Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek…
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
—Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) “Waiting for the Barbarians”
IN THE FOURTH CENTURY, the Eurasian Steppe was a vast sea of grass extending for thousands of miles, from Mongolia in the East to the Danube in the West. Nomadic tribes roamed the steppe, fighting over grazing rights, women and honor. Occasionally a leader would emerge, unite the tribes, and lead them to pillage the farms and sack the cities of their more “civilized” neighbors, who called these nomads “barbarians”.
The people we know as Huns were one such confederation. Around 370 CE, they appeared on the horizon of the Roman world (on the steppes north of the Black Sea), setting in motion waves of migration that German historians call the Völkerwanderung – the “wandering of the peoples.”
Coins give us a unique window into this chaotic era. Some were coins barbarian invaders minted themselves. Others were coins they looted or extorted from the Romans.
In the case of the Huns, this might have included the rare solidi issued by Valentinian III in the name of his sister, Honoria.
Once upon a time, there was a princess.
Her name was Justa Gratia Honoria. She was born to Emperor Constantius III and Empress Galla Placidia on April 7, 416 in Ravenna, Italy. Her brother became emperor Valentinian III in 425 and during his reign the empire was torn by civil unrest and threatened on all sides by invading barbarians.
Bored at her brother’s pious imperial court, Honoria amused herself by having affairs. To stop that, Valentinian ordered her to marry a respectable elderly Senator.
In the spring of 450 (or possibly 449) Honoria sent a palace eunuch to deliver her signet ring–along with a plea for rescue–to Attila, King of the Huns. Attila took this as a proposal of marriage and demanded the lady, along with half the Western Empire as her dowry. Enraged, Valentinian nearly had his sister executed. The last great Roman general, Flavius Aëtius, joined Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, to crush Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451.
After pillaging Italy in 452, Attila died of a nosebleed after celebrating his marriage to Ildico, a Gothic princess. Sources are silent about Honoria’s fate.
Between 430 and 450, Attila and the Huns extorted some 40 thousand pounds of gold from the Romans as “tribute” or protection money. At 72 gold solidi to the Roman pound, that would be 2,880,000 coins.
In our day, a Goth is a sensitive young person who favors dark music, attire and makeup. In the waning years of the Roman Empire it meant something different. For centuries, Gothic tribes lived along the Roman frontier, often as enemies, sometimes as allies.
As early as the third century, these tribes minted crude copies of Roman coins. Known today as “Uncertain Germanic” issues (see below), they are difficult to classify and have been little studied.
Toward the end of the fourth century, the Goths split into two branches: the Ostrogoths, who initially joined the Huns; and the Visigoths, who invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 410 but later became Roman allies. After Attila’s empire broke up, the Ostrogoths became allies of Constantinople.
Theodoric the Great (454-526) was brought up as a noble hostage at the imperial court in Constantinople. He became King of the Ostrogoths in 475.
In 488, Emperor Zeno ordered Theodoric to invade Italy with an army of Goths to overthrow Odovacar (also spelled Odoacer), the barbarian general who, in 476, had deposed the last Roman emperor in the West. In 493, Theodoric negotiated a treaty with Odovacar and then killed him with his own hands at a banquet. In theory, Theodoric ruled Italy as viceroy for the Eastern Emperor Anastasius (Zeno died in 491), and issued gold solidi at Rome with the Emperor’s name and portrait.
“The coinage of Ostrogothic Italy is, for the most part, markedly superior to that of Constantinople, the coins being carefully designed and struck in higher relief.” (Grierson, 34)
We see Theodoric’s portrait on a unique medallion of three solidi (13.5 grams, or about half an ounce) found near Senigallia on the Adriatic coast in the 19th century. He wears a rich cloak over a coat of mail, and his long hair is carefully arranged in a very un-Roman manner. He also has a moustache – something no Roman ever sported without a beard–there isn’t even a word for moustache in Classical Latin! But his title is merely “Rex” (king), showing deference to the one and only Emperor. In antiquity a pin (now removed) was soldered to the back of this piece so it could be worn as a brooch.
Theodoric’s nephew, Theodahad, succeeded him in 534. Theodahad placed his own portrait on a remarkable bronze coin struck at Rome. A dying gasp of classical art, this is the last realistic profile portrait that we will see on a European coin for seven hundred years (when Frederick II, King of Sicily, tried to revive imperial imagery on his superb gold augustalis of 1231). The long hair, moustache and richly ornamented helmet tell us this is a barbarian ruler, but the winged victory on the reverse–and the letters SC (Senatus Consultu – “by consent of the Senate”)–attest to the continuing prestige of Roman ideals.
The Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy survived until 552 when the last king, Teia, was killed fighting the Byzantines.
Fritigern, a Visigothic leader, struck a deal with the Eastern Empire. In exchange for aid and sanctuary, the Goths would serve as warriors. The deal fell through due to mutual suspicions and corrupt Roman officials, and the Visigoths rebelled. On August 9, 378 near Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey), Emperor Valens and many of his legions fell in combat against Fritigern’s warriors.
The Visigoths went on to establish a kingdom in southern Gaul and later conquer Spain, where they ruled until the Muslim invasion in 711. Visigothic kings struck gold in the name of the Roman emperor, in an increasingly erratic and crude style until the reign of Leovigild (569-586), the first Visigothic ruler to place his own name on coins (often backwards or misspelled, suggesting the die cutters were illiterate). They also featured the proud boast REX INCLITUS, or “illustrious king.” The portrait became almost abstract, and the reverse figure of winged Victory bearing a palm branch and wreath gradually degenerated into an insect-like stick figure.
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