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The Antoninianus

Part 2


Part 1 of this article dealt with the antoninianus from its introduction by Caracalla in AD 214 to the defeat of Philip I by Trajan Decius in AD 249.  The next quarter of the third century, a period of almost continuous rebellion and frontier problems, is now considered.


In his brief tenure of imperial office, Trajan Decius (AD 249-251) not only issued antoniniani in his own name, that of his wife, Herennia Etruscilla, and his two sons, Herennius Etruscus and Hostilian, but also, in a special commemorative series, coins depicting the ‘good’ emperors who had preceded him.  Those honoured were Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus and Severus Alexander.  The 3rd century view of Commodus’ reign was apparently somewhat different to our own, but we would not argue too much with Decius’ other choices.


In AD 250, Decius’ elder son, Herennius Etruscus, was appointed Caesar.  A year later he was promoted to the rank of Augustus, or joint emperor with his father, and his younger brother, Hostilian, was made Caesar.  Antoniniani of the imperial family, Trajan Decius, Herennia Etruscilla, Herennius Etruscus and Hostilian are featured in photos 12, 13, 14 and 15.


Barbarian pressure on the northern frontier of the Empire took up much of Decius’ time, and both he and Herennius Etruscus met their deaths in a battle against the Goths.


The next emperor, Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253), who was chosen by the army, ruled jointly with Hostilian, the last surviving male member of the previous imperial family, whom he raised to the rank of Augustus.  At the same time he appointed his son, Volusian, to the junior post of Caesar. 


The pressure on the northern frontier did not relent, and Gallus was beset by further problems when a plague spread throughout the Empire and took the life of Hostilian (AD 251) a few months after his appointment.  Volusian (AD 251-253) was immediately promoted to the vacant position and served jointly with his father until both were murdered by their own soldiers.


Antoniniani of Hostilian as Augustus, and of Volusian as Caesar, are scarce because of the short time they held these titles.  However, those of Gallus and Volusian as Augustus are common, and examples of these are illustrated by photos 16 and 17.


The reason for the emperors’ murder was a transfer of allegiance by the army to Aemilian (AD 253), whose successes in repelling Gothic invaders persuaded them of his superiority.  Aemilian’s tenure of office, however, lasted barely three months before he, too, suffered the same fate as his predecessors. 


Antoniniani of Aemilian are relatively scarce because of the short span of his reign; those of Cornelia Supera, his supposed wife, are extremely rare.  The progressive debasement of the silver which had taken place since the antoniniani’s introduction becomes increasingly evident in this period, and coins often show an underlying coppery colour.  An example of an antoninianus of Aemilian is shown in photo 18.



The Crisis Deepens


The army’s choice was now Valerian I (AD 253-260) who had supported Gallus and Volusian, and had been proclaimed emperor by his troops when they were murdered.  Valerian inherited an Empire under severe pressure on its northern frontier from the Germanic tribes, and in the east from Persia.  The threat of encroachment in these regions had been present since the early days of the Empire, but the political and military instability which now prevailed made the danger far more acute. 


On his accession, Valerian appointed his son, Gallienus, co-emperor, and the latter was soon despatched to the Rhine frontier where he achieved some notable successes against the Germanic tribes.  Valerian, determined to deal with the Persian threat, travelled to Syria and established his headquarters at Antioch.  Initially he was also successful, but in AD 260 he was captured by the Persians and died in their captivity at an unknown date.


After Valerian’s capture, the eastern army elevated two of their own officers to succeed him, notwithstanding the fact that Gallienus was still emperor.  Macrianus and his younger brother, Quietus, only held power from AD 260-261, the former being killed by Gallienus’ troops, and the latter by those of Odenathus, king of Palmyra.  At about the same time, another usurper, Regalianus, briefly seized power in Pannonia.  All three pretenders issued antoniniani, the latter even including some in the name of his wife, Dryantilla.  The coins of Regalianus are of extreme rarity, but those of Macrianus and Quietus are relatively common.


When Valerian and Gallienus became joint emperors, the elder son of Gallienus was appointed Caesar.  Because his name is the same as his grandfather’s, he is known to us as Valerian II.  About two years after his appointment Valerian II died and his younger brother, Saloninus, was created Caesar in his place.  Saloninus was elevated to the rank of Augustus in AD 259, but was put to death in the same year by the Gallic usurper, Postumus (see below).  Antoniniani were issued in the names of both Valerian II and Saloninus as Caesar, and in the name of the latter as Augustus.  Valerian I and Gallienus also issued antoniniani in the names of their respective wives, Mariniana and Salonina.  Coins of Mariniana are all of consecration type, indicating that she probably died before her husband’s accession.


It was during the joint reign of Valerian and Gallienus that the most rapid debasement of the antoninianus occurred.  Having started its life under Caracalla with a silver content slightly in excess of 50%, the deterioration, as already noted, was plainly evident before Valerian’s accession.  Around AD 258, however, a reduction in the silver content was made which was so severe, the coins had to be coated with a silvery wash to show their intended status.  This coating rapidly wore off in circulation revealing the coin’s true nature, a copper alloy containing, at best, around 4% silver.  Examples of early antoniniani of Valerian I, Mariniana, Gallienus and Salonina are shown in photos 19, 20, 21 and 22.


If the most rapid debasement of the antoninianus occurred during the joint reign of Valerian and Gallienus, the most severe reduction in its size occurred during Gallienus’ sole reign (AD 260-268).  During this decade, the Empire not only suffered a devastating economic collapse, large tracts of territory in the north, west and east were lost to usurpers.  The provinces of Britain, Gaul and Spain came under the control of Postumus, and much of the eastern territory was ruled by the king of Palmyra, Odenathus. 


The economic and political situation fuelled a spiral of decline.  As the frontiers came under increased threat, more and more military expenditure was necessary to defend them.  The demand for coin overwhelmed the state’s ability to supply bullion, and the ensuing debasement led to massive inflation.  This, in turn, precipitated resentment and ultimately rebellion against those responsible for the administration.


In different circumstances, Gallienus may well have proved an effective emperor, but he was overwhelmed by the task of recovering an Empire collapsing around him on every front.  Most of his reign was spent campaigning against frontier incursions, and he met his death at the hands of an assassin while laying siege to Milan in AD 268.  A debased antoninianus of Gallienus’ sole reign is shown in photo 23.



The Gallo-Roman Empire


While Gallienus was reigning over the central Empire, Postumus (AD 259-268) was successfully creating a rival Gallo-Roman Empire in the west.  He established his own mints at Cologne and Lyons and produced antoniniani which, while debased, contained at least as much silver as those of Gallienus, and were aesthetically and technically superior.  An example of an antoninianus of Postumus is shown in photo 24.


Postumus was murdered in AD 268 after successfully eliminating a rival claimant to his throne, Laelianus.  On his death, the Gallo-Roman Empire briefly passed into the hands of Marius, a former blacksmith, who lasted less than a month before being killed with a sword of his own manufacture.  Both Laelianus and Marius issued base antoniniani, those of the former being rare, and the latter, scarce.


Marius was succeeded by Victorinus, apparently an able soldier, but about whom little is known.  During his brief reign (AD 268-270), the Gallo-Roman Empire began to weaken, and Spain was probably restored to central control.  Victorinus continued to issue antoniniani (see photo 25) from the mints Postumus had established, but they are of more variable quality.


The final holder of imperial office in the breakaway western provinces was Tetricus, who appointed his son, also named Tetricus, Caesar.  Tetricus reigned from AD 270-273, before abdicating his position and surrendering his territory to the central emperor, Aurelian.


The antoniniani issued by Tetricus, both in his own name and that of his son (easily differentiated by the title Caesar in obverse legends of the younger man), reflect the imminent collapse of the breakaway empire over which he ruled.  Almost invariably the coins are crudely struck, of small module, and of base appearance.  Antoniniani of the two Tetrici are illustrated in photos 26 and 27.


In Part 3 of this article, we return to the legitimate line of emperors, the successors of Gallienus, who not only recovered the breakaway provinces of the empire, but also reformed the coinage and went some way towards restoring the antoninianus.

12.  Antoninianus of Trajan Decius

13. Antoninianus of Herennia Etruscilla

14. Antoninianus of Herennius Etruscus

15. Antoninianus of Hostilian

16. Antoninianus of Trebonianus Gallus

17. Antoninianus of Volusian

18. Antoninianus of Aemilian

19. Antoninianus of Valerian

20. Antoninianus of Mariniana

21. Antoninianus of Gallienus (Joint Reign)

22. Antoninianus of Salonina

23. Antoninianus of Gallienus (Sole Reign)

24. Antoninianus of Postumus

25. Antoninianus of Victorinus

26. Antoninianus of Tetricus I

27. Antoninianus of Tetricus II

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