Coin Relief – Issue Four

Welcome to the fourth edition in our series of blog posts written by our Finds Advisers for ancient coins, Dr. Sam Moorhead and Dr. Andrew Brown. In this series they are exploring some of the many (many) ancient coins from the PAS database. 

Dynastic nummi c.AD 326

Constantine I (AD 306-337) celebrated his vicennalia – the twentieth anniversary of his rise to power – in the year between the 26th July 325 and 25th July 326. He had been elevated to emperor in York upon the death of his father Constantius I in 306, and two decades later, along with the Imperial family, made his way back to Rome from Nicomedia (Turkey) for his vicennial celebrations. Nicomedia had become his temporary capital following victory over co-Emperor Licinius I at the Battle of Chrysopolis (18th September 324) and it was from here that he began to establish a new, and Christian, Constantinian dynasty as sole ruler of the Roman world. During the course of this celebratory year, Constantine struck coins and medallions in gold, silver and bronze, that celebrate the imperial family – Constantine, his wife Fausta, mother Helena, and threes sons Crispus (AD 317-326), Constantine II (AD 317-340) and Constantius II (AD 323-361).

Copper-alloy nummus of Constantine I dated AD 326. Record ID is IOW-538EA5 (Copyright: Isle of Wight Council, License: CC-BY).

The bronze coinage associated with Constantine’s vicennalia appears in the period leading up to the inauguration of Constantinople on 11th May AD 330, which saw the reorganisation of the Roman world with a new eastern capital. The mint at Constantinople was already striking coinage by c.326 though and we see the first overtly Christian reverse type in this period.

Dynastic or “Anepigraphic” coinage

Our focus in this post is on the “dynastic” or “anepigraphic” bronze nummi that resulted from Constantine’s vicennial celebrations. These are distinctive in that they lack obverse legends (hence “anepigraphic”), whilst the reverse types simply name the emperor or on of the imperial family (hence “dynastic”).

Dynastic nummi and their precious metal counterparts were struck at mints moving from east to west. It has been suggested that the issues specifically related to the vicennalia were struck as a result of a treasury travelling with Constantine. Although gold and silver coins were struck at many of these mints, they are extremely rare. However, there are a number of the bronze examples recorded on the PAS database.

Anepigraphic nummi were struck at a number of mints across the empire. There are 53 examples of these types recorded by Constantine I and his sons Crispus, Constantine II and Constantius II. So far, we do not have any pieces of Fausta or Helena, but these were only struck in Antioch and therefore far less likely to reach Britain.

The Gold and Silver Coinage of Nero, AD 54-68

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, more commonly known by his imperial name Nero (AD 54-68), was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors. He was born in Antium (Italy) on the 15th December AD 37 to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger. By the age of 13 he was heir presumptive to the imperial throne through his adoption by Claudius and, in AD 54, at the age of just 16 became emperor. Agripinna’s involvement in ensuring her son inherited the throne from Claudius (and hastening his departure!) was questioned by ancient sources, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, and this element of manipulation and illegality was something that followed Nero throughout his life, and indeed afterwards.

Bronze Julio-Claudian head, possibly of Nero rather than Claudius I, from the British Museum collections (BM: 1965,1201.1, Copyright: The Trustees of The British Museum).

Upon becoming emperor, power rested initially with Agripinna and Nero’s advisers Burrus and Seneca. In AD 59 Nero conspired to murder his mother, if we are to believe Tacitus and others, due to his affair with Poppaea Sabina, having already poisoned his step-brother Britannicus in AD 55. His spiral into megalomania is well documented by the likes of Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who depict him almost as a caricature of tyranny, corruption, extravagance and with a desire for celebrity and acknowledgement of his prestige in the arts.

Although this is perhaps not the full story, Nero certainly entertained public extravagance. He was known to perform in public, singing and playing the cithara (lyre). In AD 67 he even competed in the Olympic games, winning every event he entered! In AD 60, he inaugurated his own Neronian games. Early in his reign (prior to Agripinna’s death) the empire was relatively stable and he seems to have found some support and even devotion amongst the populace. However, contemporary sources are far from unbiased or flattering toward Nero and this has dramatically affected the modern perspective of the emperor.

It is after Agripinna’s death and the gradual removal of Burrus and Seneca that things begin to unravel. Rivals were executed and he divorced and then exiled his wife Claudia Octavia on grounds of infidelity, despite much public outcry. In a public ceremony in AD 64, Nero married the freedman Pythagoras, taking the role of bride. Disaster struck Rome on the 18th July AD 64 when fire broke out on the Aventine Hill near the Circus Maximus, spreading to burn for six days and destroying much of the city. Many ancient sources blame Nero for starting the fire, supposedly to clear space for the construction of his vast Domus Aurea – Suetonius goes as far as to say that Nero watched the fire, performing in costume the Sack of Ilium from beginning to end (Suetonis, Nero: 38). He is further reported to have accused Christians of involvement, leading to their persecution. 

The tyranny was to catch up with him, however. In March AD 68 the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, revolted. Although this was suppressed and Vindex defeated in battle, growing support (and rebellion) for the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba, increased.  Nero fled Rome and on the 9th June AD 68 he committed suicide. Nero was an archetypal bad emperor and following his death was the first to have his memory officially condemned by the state – damnatio memoriae. His image and name were removed from many monuments and documents, some seeing his death as a liberation from his tyranny.

Coinage of Nero

Coinage of Nero on the PAS database is quite extensive, although by no means as prolific as the later Flavian period. There are currently about 170 examples of single gold and silver coins of Nero recorded on the database.

Pre-reform denarius of Nero dating to c.AD 60-61 (Reece Period 3). Record ID is SUR-881F62 (Copyright: Surrey County Council, License: CC-BY).

Nero’s reign is significant for the for the development of Roman coinage, most notably through his reform of the gold and silver coinage between AD 63-65, that saw their debasement and revaluation. This reform is generally placed c.AD 64 following the great fire of Rome, which not only destroyed large parts of the city but also put a great strain on the Roman Treasury to cover both the rebuilding of the city and Nero’s own personal extravagances. However, it has also been demonstrated that the impetus for Nero’s reforms may have been to stabilise the denarius empire-wide and perhaps also to align it with the silver coinages of the east. Indeed, the reform in AD 64 appears to have resulted in the emergence of aureus and denarius standards that, far from signalling the beginning of the decline of Roman coinage, replaced the preceding Augustan standards and remained in use and relatively stable for the remainder of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.  

Post-reform denarius of Nero dating to AD 65-66. Record ID is YORYM-4BB3D5 (Copyright: York Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

Kevin Butcher and Matthew Ponting have demonstrated in a series of studies of Nero’s silver coinage that there were possibly four different weight standards used during his reign. Where these coins were struck has also been a subject for discussion. In RIC I, Rome is taken as the mint for all gold and silver coinage, although it has also been suggested that the silver was initially minted at Lyon before being transferred to Rome during Nero’s reform. 

Early Roman gold coinage is generally quite rare in Britain and there are very few hoards that pre-date the Flavian period which contain aurei. However, there is a notable increase in losses of post-reform aurei of Nero, which represent the highest number of aurei recorded for any emperor on the PAS database. In total there are 9 Neronian aurei and one possible further example. Of the ten PAS examples, six are of the same reverse type: IVPPITER CVSTOS (Jupiter the Guardian), such as the example below.

Aureus of Nero dating to c.AD 66-67 (Reece Period 3). Record ID is SF-64AA54 (Copyright: Suffolk County Council, License: CC-BY).

It is worth noting that copies of Nero’s coinage do exist and appear quite frequently on the PAS. There are several examples that show muled irregular types between Nero and particularly later Flavian rulers.

Galba, AD 68-69

The revolt of Vindex followed by Nero’s suicide in July AD 68 signalled a period of disturbance and civil war within the Roman empire. Nero’s reign had been a difficult one in many respects and for Roman coinage had resulted in reform. Vindex’s revolt was suppressed while Nero was still emperor and so the first to seize control after his death was Servius Sulpicius Galba (AD 68-69), the 70 year-old governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. He became the first to rule in the Year of the Four Emperors

Denarius of Galba, AD 68-69 (Reece Period 3). Record ID is FASAM-B1F926 (Copyright: all rights reserved, License: CC-BY).

Galba was from an aristocratic Roman background, born on the 24th December 3 BC in Tarracina, Italy. He held various offices including praetor and consul as well as governor of Aquitania, Africa and Hispania. He benefitted from a close relationship (possibly even a familial link) with Livia Augusta, who left him half a million gold pieces in her will – although Tiberius “reduced it to a mere 5,000; and Galba never handled even that modest sum” (Suetonius, Galba, 5). Galba married Aemilia Lepida with whom he had two sons, but all three died during the AD 40s and he remained unmarried for the rest of his life.

Descriptions of Galba are far from flattering! He was seen as ambitious and wealthy, but also as a disciplinarian prone to cruelty and avarice, old and sometimes feeble. Suetonius describes him as of

“average height, very bald, with blue eyes and a hooked nose. His hands and feet were so distorted by gout that he could not endure a shoe for long, unroll a book or even hold one. The flesh on his right side too had grown out and hung down to such an extent that it could with difficulty be held in place by a bandage.”

Suetonius, Galba, 21

Coinage from the Civil Wars is generally rare on PAS, largely due to the very short-lived period of rule experienced by those elevated to high office. Galba is a good example of this with just 78 denarii and possibly thirteen bronze coins recorded. Despite the short period of time that Galba was emperor, his coinage is quite extensive. Although attribution to individual mints is complicated and in part conjectural, coinage in Galba’s name appears to have been issued from at least four different locations: 

  • Spanish mint (April to end of AD 68)
  • Gallic mint(s) (April to late Autumn AD 68) – Vienna(?), Narbo(?) and Lugdunum
  • Rome (July AD 68-15h January AD 69)
  • African mint, possibly Carthage (October AD68-January AD 69)

The PAS has records of coins from all of the above with the exception of the African mint, which might be expected given both the small volume of coinage produced and the unlikelihood of coins from this mint reaching Britain.

Early Denarius of Galba c.AD 68, Spanish mint. Record ID is LIN-898441 (Copyright: Lincolnshire County Council, License: CC-BY).

The earliest series of Galba’s coinage appear after he is declared imperator by his troops but importantly prior to him being officially recognised as emperor by the senate. Coins from this early phase are rare on the PAS database, with just four recorded examples, such as the one above. Coins from the Gallic mints are also rare on the database. The most common are those from the mint of Rome, with 39 examples recorded. They can often be distinguished from coins of the Spanish and Gallic mints through the adoption of the praenom imperatoris (IMP) at the beginning of the obverse legend. Two reverse types are most commonly seen: DIVA AVGVSTA depicting Livia standing left holding patera and cornucopiae (below left); and S P Q R/OB/C S depicting the legend within a wreath (below right).

DIVA AVGVSTA reverse type (left), record ID LEIC-719243 (Copyright: Leicestershire County Council, License: CC-BY). SPQR/OB/CS reverse type (right), record ID SUSS-087335 (Copyright: Sussex Archaeological Society, License: CC-BY).

Extensive bronze coinages were struck for Galba, notably in the Spanish and Rome mints. These are extremely rare on the PAS database and often difficult to identify closely due to their poor preservation. Just seven coins have been identified to date – a mix of sestertii and smaller denominations, many of which cannot be closely attributed to type or mint.

Galba’s death and succession

Galba reached Rome towards the end of AD 68, probably in the September or October. His coinage reflects both his attempts to maintain support from the provinces but also in Rome itself. However, it seems this didn’t have the desired effect! Upon reaching the Eternal City, Galba was immediately faced with problems. He was attacked on his way into the city by a legion loyal to Nero, and there was the threat of potential rebellion by Sabinus and Clodius Macer in Africa. But perhaps his greatest problems came with his desire to restore some kind of order to Nero’s extravagances by annulling awards, gifts and pay. He also surrounded himself with advisors who were seen as hugely corrupt and whose presence undermined his standing with both the senate and the army.

On the 1st January Ad 69, the day Galba took office alongside Titus Vinius as consul, the legions of Upper and Lower Germany rebelled and put their support behind Aulus Vitellius. With no surviving children, Galba adopted Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus on the 10th as his heir but upon presenting him to the praetorian guard, he refused to pay them the bounty they would normally have received on such occasions. The increasing lack of support politically and from the military brought about his eventual downfall and enabled his rival Marcus Salvius Otho to take control. On the 15th January Ad 69 the praetorian guard declared in favour of Otho prompting Galba to head to the Forum to try and make sense of events. He was killed on arrival by soldiers loyal to Otho. His decapitated head , along with those of Piso and Vinius, were paraded on poles before eventually finding their way to more sympathetic parties – Vinius’s head was sold to his daughter, Piso’s was given to his wife, and Galba’s to his steward Argivus who buried it in his garden. Galba lived 72 years and 23 days, out of which he ruled nine months and thirteen days, with a violent end. Tacitus remarks of Galba that: 

“omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset” (everyone would have agreed that he was worthy of imperial office if he had never held it)

Tacitus Histories I.49

Otho, AD 69

Denarius of Otho dating to AD 69 (Reece Period 3). Record ID is BH-242471 (Copyright: St. Albans District Council, License: CC-BY).

While travelling from Narbo to Rome, Galba was joined by the governor of Lusitania, who had allied himself to Galba’s cause, Marcus Salvius Otho (AD 69). Otho had a reputation for extravagance and had become a favourite and a confidant of Nero, a factor that caused suspicion amongst the senate on his elevation to emperor – he “found favour in Nero’s eyes by imitating his extravagance; therefore Nero had left with him, privy as he was to his debaucheries, Poppaea Sabina, the imperial mistress, until he could get rid of his wife Octavia” (Tacitus, Histories I.13). The two seem to have fallen out over Otho’s closeness with Poppaea though and Nero annulled their marriage, banishing Otho to Lusitania where he remained governor for a decade.

When the opportunity arose, Otho quickly sided with Galba to seek some revenge over his treatment by Nero. He was then quick to act when Galba elevated Piso over him as the imperial heir. Support from the military in Rome, notably the praetorians, prompted his coup and the murder of Galba. When Otho was declared emperor, he restored statues of Nero, reinstated those dismissed by Galba, and invested funds to continue Nero’s Domus Aurea – some in the increasingly supportive crowd (military and otherwise) even going so far as to give him the name Nero (Suetonius, Otho, 7)!

Otho was

“of medium height, bow-legged, and with splay feet; but almost as fastidious about appearances as a woman. His entire body had been depilated, and a toupee covered his practically bald head, so well made and fitted that no-one suspected its existence. He shaved every day, and since boyhood had always used a poultice of moist bread to prevent the growth of his beard”. 

Suetonius, Otho, 12

But he was an able, energetic, and fair leader – his compensation of the military certainly helping his cause! The major difficulty Otho faced was revolution in the provinces. Although many provinces initially came out in support of Otho, when the German legions had refused to recognise Galba they instead put their support behind one of their own, Aulus Vitellius. Otho sought to
share power with Vitellius in order to avoid Civil War, but by March Vitellius’ forces were on the move and he turned instead to the defence of Italy where his power base lay (Tacitus,
Histories, 74-78). On the 14th of March, Otho and his forces left Rome for Brixellum (Brescello, Italy) with Vitellius’ legions taking up positions outside Cremona. On the 14th of April the two armies met near Bedriacum and, hugely outnumbered, Otho’s legions suffered a heavy defeat. When the news reached Otho, rather than plunge the empire into greater bloodshed and Civil war he instead stabbed himself to death (on April 16th). Martial recounts 

“And wanton Otho still could win the day; But cursing war with all its price of blood. He pierced his heart and perished as he stood” (Epigrams VI.32).

Martial, Epigrams VI.32

Despite his bloody rise to power, his suicide was viewed as heroic and caused something of a sensation in Rome, as well as an outpouring of public support and grief (e.g. Suetonius, Otho, 12). At his death, he was “thirty-seven; and he died in the ninety-fifth day of his reign” (Suetonius, Otho, 11).


Denarius of Otho showing the TR P legend, dating to AD 69 (Reece Period 3). Record ID is LIN-D3B67D (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Otho’s coinage is, in comparison to his predecessor Galba, relatively limited. It is unusual in that only aurei and denarii were struck, all at the mint of Rome, and with no bronze coinage
at all – perhaps due to the shortness of his reign or there being no real need for issuing bronze coinage, which had been produced in relative abundance by Nero and Galba. The issues from the mint of Rome run from presumably shortly after his elevation as emperor on 15th January AD 69 and last until news of his death reached the city in the middle of April. All of his coinage carries legends referring to his tribunician powers (TR P), such as the example above, which were conferred on 28th February, suggesting his coinage might not have appeared until after this date. His title of Pontifex Maximus from 9th March provides a useful chronological marker.

There are 55 coins of Otho on the PAS (including 10 coins from the Welsh IARCW data). To view them all click here. To date all the reported coins are denarii with the majority of Otho’s types represented.

Vitellius, AD 69

Portrait of Vitellius from a silver denarius of the Lyon Mint, AD 69. Record ID is WMID-589FB2 (Copyright: Birmingham Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

When the legions of Upper and Lower Germany refused to renew their allegiance to Galba at the beginning of January AD 69, they instead proclaimed Aulus Vitellius (AD 69) as their emperor. Vitellius had very little military experience and his appointment by Galba as commander of the armies in Germany Inferior was an odd one, but he was in the right place at the right time. From a family that perhaps had distinguished origins (or alternatively reformed from lowly origins depending on who you believe! See Suetonius, Vitellius, 1-2), Vitellius 1 spent his youth in Capri where he
became a fixture alongside the likes of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero and was “notorious for every sort of vice” (Suetonius, Vitellius, 4). He married first Petronia and then Galeria Fundana, held the office of consul (AD 48), and the governorship of Africa prior to his appointment in Germany by Galba.

Soon after the legions declared for Vitellius, they received support from the armies of Gaul, Britannia, and Raetia, before beginning their march to Rome where Galba had by now been unceremoniously removed by Otho. His generals, Caecina and Fabius Valens, led half of the legions south to engage with the Othonian forces at Bedriacum with Vitellius himself
remaining in Gaul until word of Otho’s suicide reached him – he was acknowledged as emperor on the 19th April AD 69. His march to Rome was one of indiscipline and excess, Vitellius himself even remarking at the battlefield of Bedriacum that “Only one thing smells sweeter to me than a dead enemy, and that is a dead fellow-citizen” (Suetonius, Vitellius, 10).
This was no better demonstrated than his arrival at Rome, where he was greeted with fanfare but went on to model his leadership on the excesses of Nero “because he was a slave and chattel of luxury and gluttony” (Tacitus, Histories, II.71; see also Cassius Dio 65). The praetorians and urban cohorts were disbanded to make way for the German legions, while Vitellius assumed the title of Pontifex Maximus (18th July AD 69), adopted the cognomen Germanicus (also perhaps referencing his origins as emperor in Germany), banished astrologers from Rome (1st October AD 69), but also paid for military furlough and opened up Imperial office to a wider sector of Roman society (Tacitus, Histories I.58). We even hear of one banquet of 2,000 fish and 7,000 game birds!

However, things were to change. By the middle of July the armies in the eastern provinces had put their support behind a rival emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (AD 69-79), very soon pushing south towards Rome itself. A second battle at Bedriacum occurred on the 24th October AD 69 and ended in Flavian victory and then rapid advance towards the capital.
Vitellius attempted to agree a truce and abdicate but was persuaded otherwise by his supporters in Rome before driving Vespasian’s brother, Flavius Sabinus, and his relatives into the Capitol where he killed them, reportedly setting fire to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. As the Flavian army reached Rome on the 20th December, Vitellius disguised
himself and hid while the city was ransacked. He was soon found though and unceremoniously dragged through the streets into the forum. Suetonius described Vitellius as “unusually tall, with an alcoholic flush at most times, a huge paunch and a somewhat crippled thigh from being run into by a four-horse chariot” (Suetonius, Vitellius, 17). Vespasian’s soldiers tortured Vitellius before finally killing him (or possibly beheading him according to Cassius Dio, 21) and throwing his body in the Tiber. A reign of just 8 months.

Coinage of Vitellius

Coinage began to be struck in Vitellius’ name relatively soon after his legions declared for him in January AD 69. After all, he will have needed to pay his troops to keep their support! Three mints appear to have operated, one in Spain, one in Gaul, and, after his formal acceptance as emperor in April, one in Rome. The chronology of production at these mints isn’t precise, but then Vitellius was only emperor for a short period of time.

The Spanish mint, plausibly at Tarraco, probably began striking coinage fairly soon after the region declared it’s support for Vitellius in early January AD 69 (see Tacitus, Histories, I.76). Vitellius needed to pay his troops in Gaul and so the Spanish mint likely produced quite a volume of coinage (see RIC I (2nd ed.), p. 263) with gold, silver and bronze issues all known. However, coins of Vitellius’ Spanish mint are quite rare on the PAS, with just five possible examples identified to date, such as the example below.

denarius of Vitellius from the Spanish mint, dating to AD 69. Record ID is CAM-5B48E3 (Copyright: Cambridgeshire County Council, License: CC-BY).

A group of aurei, denarii, and asses have been identified as likely products of a mint in Gaul, probably Lyon (Lugdunum). Similarities with some of the Civil Wars coinage from this part of Gaul and the early support from the Germanic legions in Gaul likely means the mint here started striking coinage relatively early. Fifteen coins from this mint have been recorded through the PAS, all of them denarii, like the example below.

denarius of Vitellius from the mint in Gaul, AD 69. Record ID is NMS-312977 (Copyright: Norfolk County Council, License: CC-BY).

The vast majority of PAS examples of Vitellius are from the mint of Rome, with 88 recorded pieces, including the example below. Coins from Rome were struck in relatively large volume and with a range of types in gold, silver, and bronze. These were likely produced soon after Vitellius was recognised as emperor on the 19th April until his death on 20th December AD 69.

denarius of Vitellius from the mint of Rome, AD 69. Record ID is IOW-5F7D27 (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

References and further reading

Thorough treatment of bronze dynastic nummi can be found in L. Ramskold ‘Constantine’s Vicennalia and the
death of Crispus’ (2012; );

R. Harlick ‘Anepigraphic Bronze Coins of
Constantine and Family’ The Celator 21, 2007, No 7, 6-20.

For damnatio see the excellent book by Dario Calomino Defacing the Past (2016)

Butcher and M. Ponting The reforms of Trajan and the end of the pre-Neronian denarius (2015); The denarius in the first century (2011); The Roman Denarius Under the Julio-Claudian Emperors: Mints, Metallurgy and Technology (OJA, 2005)

R. Bland Coin Hoards and Hoarding in Roman Britain AD 43-498 (Spink, 2018)

Juvenal, Satire II; Tacitus, Histories