barbarian troops who made up most of the Western Roman armies at that time) which captured Ravenna and forced Romulus Augustus to abdicate the imperial throne. Odovakar sent the imperial regalia to Zeno, the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople, remarking that it was no longer necessary to have an Emperor in the West.
Romulus Augustus had come to the throne the year before when his father Orestes deposed the prior Western Emperor, Julius Nepos. Odovakar first claimed to rule Italy in the name of Zeno, but Zeno pointed out that Julius Nepos was still alive, although in exile in Dalmatia (the Roman province along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea), and that Odovakar owed his duty of loyalty to Nepos. When Nepos was murdered in 480 (quite possibly by the man whom Nepos had deposed as emperor in 474), Odovakar used the assassination as a pretext to invade and conquer Dalmatia. With Nepos’ death, Odovakar claimed to recognize Zeno as his sovereign, but he continued to rule independently as the first king of Italy.
Odovakar’s relations with Zeno soured in the mid-480s, and in 488 Zeno offered control of Italy to his troublesome general Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths (the Ostrogoths were then settled in the Eastern Empire, much too close to Constantinople for Zeno’s comfort). After four years of grueling warfare, including a three-year siege of Ravenna, Theodoric and Odovakar negotiated a peace settlement whereby the two would rule Italy jointly. Ten days later, at a feast celebrating the peace, Theodoric murdered Odovakar.
ODOVAKAR. Pseudo-imperial series. Struck in the name of Zeno (reigned 474-475, 476-491), c. 476-491. AV Tremissis. D N ZENO P ERP (AV)G Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / Cross potent within wreath, COMOB below. Mediolanum (modern Milan) mint. 1.44 g, 13mm, 6h.
ODOVAKAR. Pseudo-imperial series. Struck in the name of Zeno (reigned 474-475, 476-491), c. 476-491. AR Half Siliqua. D N ZENO PERP AVC (AV ligate) Pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / Eagle standing left, head right, wings extended, with a cross above. Mediolanum (modern Milan) mint. 0.84 g, 15mm, 12h.
As the Visigoths and the Vandals had done, Odovakar began by minting coins in the name of his supposed imperial overlord. He struck these coins in gold, silver, and bronze.
ODOVAKAR. The Kingdom of Italy. 476-493, coin struck c. 490-493. Æ Nummus. Bareheaded, [draped, and cuirassed] bust right / Odovakar monogram. Ravenna mint. 0.49 g, 9mm, 12h.
Eventually – probably after Theodoric’s invasion of Italy – Odovakar began minting coins in his own name in silver and bronze. These were struck only in Ravenna, probably while Theodoric was besieging the city. The silver coins are extremely rare, and none have appeared in public sales for several years. The copper coins are scarce but do come on the market from time to time.
Odovakar’s royal coins are distinctive in that they are some of the earliest non-imperial coins of the Middle Ages that include a portrait of the ruler who minted them. As with the coins of the Visigoths, the royal coins of Odovakar are among the relatively few Medieval coins that have been extensively forged.
Both copper coins shown in the catalogue of the British Museum collection were produced by Luigi Cigoi (1811-1875), a tanner by trade who used his expertise with tanning chemicals to “age” the coins he forged.
Collecting the Coins of the Conquerors of Rome
These coins are generally crude in appearance, particularly when compared to the Roman coins they often imitated, but their very crudeness is part of their charm. The Visigoths diverged the most from the Roman originals, and the coins they struck in Spain are jewels of early Medieval art.
The Visigoths minted coins for nearly 300 years, and their coinage is the most studied and best known of this period. Pliego (2009) is a standard reference but may be difficult to use for collectors who do not read Spanish. Vico (2006) is quite useful and bilingual as well (Spanish with an excellent English translation on the same page). Miles (1952) can still be somewhat useful, but Pliego and Vico have rendered much of it obsolete.
Due probably to the brevity of the coinage of the Vandals– lasting less than 100 years – and the brevity of the coinage of Odovakar – only 17 years – there are no standard works available in English for either. Well-produced auction catalogues such as Künker (2007) can provide valuable information. Berndt and Steinacher’s work (2008) provides an excellent yet brief overview of the coins of the Vandals. Grierson and Blackburn’s book (1985) is also useful: this is the first volume of a series of works on Medieval coins based upon a thorough study of Grierson’s personal collection, which at the time of his death in 2006 was the finest known private collection of Medieval coins. Wroth presents interesting background material on the period, but most of the numismatic information is inadequate.
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Berndt, G.M. and Steinacher. “Minting in Vandal North Africa: Coins of the Vandal Period in the Coin Cabinet of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum”, Early Medieval Europe: 2008. Blackwell Publishing. 2008
Grierson, P. Coins of Medieval Europe. Hampshire, United Kingdom. BA Seaby Ltd. 1991.
Grierson, P. and Blackburn, M. Medieval European Coinage: The Early Middle Ages (5th – 10th Centuries): Vol. 1. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1986.
Hodgkin, T. The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire. 8 Volumes. London. The Folio Society. 2000-2003.
Künker Auktion 121 – The De Wit Collection of Medieval Coins. Fritz Rudolf Künker GmbH & Co. KG. March 12-13 2007.
Miles, G.C. The Coinage of the Visigoths of Spain, Leogevild to Achila II. New York. ANS. 1952.
Vico Monteoliva, J., Cores Gomendio, M.C., and Cores Uria, G. Corpus Nummorum Visigothorum. Ca. 575-714 Leovigildus-Achila. Madrid. 2006.
Wroth, W. Western and Provincial Byzantine Coins: Vandals, Ostrogoths, Lombards and the Empires of Thessalonica, Nicaea and Trebizond. (reprint) Chicago. Argonaut. 1966.
Photograph of tremissis of Suniefredus courtesy and copyright of Roma Numismatics Limited, Auction XVIII, Lot 1865, 29 September 2019.
All other coin photographs are courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CNG)