By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
…[T]he sick promenade while the doctors lie abed, the baths freeze while the houses burn, the living are thirsty while the buried swim, thieves are vigilant while the authorities sleep, the clergy lend money while the Syrian merchants sing psalms… (Deliyannis, 50)
—Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489 describing Ravenna as the imperial capital)
IN 402 CE, THE dim-witted 17-year-old emperor Honorius moved the capital of the Roman Empire in the West from the fortress city of Mediolanum (Milan) to the town of Ravenna on the Adriatic south of Venice. Surrounded by marshes, the city was hard to besiege but lacked a reliable supply of fresh water, prompting the quip by Bishop Sidonius: vivi sitiunt sepulti natant (“the living thirst while the buried swim”). Changes in the shoreline leave Ravenna inland today, but in the fifth century it was a major naval base. For centuries the town was an important mint, and the fascinating coinage of Ravenna documents a turbulent era of late Antiquity.
The coins fall into three periods: Late Western Roman (402 – 476), Ostrogothic (476 – 540) and Byzantine (540 – 751).
Honorius and Arcadius
Early coins struck at Ravenna (c. 402 – 406) bear the stylized, portrait of the young emperor wearing the diadem; a pearl-studded headband that was an ancient emblem of royalty. The Latin inscription translates as “Our Lord Honorius, Faithful and Fortunate Emperor”. On the reverse, a standing figure of this unmilitary emperor in full military attire holds a statuette of Victory, and a labarum (a kind of flagstaff) while trampling a barbarian captive. Ravenna’s distinctive mint mark, R V, appears in the field. This type is quite common.
Ravenna also issued very rare medallic gold pieces honoring Arcadius, the elder brother of Honorius who ruled in Constantinople. These were struck at the old standard (5.4 grams) of the aureus, which had not been a circulating coin for almost a century. Only four examples of this type are known; in a 2007 Swiss auction one brought over $36,000 USD.
Honorius died unexpectedly at Ravenna on August 15, 423, aged 38. His legal heir was a six-year-old nephew, Valentinian III, living in Constantinople with his exiled mother, the formidable Galla Placidia. Castinus, commanding the Western army, installed a palace bureaucrat, Johannes (or John) on the shaky throne.
Coins of this brief reign are scarce. A gold tremissis of Ravenna in the name of Johannes brought $9,000 (against an estimate of $7,500) in a recent auction. The tremissis of about 1.5 grams, equal to one-third of a solidus, became the most common gold piece circulating in the West.
Licinia and Valentinian III
On 29 October 437 in Constantinople, Valentinian III, married his cousin, 15-year-old Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of the Eastern emperor Theodosius II, cementing the alliance between the two halves of the empire. With an Eastern Roman army, Valentinian gained control of the Western Roman Empire. The usurper Johannes was captured, mutilated, and executed.
A rare gold solidus issued at Ravenna c. 439 depicts the young empress draped with strings of pearls wearing an elaborate spiked crown. On the reverse, she sits enthroned, surrounded by the Latin inscription SALUS REIPUBLICAE (“Well-Being of the State”). In 2017, one of the finest examples of this coin brought over $225,000 at auction – possibly a record for a coin of Ravenna.
Although silver had almost disappeared from circulation in the east by the mid-fifth century, small change in good metal continued to be issued by Western mints. An example is the half siliqua (a term used by modern numismatists; we don’t know what Romans called it) of about one gram issued at Ravenna near the end of Valentinian’s reign in 455. On the reverse, the pagan goddess of Victory holds a wreath and palm branch. On Roman coinage during the next century, this image gradually transformed into a Christian angel.
Majorian and Julius Nepos
On September 21, 454, in a fit of anger, Valentinian stabbed his brilliant general Aetius to death. With characteristic irony, Sidonius told the emperor “…know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.” On March 16, 455 friends of Aetius assassinated Valentinian. Loyal to Aetius, soldiers nearby did not lift a hand to protect the emperor. During the next two chaotic decades, nine different men (often described as “shadow emperors”) occupied Rome’s tottering throne.
Most issued coins at Ravenna, and barbarian tribes busily dismembering the empire copied many of these coins. Germanic warlords actually ruled the empire: Ricimer (ruled 461 – 472) and Odovacar (ruled 476 – 493), who were ineligible for the throne because of their “barbarian” blood.
Majorian, a general aged about 40 and who had fought successfully against Vandals, Visigoths, and Franks, was hailed as Emperor by the army on April 1, 457, and enthroned on December 28 at Ravenna. On his coins, Majorian appears helmeted, holding a spear and a small shield emblazoned with the Christogram–the Chi-Rho symbol adopted by Constantine the Great (r. 306-337). On the reverse, Majorian stands holding a long cross with his foot on a human-headed serpent (symbolizing Rome’s enemies). A superb example brought almost $22,000 in a 2009 Swiss auction.
Majorian fought effectively for three years to hold Gaul and Spain against invaders. When Ricimer grew suspicious that Majorian’s reforms threatened his power, he had the emperor arrested, deposed, tortured, and beheaded (August 7, 461).
Born about 430 in Dalmatia (now part of Croatia), Julius Nepos commanded the powerful army of Illyria. Following the death of Ricimer, he landed near Rome, deposed puppet emperor Glycerius, and proclaimed himself Emperor on June 24, 474). His rare solidi issued at Ravenna closely follow the design of contemporary issues from Constantinople, with a winged angelic Victory on the reverse beside a tall, jeweled Cross. A nearly flawless example of this coin brought over $50,000 in a 2014 auction.
Nepos was murdered in 480; possibly in a plot engineered by Glycerius.
Odovacar (his name is variously spelled) was a mercenary of mixed Hunnic and Scirian parentage. On August 23, 476 he was proclaimed “king” by the troops in north Italy and within a few days defeated and killed the Magister militum Orestes and deposed the latter’s son, the usurping emperor Romulus Augustulus (Grierson and Blackburn, 25).
Odovacar returned the imperial diadem and robes to Constantinople, informing Emperor Zeno that there was no longer any need for a Western emperor.
Odovacar issued gold and silver at Ravenna and Milan in the name of Julius Nepos, and after his death, in the name of Zeno. There are rare small bronzes in Odovacar’s own name; even on the best specimens little more than ODO is readable. The British Museum has a unique silver half siliqua (0.82 gram) issued in 477 at Ravenna with a portrait of Odovacar: “He does not have a title and does not wear an emperor’s diadem. Although the effigy is stylized he is clearly shown as a Germanic individual with a mop of hair and mustache .”
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In the time-honored Roman diplomatic tradition of turning one group of barbarians against another, Zeno sent Theodoric, Warlord of the Ostrogoths, to invade Italy. The Ostrogoths overran the peninsula in 490, trapping Odovacar in Ravenna. Odovacar was tricked into surrender. On March 15, 493, Theodoric killed him at a banquet.
Recognized as King of Italy by Emperor Anastasius in 497, Theodoric struck coins at Rome, Milan, and Ravenna. Ostrogothic rulers issued gold and silver in the name of the emperor in Constantinople, bearing his image. The exception is a unique portrait medallion of three solidi (probably a diplomatic gift, or presentation piece) showing a shaggy-haired and mustached Theodoric, found in 1894 at Senigallia, about 50 miles southeast of Ravenna, and now in the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome.
Theodoric “the Great” died in August 526 at Ravenna, aged about 71. His massive tomb is one of Ravenna’s impressive surviving monuments. His successor was 10-year-old Athalaric, son of his daughter Amalasuntha. She ruled as regent until she was overthrown in a palace coup and later murdered in her bath. To avenge her, her ally, the Eastern Emperor Justinian I, sent a brilliant general, Belisarius, to invade Italy, beginning the long and bitter Gothic War (535 – 554).
During this chaotic period, Ravenna issued “municipal” bronze coins bearing a female personification of the city, hopefully inscribed FELIX RAVENNA (“Fortunate Ravenna”), and a monogram of the city’s name within a wreath on the reverse. Denominated as a decanummium (10-nummi piece,) it took 400 to equal one gold tremissis.
In 536, Witigis, the son-in-law of Queen Amalasuntha, became king. Even though Witigis was at war with Justinian, the traditional prestige of the emperor was so great that the coins of Witigis bear the name and image of Justinian on the obverse. On a silver half siliqua, the name of Witigis is consigned to the reverse.
Exarchate of Ravenna” for the next two centuries.
An official called the Exarch served as imperial viceroy in the West. Gold solidi struck at Ravenna have a distinctive thick raised rim, called an annular border (from the Latin word annulus, meaning “litte ring”). A boldly struck example brought $4,000 in a 2017 New York auction. Although silver coinage had virtually ceased in the East by the sixth century, Ravenna continued to strike small half and quarter siliqua pieces, although there is some debate over what fractions they actually represented.
Heraclius and Constans
In the seventh century, a simple cross on three steps (thought to represent an actual monument erected in Jerusalem on the site of the Crucifixion) replaced the angel on the reverse of the gold solidus. A coin of Heraclius struck c. 613 at Ravenna shows this image. The obverse depicts the emperor and his young son.
Gold tremisses of Heraclius were widely imitated by the Lombards, a Germanic tribe that invaded Italy beginning in 568.
Under Constans II, who succeeded Heraclius in 641, Ravenna issued tiny, crude, silver one-eighth siliqua pieces weighing as little as 0.31 gram (for comparison, a standard aspirin tablet weighs 0.35 gram).
Justinian II became sole emperor at the age of 16 in 685 when his father Constantine IV died. Passionately engaged in theological disputes, he ordered the arrest of Pope Sergius (reigned 687-701), but troops at Ravenna refused to enforce the order.
Justinian II’s Ravenna coinage is rare, a lightweight gold solidus from the famous W.H. Hunt collection, with an unusually detailed portrait, brought $6,500 in a 2014 auction. Deposed, mutilated, and exiled in a palace coup in 695, Justinian II returned to wreak vengeance on his enemies in a second reign of terror (705 – 711) before he was finally overthrown and decapitated.
The increasingly desperate situation of the Exarchate of Ravenna is reflected in the deteriorating quality and workmanship of the coinage in the early eighth century. A ragged, crudely executed solidus from the short reign of Artemius, who took the name Anastasius II (713-715,) illustrates this. This rare coin has appeared in several major auctions since 1986 but failed to find a buyer in 2011.
A soldier from the mountainous region of Isauria, famed for its fierce warriors, Leo III was known as “Leo the Isaurian”. Born about 675, he seized the throne in 717. He defeated a Muslim attack on Constantinople, crushed a revolt in Sicily, and in 720 crowned his young son Constantine as co-emperor.
A copper follis of Ravenna dated to 719 indicates that, even at this late date, there was still a functional urban economy with a need for fresh supplies of small change. For the period, this coin is unusually well made, and an example brought $2,400 in a 2011 US auction.
In 727, Ravenna revolted against Leo’s “iconoclast” policy, which banned the veneration of religious images.
Under Leo’s successor, Constantine V, (ruled 741 – 775) the last Byzantine coins struck at Ravenna appeared. A miserable little copper follis of about one gram, on a blank too small for the dies, it bears stick-figure portraits of Constantine and his son Leo IV on the obverse, and a large M (Greek numeral for 40, by this date an obsolete mark of denomination) and the date (Year 1) on the obverse.
In 751, the Lombard king Aistulf captured Ravenna.
“For years, Constantine sent ambassadors to the Lombards, the Franks and the pope, attempting to recover Ravenna, but he never ventured military action (Treadgold, 360).”
* * *
 CNG Electronic Auction 423, 27 June 2018, Lot 381. Realized $525 USD (estimate $500).
 NAC Auction 40, 16 May 2007, Lot 882. Realized CHF 44,000 (estimate CHF 24,000).
 CNG Auction 105, 10 may 2017, Lot 1018. Realized $9,000 USD (estimate $7,500).
 NAC Auction 100, 29 May 2017, Lot 725. Realized CHF 220,000 (estimate CHF 100,000).
 NAC Auction 64, 17 May 2012, Lot 1357. Realized CHF 2,600 (estimate 3,000).
 For comparison, a current (2019) US dime weights 2.268 grams.
 NAC Auction 52, 7 October 2009, Lot 666. Realized CHF 22,000 (estimate 12,000).
 NAC Auction 78, 25 May 2014, Lot 1276. Realized CHF 45,000 (estimate 15,000).
 “Master of soldiers” – title of the supreme army commander
 CNG Electronic Auction 342, 14 January 2015, Lot 809. Realized $1,300 USD (estimate $200).
 NAC Auction 64, 17 May 2012, Lot 1375. Realized CHF 1,800 (estimate 1,500).
 Roma Numismatics e-Sale 30, 29 October 2016, Lot 633. Realized UK£650 [about $789 USD today] (estimate £100).
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 93, 24 May 2016, Lot 1202. Realized CHF 2,500 [about $2,518 USD today] (estimate CHF 750).
 CNG Triton XX, 10 January 2017, Lot 1063. Realized $4,000 USD (estimate $1,000).
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 876. Realized $1,400 USD (estimate $1,500).
 The site is now located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvary
 CNG Auction 90, 23 May 2012, Lot 1860. Realized $1,600 USD (estimate $750).
 Ira & Larry Goldberg Auction 53, 24 May 2009, Lot 2159. Realized $3,800 USD (estimate $600 – 800).
 Heritage Long Beach Sale, 3 September 2014, Lot 29478. Realized $6,500 USD (estimate $4,000 – 5,000).
 Sincona Auction 3, 25 October 2011, Lot 3416. Unsold (estimate CHF 5,000).
 Gemini VII, 9 January 2011, Lot 1032. Realized $2,400 USD (estimate $1,000).
 CNG Triton XIV, 4 January 2011, Lot 1176. Realized $1,400 USD (estimate $750).
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Herrin, Judith and Jinty Nelson (editors). Ravenna Its Role in Earlier Medieval Change and Exchange. London (2016)
Hutton, Edward. Ravenna: A Study. New York (1913)
Kent, J.P.C. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume X. London (1994)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume 5. London (2014)
Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA (1997)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. 2 volumes. Sidney, OH (1999)