Welcome to another edition of Coin Relief. In this issue Dr. Andrew Brown examines the coinage of the emperor Aurelian who ruled from AD 270-275.
Aurelian, AD 270-275
Lucius Domitius Aurelianus had risen from relatively humble origins in Moesia through the military ranks to serve as commander of the cavalry under Claudius II. He had served under Gallienus as a competent cavalry commander, notably alongside Claudius at the Battle of Naissus against the Goths in AD 268, although it is reported in at least one ancient source (Aurelius Victor XXIII.21) that he may have been one of the co-conspirators in Gallienus’ assassination outside Milan that same year. His military achievements continued under Claudius, first
against the Alamanni in the north and then against the combined forces of the Goths and Heruli where his Dalmatian cavalry drove and harassed the invading forces east through the Balkans and Thrace. Claudius’ death by plague in AD 270 at Sirmium prompted the brief reign of his brother, Quintillus, before the legions came out in support of Aurelian, who was still campaigning against the Goths on the Danube. Aurelian was initially based in Sirmium, where he had been declared emperor in September AD 270, and from here he had to deal with a new Vandal invasion on the Danube. This was quickly supressed before a second, more pressing, threat of invasion by the Alamanni and Juthungi in northern Italy took him to Milan (Quintillus’ former capital). Initial Germanic raiding proved quite successful and Aurelian’s forces suffered defeat in the Po Valley near Piacenza. As the invading forces worked their way closer to Rome, fear spread and the Sibylline books were consulted before Aurelian achieved important victories, notably at Fano, in early AD 271 that pushed the Juthungi back to the Danube. His victories against the Juthungi and Alamanni earned him the title Germanicus Maximus.
Two events occurred in Rome in AD 271 that had a long-standing impact on Rome and the wider empire. The city itself had been left to fend for itself and since the beginning of the imperial period had been without city walls to protect it. As a matter of urgency, Aurelian began a massive program of works to construct a huge defensive circuit to surround the city, a project that would not be completed until the reign of Probus. Much of the c.19km of the Aurelianic walls remain visible today, albeit with improvements and additions over the years.
The second issue Aurelian faced was with the coinage and particularly with the hugely debased material being produced by the imperial mint at Rome. We’ll look at this in greater detail below, but Aurelian’s attempts to control the coinage resulted in a pitched battle between the urban cohorts and the mint workers on the Caelian Hill in Rome with c.7,000 deaths and the closure of the Roman mint in AD 271 for two years. Ultimately, this resulted
by AD 274 in a reformed radiate coinage that was rolled out to the mints empire-wide.
At home in AD 271 Aurelian dealt with usurpations by Septiminus and Urbanus in Dalmatia that were quickly put down by the legions, and by Domitianus in Gaul. His attention then turned east to the Palmyrene Kingdom, reaching Antioch by May AD 272. After pushing the Palmyrenes back to Palmyra itself, Zenobia and Vabalathus were taken captive by Aurelian and, following a second insurrection in AD 273, Palmyra was sacked. Aurelian received the titles Parthicus Maximus for his eastern campaigns and his coinage often carries legends that included Restitvtor Orientis for his role as ‘restorer of the east’. After his successes in the east, Aurelian’s focus moved to the breakaway Gallic Empire in the west. In a resounding victory (likely manufactured in co-operation with Tetricus I!) at Châlons-en-Champagne in mid-AD 274, Tetricus I surrendered to Aurelian, reportedly quoting Virgil: “Unconquered hero, free me from these ills” (Eutropius IX.13).
For the first time in 14 years the Roman empire was united and Aurelian’s coins of this period (post-AD 272) often carry the reverse legend Restitvtor Orbis – ‘Restorer of the World’ – to reflect his role in restoring the eastern and western provinces to Rome.
AD 274 was significant not just for the reunification of the empire, but also for the reform of the radiate coinage. By the end of the year Aurelian was in Rome celebrating his triumphs (including triumphal processions with the Tetrici, Zenobia,
and Vabalathus on display) and his quinquennalia – his 5th year in power – with extensive games. After his victories in the east, Aurelian brought the solar cult of Sol Invictus (‘the unconquered/invincible sun’) to the fore, it has been argued even heading towards monotheism, with his coinage reflecting his association to Sol. This may have been stimulated by his defeat of the Palmyrenes at Emesa where he apparently achieved victory thanks to the divine intervention of the sun god, later paying his respects at the Temple of Elagabalus within the city (Historia Augusta Life of Aurelian 25). In any case, Aurelian’s
affinity with Sol resulted in the establishment of games dedicated to Sol that occurred every four years, a priesthood, and an elaborate temple to Sol Invictus in Rome that was adorned
with the spoils of Aurelian’s eastern campaigns and dedicated by him on 25th December AD 274. During the course of these festivities at the end of AD 274, Aurelian’s wife, Ulpia Severina, as augusta was afforded equal honour and becomes an important figure on Roman coinage of this period.
Coinage of Aurelian
Although the radiate coinage of the 3rd century is generally abundant in Britain and on the PAS too, Aurelian and Severina are not well represented, particularly after Aurelian’s reforms of the coinage in AD 274 (see below). The PAS has data for 181 coins of Aurelian (141 have images), with an additional 365 coins in the IARCW data that includes a mixture of site and hoard coins but lacks images and so is not included in the analysis here. For
Severina, the picture is even less comprehensive, with just 20 coins (13 have images) and a further 36 IARCW coins not included here. For the early issues of Aurelian one of the difficulties lies in the similarities between obverse and reverse types with his predecessors Quintillus and Claudius II, which on very worn or corroded coins can all look quite similar. There are several coins recorded under Aurelian that I have excluded here as they are in fact issues of Quintillus or Claudius and I imagine there are likely to be other examples within the mass of material for Claudius and Quintillus that could well be early types of Aurelian!
Gold coinage was struck for Aurelian, with some significant donatives issued, for example, from the mints of Milan and Siscia. However, this is extremely rare in Britain and Bland and Loriot
note just one gold piece of Aurelian (no. 427bis); there are to
date no PAS examples.
The hugely debased currency inherited by Aurelian in AD 270 included output from seven mints and 33 officinae around the empire. Attempts to curb issues of inflation and debasement by his predecessors had been unsuccessful and so one of the challenges presented to Aurelian was to resolve the monetary issues faced by Rome. Once the military and political situation had resolved itself to a degree, this became increasingly
possible and during the course of his reign Aurelian implemented a significant reform to the radiate coinage that had a long-standing impact, ultimately culminating in the reforms of
Diocletian at the end of the century.
The “bellum monetariorum” and monetary reform
During the course of the 3rd century, the radiate coinage quite quickly experienced widespread debasement. The, theoretically silver, coin issued first by Caracalla had become more of a token bronze coinage by the middle of the century, particularly with the reigns of Gallienus and Claudius II when the empire experienced both its greatest external threats and fragmentation, as well as economic instability and inflation. The drop in value of the radiate had also pushed the denarius from regular circulation by the AD 240s-250s and, aside from a brief interlude with Postumus, the large bronze denominations (sestertius, dupondius, and as) had all but vanished. In Rome the situation was particularly dire. By the time the posthumous Divus Claudius issues were struck, perhaps under Quintillus or early in Aurelian’s reign, the radiate
had reached its most base. Coins were poorly struck and on poor fabric that had little more than a few percent silver content. But they were also produced in large volume, flooding the market with poor quality coinage. Oddly, some of the early coinage of the breakaway Gallic empire, particularly with Postumus, as well as coins struck in the eastern mints, tends to have better quality control and more silver. The reason for this essentially appears to have been widespread fraud committed by the mint workers in Rome who, left unchecked, deliberately issued adulterated and underweight coins and possibly pocketed some of the raw metal
Aurelian’s attempts to suppress the poor-quality coinage issued by the Rome mint resulted in uprising by the mint workers led by the rationalis (the finance minister in control of the mint) Felicissimus. The revolt – the bellum monetariorum (‘the war of the moneyers’) – was repressed by Aurelian in a pitched and bloody battle on the Caelian Hill in Rome, with some sources suggesting as many as 7,000 deaths (e.g. Historia Augusta Aurelian 38.2; Eutropius IX.14)! The immediate impact in Rome was the forced closure of the mint in AD 271 for the next two years, with mint workers relocated to other mints around the empire. By AD 274, following the reunification of the empire, Aurelian was in a position to more fully reform the coinage. The return of the Gallic provinces to the fold meant the closure of the mints in Cologne and Trier and a resultant reduction in output of debased radiates. Rome had re-opened again in AD 273 and in the spring of AD 274 Aurelian introduced his reforms. The debased radiate was replaced with a reformed radiate with silvered surface, the aurelianus, that now contained 5% silver and was rolled out to all mints producing coinage within the empire. Significantly, these reformed radiates are marked with
the numerals XXI in Latin or KA in Greek, guaranteeing their fineness at 5% silver. Coins from the Ticinum mint are typically marked just with XX, while at Siscia they often carry punctuation: XX•I. This indicates the XXI or KA means “20 to 1” rather than 21, either one part silver to twenty bronze or 20 aureliani to one pure silver argenteus, thus 5%.
Alongside the introduction of the Aurelianus, the debased radiates were recalled from circulation, Zosimus noting that “He likewise called in all the counterfeit money, and issued new, to avoid confusion in trade.” (Zosimus I.61.3). This effectively devalued the poor quality radiates struck from Gallienus’ reign onward, and particularly in the Gallic empire, although, as we shall see in a future edition, in the west at least they did not quickly disappear from use. Indeed, the new, large denomination prompted widespread contemporary copies (‘barbarous radiates’) that proliferate in Britain, as well as large hoarded assemblages.
The denarius is reintroduced with Aurelian’s reforms as a small bronze coin with laureate bust, the aurelianus valued at two denarii in much the same way as when the radiate was initially introduced by Caracalla. The larger bronze denominations briefly re-appear and it is in the years AD 274-275 that all of the coinage for Severina is struck. Perhaps as significant as the newly introduced denominations was a reorganisation of the mints
themselves, with eight mints systematically striking and marking their coinage with more regulated mintmarks. The reverse types, too, show some element of reform with a focus on solar imagery and the cult of Sol Invictus that Aurelian had adopted during his eastern campaigns.
The mint at Rome produced several series of coins during Aurelian’s reign. The initial output from the mint continued in much the same way as it had done with Claudius II and Quintillus, striking from 12 officinae each with their own officina letter and with types similar to previous reigns. These carry a longer obverse legend with all of Aurelian’s titles: IMP C L
DOM AVRELIANVS AVG – there are currently nine identified examples on the PAS.
Following the monetary reform in AD 274, aureliani, denarii, and larger base metal denominations were all issued from the Rome mint and are represented in the PAS data. A total of four aureliani are recorded to date for Aurelian, with a further two examples of
Severina. It is worth noting that Severina often appears associated with Concordia and is given remarkable status in the coin issues with the officinae of several of the mints only striking for her. After Aurelian’s death in AD 275, coins in Severina’s name
continue to be struck prior to Tacitus’ promotion to emperor by the senate, suggesting that she held significant power and acted almost a regent for a short period of time.
With the reformed radiate also appears the small laureate bronze denarius – not the silver coin of the first two centuries AD, but a small copper coin that tariffed at half an aurelianus (or 1/124 lb). Some of these coins are marked in exergue with the letters VSV,
perhaps to demonstrate its value as a vsvalis or ‘common’ denarius. Perhaps surprisingly there are nine examples of these smaller denominations recorded through the PAS, four for
Aurelian and five for Severina. For each the same type is represented – VICTORIA AVG for Aurelian and VENVS FELIX for Severina. Interestingly, the only denarius of either in Normanby was of the same type for Severina (no. 1286). A single large bronze denomination – an as – has also been recorded through the PAS. These are generally rare and it appears to be the only example to date.
The Gallic mints had disappeared after Tetricus’ surrender to Aurelian in AD 274. Aurelian appears to have opened a new mint in Lyon, but it had a limited output and the issues lack the marks of value associated with the reformed radiate. Estiot suggests the reason for this may have been the difficulty in imposing the reformed coinage in a region where the debased coinage was the standard and that the authorities may have given up trying. These are not common coins, and there appears to only be one example on the PAS to date. It has been suggested that some coins originally identified as from Lyon may be the last issues of the
Trier mint before it was closed by Aurelian.
The issues from the mint of Milan follow a similar pattern to those of Rome, striking in up to four officinae (P, S, T, Q) first with the debased radiates and then the slightly improved coins
of c.AD 273-274. With the coinage reform, the mint at Milan was relocated to Ticinum, which produced large quantities of the reformed aureliani. As such, there are no reformed radiates from the Milan mint. The Milan coinage is quite extensive on the PAS, however, with at least 42 examples recorded to date.
It is thought, too, that the production of the Divus Claudius radiates, which appear in huge volume as regular and copied coins, may well have continued into the reign of Aurelian (at
both Milan and Rome). A coin from the Bourne Valley Hoard, Wiltshire (BM-C33636) would seem to confirm this, since it combines a posthumous issue of Claudius II on the obverse with a reverse type of Aurelian.
The slightly improved radiates appear towards the end of the mint operation at Milan, with several examples recorded through the PAS. There is a noticeable change not only in style, but also in reverse types that highlight, for example, the military, Aurelian’s role as RESTITVTOR ORIENTIS (‘restorer of the east’) following his reclaiming of the eastern provinces, and Sol.
After the transfer of the mint from Milan in AD 274, the new mint at Ticinum issues a series of post-reform radiates, aureliani, for both Aurelian and Severina, all carrying the value XXI in the mintmark. These were struck in six officinae (P, S, T, Q, V, VI), the latter two for Severina alone. There are twelve PAS examples with three main reverse types: Oriens, Providentia, and Sol.
The mint at Siscia began striking coinage almost immediately upon Aurelian’s elevation to emperor at Sirmium in AD 270. It was a significant mint for Aurelian, striking both gold and
radiate coinages throughout his reign in four then, after the reform, six workshops (P, S, T, Q, V, VI). There are 15 pre-reform and three post-reform radiates for Aurelian recorded through
the PAS currently attributed to Siscia. Three types are represented within this material, those that point to concord with the military (Concordia Militum), Fortuna types, and types
depicting Jupiter in his role as protector of the emperor (Iovi Conservatori).
When the mint at Rome was closed by Aurelian, mint workers were sent to Serdica to establish a new mint in the Dacian province – an important frontier location in the conflict with the Goths. The mint had a relatively limited output, striking in up to four officinae and using both the XXI and KA marks for the reformed aureliani. Only three pre-reform radiates and five aureliani from Serdica are recorded through the PAS.
Uncertain Balkan Mint
Alongside the mints of Serdica and Cyzicus, a new mint was established in the Balkans to support Aurelian’s campaigns on the Danube frontier against the Goths. The mint operated only between c.AD 271-273, closing with the completion of Aurelian’s eastern campaigns after the defeat of the Palmyrenes and prior to the reforms of AD 274. Only four possible examples are recorded through the PAS.
The mint at Cyzicus struck throughout Aurelian’s reign, of which the PAS records eight prereform and three reformed radiates.
After Roman authority was re-established at Antioch in AD 272, the mint continued to strike for Aurelian and, following his death, solely in the name of Severina. Notably, the mint here in the last issues of Severina gives her the title P F (Pia Felix), which is normally reserved for the emperor. Aside from the issues jointly in the name of Aurelian and Vabalathus, there is possibly one coin of Severina from the Antioch mint recorded through the PAS.
Two coins within the PAS material are apparently from the mint of Tripolis (Lebanon), established in c.AD 273. Coins of this mint are rare as British finds.
There are approximately 40 PAS coins that cannot be attributed to a particular mint either due to their preservation or lack of surviving mintmarks. The moving of mint workers between
mints in more than one instance means that many of the coins issued can appear quite similar in style. When identifying these coins, the mintmark should point you in the right direction.
The reformed aureliani should be identifiable based on the XX, XXI, or KA in exergue and, conversely those lacking these marks are likely to be pre-AD 274 (with the possible exception of the Lyon mint noted above). Look out for unusual mintmarks, too, as these may help – most notable are lions in the exergue for Rome mint coins and dolphins for coins of the unattributed Balkan mint! There are no examples of these on the PAS yet that I can find.