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Shadow Emperors: Coins of the Fall of Rome

Coins of the Fall of Rome by Mike Markowitz

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
THE ROMAN EMPIRE in the West died not with a bang, but with a whimper. A series of short-lived rulers, mostly puppets of barbarian warlords, presided over the accelerating collapse of a state that had endured for five glorious centuries. The coins issued in the names of these so-called “Shadow Emperors” help to illustrate this dramatic and melancholy story.

Petronius Maximus

Gold Solidus of Petronius Maximus (455 CE). Image: Classical Numismatic Group.
Gold Solidus of Petronius Maximus (455 CE). Image: Classical Numismatic Group.

Things took a sharp turn on March 16, 455 CE, when Emperor Valentinian III[1] was murdered by two hit men when he dismounted his horse on the Campus Martius, a large open field in Rome. The assassins were avenging the death of Flavius Aetius[2], Rome’s last great military commander, killed in a fit of rage by Valentinian the year before. The assassination was arranged by Petronius Maximus, a powerful senator, who proclaimed himself emperor the next day, forcing Valentinian’s widow, the beautiful Licinia Eudoxia, to marry him.

“The Vandals arrived outside Rome itself in May 455. Petronius Maximus was there, but had neither the forces loyal to him nor the spirit to mount a defense. He fled along with many others and was killed during the confusion. One story says he was knocked from his horse by a stone flung by one of his own soldiers and then finished off by a mob. His reign lasted less than three months (Goldsworthy, 354).”

Despite his brief tenure, Petronius managed to issue gold solidi at Rome[3] and some very rare examples from Ravenna.

Avitus

Gold Solidus of Avitus (455-456 CE). Image: Goldberg Auctioneers.
Gold Solidus of Avitus (455-456 CE). Image: Goldberg Auctioneers.

Marcus Maecilius Eparchius Avitus came from a distinguished Senatorial family in what is now the Auvergne region of central France. His date of birth is unknown. A talented diplomat and military leader, he was promoted to the high rank of magister militum (“master of soldiers”) by Petronius Maximus. While visiting the court of the Visigothic king Theodoric II[4], Avitus learned of the death of Petronius. With Visigothic support, he was proclaimed emperor on July 9, 455.

Resentful of a non-Italian, the Roman Senate nevertheless grudgingly accepted him, and he arrived at Rome in September. The imperial treasury was so depleted that Avitus had to melt down many of the city’s statues to sell the bronze. In September 456, the Romanized Germanic warlord Ricimer[5], with the support of a general named Majorian, raised a revolt against Avitus. Defeated in battle near Placentia (now Piacenza in northern Italy) the emperor was captured, forced to abdicate, and made bishop of Placentia. There is a suspicion that he was later strangled or starved to death in prison by Majorian, who was proclaimed emperor by the army on April 1, 457.

Coins in the name of Avitus were issued at Arelate (modern Arles, France), Mediolanum (Milan), and Rome. An exceptional gold solidus from Arelate sold for $100,000 USD in a 2013 U.S. auction[6].

Majorian

Majorian proved to be a vigorous and ambitious ruler who clearly hoped to restore the fortunes of the Romans in what remained of the Western Empire (Sear, 549).

Julius Valerius Majorianus was born into a military family around 425. The general Aetius regarded Majorian as a potential rival and sidetracked his career, but after Valentinian III killed Aetius, Majorian was promoted to command the imperial guard. Following the overthrow of Avitus, Majorian was proclaimed emperor by the army and eventually accepted by the Roman Senate, although he was never officially recognized by the Eastern Roman emperor, Leo I (ruled 457-474).

Gold Solidus of Majorian (457-461 CE). Image: Goldberg Auctioneers.
Gold Solidus of Majorian (457-461 CE). Image: Goldberg Auctioneers.

Majorian personally commanded his army in successful campaigns against the Visigoths in Gaul and Spain. A planned expedition to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals was abandoned when a fleet assembling in Spanish ports was betrayed and destroyed in 460. This disaster convinced Ricimer to depose and execute Majorian in August 461.

Gold solidi and tremisses of Majorian were issued from Arelate, Ravenna, and Mediolanum[7], but not Rome. The Visigoths in Gaul issued “pseudo-imperial” coins in Majorian’s name. On his coins, Majorian appears in profile, wearing a crested helmet and holding a spear. Some small bronzes were struck at Mediolanum and Ravenna. A few silver half siliqua pieces are known, but their authenticity is uncertain.

In the judgement of 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon[8]:

The successor of Avitus presents the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species.

Libius Severus

Gold Tremissis of Libius Severus (461-465 CE). Ravenna or Rome Mint. Image: Classical Numismatic Group.
Gold Tremissis of Libius Severus (461-465 CE). Ravenna or Rome Mint. Image: Classical Numismatic Group.

Following the execution of Majorian, the throne remained vacant for over three months until Ricimer decided to make an obscure senator from Lucania, Libius Severus[9], his next puppet emperor (being of barbarian origin, Ricimer was ineligible for the throne himself). Almost nothing is known about this emperor’s life, including his birth date. He is sometimes numbered as “Severus III”, and his personal name may have been “Livius” — the letters B and V are sometimes interchanged in late Latin.

Libius Severus “reigned” for almost four years, but the Eastern emperor refused to recognize him. Severus’ coinage, mostly in gold, was issued mainly at Rome[10], and there are many contemporary Visigothic imitations, distinguished mainly by their cruder style.

Libius Severus died, probably of natural causes, on November 14, 465.

Anthemius and Euphemia

Born about 420 in Constantinople, Procopius Anthemius traced his ancestry to the usurper Procopius[11], who had seized the throne for about eight months in the previous century (365-366 CE). Anthemius was married to Marcia Euphemia, daughter of the late Eastern Roman ruler Marcian (r. 450-457). To Leo I, this made Anthemius a potential contender for the throne, and to get rid of him, Leo sent him with an army to take control of Italy.

Gold Solidus of Anthemius. Rome Mint. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Gold Solidus of Anthemius. Rome Mint. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Following the death of Libius Severus, the Western throne had remained vacant for almost 17 months. To secure his claim to the crown, Anthemius arranged a political marriage of his only daughter, Alypia, to the warlord Ricimer in 467. The two soon fell out, and the disastrous defeat of an expedition against the Vandals in North Africa damaged Anthemius’ support among the Roman elite. This failed invasion nearly bankrupted the empire: with some 1,100 ships and 100,000 men it cost 130,000 pounds of gold, or 9,360,000 solidi[12]!

In an attempt to reconcile Ricimer and Anthemius, Leo sent an experienced diplomat, Olybrius, to Italy. But it was too late. Ricimer led his army to besiege Rome and Anthemius was captured and beheaded on July 11, 472.

Anthemius issued gold solidi and tremisses at Rome, Mediolanum, and Ravenna. The reverse of the solidus shows the standing figures of Anthemius and Leo holding a large globus crucifer between them[13]. The Latin inscription SALUS REIPUBLICAE hails “The Well-Being of the State”.

Gold Solidus of Euphenia (462-472 CE). Rome Mint. Image: UBS Gold & Numismatics.
Gold Solidus of Euphenia (462-472 CE). Rome Mint. Image: UBS Gold & Numismatics.

Anthemius also issued some rare coins at Rome in the name of his wife[14]. The empress appears in profile with short hair, rather simpler than the elaborate beehive hairdos that were the height of fashion in the fifth century.

Olybrius

Anicius Olybrius was born in Rome to a wealthy and powerful elite family, though the date is unknown. He married Placidia, a daughter of emperor Valentinian III, which made him yet another potential contender for the throne. He fled from the Vandal sack of Rome in 455 and found refuge at the court of Constantinople. In 464, he was made Consul, a purely honorary title that still carried great prestige. Following the death of Anthemius, Ricimer made Olybrius his next puppet emperor.

Gold Tremissis of Olybrius (472 CE). Mediolanum. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Gold Tremissis of Olybrius (472 CE). Mediolanum. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

All coins of Olybrius are extremely rare. The gold solidus is so rare that no example has appeared on the market in decades. It bears a facing crowned portrait of the emperor on the obverse and a large cross on the reverse, which is surrounded by the inscription SALUS MUNDI (“Salvation of the World”)[15]. A gold tremissis issued at Mediolanum sold for over $397,000 in a 2023 Swiss auction[16].

After seven uneventful months of rule, Olybrius died of “dropsy” (possibly congestive heart failure or kidney disease) on November 2, 472. Ricimer had died in August and was succeeded as warlord by his nephew, Gundobad.

Glycerius

Gold Tremissis of Glycerius (473-474 CE). Mediolanum Mint. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Gold Tremissis of Glycerius (473-474 CE). Mediolanum Mint. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Born in Dalmatia at an uncertain date, Glycerius was a soldier who rose to command the palace guard during the short reign of Olybrius. In March 473, after the throne had been vacant for nearly four months, Gundobad persuaded Glycerius to take the position of puppet emperor. He was never recognized by the Eastern emperor in Constantinople.

A rare tremissis of Glycerius issued at Mediolanum brought over $34,000 in a 2016 Swiss auction[17].

Julius Nepos

The career of Julius Nepos is complicated.

Gold Tremissis of Julius Nepos. Image: Classical Numismatic Group.
Gold Tremissis of Julius Nepos (First Reign 474-475 CE). Image: Classical Numismatic Group.

Born to a military family in Dalmatia at an unknown date, father served as a successful general in the army of emperor Majorian. Nepos became military governor of Dalmatia, a semi-independent buffer zone between the Eastern and Western empires on the Adriatic Sea. In 474, with troops provided by the new Eastern emperor Zeno, Nepos invaded Italy, deposed Glycerius, and was proclaimed Western emperor on June 19 and accepted by the Senate at Rome on June 24. Glycerius was exiled to Salona[18] in Dalmatia and made its bishop.

Nepos tried to restore Roman control over Gaul, but the Visigoths were too strong. The Western Roman emperor lost a source of support when Zeno was briefly overthrown in Constantinople by the usurper Basiliscus (January 475 – August 476).

Gold Solidus of Julius Nepos. Image: Classical Numismatic Group.
Gold Solidus of Julius Nepos (Second Reign, 477-480 CE). Image: Classical Numismatic Group.

In August 475, Orestes, a Roman general who had served in the court of Atilla the Hun, revolted against Nepos, who then fled to Dalmatia. Orestes appointed his own son, Romulus, who was about 11 years old at the time, as emperor. Interestingly, Nepos continued to rule in Dalmatia until he was assassinated in 480, possibly in a plot organized by Glycerius. This means that the state ruled by Julius Nepos outlasted the “Fall” of the Roman Empire itself.

But while still on the throne, Nepos issued gold solidi and tremisses at Rome, Mediolanum, Arelate, and Ravenna. The Ravenna tremissis is very rare with only about eight examples known[19]. A few crude silver half siliqua pieces (about one gram) were struck there. These were almost the only silver coins from the dying years of the Western Empire. Following the murder of Orestes and the deposition of Romulus, coins were struck at Ravenna and Milan in the name of Nepos (477-480). On one solidus, the letter “N” was engraved backwards, indicating how much the standards of workmanship at the mint had deteriorated.

Romulus Augustulus

Gold Tremissis of Romulus Augustulus. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Gold Tremissis of Romulus Augustulus (475-476 CE). Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Remembered as Augustulus (“Little Emperor”) Romulus was born about the year 465[20]. Very little is known about his life or his 10-month reign as child emperor of Rome and puppet of his own father. He was never recognized by the Eastern Roman Empire, which considered the still-living Julius Nepos the legitimate ruler in the West.

When a Germanic military leader named Odovacar (or Odoacer[21]) led a revolt against Orestes, Romulus was forced to abdicate on September 4, 476. This date is often given as the “Fall of Rome”, although for most Romans, nothing actually changed. The imperial regalia of the Western Roman Empire were returned to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople with the message that a separate emperor was no longer required in Italy. Zeno reluctantly accepted Odovacar as his viceroy in the West. Exiled to an estate in Campania, with an annual pension of 6,000 solidi, Romulus lived into the next century. The date of his death is unknown.

Gold Solidus of Romulus Augustulus (475-476 CE). Rome Mint, 31 October - early September 476. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Gold Solidus of Romulus Augustulus (475-476 CE). Rome Mint, 31 October – early September 476. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Gold tremisses in the name of Romulus were struck probably at Rome, Ravenna and Mediolanum[22]. A few silver half siliqua pieces are known. In a 2022 London auction, a solidus in the name of Romulus brought over $125,000[23]. Because he is often considered the “Last Roman Emperor in the West”, his coins are in great demand and bring dramatic prices. On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, the solidus of Romulus is #85 (Berk, 120).

Collecting Shadows

The standard reference for this coinage is Kent (1994), a massive volume of 856 pages, usually cited as “RIC X”. Secondhand copies currently go for as much as $250. Sear (2014) is a useful and more affordable alternative at about $55. For collectors who can read French, the superbly illustrated, large-format two-volume reference by Lacam (1983) can be found for about $150.

Coins of most of the Shadow Emperors appear infrequently in major numismatic auctions, where they command high prices. Anthemius is the only exception. His coins seem less rare; at least I have managed to acquire two (one pierced and plugged) for my own collection. Visigothic imitations of some of these coins are somewhat more common and affordable. Assembling a set of the Shadow Emperors would be a serious challenge for a patient and very wealthy collector.

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentinian_III

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aetius_(magister_militum)

[3] CNG Triton XIX, January 5, 2016, Lot 682. Realized $60,000 USD (estimate $50,000).

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodoric_II

[5] Ricimer’s father was (most likely) a noble of the Suevi tribe. His mother was a Visigoth princess.

[6] Goldberg Auction 72, February 5, 2013, Lot 4234. Realized $100,000 USD (estimate $50-75,000).

[7] New York Sale LI, January 12, 2021, Lot 154. Realized $9,500 USD (estimate $3,500).

[8] Gibbon (1781), Chapter 36.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libius_Severus

[10] CNG Auction 121, October 6, 2022, Lot 1055. Realized $4,125 USD (estimate $5,000).

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procopius_(usurper)

[12] At this time, Romans expressed large sums of money in terms of pounds of gold. The Roman pound of 12 ounces was about 326 grams.

[13] NAC Auction 138, May 18 2023, Lot 885. Realized CHF 9,500 (about $10,494 USD; estimate CHF 5,000).

[14] UBS Auction 78, September 9, 2008, Lot 2040. Realized CHF 62,000 (about $54,921 USD; estimate CHF 40,000).

[15] The British Museum has an example, purchased from Sotheby’s in 1848 and once in the collection of Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke (1656-1733): https://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00195018001

[16] NAC Auction 138, May 18, 2023, Lot 886. Realized CHF 360,000 (about $397,658 USD; estimate CHF 200,000).

[17] NAC Auction 92 Part 1, May 23 2016, Lot 887. Realized CHF 34,000 (about $34,267 USD; estimate CHF 25,000).

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salona

[19] CNG Auction 91, September 19, 2012, Lot 977. Realized $25,000 USD (estimate $10,000).

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_Augustulus

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

[22] NAC Auction 120, October 6, Lot 915. Realized CHF 55,000 (about $60,103 USD; estimate CHF 45,000).

[23] Roma Numismatics Auction XXIII, March 24, 2022, Lot 1149. Realized £95,000 (about $125,247 USD; estimate £50,000).

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (2nd Edition). Pelham, AL (2019)

Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London (1781)

Goldsworthy, Adrian. How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. New Haven, CT (2009)

Grierson, Philip and Melinda Mays. Catalogue of the Late Roman Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. Washington (1992)

Kent, J. P. C. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume 10: The Divided Empire and the fall of Western parts: AD 395–491. London (1994)

Lacam, Guy. La Fin de L’empire Romain el le Monnayage Or en Italie (“The End of the Roman Empire and Gold Coinage in Italy”; 2 volumes in French). Luzern, Switzerland (1983)

McEvoy, Meaghan. “Shadow Emperors and the Choice of Rome (455-476 AD)”, Antiquité Tardive 25 (2017)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume 5. London (2014)

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

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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.

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.

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