All entries for Wednesday 01 March 2017

March 01, 2017

Restless on the Rhine? Quinctilius Varus and Countermarked Coinage from Kalkriese

When we imagine an ancient battlefield we envisage a landscape strewn with discarded weaponry and bones. However, battle sites also yield a wealth of numismatic evidence, which allow historians to speculate about the size, administration and movement of imperial forces.

Approximately 1500 Roman coins have been excavated from the soil of Kalkriese, where the German tribesman Arminius defeated three Roman legions led by the general Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in AD 9 (Rost and Wilbers-Rost (2011) 119). This numismatic evidence has potential to shed light upon events at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, which is plagued by uncertainties ranging from the location that the battle itself to exactly how many men Varus had on the march and the administration of the imperial army in the early imperial period.

A wide range of imperial currency has been found. These coins include a small number of gold aurei and quinarii excavators believe fell from a single purse, and more than seven hundred silver coins, which played an important role as the ‘vehicle’ of military pay (Howgego (1985) 20). Alongside these precious metal coinages, large quantities of low-denomination bronze and copper coins have been uncovered. Legions used great quantities of bronze and copper coinage to make day-to-day transactions, and the important role of low-denomination coins to the military economy is demonstrated by the volume and unique character of copper issues found in Kalkriese. Most are imperial issues of the second 'Altar' series, which were produced by the mint at Lugdunum between AD 2-4. The proliferation of a particular series is striking, and invites speculation about the provision of currency to the legions in the early imperial period. Though the mechanisms through which imperial coins reached the army are uncertain, evidence of consignments of coinage being sent to legions can be found throughout the literary and material record and the prevalence of a single series suggests that similar processes have occurred here (Caesar BC 3, 103, 1; Robertson (1968) 61-6; Howgego (1985) 21).

This assemblage of copper coins is also distinguished by the high proportion countermarks, which appear upon 96% of issues (Berger 1996). During the imperial period, countermarks were not only applied to worn imperial coins or civic issues to make them acceptable to soldiers as pay or change, but were applied in order to systematically validate coins prior to their dissemination to the troops (Crawford (1985) 47). In the early years of Augustus' reign, the imperial titles IMP and AVG were used to identify legionary currency and to imbue them with clear allusions to imperial authority, as precursors to the legionary symbols or monograms that would come to be the customary countermarks applied to legionary currency. Three distinct countermarks appear upon the Lugdunum aes issues. Two, IMP (imperator) with the lituus symbol and AVC (Augustus) (shown below), are common imperial countermarks, which allude to Augustus and are quite ordinary symbols of imperial authority.

aug countermark
AVC countermark on an aes of Augustus from Lugdunum.
Varus' countermark as legate on the Rhine on an aes of
Augustus from Lugdunum.

The third countermark, however, appears to present an exception to this rule. It is the personal monogram of the general Publius Quinctilius Varus, who led forces on the Rhine as an imperial legate between AD 7-9. The countermark (shown above) contains the first three letters of the general’s name, VAR, in ligature, within a rectangular stamp, and was certainly applied to imperial bronzes at some point during Varus’ short tenure in Germany. This was not the first time Varus’ name had appeared on coinage. Varus had issued civic bronzes with his portrait while a proconsul of Africa and consular governor in Syria, an activity mirrored by consuls Volusius Saturninus and Fabius Africanus in Africa and Fabius Maximus, Cornelius Scipio and Asinius Gallus in Asia Minor (RPC 1 4535; Howgego (1982) 10) (shown below). He also led a coin reform in Antioch, issuing civic bronze in 7/6 BC and silver tetradrachms in 6/5 BC, during which his countermark- VAR in ligature- was applied to issues from Laodiceia (Syria), Gabala and Chalcis sub Libano circulating alongside new issues (Howgego Cmk 658-9; Howgego (1985) 3 and 7). The similarity between the countermark placed upon Syrian issues and the countermark that appeared upon the western bronze issued to legions stationed in the Rhine is striking (Howgego (1985) 3). However, while the economic function of the countermark placed on Syrian coins is evident, whether the monogram applied to legionary currency in the Rhine fulfilled the same function is worthy of debate.

Varus' proconsular issue (RPC 4535).

Can we attribute an ulterior motive to Varus’ use of his own name for the countermark? Although countermarks bearing the name and titulature of those in power were applied to bronze coins in legionary camps on the Rhine with regularity during the Julio-Claudian period, the events of the late Republic were evidence that the strong bonds of loyalty felt by soldiers for their commanding generals were encouraged and cemented through the distribution of pay and cash bonuses. Varus' monogram upon a piece of imperial coinage was a public statement of his role in the dissemination of payment and reward, and it is possible that it was used in place of IMP or AUG countermarks to encourage the personal loyalty of his legions.

Furthermore, the discovery of aes issues whose portraits of Augustus have been mysteriously disfigured by gouges and scratch-marks among the aes found at Kalkriese add a layer of uncertainty to the activities of Varus and the loyalty of his legions. Whether Roman legionaries or victorious Germans were the agents of this defacement is unknown. Though the first publication of these coins suggested that these slashes were administered by Roman troops dissatisfied with imperial authority (Berger (1996) 55), we should question whether soldiers would consider a silent act of disapproval worth the demonetisation of their coinage, and ask why they would carry defaced currency onto the battlefield, where a large portion has been found. Kemmers and Myberg suggest an alternative thesis- that the defacements were carried out by victorious Germans, who wished to destroy the image of the emperor on the obverse side and the image of the Altar at Lyon, where representatives from Gaul were required to pay annual obeisance to the cult of Roma and Augustus on the reverse (Kemmers and Myberg 98-99).

Though it is tempting to use the proliferation of Varus’ monogram and the defacement of the emperor’s image as evidence of shifting loyalties among Varus’ legions prior to the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, we must not be too quick to condemn Varus through such circumstantial evidence. There is no proof that these disfigurements were carried out by Roman legionaries, nor any suggestion that Varus was cultivating the loyalty of his men (despite accusations of embezzlement levelled by Velleius (II 117). Indeed, consular governors were permitted to authorise the production of coinage and to issue coinage that contained their name and image during Augustus’ reign. Varus, who already had proconsular coins and countermarked civic issues to his name when he assumed control of the legions on the Rhine, and had taken a strong interest in coinage and finance throughout his career, may have considered the act of countermarking his legionary coinage with a personal monogram a continuation of his early monetary activities. Without evidence to the contrary, we should consider his activities exemplary of the administrative freedom permitted to consuls and legates in the early years of the empire, rather than an attempt to court the loyalty of his legions. Though its seditious nature can be discarded, the precise character of Varus’ countermark remains one of the many mysteries of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest.


This month's coin entry was written by Charlotte Mann, a Masters student at the University of Warwick with a strong interest in numismatics. She is currently investigating the impact of imperial presences upon the provincial coinages.

Works Cited:

Amandry, M, Burnett, A and Ripolles, P (2005) Roman Provincial Coinage Volume 1 (London: British Museum Press).

Berger, F. (1996). Kalkriese 1: Die römische Fundmünzen. Mainz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern.

Berger, F. (2000). Die Münzen von Kalkriese. Neufunde und Ausblick. In Die Fundmünzen von Kalkriese und die frühkaiserzeitliche Münzprägung. Akten des wissenschaftlichen Symposions in Kalkriese, 15.-16. April 1999. ed. R. Wiegels. Möhnesee, Bibliopolis: 11-45.

Crawford, M. (1985). Coinage and Money under the Roman Republic. Berkley: University of California Press.

Howgego, C (1982) ‘Coinage and Military Finance: the Imperial Bronze Coinage of the Augustan East’ in The Numismatic Chronicle v142 (1963) 1-20.

Howgego, C (1985) Greek Imperial Countermarks: Studies in the Provincial Coinage of the Roman Empire (London: Royal Numismatic Society).

Kemmers, F. and N. Myrberg (2011). Rethinking numismatics. The Archaeology of Coins. Archaeological Dialogues 18: 87-108.

Image Information:

AVG countermark: © The Trustees of the British Museum (1925,1007.8)

VAR Countermark: Reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Electronic Auction 116, lot 194) (

Varus' proconsular issue: Reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Auction 93, lot 990) (

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