HomeAncient CoinsBreakaway Empire: Coins of the Gallic Emperors

Breakaway Empire: Coins of the Gallic Emperors

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

FOR FOURTEEN YEARS during the late third century (260 – 274 CE), the western provinces of the Roman Empire maintained a separate state independent of Rome. Rulers of this so-called “Gallic Empire” issued coinage that was often of better metal and workmanship than Rome was producing.

In the Spring of 260, the Sassanian Persian ruler Shapur I disastrously defeated the Roman emperor Valerian in battle. When this news reached the legions on the Rhine frontier, they proclaimed Postumus, the military governor of the German provinces, as emperor, in opposition to Valerian’s son, Gallienus.

Postumus

Postumus, 261 CE, Treveri Mint. AV Aureus. Image: British Museum.
Postumus, 261 CE, Treveri Mint. AV Aureus. Image: British Museum.

The birth date of Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus is unknown. He was descended from the Batavi[1], a Germanic tribe that had been Romanized for many generations, living in part of what is now The Netherlands and northwestern Germany. In April 260, near Augsburg in Bavaria, the army of Postumus defeated the Juthungi, a Germanic tribe that had raided northern Italy. When Saloninus, the 18-year-old son of Emperor Gallienus who had been left in command of the West by his father, demanded that the booty from this victory be turned over to him, Postumus besieged Salonius in his capital of Colonia Agrippina on the Rhine (modern Köln or “Cologne”, Germany), stormed the city and killed him.

Preoccupied with threats in the East, Gallienus lacked the strength to fight Postumus and reluctantly accepted his breakaway empire. A capable administrator, Postumus organized his regime on classic Roman lines, with its own Senate and an extensive coinage of gold aurei (73 types), alloy antoniniani (108 types; often described as “radiates” because of the radiant spiked crown on the imperial portrait) and bronze sestertii (73 types[2]).

Frequently reproduced (for example, on the dust jacket of David Sear’s Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume III[3]) a unique gold aureus of Postumus bears a remarkably sensitive facing head of the emperor, turned slightly to the left, work of a talented master engraver. Gifted to the British Museum in 1864 by the collector Edward Wigan (1823-1871) this coin is described as “the finest portrait executed on a Roman coin in the 3rd century.”[4] The reverse, evidently the work of a less skilled hand (reverse dies wore out more quickly, and were often assigned to apprentices), shows the emperor seated, with a Latin inscription celebrating the “dutiful generosity of emperor Postumus.” This was probably a special issue intended for distribution to officers and members of the elite. The coin was crudely pierced in antiquity.

Postumus, 260 – 269 Aureus, Cologne 261.
Postumus, 260 – 269 Aureus, Cologne 261. Image: NAC.

Another very rare gold aureus struck at Köln[5], bears a more conventional profile portrait wearing a laurel wreath. On the reverse are three heads of the sun god Sol, wearing his signature “radiate” crown. This may represent the three provinces of Roman Gaul: Belgica, Lugdunensis, and Aquitania. The simple inscription is AETERNITAS (“Eternity”).

Postumus, 260-269. Antoninianus Billon
Postumus, 260-269. Antoninianus Billon. Image: Leu Numismatik.

Postumus issued an enormous quantity of antoniniani in an alloy that was initially 20% silver but had declined to 8% by the end of his reign (which was still better than issues of Gallienus at 2.5% silver at best). A vast array of Roman divinities appear on the reverses: Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Diana, Minerva, Neptune, Hercules, Sol, Victoria, and many others. On one rare reverse type[6], a standing figure of Postumus extends his hand to a kneeling female. The inscription hails the emperor as Restitutor Orbis (“Restorer of the World”).

Postumus Double Sestertius. Image: Numismatik Naumann.
Postumus Double Sestertius. Image: Numismatik Naumann.

Postumus also produced an extensive bronze coinage, which had largely disappeared in the rest of the empire due to inflation. A heavy “double sestertius” of almost 18 grams bore a reverse with the prow of a warship[7] – a design that recalled centuries-old coins of the Roman Republic.

Laelianus

Laelianus Aureus. June-July 269. Image: Leu Numismatik.
Laelianus Aureus. June-July 269. Image: Leu Numismatik.

Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus came from the same aristocratic Romano-Spanish family that produced the great Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 CE). A capable general commanding two legions, Laelianus defeated a German invasion at Monguntiacum (today Mainz, Germany) and was then proclaimed Emperor by his troops in February 269. Besieged for months in the city by Postumus, he was executed, possibly by his own troops. But when Postumus refused to allow his own victorious soldiers to loot and pillage the city, they rebelled and killed him (around July 269).

During his brief reign as Emperor of the Gallic Empire, Laelianus issued two types of gold aurei and at least three types of alloy antoniniani (about 4% silver) coins. On one aureus[8], he appears in profile wearing a laurel wreath, with a reclining female figure on the reverse with the hopeful inscription TEMPORVM FELICITAS (“Happiness of the Times”). Only about a dozen aurei of Laelianus are known; eight of them are in museums.

Laelianus, 269. Antoninianus. Image: Leu Numismatik
Laelianus, 269. Antoninianus. Image: Leu Numismatik

Silvered bronze coins in the name of Laelianus were also struck at Köln and are surprisingly common for such a short reign[9].

Marius

Marius Aureus Gold, Mainz. Leu Numismatik.
Marius Aureus Gold, Mainz. Leu Numismatik.

In the chaos following the murder of Postumus, a blacksmith named Marcus Aurelius Marius, who had risen through the ranks of the Legions on the Rhine, was proclaimed Emperor by the army at Mainz. He reigned for just two or three months before he was executed (according to legend, at the edge of a sword he had forged in his previous career).

Only about nine gold aurei of Marius exist, seven of them in museums. The last one that came to market brought over $138,000 USD in a 2003 Swiss auction[10]. The reverse shows a handshake with the ironic inscription CONCORDIA MILITVM (“Harmony of the Army”). A large volume of silvered bronze coinage in the name of Marius was produced during this brief reign to pay the troops, and examples are surprisingly affordable[11].

Victorinus

Victorinus Aureus, January 271. NAC.
Victorinus Aureus, January 271. NAC.

Marcus Piavonius Victorinus[12], from a wealthy Romano-Gallic family, rose to a high rank in the army of Postumus. Following the murder of Marius, troops at Augusta Trevirorum (today Trier, Germany) proclaimed him Emperor in late 268 or early 269 (the chronology for most of the Gallic emperors, even based on coins, is uncertain). During the reign of Victorinus, Spain and additional territory in Gaul was regained by the Roman Empire. He was an effective ruler, but like many powerful men in history, he lusted after the wives of other powerful men. In 270 or 271, he was murdered by one of his officials, the husband of a woman he had seduced.

Victorinus maintained the weight and purity of the Gallic Empire’s gold aureus coin[13], but the silvered bronze coinage[14] continued its decline, down to 2.5% silver or less.

Domitianus

Domitian II. Antonianus
Domitian II. Antonianus.

Domitianus is one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Roman imperial numismatics. He is often listed as “Domitian II” to avoid confusion with not only the similarly named first-century emperor, who ruled from 81 to 96 CE, but also the short-lived usurper Domitius Domitianus, who held power briefly in Alexandria in 297.

Three coins, all in museums, represent the only evidence for the existence of Domitianus. One found in France in 1900 was doubted as a fake for many years. A metal detectorist found another in the United Kingdom in 2003 (Abdy, 752), and the third was found near Vidin, Bulgaria around 2006 (Vassilev, 21). The obverse inscription is IMP C DOMITIANVS PF AVG (“Emperor Caesar Domitianus, Dutiful and Fortunate Augustus”). The reverse bears the standing figure of “Concordia Militum“, the personification of harmony between the emperor and his troops. Apparently, Domitianus was a rebel who made a brief grab for power at Köln during the chaos following the murder of Victorinus in 271. He held power long enough for the mint to engrave at least one obverse die and strike a few coins but he was swiftly crushed by the forces of Tetricus I. Additional coins of this type are likely to turn up in the future.

Tetricus I

Tetricus I Aureus. 271 CE. Image: CNG.
Tetricus I Aureus. 271 CE. Image: CNG.

Gaius Pius Esuvius Tetricus was a relative — possibly a nephew — of Victorinus. When Victorinus was murdered, Tetricus was serving as governor of Aquitania, one of the provinces of Gaul. The mother of Victorinus (named Victoria, or Victorina, or Vitruvia; sources vary) used her wealth to ensure that Tetricus was elevated to the rank of Emperor late in 271. One of his first acts was to have Victorinus declared a god, and coins inscribed DIVO VICTORINO PIO (“To the Faithful God Victorinus”) were issued to commemorate this deification[15].

Tetricus I. Antoninianus. Treveri. Image: Roma Numismatics, Ltd.
Tetricus I Aureus. 271 CE. Image: CNG.

Tetricus issued coins from at least two mints, Köln and Trier. He struck at least 35 different gold aurei[16], and about 34 types of base alloy antoniniani[17], which fell in weight as low as 2.4 grams or less, with just 1.5% silver.

Tetricus I and II Denarius, 273-274. Image: UBS Gold & Numismatics.
Tetricus I and II Denarius, 273-274. Image: UBS Gold & Numismatics.

Early in his reign Tetricus elevated his son, who bore the same name, to the rank of Caesar (in effect, crown prince and heir). A rare bronze “denarius” bears facing busts of father and son on the obverse, and standing figures of the two performing a sacrifice ritual, while winged Victory crowns the younger Tetricus with a wreath[18].

Tetricus II

Tetricus II. Aureus. 273-275. Image: NAC.
Tetricus II. Aureus. 273-275. Image: NAC.

Some coins were issued in the name of Tetricus II alone, bearing his youthful portrait. Only about a dozen gold aurei of Tetricus II are known, all but five in museums. In 2010, an example once in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought over $144,000 in a Swiss auction[19]. The base metal coins are relatively common[20], and were widely imitated even after the fall of the Gallic Empire (these imitations referred to as “barbarous radiates[21])

Tetricus must have realized that his days were numbered, and that his greatly reduced empire would soon fall to the new emperor Aurelian, who returned to Europe late in 272 after crushing the more formidable empire of Palmyra… Tetricus’ Gallic army was defeated by Aurelian’s legions in a hard-fought battle at Chalons-sur-Marne in the spring of 274. There Tetricus and son surrendered to Aurelian (Vagi, 396).

After he restored Roman dominance over Gaul, the emperor Aurelian spared the lives of the Tetrici, appointing the elder as governor of Lucania in Italy while the younger went on to a successful career in the Roman Senate. Their dates of death are not recorded.

Collecting the Gallic Emperors and Their Coins

During troubled times in the ancient world, money was often hoarded, and the Gallic Empire was no exception, since its coins were often heavier and of better alloy than circulating coinage in other parts of the Roman Empire. Enormous hoards of these Gallic coins have been discovered over the past two centuries in Britain and France, notably the vast Cunetio hoard[22] (now in the British Museum) of 54,951 coins found by metal detectorists in 1978.

The standard reference for this coinage, Volume 5 of The Roman Imperial Coinage (1927) covering the years 253-276 CE, is serious outdated, and the most useful handbook for collectors is Sear (2005). The gold coins command increasingly stratospheric prices at auction, but many types of the the silvered bronze coins are common and quite affordable to collectors of modest means.

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavi_(Germanic_tribe)

[2] Count of types based on listings in Sear (2005), pp. 350-376.

[3] Sear (2005)

[4] British Museum 1864,1128.141; “not currently on display”

[5] NAC Auction 52, October 7,2009, Lot 562. Realized CHF 120,000 (about $116,167 USD; estimate CHF 80,000).

[6] Leu Auction 1, October 25, 2017, Lot 351. Realized CHF 850 (about $859 USD; estimate CHF 500).

[7] Numismatic Naumann Auction 131, August 6, 2023, Lot 770. Realized €575 (about $634 USD; estimate €400).

[8] Leu Auction 93, May 10, 2005, Lot 98. Realized CHF 130,000 (about $108,288 USD; estimate CHF 130,000).

[9] Leu Web Auction 20, July 16, 2022, Lot 2728. Realized CHF 1,000 (about $1,022 USD; estimate CHF 200).

[10] Leu Auction 87, May 6, 2003, Lot 84. Realized CHF 185,000 (about $138,598 USD; estimate CHF 200,000).

[11] CNG E-Auction 494, June 23, 2021, Lot 404. Realized $180 (estimate $100).

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorinus

[13] NAC Auction 49, October 21, 2008, Lot 384. Realized CHF 36,000 (about $31,180 USD; estimate CHF 25,000).

[14] Leu Web Auction 25, March 11, 2023, Lot 2480. Realized CHF 1,100 (about $1,196 USD; estimate CHF 100).

[15] Roma Numismatics E-sale 108, April 13, 2023, Lot 1074. Realized £650 (about $810 USD; estimate £100).

[16] CNG Triton XXIV, January 19, 2021, Lot 1141. Realized $48,000 USD (estimate $30,000).

[17] Roma Numismatics E-sale 115, December 21, 2023, Lot 1003. Realized £280 (about $355 USD; estimate £100).

[18] UBS Auction 78, September 9, 2008, Lot 1904. Realized CHF 8,500 (about $7,529 USD; estimate CHF 1,000).

[19] NAC Auction 54, March 24, 2010, Lot 573. Realized CHF 155,000 (about $144,968 USD; estimate CHF 90,000).

[20] Roma Numismatics E-Sale 115, December 21, 2023, Lot 1005. Realized £180 (about $228 USD; estimate £150).

[21] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarous_radiate

[22] https://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/?artwork=cunetio-hoard-the-largest-coin-hoard-from-roman-britain
 

References

Abdy, Richard. “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009)

Drinkwater, J. F. “Coin Hoards and the Chronology of the Gallic Empire”, Britannia 5 (November 1974)

Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. London (1990)

Harl, Kenneth. Coinage in the Roman Economy. Baltimore (1996)

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)

Mairat, Jerome. The Coinage of the Gallic Empire. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Oxford (2014)

Scarre, Chris. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. London (1995)

Sear David. Roman Coins and Their Values III: The 3rd Century Crisis and Recovery, AD 235-285. London (2005)

Vagi, David. History and Coinage of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Sidney, OH (1999)

Vassilev, Lubomir. “The coinage of the Roman usurper Domitianus II (271?) in the context of the third his antoninianus from Bulgaria” (in Bulgarian, with abstract in English), Revers 4 (2019)

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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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Michael,
    A very interesting article. One nit: Note 22 to an error. You wanted to note referencing the notably the Cunetio hoard, not a link to an article about Arizona Republican politics.
    Bill

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