CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Julian the Apostate

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

Apostate: (noun) a person who forsakes his religion, cause, party, etc.[1]

REMEMBERED AS THE “Apostate” by his enemies, and the “Philosopher” by his friends, Flavius Claudius Julianus–or Julian–ruled as Roman emperor from November 3, 361 CE until his death on June 26, 363. On the list of emperors, he is numbered as Julian “II”, because a short-lived usurper, Julian of Pannonia, who briefly held power on the Danube frontier (c. 283-286), counts as Julian “I”.

In the massacre of Constantine the Great’s relatives that followed his death in 337, Julian’s father and many of his kin were slain. Julian and his half-brother Gallus were spared only because of their young ages: Julian was five years old; Gallus was about 10. Our future emperor spent much of his youth under a kind of house arrest at a remote estate in Cappadocia in Anatolia (modern Turkey), closely monitored by agents of his cousin, the paranoid emperor Constantius II. Brought up by his tutors as an orthodox Christian, Julian received an excellent classical education. At about the age of 20, the young noble secretly rejected Christianity, returning to the Greco-Roman paganism of his ancestors.

In 350, a general named Magnentius revolted against Constantius II in Gaul. When Constantius II led his army to crush Magnentius, he put Gallus in charge of the East, governing from the great city of Antioch. Gallus proved to be so cruel, corrupt, and unpopular that Constantius had him executed in 354. Julian, as his half-brother, came under obvious suspicion. Julian’s life was saved by the intervention of the empress Eusebia, and he was sent to Athens to continue his studies.

Julian as Caesar

In November 355, faced with a shortage of trustworthy generals and an abundance of invading barbarians, Constantius promoted Julian to the rank of Caesar (in effect, Junior Emperor) and put him in charge of defending Gaul. Despite his lack of military and political experience, Julian proved to be a gifted commander and a competent administrator. Julian’s coinage as Caesar shows him clean-shaven in accordance with the current fashion of Constantius’s court. Beards were considered a Greek affectation.

Julian II (Caesar, 355-361). Solidus. Antioch, c. 355-361. D N IVLIANV S NOB CAVS (instead of CAES). Diademed, draped and cuirassed bust r. Rv. GLORIA REI PVBLICAE. Roma and Constantinopolis, with foot on prow, and Roma enthroned to front, supporting between them shield inscribed with * and four small ×; in exergue, SMANB. AV 4.45 grams, 12h. RIC VIII, 166 var; Depeyrot 9/2 var. About Extremely Fine. (6,500-7,500). Stack’s (pre-Feb 2011) > Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini 12 January 2009. Lot: 3012. Realized: $7,000.

On an issue from Antioch, the standard obverse inscription NOB CAES (for “Noble Caesar”) is rendered as NOB CAVS, perhaps because a Greek-speaking engraver was unfamiliar with Latin spelling[2]. On the reverse, two seated female figures represent Rome and Constantinople, holding between them a shield emblazoned with a star.

Julian II Caesar, 355 – 360 d=22 mm Solidus 355–357, AV 4.46 g. D N CL IVL – IANVS N C Bare-headed and cuirassed bust r. Rev. FEL TEMP – RE – PARATIO Roma and Constantinople enthroned facing and supporting shield bearing an eight-pointed star; in exergue, RSMS›. RIC 295. C 8. Kent-Hirmer pl. 175, 689. Depeyrot 14/3. A fabulous portrait of great strength and of unusually fine style. Virtually as struck and Fdc Ex Naville III, 1922, Evans, 213; Glendining 1950, Platt Hall part II, 2056 and NFA XXII, 1989, 147 sales. From the A. Moretti collection. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 38 Auction date: 21 March 2007 Lot number: 257. Price realized: 37,000 CHF (Approx. 30,448 USD).

On a rare issue struck at Rome, “Noble Caesar” is abbreviated to NC, and Julian wears body armor. Described as a “fabulous portrait of great strength and of unusually fine style,” an example of this coin was in the famous 1922 Naville Numismatics and 1950 Glendening sales[3]. The reverse inscription is FEL TEMP REPARATIO (“Return of Fortunate Times,” or “Happy Days are Here Again”).

Julian II. As Caesar, 355-360 CE. AR Siliqua (22mm, 2.46 g, 12h). Rome mint. Bareheaded, draped, and cuirassed bust right / Eight-rayed star within wreath with large central jewel; R. RIC VIII –; cf. RSC 172†e. Lightly toned, porous. Good VF. Extremely rare. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 510 23 February 2022. Lot: 848. Realized: $1,600.
Julian II. As Caesar, 355-360 CE. AR Siliqua (18mm, 2.36 g, 12h). Arelate (Arles) mint, 3rd officina. Bareheaded, draped, and cuirassed bust right / VOTIS/ V/ MVLTIS/ X in four lines within wreath; TCON. RIC VIII 264; RSC 154b. Toned, a few light marks and scratches. Near EF. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 495 7 July 2021. Lot: 483. Realized: $350.

The siliqua, a relatively pure silver coin of about 2.5 grams, was struck in limited quantities for Julian as Caesar. The unusual reverse on a siliqua from the mint of Rome is a simple eight-pointed star within a wreath[4]. A siliqua from the mint of Julian’s headquarters at Arelate (today Arles, France) celebrates his pending fifth anniversary as Caesar, with vows renewed for a term of 10 years (VOTIS V MULTIS X)[5]. In 354, Arelate was renamed Constantia by Constantius II, and this is reflected in the mint mark TCON, the “T” indicating the third (tertia) workshop of the mint.

Julian II, as Caesar (Constantius II, 337-361), Light Miliarense, Thessalonica, c. 355-360 CE; AR (g 4,16; mm 21; h 6); D N CL IVLIAN – VS NOB CAES, draped bust r., Rv. VIRTVS – EXERCITVS, soldier standing r., holding spear and leaning on shield; in ex. TES. RIC 204. Extremely rare, cabinet tone. Minor flan crack and graffiti, good very fine. Bertolami Fine Arts – ACR Auctions > Auction 24 22 June 2016. Lot: 951. Realized: £550 (Approx. $808).

The miliarense is one of the many mysteries of fourth-century coinage. The name apparently derives from the notion that a thousand of these large silver coins equaled one pound of gold. They were first issued by Constantine the Great, and they disappear by the early sixth century CE.

There were actually two varieties — the “heavy” miliarense, valued at 14 to the gold solidus, and the “light” miliarense, valued at 18 to the gold solidus. Carefully struck in good metal, they are often pierced to be worn as ornaments.

Both types are scarce to rare for Julian as Caesar. They were probably used for military payments since the reverse inscription is typically VIRTVS EXERCITVM (“Courage of the Army”) with a standing figure of a soldier[6].

Julian II, as Caesar, Æ Nummus. Siscia, 355-361 CE. D N IVLIANVS NOB C, bareheaded, draped and cuirassed bust right / SPES REIPVBLICE, emperor, helmeted and in military dress, standing left, holding globe and spear; pellets across fields, ASIS in exergue. Unlisted with pellets in fields, cf. RIC 391 var. (no pellets). 2.10g, 17mm, 12h. Roma Numismatics Ltd > E-Sale 62 17 October 2019. Lot: 1175. Realized: £75 (approximately $96).

Bronze coinage in the name of Julian as Caesar was issued in large quantities from most of the imperial mints. The beardless portraits are usually crudely executed, and the coins are often quite affordable, even in high grades. A “nummus” of about two grams from the mint of Siscia on the Danube frontier is typical[7].

Julian as Augustus

When the Sasanian Persian king, Shapur II, invaded Roman-held Mesopotamia in 360 CE, Constantius ordered the transfer of a large part of Julian’s army to the East. Unwilling to leave their homeland, the Gallic troops revolted and proclaimed Julian emperor, a title he was somewhat reluctant to assume.

Eventually, he began to issue coins with his bearded portrait, naming him as Augustus. The reverse of one rare type[8] from the mint of Ravenna in northern Italy is inscribed VIRTVS EXERC GALL (“Courage of the Gallic Army”).

Breaking off operations against the Persians, Constantius II and his army moved to confront Julian in the Balkans, but Constantius suddenly died of a fever on November 3, 361. A few weeks later, Julian entered Constantinople in triumph as sole ruler of the empire.

In preparation for war against Persia, Julian established his headquarters at Antioch, a largely Christian city where his paganism was deeply unpopular. A large proportion of Julian’s surviving gold coins were minted at Antioch to pay his troops, and many are clipped or defaced with graffiti. A high-grade Antioch solidus of Julian is one of the most prized coins in this writer’s collection[9].

The fractional gold coinage of Julian is incredibly rare.

The enigmatic “9 siliqua” or “one-and-a-half scripulum” piece, valued at three-eighths of a solidus, was first issued by Constantine the Great, and it was last issued around the time of Theodosius I (ruled 379-395). According to the cataloguer of the CNG Triton VIII sale in 2005:

“It appears only to have been struck on special occasions and perhaps filled some ceremonial role.”[10]

Probably the most popular and famous coin of Julian–and one of the few coin types referenced in ancient literary sources–is the large bronze follis, or “double maiorina” bearing the image of a bull on the reverse. Though ironically, numismatists don’t know what the denomination was actually called, either by the people who issued it or the people who used it. Struck at most of the imperial mints, the coin weighs about 8.5 grams.

A recent search for “Julian and bull” on the CoinArchives Pro database, which records nearly two million recent auction sales, produced over 2,200 hits[11]. The coin bears a familiar and traditional reverse inscription: SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE (“Security of the State”). But the representation of the bull, accompanied by two stars above his horns, is something new.

The pagan image reportedly offended the people of Antioch. Julian’s habit of sacrificing many bulls to the pagan gods was noted by his contemporaries and probably appreciated by his troops, who got to feast on beef – a rare treat in the legionary diet. Two decades ago, a well-documented and persuasively argued article (Woods, 2000) argued that the animal is a “solar bull” related to the popular cult of the Sun god.

My own view is that the two stars on the coin are a reference to the constellation of Taurus, since the bright stars Elnath and zeta Tauri appear above the bull’s horns[12].

Julian II. 360-363 CE. AR Siliqua (20mm, 1.87 g, 5h). Constantinople mint; 1st officina. Struck 361-363 CE. Diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust right / VOT/ X/ MVLT/ X X in four lines within wreath; CP•A. RIC VIII 159; RSC 148†d. Light iridescent tone, small flan crack. VF. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XXV Auction date: 11 January 2022. Lot number: 6720. Realized: $325

In anticipation of the 10th anniversary (decennalia) of Julian’s elevation to Caesar, which would occur in 365, coins were issued with the inscription VOT X MVLT XX (“vows for ten years, renewed for twenty”)[13].

Julian launched his invasion of the Persian Empire in the Spring of 363. The Roman army advanced down the Euphrates River, accompanied by a huge fleet of supply barges, as the Persians burned the crops and devastated the countryside ahead of them. Reaching the strongly walled capital of Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad), Julian decided that it was impossible to storm or besiege it, and ordered a retreat up the Tigris River.

In a skirmish with Persian cavalry, the emperor was mortally wounded and died on June 26, 363. He was about 32 years old.

It was uncertain whether the spear thrust that killed Julian was delivered by a Persian or by one of his own disgruntled Christian soldiers. Since Julian had neglected to name a successor, an officer named Jovian (who commanded the imperial bodyguard) was chosen by the army as the new emperor. With the army trapped in enemy territory, Jovian was forced to negotiate a humiliating peace. On his way back to Constantinople in the winter of 364, Jovian, just 33 years old, died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a badly maintained charcoal brazier used to heat his sleeping quarters.

Sources

Our primary source for the reign of Julian is the history of Ammianus Marcellinus (lived 330 CE to about 400), a staff officer who knew Julian well and was present at many of the events he describes. Ammianus was raised in Greek-speaking Antioch but wrote in Latin, and the English translation by Walter Hamilton is very readable.

Julian was himself a prolific writer; his collected works fill three volumes of the Loeb Classical Library.

The late American author Gore Vidal’s 1964 novel Julian is a well-researched fictional account of his reign, told from the point of view of his friends.

The standard reference for Julian’s coinage is Volume VIII of Roman Imperial Coinage (Kent, 1981), a massive tome of over 600 pages that sells for about $160. A more convenient and accessible reference is Roman Coins and the Values, Volume V (Sear, 2014), about $55 new.

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Notes

[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/apostate

[2] Stack’s Moneta Imperii Auction, January 12, 2009, Lot 3012. Realized $7,000 USD (estimate $6,500-$7,500).

[3] NAC Auction 38, March 21, 2007, Lot 257. Realized CHF 37,000 (about $30,448 USD: estimate CHF 12,000).

[4] CNG Electronic Auction 510, February 23, 2022, Lot 848. Realized $1,600 USD (estimate $500).

[5] CNG Electronic Auction 495, July 7, 2021, Lot 483. Realized $350 USD (estimate $200).

[6] Bertolami Auction 24, June 22, 2016, Lot 951. Realized £550 (about $808 USD; estimate £750).

[7] Roma Numismatics, E-sale 62, October 17, 2019, Lot 1175. Realized £75 (about $96 USD; estimate £50).

[8] CNG Triton XXI, January 9, 2018, Lot 866. Realized $32,500 USD (estimate $20,000).

[9] Purchased from CNG, Long Beach Coin Show, June 14, 2018 – $7,950 USD.

[10] CNG Triton VIII, January 11, 2005, Lot 1260. Realized $3,100 USD (estimate $5,000).

[11] Leu Web Auction 18, December 18, 2021, Lot 3713. Realized CHF 800 (about $867 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurus_(constellation)

[13] CNG Triton XXV, January 11, 2022, Lot 6720. Realized $325 USD (estimate $150).
 

References

Ammianus Marcellinus. The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378 (Walter Hamilton, transl.). New York (1986)

Browning, Robert. The Emperor Julian. Berkeley, CA (1976)

Julian. The Works of the Emperor Julian (3 volumes) (Wilmer Cave Wright, transl.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA (1913)

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume VII: The Family of Constantine I, AD 337-364. London (1981)

–. Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. VIII, The Family of Constantine I. AD 337-364. London (1981)

Lopéz Sanchéz, Fernando. “Julian and his Coinage: A Very Constantinian Prince”, Emperor and Author: The Writings of Julian the Apostate (Nicholas Baker-Brian and Shaun Tougher, ed.). Swansea, UK (2012)

Rohrabacher, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. London (2002)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume V: The Christian Empire. London (2014)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)

Vidal, Gore. Julian. New York (1964)

Wend, David A. “Julian the Apostate: The philosopher-emperor, Part 1”, The Celator 9. (October 1995)

–. “Julian the Apostate: The Philosopher-emperor, Part 2”, The Celator 9. (November 1995)

Woods, David. “Julian, Gallienus, and the Solar Bull”, American Journal of Numismatics 12. (2000)

–. “Julian, Arles, and the Eagle”, Journal of Late Antiquity 7. (2014)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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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