Coin Relief – Issue Fifteen

Welcome to the next edition of Coin Relief. In this issue, Dr. Andrew Brown takes a look at a turbulent period of Roman history when a succession of usurpers destabilised the empire…and of course minted some coinage!

Usurpers c.AD 258-272

“It was the public destiny that in the time of Gallienus whosoever could, sprang up to
seize the imperial power”

Historia Augusta Lives of the Thirty Pretenders 10

The passage above from the often-inaccurate Historia Augusta, which cast Gallienus in a rather unfavourable light, emphasises the problems faced by the empire in the middle of the 3rd century. As we have seen previously, during the reigns of Valerian I and Gallienus things began to unravel. Pressures external and internal to the empire resulted in insurrection on a number of occasions, perhaps most evident in the emergence of the breakaway Gallic Empire by Postumus in AD 260. Valerian’s capture in the east was undoubtedly a factor in this, the vacuum it created spurring rebellion east and west that Gallienus (often unsuccessfully!) attempted to deal with.

Between the period of Valerian and Gallienus’ rise to power in AD 253 and Aurelian finally providing some stability, uniting the empire again before his death in AD 275, Roman authority was usurped on a number of occasions at both ends of the Roman
world. Indeed, in more than once instance this resulted in the emergence breakaway states and the creation (or attempted creation) of new dynasties. A by product of this was the appearance of coinage in the name of numerous individuals who did not hold power in Rome or who were not officially recognised as emperors by Rome. There were not quite the ‘Thirty Pretenders’ suggested by the Historia Augusta, but there were enough for it to be a major destabilising problem for the empire in the 3rd century.

What is curious about all of these episodes of usurpation is their emergence on the frontiers of the empire. It was in these regions where individuals with certain standing and support (notably of the military) could wrest authority from Rome and were perhaps
far enough removed from the Emperor and his legions to do so. It may be, though, that this was as much an effort to stabilise conditions close to home as it was any real attempt to take on the might of Rome proper. We have looked previously at one of these breakaway states, the Gallic Empire,  and it is notable that Postumus in particular stopped short of pushing to take Rome when the opportunity might have been there, seemingly content to consolidate the regions under his control. We might see something similar at the opposite end of the empire in the east too – at least for a time!

During this period, then, we are dealing with a central authority in Rome, with five emperors (and their families) in power:

We have already looked at the Gallic Empire, focused on the western provinces and with seven usurpers who issued coinage:

However, these were not the only individuals to usurp Roman authority during this period. On the Danube frontier and in the eastern provinces, faced with similar destabilising effects of incursion and Valerian’s defeat by the Persians, similar grabs for
power were made, often with the support of the local populace and the legions. Their coinages are much more limited due to their comparatively restricted periods of autonomy and, from a PAS perspective, much rarer given that they are far removed from the province of Britannia, which was under the control of the Gallic Empire until AD 269. On the Danube, there was revolt in AD 258 or 260 against Gallienus by Regalianus and his wife Sulpicia Dryantilla. Meanwhile, in Syria Valerian’s capture resulted in Macrianus Major and his sons Macrianus Minor and Quietus assuming power, before being ousted themselves by Septimius Odaenathus in AD 261. He established a new Palmyrene dynasty in the east that was turned into an empire by his wife Zenobia who succeeded him as regent with their young son Vabalathus in c.AD 267.

The Roman empire (red), with the Gallic (green) and Palmyrene (yellow) empires (Image: Andrew Brown).

he numbers of coins present in a British context for any of these usurpers is understandably small given where they usurped power and their short periods of rule. Nevertheless, some
examples do turn up, so it is perhaps worth having a quick look at who produced coinage other than the Gallic usurpers in this period that might crop up either in hoarded assemblages or as single finds.

Regalianus and Sulpicia Dryantilla, AD 260

The instability created by external threat and then Valerian’s capture in AD 260 was felt in particular on the frontiers. We have previously seen that while Valerian campaigned in the east, Gallienus was engaged with incursion along the Danube and Rhine frontiers in the mid to late AD 250s. In AD 258 he installed his eldest son, Valerian II, who was himself still only a teenager, at Sirmium (Serbia) in an attempt to stabilise the situation there while Gallienus focused on the Rhine. As a young caesar, Valerian II may well have been in the charge of one Ingenuus, apparently the governor of Pannonia and Moesia, or at least in command of the military here. The death of Valerian II in AD 258 put Ingenuus in a potentially perilous position but he was soon declared
emperor by the Moesian legions. His usurpation was swiftly dealt with, though, and Gallienus’ general Aureolus defeated Ingenuus at the Battle of Mursa – precisely when this occurred is a matter for debate, possibly as early as AD 258 or following Valerian I’s capture in AD 260.

Ingenuus issued no coinage, suggesting his rule was brief. He was by no means the first to usurp power in the Danube region though – a decade earlier Pacatianus (AD 248) had done just that against Philip II – and he was quickly followed by another,
Regalianus. Regalianus may have been a Dacian promoted to the position of dux Illyrici by Valerian I, before being declared emperor by the remnants of Ingenuus’ forces to continue the revolt – the Historia Augusta jokingly suggests his authority to rule as ‘king’ derived from his name: “Rex, regis, regi, Regalianus” (Historia Augustus 10)! It seems as though Regalianus had a successful campaign against the Sarmatians in AD 260, before
being killed by a coalition of his own troops and the Roxolani (a Sarmatian people).

Regalianus elevated his wife Sulpicia Dryantilla to augusta and coinage was issued for both. There are very few of these extremely rare coins known and the number of types represented to date are limited to a handful of examples (see RIC V.2, pp. 586-
588). These are very often overstruck on earlier coin types, for example Severan denarii, and appear quite crude and varied in terms of their manufacture. This is likely indicative of a rushed and ultimately short-lived output of coinage, perhaps more of an emergency coinage than anything else. Their general distribution close to Regalianus’ seat of power in Carnuntum (Austria) points to his control not extending much if at all outside Pannonia. As we might expect for such a rare coinage there are so far no PAS examples. Of course, there is always the possibility one might turn up in the future!

Radiates of Regalianus (left, BM:1920,0425.1) and Sulpicia Dryantilla (right, BM:1928,0205.1), c.AD 260 (Copyright: The British Museum).

Macrianus and Quietus, c.AD 260-261

Valerian’s defeat at the Battle of Edessa and subsequent capture by the Sassanid Persians led by Shapur I in AD 260 proved the tipping point in Syria too. In the face of an invading Persian army, two of Valerian’s officials who held sway with the purse strings
and the military assumed control: Callistus, or Ballista, who had been Valerian’s praetorian prefect; and Fulvius Macrianus or Macrianus major, who controlled the Imperial treasury as rationibus. They conspired to elevate Macrianus’ two sons, Titus
Fulvius Iunius Macrianus or Macrianus minor and Titus Fulvius Junius Quietus, to power. Macrianus and Quietus were duly proclaimed as co-rulers by the legions in AD 260.

An initial push by Macrianus major and Ballista prevented further incursion into Syria by Shapur’s Persian forces, who had already captured several Syrian towns and notably sacked Antioch. Valerian’s failed campaign had left something of a military vacuum in the region, which Macrianus and his sons were able to inherit and gain an element of control over. The final expulsion of the Persians, however, came with the
Palmyrene king Odaenathus (more on him further below). By the end of AD 260, the Macriani controlled a large portion of the eastern empire, with their influence extending from their base in Syria as far south as Egypt with her grain supplies that were so
important for Rome – indeed, Roman provincial coins were struck at Alexandria for both sons.

It is at this point that they divided their forces. Macrianus major and Macrianus minor marched west to confront Gallienus, who was at this time engaged with incursion in northern Italy by the Juthungi. They met his armies commanded by the general
Aureolus in Pannonia in AD 261 where they were heavily defeated, the two men either killed in battle or afterwards at the hands of their own forces. Quietus, however, remained in Syria with Ballista, presumably with the intent to keep control of the eastern territories. News of his father and brother’s deaths, though, resulted in power slipping from his grasp. Quietus sought refuge in Emesa, but was besieged by Odaenathus – who remained loyal to Gallienus – and was finally killed by the inhabitants of Emesa as Odaenathus approached the city.

Although both Macrianus minor and Quietus were short-lived rulers, they did strike coinage, perhaps in two eastern mints (in addition to the provincial issues noted above). Only ten radiate types are listed in RIC V.2 (pp. 580-583) for Macrianus and 11 for Quietus, so their small issues should be identifiable if they appear for recording through the PAS. At present, I can find no examples of single coins recorded through the PAS for either Macrianus or Quietus. This might at first glance seem unsurprising, however, both brothers are represented (admittedly in very small quantity!) in hoarded groups of later-3rd century date in Britain. Ten coins are present in the Cunetio hoard (8 of Macrinus and 2 of Quietus; Cunetio nos. 1917-1924) and single examples do
occasionally appear in larger assemblages (e.g. Normanby, in contrast to Cunetio, has just one coin of Quietus – Normanby no. 582)4. Given that they do appear in a small number in hoards, it is quite plausible that the odd example might turn up in wider
circulation amongst the thousands of radiates recorded in England and Wales.

Radiate of Quietus, Eastern mint. Record ID is WILT-D0A939 (Copyright: The British Museum, License: CC-BY).

Odaenathus, Zenobia and Vabalathus, C.AD 260-272

While the Macriani had attempted to use Valerian’s defeat as a means of establishing their own rule in the eastern (and perhaps wider) empire, Odaenathus remained loyal to Gallienus as client king in Palmyra. Palmyra, an oasis town whose prominence and wealth had been built on its position as a key trading centre, lay within Roman Syria but retained a degree of autonomy from Rome. Odaenathus was from a prominent Palmyrene family and by c.AD 251 attained senatorial rank along with his elder son, Septimius Hairanes (or Hairan), perhaps later granted further powers in Syria by Valerian.

The Persian victory over Valerian, and the latter’s death, in c.AD 260, afforded new opportunity for Odaenathus, who appears to have manipulated the position to his benefit while maintaining fealty to Rome. Initially, as noted above, he was able to pull together an army of Palmyrenes and, if we are to believe the literary sources, Syrian peasants, who faced the Persian army fresh from defeating Valerian and sacking Antioch. Although Macrianus and his sons had been able to hold off any further Persian advance, the Palmyrene army pushed the Persians out of Syria and Mesopotamia, driving them back as far as the Persian
capital of Ctseiphon and securing once again the eastern territories for the empire. Odaenathus followed this up by returning to Emesa where he ousted Quietus and Ballista
after Macrianus’ death.

These two events, purportedly conducted under the auspices of the empire and for the good of Rome, earned him position and great honours from Gallienus. Not only was the Palmyrene triumph celebrated with a Victory in Rome in AD 263, but Odaenathus was given several titles, apparently including corrector totius orientis (‘corrector/restorer of the whole
east’) and dux Romanorum (‘Commander of the Romans’) – Gallienus appears to have accepted his position and loyalty in the east, even if Odaenathus remained a client king subservient to the emperor. Odaenathus extended his control to cover large portions of the eastern empire, including Syria, Arabia, and parts of Anatolia. He was seemingly declared ‘King of Kings’ in the east and retained military and political sway within the region while remaining a vassal to Rome. While on campaign in Anatolia in c.AD 267, Odaenathus was assassinated along with his eldest son, Hairan, although precisely where, why, or by whom remains unclear! What he had managed to achieve, though, was some stability in the east through the reclamation of Roman territories lost to Persia and the maintained security of the eastern frontier, as well as the foundations for a new Palmyrene empire.

This latter empire was short-lived but emerged in AD 267 upon Odaenathus’ death with his wife Zenobia7. As the de facto ruler of the Palmyrene Kingdoms she became (for a brief period of time!) one of the most powerful leaders in the ancient world and is
remembered in classical (and more recent) sources as a formidable and charismatic figure compared to the likes of Cleopatra. She acted as regent for her 10-year-old son Lucius Julius Aurelius Septimius Vabalathus, who inherited his father’s regnal titles – he too was ‘King of Kings’ – although Zenobia’s usage of Roman official titles caused some friction with Rome
since they were not hereditary in the same way. It was Zenobia, though, who for the next few years consolidated control in Syria from her base in Palmyra and probably also at Emesa and Antioch. Where Odaenathus had managed to create an environment for a Palmyrene dynasty to succeed him, it was  Zenobia who as able to expand this to a full-blown empire. In the west, Gallienus had been killed in AD 268 and his successor, Claudius II was engaged in conflict with the Goths on the Danube frontier, giving Zenobia freedom to expand her control in the east. In Palmyra, she initially sought to develop the city into a centre of learning and culture, something approaching Alexandria or Antioch. Claudius’ death in AD 270 was followed by the brief reign of Quintillus (AD 270), before Aurelian came to power and sought in the first instance to deal with the problems on the northern frontiers, before turning to look east.

It appears as though initially Aurelian may have been accepting of Zenobia’s position and that Zenobia herself maintained Palmyra’s role, at least outwardly, as a client kingdom of the Roman empire. As we shall see below, this is perhaps reflected on the coinage of this period. But this began to change in AD 270. Zenobia expanded her territory within Syria and then into Arabia, before amassing a Palmyrene army of c.70,000 to invade Egypt, where she was declared ‘Queen of Egypt’. The following year, Zenobia’s empire expanded further to encompass Galatia and Ankara in Antolia, reaching its fullest extent by AD 271.
It was at this point that the relationship with Rome collapsed. Zenobia and Vabalathus took the titles of augusta and augustus respectively, in clear usurpation of Roman authority. By the spring of AD 272, Aurelian’s forces had reached Anatolia and pursued the retreating Palmyrenes back to Antioch, Emesa, and finally Palmyra itself. Aurelian laid siege to the city and Zenobia attempted to flee in order to seek aid from Persia, but was captured along with her son Vabalathus and the city ceded to the emperor. It seems as though both were spared, to be paraded in Rome at Aurelian’s triumph alongside the Tetrici and she may well have lived out her remaining days in the city or its environs. Palmyra herself suffered a similar demise. A further insurrection by the population in AD 273 led Aurelian to raze the city and
effectively remove its control over the eastern empire. What was once the capital of a fledgling eastern empire separate from and sandwiched in between Rome and Persia had come to a relatively swift end from which it never fully recovered.

Coins were struck for both Zenobia and Vabalathus at an eastern mint, probably Antioch, as well as from provincial mints (e.g. Alexandria). There are few types issued for either ruler, with just two radiate types for Zenobia and eight for Vabalathus (RIC V.2, pp. 584-585). There are no examples yet of Zenobia on the PAS, which is not surprising given the small volume of coinage reaching the province from eastern mints, particularly for short-lived issues, although there is an example in the British Museum collection.

Radiate of Zenobia, c.Ad 272 (BM:1974,1001.3, copyright The British Museum).

The Zenobia coin above clearly depicts her as empress (augusta), the Juno Regina reverse type characteristic of issues seen for imperial women. In this respect it represents a clear depiction of intent and usurpation of power from Rome. Contrastingly, the situation is slightly different for Vabalathus. Upon Aurelian’s accession to power in AD 270, the number of officinae at the Antioch mint (now under Palmyrene control of course) striking coinage increases from eight to nine. The mint at this time produces coins that depict Vabalathus on one face (probably the reverse) and Aurelian on the other (probably the obverse). Aurelian appears as the augustus and while Vabalathus is the Palmyrene prince (or king?) he is clearly a junior party in the relationship – the coinage in this issue does not give him official title as emperor. What this appears to be is an acknowledgement of Aurelian’s authority and so Vabalathus’ position, much like his father, as vassal to Rome. A situation that clearly changed with Zenobia’s coinage (see above) and the later issues of
Vaballathus where he appears as augustus.

Radiate of Vabalathus with Aurelian, c.AD 270. Record ID is DENO-42ED11 (copright: Derby Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

There are no examples of Vabalathus’ later coinage on the PAS. However, perhaps surprisingly, there are three coins from his issue with the Aurelian obverse type. These are listed as part of the Imperial series in RIC V.1 (p. 308) with the coinage of
Aurelian rather than Zenobia and Vabalathus (RIC V.2, pp. 584-585). The unusual titles at the end of Vabalathus’ legend – VCRIMDR – have been interpreted as reading Vir Clarissimus Rex IMperator Dux Romanorum (Most illustrious, king, leader of
the army, leader/commander of the Romans) and perhaps demonstrate at this stage (c.AD 270) Vabalathus and Zenobia’s continued acknowledgement of Aurelian’s authority.

Aurelian and reunification

Aurelian’s defeat of the Palmyrene empire in AD 272 was the beginning of stability and a reunification of the Roman world. The eastern provinces had returned and by AD 274 the
breakaway Gallic empire in the west was also brought under control. In the brief period of time from the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus through to Aurelian – less than two decades –
the Roman empire had suffered external threat, internal instability, fracture, usurpation, and had witnessed the appearance of numerous individuals as rival claimants to power. Where Gallienus, Claudius II, and Quintillus had struggled to keep the empire intact, Aurelian was able to unify the provinces and introduce a number of other reforms to aid in the restoration of the empire after the difficulties of the 3rd century (although it was perhaps only later, at the turn of the 4th century, that order was more fully restored). We will look at Aurelian in a future edition.

One thing to keep in mind with the multiple individuals, whether Gallic usurpers, emperors in Rome, or kings in the east, is that their coinages are often quite limited in volume given their
short periods of rule and in provinces far removed from Britain – particularly so for the individuals looked at in this edition. However, it is worth keeping an eye out for them, particularly when recording coins through the PAS, since they could well be hidden amongst the large numbers of radiates or hoard groups that appear within the province. While Macrianus and Quietus might be most likely, a double headed radiate could well be
Vabalathus, and we can still hope for a first Regalianus or Zenobia…!

References and further reading:

E. Besly and R. Bland, The Cunetio Treasure (British Museum, 1983) – recently republished in a combined volume with the Normanby Hoard by Spink: R. Bland, E. Besley, and A. Burnett, The Cunetio and Normanby Hoards (Spink, 2018).

See also a more detailed analysis (in German) of the coinages during Gallienus’ reign: R. Göbl Die Münzprägung der Kaiser Valerianus I./Gallienus/Saloninus (253/268), Regalianus (260) und
Macrianus/Quietus (260/262). (MIR Bd. 36. Vienna, 2000).

For Vabalathus and Zenobia see also:

A good read on Syria generally is T. Bryce Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History (OUP, 2014);

See also, for example, K. Butcher Roman Syria and the Near East (2003).

Zenobia and her life has stimulated huge interest in the arts and prompted a large volume of written output that I can’t go in to here, ranging from classical sources through well-known passages by the likes of Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – “Zenobia, the celebrated queen of Palmyra and the East”), to more modern histories.