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November 01, 2016

Reunifying the empire: Aurelius and Sol Invictus.

aurelian_coin_sol_invictus  
Antoninianus. RIC V 64
Obverse: IMP AVRELIANVS AVG. Radiate and cuirassed bust of Aurelian facing right.
Reverse: ORIENS AVG. Sol Invictus holding laurel-branch and bow, treading on fallen enemy.
Γ (mintmark) behind Sol, XXIR in exergue.
 

This is an antoninianus (a denomination theoretically worth 2 denarii) of Aurelian, who was emperor of the Roman Empire AD 270-275. It is worthy of study because of the sheer amount of information we can draw, in terms of military, economic and religious history, from this one type of coin.

We see that Aurelian wishes to be seen as a military figure; this is conveyed through his depiction on the obverse in armour and on the reverse the depiction of Sol treading down on an enemy. To properly understand the meaning of this imagery we have to consider the state of the empire as Aurelian comes to power. The empire has fragmented with Queen Zenobia ruling in the east out of Palmyra and Tetricus declared emperor in the West as part of the Gallic Empire (see map below). In AD 272 Queen Zenobia, who was in control of Egypt, cut off the grain supply to Rome. Aurelian responded by taking his army east and defeating her, regaining control over the eastern portion of the empire. In AD 273 he gained the title Restitutor Orientis (Restorer of the East) which he placed on his coinage (RIC V 140). In 274 after returning to Rome, Aurelian marched West, defeating Tetricus at the Battle of Chalons, reunifying the empire and gaining the title Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World). This coin type has a date range of AD 270-275. At the beginning of his rule, imagery of victory might have been associated by the average Roman citizen with Aurelian’s victory against the barbarians at Alemanni in northern Italy. In AD 275 this type of imagery might have been interpreted as representative of the victories that had reunified the empire (Zosimus 1.25). In this case the legend on the coin, ORIENS AVG, refers to the east, and suggests that the intended message was Aurelian’s successes in this region.

map_of_ancient_rome_271_ad.png
Map of the Roman World in AD 271
8 August 2007 (UTC) -

The economic history this coin reveals is also interesting. The radiate crown on Aurelian’s head is there to indicate that this is an antoninianus rather than a denarius. This denomination was introduced in AD 215 to combat a lack of silver. Its introduction may have helped generate the rampant inflation that led to the silver purity of the antoninianus crashing to just 3.79% by AD 270. This specific coin is an example of what followed: Aurelian reformed the coinage, motivated by a desire to restore some confidence in the currency and to curb inflation. We know this because the legend in the exergue of this coin reads ‘XXI’. This was a guarantee that 20 of these coins could be exchanged for one argenteus of pure silver (20:1, XX:I). The coins were promised to have 5% silver, although if we actually drilled into the coin we would probably only find a purity of 4.1%, due to surface leeching of silver over the years. Another part of Aurelian’s coinage reform was increasing the physical weight of the coinage; before the reform between 86-98 coins were made from each pound of billion (debased silver), following the reform this was lowered to a range of 81-90, giving a theoretical weight to each coin of 4.03g.

The religious history we can gain from this coin is the changed role of Sol in this period. No longer is he merely pictured in his traditional form with the whip or globe standing emollient. Now he appears with a traditional whip but also a bow, treading down the enemy, invoking the new cult of Sol Invictus in action, even if the legend is limited to ORIENS AVG (Rising (Sun) of the emperor). Coins were also produced with the legend SOLI INVICTO (Sol the Unconquerable) (RIC V 154). This represents a change in this period in the Rome pantheon, with the rise of Sol Invictus to a position of prominence. Aurelian’s victories are associated with Sol rather than Jupiter. There is scholarly debate over the exact nature of this cult, with the traditional view being Aurelian imported an eastern deity, but recent scholarship has challenged this, suggesting that the cult may have developed out of the traditional Graeco-Roman god Sol. The additional evidence for Sol Invictus taking greater prominence is Aurelian’s new temple built to Sol Invictus in Rome and the setting up of a new priestly college, pontifices dei solis. A final thought on the influence of Sol Invictus on our world today is his holy day, dies Invictus Natalis. This was placed on the 25th December and while it was an important day anyway within the Roman calendar, being the winter solstice, one is left to wonder whether the particular rise in the importance of that date due to Sol Invictus influenced early Christians in their decision to adopt this date as the birth date of Christ.


will_tait.jpg



This month's coin was written by William Tait, Third year undergraduate in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology with a particular interest in the 3rd century AD and how coinage can improve our understanding of this period.'


Bibliography:

Drinkwater, J.F. (1987), The Gallic Empire: Separatism and continuity in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart.

Halsberghe, G. (1972), The cult of Sol Invictus, Leiden: Brill.

Hijmans, S. E. (1996), The Sun which did not rise in the East; the Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of Non-Literary Evidence. Babesch 71: 115-150.

Southern, P. (2015) The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, Routledge, London.

Watson, A. (1999), Aurelian and Third Century, Routledge, London and New York.

Zosimus, New History, trans. T. Chaplin & W. Green (London: Green and Chaplin 1814)


Coin image reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Auction 88, lot 1399) (www.cngcoins.com)


November 25, 2014

Coining in Roman Britain Part 5: Constantine and the London Mint

Diocletian and the ‘Tetrarchy’ continued to strike coins in London after the fall of Allectus. These coins came in the form of bronze nummi, which formed part of Diocletian’s reformed currency system. They were struck pretty much uniformly across the empire, featured stylized portraits, indistinguishable from one another, and likely bore virtually no resemblance to the rulers themselves.

constantine_sol

Copper-alloy nummus of Constantine I from the London mint (note the mint-mark PLN).

The reverse depicts Sol standing left holding a globe, surrounded by the inscription SOLI INVICTO COMITI.

Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Unique ID: WILT-78C118


After Constantine was declared emperor by the army in Eboracum (modern day York) in AD 306, the London mint began producing coins showing his portrait. Though Constantine would famously convert to Christianity, these early depictions tended to feature his portrait juxtaposed with depictions of the sun god. Sol, a pagan deity, was associated with invincibility and victory, ideal traits for an emperor to associate himself with. In the early years of his reign Constantine also struck in the Gallic and German cities of Lyons and Trier. After Constantine had taken Rome from the emperor Maxentius, all mints across the empire struck coins for him and his family. The House of Constantine coinages are some of the most common found in Britain today, and feature the emperor himself, as well as his sons and extended family.

crispus_coin.jpg constantius_coin

Copper-alloy nummi of the London mint. A coin of Crispus (left) displays a globe on an altar and an issue of Constantius II (right) depicts a camp gate with two turrets. Coins such as these are common finds in Britain. Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Unique ID: DUR-E3ADF4, HESH-B1C990


The coinage of Constantine’s family comprise small bronze coins with simple designs. Coin types depicting inscribed altars, camp-gates and votive wreaths were struck at London until around the year AD 326. The reason for the London mint’s closure is unknown. It was certainly one of the smallest mints in the empire at this time, operating with only one officina or mint workshop (the ‘P’ in the mint mark), compared to the three at Trier and two at Lyons. Following the closure of the mint at London, later coin types are imitated in large numbers for decades. This may indicate a lack of fresh coin reaching Britain due to the lack of a mint on the island.


dom

This month's coin series on Roman Britain is written by Dom Chorney, a young numismatist from Glastonbury, Somerset. He studied for his undergraduate degree at Cardiff (in archaeology), and achieved a 2:1. Dom is currently studying for an MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture at the University of Warwick, and intends to undertake a doctorate in 2015. His main areas of interest are coin use in later Roman Britain, counterfeiting in antiquity, coins as site-finds, and the coinage of the Gallic Empire.


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