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The Antoninianus


Part 3


Part 2 of this article dealt with rebellions, frontier problems, and breakaway regimes in the east and west of the empire during the reign of Gallienus and his predecessors.  We now return to the legitimate line of emperors to conclude the story of the antoninianus.


Gallienus was succeeded by Claudius II (AD 268-270), known as Gothicus on account of an impressive victory he won against invading forces of that race.  Unfortunately, after the battle a plague developed amongst the Gothic survivors which spread to the Roman forces and took the life of the emperor.  The antoniniani of Claudius II, of which an example is shown in photo 28, are as base as those of his predecessor.


The debased antoniniani of Gallienus, Claudius II, and the Gallo-Roman emperors were extensively imitated in Britain and Gaul, and the copies have traditionally been given the name ‘barbarous radiate’.  The production of this unofficial coinage was on a very large scale which suggests it played a significant economic role.  Care has to be taken when examining coins of this period to determine whether they are official issues or irregular copies.  While many of the barbarous coins are undersize with crude engraving and blundered legends, the better examples are very accurate copies of their prototypes.


Claudius II was briefly succeeded by his brother, Quintillus (AD 270), whose antoniniani were of similar fabric and style. They are readily identifiable because of the distinctive curly-haired portrait of the emperor (see photo 29). Also issued during this reign was a series of special coins in commemoration of Quintillus’ recently deceased brother. 


Quintillus took his own life after his troops deserted him and switched their allegiance to Aurelian.  Already elevated to the purple by his own soldiers, Aurelian duly observed the formality of obtaining senatorial approval and assumed office.  He proved to be an outstandingly successful emperor.  Within the brief span of his reign (AD 270-275), he recovered not only the western territory held by Tetricus, but that in the east usurped by the Palmyrene dynasty, and now presided over by the widow of Odenathus, Queen Zenobia.  The Empire was once again a single entity whose security was underpinned by a relatively stable military regime.  But these were not the only achievements of Aurelian;  early in his reign he turned his attention to economic affairs and instituted a reform of the coinage. 


The effects of this reform on the antoninianus were considerable.  The coin was restored to approximately the same size it had been at the time of its introduction by Caracalla;  new production methods resulted in rounder and more regular flans; and, although the silver content remained very low (about 4%), a technique was developed to improve the durability of the white-metal coating.  In addition, the coins were marked in various ways to indicate the mints and workshops at which they were struck, and many also carried an enigmatic exergue inscription, XXI or XX.I (or their Greek equivalents KA or K.A).


There has been much debate regarding the intended meaning of these marks, but they almost certainly relate, in some way, to the value of the coin.  The consensus is that they refer to the ratio of copper to silver in the coin’s composition.  This hypothesis is supported by, (a) the silver content (approximately 4%) established by analysis of the coins, and (b) the fact that a stop ‘.’ often separates the XX from the I, and the K from the A.  The stop is thus regarded as a ratio indicator, analogous to the way we would currently use a colon (e.g. 20:1).


Early in his reign Aurelian had granted certain titles to Vabalathus who, jointly with his mother, Queen Zenobia, ruled Palmyra.  He also permitted him to issue antoniniani which on one side carried the radiate bust of Aurelian, and on the other, the laureate head of Vabalathus.  The name of Vabalathus on these coins is followed by the letters, VCRIMDR, the interpretation of which has been subject to much speculation.  The most widely accepted view is that they stand for ‘Vir Clarissimus, Rex, Imperator, Dux Romanorum’, titles extolling the nobility, royalty, military rank, and imperial recognition of their holder. A coin of Vabalathus is shown in photo 30.


In AD 271, Vabalathus exceeded his authority and issued antoniniani in his own name as Augustus, replacing the bust of Aurelian with a figure of Victory.  It was an unwise move; within a few months the Palmyrene rulers had been captured by Aurelian and their territory placed under the direct jurisdiction of Rome.


Aurelian issued antoniniani in his own name and that of his wife, Severina (see photo 32).  The emperor is portrayed on his coins in a new soldierly style, cuirassed and with short cropped hair.  Military themes also predominate on the reverses, as typified by photo 31 which depicts Aurelian as restorer of the army.  An even greater tribute is paid on other antoniniani which proclaim him RESTITVTOR ORBIS (restorer of the world),  an inscription which in a very real sense is an accurate statement of his achievement.


Aurelian was not, however, immune to the political intrigues of the time, and died at the hands of assassins in the fifth year of his reign.  He was succeeded, after a short interregnum, by the elderly Tacitus (AD 275-276), and then, after the latter’s natural death, by his brother, Florian (AD 276).  Antoniniani of these emperors follow a similar style to those of Aurelian, Florian’s being somewhat scarcer due to the very short time he held power.  An example of an antoninianus of Tacitus is shown in photo 33, and one of Florian in photo 34.


Although Florian was recognised as emperor by the army in the west, the eastern army had elected its own candidate, Probus.  When the inevitable confrontation loomed, Florian was murdered by his own men before any real fighting took place.


Probus (AD 276-282), like Aurelian before him, ranks as one of the most capable emperors of the third century.  Not only was he successful in a military context, he also organised public works such as the establishment of new vineyards and the completion of Rome’s city wall.


Numismatically, the reign is interesting on account of the variety of portraits that appear on Probus’ antoniniani.  Prior to his reign, the emperor’s portrait had almost invariably been shown draped and/or cuirassed, facing right.  This approach was also employed on many of Probus’ coins, but in addition there are antoniniani with left facing helmeted portraits of the emperor wielding spear and shield, and others where he is shown wearing the imperial mantle and holding an eagle-tipped sceptre.  Examples of these innovative obverse designs are shown in photos 35 and 36.


The soldiers, redirected by Probus to work on civilian projects, did not share their emperor’s enthusiasm for their new role, and vented their anger in the traditional way by murdering him.


Carus (AD 282-283) and his sons, Carinus and Numerian, were the next emperors to assume the imperial mantle. Appointed Caesar in the year of their father’s accession, the sons were each elevated to the rank of Augustus in AD 283.  During that year, Carus and Numerian travelled to the east to engage the Persian enemy, while Carinus remained in Rome to oversee the western provinces.


Carus was successful in driving back the Persian forces, but was ostensibly killed by a lightning strike shortly after the battle.  He was more probably murdered by Arrius Aper, the same praetorian prefect who subsequently murdered Numerian during his return to the west in the following year.


Carinus (AD 283-285), for his part, had to contend firstly with the usurper, Julian of Pannonia (AD 284-285), who had rebelled against him, and secondly with Diocletian, who had been elevated by the eastern troops on the murder of Numerian.  He was successful in both cases, but on the point of achieving the second of these victories he was murdered by one of his own officers who suspected him of seducing his wife.


The innovative obverses introduced by Probus are not continued to anything like the same extent on antoniniani of the family of Carus, and the variety of reverse types is more restricted.  The standards of production and the size of the coins do, however, remain at a similar satisfactory level.  Antoniniani of Carus, Carinus, Magnia Urbica and Numerian are shown in photos 37, 38, 39 and 40.


Antoniniani were also issued in the name of Carinus’ wife, Magnia Urbica, and posthumously in the name of Nigrinian, a grandson of Carus, who is believed to have been Carinus’ son.  The usurper, Julian of Pannonia, also struck very rare antoniniani during this period.


The Antoninianus under the Tetrarchy


On the death of Numerian, the soldiers, not wishing to give their allegiance to Carinus, elevated Diocletian to the purple.  His first act was to put Numerian’s murderer to death, after which he marched to confront his rival, Carinus.  As related above, Carinus was on the point of military success when he was struck down by one of his own senior officers.


Diocletian thus became the undisputed master of the Roman world, and during a twenty year reign proved his worth as an administrator and reformer, rather than a military leader.  About two years after his own elevation, recognising the enormity of the task with which he was confronted, he appointed as co-emperor the successful general, Maximian.  In AD 293 two more men, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, were appointed to the junior position of Caesar.  This major structural reform was undertaken both to spread the load of administering the Empire, and to provide for smooth succession when a senior emperor came to the end of his term of office; in Diocletian’s plan, after serving twenty years. The system of government of this period is known as the ‘Tetrarchy’, and during its operation, each of the partners issued coinage in their own names.


Prior to his appointment as joint emperor, Maximian had been charged with the task of quelling an uprising in Gaul in which two pretenders, Amandus and Aelianus, had been instrumental.  Maximian quickly dealt with the situation, but not before Amandus had issued some extremely rare antoniniani in his own name.


A rather different situation arose a few years later when Carausius, Maximian’s admiral, established himself as rival emperor in Britain.  For almost seven years (AD 286-293) he successfully evaded the attempts of Maximian to depose him, and skilfully ruled his ‘British Empire’.  He was ultimately murdered by his finance minister, Allectus, who reigned for just three years (AD 293-296) before being deposed and killed by Constantius Chlorus.  Both British emperors issued large quantities of antoniniani (see photos 42 and 43), those of Carausius being of more variable quality. 


Initially, Diocletian (AD 284-305) and Maximian (AD 286-305) continued to issue antoniniani to the standard established by Aurelian.  Galerius (Caesar AD 293-305) and Constantius Chlorus (Caesar AD 293-305) followed suit on their appointment.  In the late 290’s, however, Diocletian turned his attention to the coinage and instituted reforms which heralded the end of the antoninianus.  A radiate coin of the same module continued to be struck for about ten years by these emperors and their immediate successors, Severus II, Maximinus II and Constantine I, but two significant differences are evident.  Firstly, the new coin has no silver content, whereas the antoniniani issued immediately prior to the reform contained around 4%, and secondly, the XXI marking discussed above is not used on post-reform radiates.  Antoniniani of Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius and Galerius are shown in photos 41, 44, 45 and 46.


In fact the XXI mark was transferred to a new larger coin, known today as the ‘follis’, which Diocletian introduced, and which was to become the principal bronze coin of the Empire.  The follis, like the antoninianus before it, contained about 4% silver, thus giving further weight to the argument that the XXI mark represents the base metal to silver ratio.


Thus, after nearly one hundred year’s service, the antoninianus passed into history, its purchasing power dramatically reduced by the effects of inflation and debasement.  In that period, the portraits of more than 70 emperors, usurpers, pretenders and imperial personages are represented, however briefly, on the coin.  Many of these portraits convey, as well as a true likeness of the individual, something of their character and personality.  This skilful portrayal of the individual was soon to give way to an artistic idiom that attached less importance to rendering the emperor’s features accurately than to representing him as holder of imperial office.  From Diocletian’s reform onward, the various emperors’ portraits, while technically well engraved, are often almost indistinguishable one from another.



A Note on Collecting Antoniniani


A representative collection of antoniniani can be formed today at fairly modest cost, as many of the coins have become available from large hoards.  Prospective collectors should aim to obtain specimens in the best possible condition, but they should be aware that it is not uncommon to find coins ‘improved’ by the use of modern silver-restoring compounds.  These can sometimes be detected by close examination with a powerful (10X) magnifying glass.  Tell-tale signs include underlying corrosion spots with an unnatural silver surface, and build-ups of excess compound around the letters of the legend.  A wise course of action is initially to buy the more common coins in order to gain experience in their examination and minimise the financial impact of inadvertently acquiring treated specimens.  It should, of course, be recognised that many coins from hoards have been legitimately cleaned by museums and others, and an untoned surface is not necessarily suspicious.

28. Antoninianus of Claudius II, Gothicus

29. Antoninianus of Quintillus

30. Antoninianus of Vabalathus

31. Antoninianus of Aurelian

32. Antoninianus of Severina

33. Antoninianus of Tacitus

34. Antoninianus of Florian

35. Antoninianus of Probus

36. Antoninianus of Probus

37. Antoninianus of Carus

38. Antoninianus of Carinus

39. Antoninianus of Magnia Urbica

40 Antoninianus of Numerian

41. Antoninianus of Diocletian

42. Antoninianus of Carausius

43. Antoninianus of Allectus

44. Antoninianus of Maximian

45. Antoninianus of Constantius Chlorus

46. Antoninianus of Galerius

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