CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
IMPERIAL ROME NEVER really solved the problem of orderly succession to power. The “normal” pattern of inheritance in a monarchy is an elderly ruler replaced after his natural death by a well-qualified adult son. For Rome, this was an exception, not a rule.
Officially, an emperor had to be recognized by the Senate to be considered “legitimate”, but the increasingly powerless senators were often willing to stamp their approval on anyone who had the cash to bribe or the muscle to threaten them.
Many emperors died by suicide or by violence, often at the hands of their own troops or palace retainers. A few fell in battle. The unfortunate Carus (ruled 282 – 283) supposedly was struck by lighting, although this may be a cover story for assassination.
During the chaotic third century, more than 30 men simply declared themselves emperor, or were proclaimed as such by their legions. One of the first things a claimant needed to do was issue coins–to symbolize his authority, publicize his image, and, of course, pay his troops. It is a tribute to the remarkable efficiency of Roman mints that even rulers who held power for a few weeks were able to get coins bearing their image and titles into circulation. The coins of these “usurpers” are some of the rarest – and ugliest – Roman coins ever minted.
Jotapian & Pacatian
Philip “The Arab” (ruled 244-249) became emperor in the aftermath of Gordian III’s disastrous defeat by the Persians in Mesopotamia. To secure a truce, he agreed to pay an enormous indemnity: half a million gold aurei. That meant increased taxes, always something guaranteed to make the locals unhappy. The Syrian legions rebelled in 248 or 249. Their commander, Marcus Iotapianus (“Jotapian”) descended from the kings of Commagene, a small Hellenistic kingdom, nominally independent from 163 BCE to 72 CE.
The rare, crudely struck coins in the name of Jotapian were probably issued at Nicopolis, a Syrian town north of Antioch, because he never controlled a major mint. Only a few dozen coins of this revolt are known, all base silver antoniniani bearing a reverse depiction of Victory. One of the best examples brought almost $27,000 in a 2014 European auction.
Jotapian was captured and beheaded in late 249, and his head was presented as a trophy to the new emperor, Trajan Decius (ruled 249 – 251).
Another revolt against Philip broke out on the Danube frontier, led by T. Claudius Marinus Pacatianus (“Pacatian”), a commander about whom almost nothing is known. He briefly controlled the important mint of Viminacium (near modern Kostolac, Serbia). His coins use the same reverses as those of Philip (Pax Aeterna, Fortuna Redux, Concordia Militum, etc.). A sharp example brought $9,500 in a recent US auction.
One very rare type has the reverse inscription ROMAE AETER(nae) AN(no) MIL(lesimo) ET PRIMO (“To eternal Rome, the one thousand and first year”). This is one of the few Roman coins dated by reference to the legendary founding of the city in 753 BCE. When an army under future emperor Trajan Decius was sent to crush the revolt, Pacatian’s own troops killed him, a common fate of usurpers during this era.
Silbannacus is one of the most obscure and enigmatic figures in Roman imperial history. Not mentioned in any surviving written sources or inscriptions, the only evidence for his existence was a single coin, found in Lorraine and acquired by the British Museum in 1937. A second example, with a different reverse, turned up near Paris in 1996.
According to one theory, Silbannacus was an official left in charge at Rome when Emperor Aemilian (who ruled for three months in 253) left the city to fight the invading army of Valerian. Aemilian’s own troops killed him to avoid a bloody civil war. The fate of Silbannacus is unknown, but it was probably swift and brutal.
Like the ill-fated emperor Elagabalus (ruled 218 – 222), Uranius was hereditary high priest of the sun god, El-Gabal, in the prosperous Syrian city of Emesa (now Homs). When the Persians invaded Syria in 252/253, Uranius led the successful defense of his city.
To pay his army he issued coins bearing his own portrait: gold aurei, with inscriptions in Latin, and silver and copper coins inscribed in Greek. A superb example of the gold brought over $150,000 in a 2011 European auction. One type of his silver tetradrachm bears a reverse image of a saddled camel (one of the rare appearances of this desert beast on an ancient coin. In 254, the emperor Valerian restored Roman control over Syria and the fate of Uranius is unknown.
Cornelius Publius Gaius Regalianus was a Roman general descended from Decebalus, king of the Dacians (in modern Romania), who killed himself in 106 CE to avoid capture by Emperor Trajan. In 260 the empire was wracked by revolts in Gaul and the Balkans. Some of the legions on the Danube proclaimed Regalianus as emperor. He fought a brief, successful campaign against the Sarmatians, a barbarian tribe, but when the emperor Gallienus moved against him he was killed by his own troops (late 260 or early 261).
Interestingly, Regalianus was the only usurper of this era who also issued coins in the name of his wife, Dryantilla, who is otherwise unknown to history. The very rare coins in the name of Regalianus and Dryantilla are crudely overstruck on coins of earlier rulers. Apparently the only town he controlled was Carnuntum (near modern Vienna, Austria), as his coins have been found mainly in this region.
Gaius Julius Saturninus was a general of Moorish (or Gaulish) ancestry commanding legions in Syria when he was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 280, apparently against his will:
Pollio, a historian of the age, quotes him as greeting his new subjects “You have lost a useful commander and gained a wretched emperor.”
The only known coins in the name of Saturninus are two gold aurei, probably struck at Alexandria in Egypt. One of these, formerly in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was sold at auction in 1972, and again in 1991, when it brought $180,000.
Saturninus was killed by his own troops in Palestine when an army loyal to Emperor Probus moved against him.
Proculus was another short-lived rebel during the troubled reign of Probus (276 – 282). His crudely struck coins in debased metal are incredibly rare, with only two known examples. One is held by a museum in Munich (Pangerl, 182); the other, found in Yorkshire, England in 2012, sold in a 2013 UK auction for over $38,000. The mint is uncertain, possibly Cologne or Trier.
Julian of Pannonia
When the young emperor Numerian died in Syria under mysterious circumstances on November 20, 284, civil war erupted. Marcus Aurelius Sabinus Iulianus, the governor of Venetia in northern Italy, was proclaimed emperor by the legions of Pannonia on the Danube. He is usually known as “Julian of Pannonia” to avoid confusion with Julian II “the Apostate” (ruled 361-363).
Julian of Pannonia issued coins at the only mint he controlled, Siscia (now Sisak, Croatia). About 30 gold aurei are known, and a large number of base silver antoniniani. Carinus, brother of Numerian, marched his army from Britain to defeat the usurper Julian, who probably fell in battle or killed himself early in 285.
“Revolts in Egypt were especially dangerous, for not only was that province a steady source of monetary revenue, but it was also one of the empire’s three main sources of grain (Vagi, 429).”
Almost nothing is known about the redundantly-named Domitius Domitianus. Even the chronology of his revolt in Egypt is uncertain; it may have begun as early as 295 and ended as late as 298, although Domitius himself was probably murdered in 297. Six denominations of coinage in his name were struck at Alexandria: gold aurei, bronze folles (singular: follis) and half folles inscribed in Latin, and three provincial types inscribed in Greek. These were the last Roman provincial coins issued in Egypt.
The aurei are extremely rare, the only example I could find was acquired by the British Museum in 1877 from the Bank of England collection. The conventional bearded, laurel-wreathed portrait on the coins closely resembles all the other emperors of this period.
Alexander of Carthage
Like Egypt, the Roman province of Africa (modern Tunisia) was a vital source of grain to feed the empire. The capital city of Carthage, destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, was reborn and thrived thanks to its favorable location. Appointed governor of Africa in 303, Lucius Domitius Alexander rose in revolt when Emperor Maxentius (ruled 306 – 312) ordered him to send his son to Rome as a hostage. Food riots broke out in Rome, brutally suppressed by Maxentius.
Coinage in the name of Alexander consisted mainly of bronze folles (gold aurei were struck, but so rare I could not find any examples). The most common type bears a reverse with the standing female figure of the personification of Carthage, with the optimistic inscription INVICTA ROMA FELIX KARTHAGO (“Unconquered Rome, Happy Carthage”). To secure Rome’s grain supply, Maxentius sent an army to Africa. Alexander was captured and executed by strangulation, possibly as late as 311 (the date is uncertain).
Collecting the Usurpers
Assembling a collection of the coins of Roman usurpers would be a nearly impossible challenge for even the wealthiest collector or institution. Even researching this corner of classical numismatics requires a reading knowledge of three or four modern languages and access to obscure references. In many cases, only two or three coins are known to exist for a particular individual, but new hoards are constantly appearing on the market, and it costs nothing to dream…
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 Assuming these were contemporary aurei of about 5.3 grams, that would represent more than 85,000 troy ounces of gold, with a current bullion value over $110 million.
 The letter “J” does not occur in classical Latin. It was an invention of Renaissance typographers.
 Nicopolis, meaning “Victory City”, was a popular name in the Greek-speaking East; almost every province had one.
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 78, 26 May 2014, Lot 1090. Realized 24,000 CHF (approx. $26,792 USD).
 CNG Triton XVIII, 6 January 2015, Lot 1209.
 CNG Triton VII, 12 January 2004, Lot 1018. Realized $13,000 USD against a $15,000 estimate.
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 62, 6 October 2011, Lot 2067. Realized $152,157 USD.
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 39, 16 May 2007, Lot 157. Realized $7,798 USD.
 Harlan J. Berk Sale 174, 10 May 2011, Lot 230. Realized $15,250 USD.
 Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 64, 17 May 2012, Lot 1262. Realized $23,275 USD.
 Numismatic Fine Arts, Auction XXVII, 5 December 1991, Lot 176.
 Dix Noonan Webb, 10 April 2013, Lot 694. Realized £25,000 (approx. $33,250 USD).
Bowman, Alan (editor). Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 12: The Crisis of Empire 193 – 337. Cambridge (2005)
Claes, Lisbeth. “Coins with power? Imperial and local messages on the coinage of the usurpers of the second half of the third century (ad 253-285)”, Jaarboek voor Munt-en Penningkunde 102 (2015)
Estiot, Sylviane. “The Later Third Century”, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. Oxford (2012)
–. “L’empereur Silbannacus, un second antoninien”, Revue numismatique (1996)
— and Gildas Salaun. “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique (2004)
Pangerl, Andreas. Portraits: 500 Years of Roman Coin Portraits. Munich (2017)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)
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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.”