Roman Imperial Coins of 249-253 A.D.
By Richard Beale 2005
In the year 248 A.D the Roman Empire celebrated its 1000th anniversary and in the words of Edward Gibbon, “The limits of the Roman Empire still extended from the Western Ocean [Atlantic] to the Tigris, and from Mount Atlas [in Morocco] to the Rhine and the Danube." (79). The world had seen nothing like it. A Roman citizen attending the grand and solemn celebration might well have believed the inscription stamped on many coins of this period, ROMAE AETERNAE, a dedication to eternal Rome. But Rome was far from invincible, and the following years, 249 to 253 A.D., were some of the worst the empire would ever see. Goths invaded from the north and the Sassanian Persians from the East, internal divisions occurred as many turned away from traditional Roman gods, and a terrible plague spread through the empire depleting the military and workforce. Government resources declined even while demands increased and a restless military and populace were often willing to depose one leader for another in the hope that a change in leadership would turn events for the better. The three emperors of this period tried radically different political approaches in their attempts to restore security and order to the shaken empire.
Unfortunately, the contemporary written accounts of these emperors are extremely limited since historians and government officials had more pressing matters to attend to than writing about current affairs, so that this period is darkened not only by the grave events that were taking place, but also by the difficulty that modern students of history have in understanding them. Fortunately there is one excellent source of information for this turbulent period that has survived in great volume: the coins. In this research paper I intend to show that a careful study of the coins of Trajan Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, and Aemilian, not only provides us with direct personal evidence of the actions and political strategies of these very different emperors, but also enables us to evaluate the character studies written by two later writers, Zosimus and Jordanes.
Before looking at the ancient texts and contemporary numismatic evidence, a short review of the main events of the period is in order. The three emperors during this critical time were: Decius 249-251 A.D., Gallus 251-253 A.D., and Aemilian 253 (3 months). In 249 A.D., the emperor Philip sent one of his most capable and senior senators, Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, to restore order in the border province of Moesia (modern day Bulgaria and Serbia). Decius, a native of nearby Illyricum, had been governor of this province in the 230's, and therefore was well suited to deal with the terrain, the people, and the local politics (Nathan 1). However, the worst of the political upheaval died down before Decius arrived when a rebel leader, Pacatian, was killed by his own men. The rebels named Decius as their new leader and proclaimed him emperor. It appears that the senate and populace favored this change and Decius, marching towards Rome, quickly overcame the emperor Philip and claimed the purple.
As emperor, Decius became active in restoring traditional religion, laws, and politics. He is most famous for his edicts requiring all citizens to sacrifice to state gods, something the Christians refused to do, and the result was the imprisonment, torture, and execution of many of their number. Goths began raiding the Balkan provinces and much of Decius’ reign was spent responding to these attacks. On July 1st, 251 A.D. Decius' eldest son, the co-emperor Herennius Etruscus, was killed by an arrow while fighting the army of the Gothic king Kniva. This was the first time in Rome's history that an emperor had died at the hands of a foreign enemy but Decius, in spite of his grief, rallied his men by proclaiming "Let no one mourn - the death of one soldier is not a great loss to the Republic" (Jordanes 103). Decius, leaving General Trebonianus Gallus behind to guard his rear, led his forces in pursuit of the Goths, but Kniva lured him into a swamp and surrounded the Romans. Decius, along with most of his men, was killed, and the remaining troops then proclaimed Gallus as the new emperor.
Gallus, needing to return to Rome to consolidate his power, made a peace treaty that allowed the Goths to keep all the spoils and prisoners that had thus far been taken, in addition to the promise of an annual tribute. These concessions would haunt Gallus’ reign - the Romans were not used to prostrating themselves before a barbarian race and this settlement, though probably necessary, was a large factor in Gallus' eventual undoing. In another unprecedented act, Gallus gave his daughter in marriage to Hostilian, the only surviving son of Decius. Gallus then elevated Hostilian to the position of co-emperor and gave his own son, Volusian, the lesser rank of Caesar. Never before had an emperor treated the family of his predecessor with such magnanimity. During Gallus’ reign, a terrible plague broke out during A.D. 251 which took the life of his co-emperor Hostilian (though some writers claim that Gallus had him murdered). The epidemic ravaged Africa, Asia, and Europe for the next twenty years and the Roman army was severely depleted.
In the spring of A.D. 253 the Romans finally saw real progress against their foes when a general, Aemilian, led his army in a successful attack against the Goths. Aemilian’s success prompted his men to proclaim him emperor, and he led his army towards Rome. Gallus was caught by surprise, and when his troops saw that they were outnumbered they killed both him and his son Volusian to avoid the conflict, thus making Aemilian emperor. But Aemilian soon suffered the same fate that he had inflicted upon Gallus. When Valerian, a general stationed in the Alps, heard of Gallus’ fate, he marched his troops towards Rome and this time it was Aemilian’s army that killed their own leader to avoid battle with a superior force. Valerian became emperor after Aemilian had ruled just three months.
Two of the most detailed descriptions of Rome during the years 249 to 253 A.D. were written by Jordanes and Zosimus, though both wrote their accounts three hundred years after the events.
Jordanes was a Christian monk or Bishop of Gothic descent living in the lower Danube region during the mid sixth century. He wrote the “Getica”, or “History of the Goths”, not only to show the history of his people, but also to show that “even the greatest structures of human power on this earth - whether Gothic or Roman - are transient and deceptive, and that man can find lasting peace in God alone” (Yeat). Jordanes claims to be objective in his analysis and he tells us “Let no one believe that … I have added anything besides what I have read or learned by inquiry” (316).
According to Jordanes' account of the period 249-253 A.D, Decius, as Senator, attempts to repel the Goths marauding in Thrace and Moesia, but when he fails he blames his own men for the defeat and releases them from service. Decius immediately returns to Rome, but his men are so angered by the ill treatment that they join the army of the Gothic king Ostrogotha, who becomes emboldened and leads a huge army to devastate the Province of Moesia a second time (90-92). If we believe Jordanes' account, Decius is not only incompetent and not willing to take responsibility for his failures, but he has also deserted his post and strengthened his enemy! The Goths make a third foray into Roman territory under their new leader Kniva but this time they are driven back by the general Trebonianus Gallus, the new governor of Moesia (92-101). Kniva changes course to attack the city of Nicopolis, and Decius, now emperor, attempts to intercept the Gothic army, but falls into a trap. Kniva’s forces “cut the Roman army to pieces” and the emperor and a few survivors retreat to the camp of Gallus. Kniva succeeds in taking Nicopolis but Decius leads a force to free the city from the Goths. Before the battle Decius offers “strange sacrifices to idols” but in the ensuing combat Decius and his eldest son, Herennius Etruscus, are slain (103). Trebonianus Gallus is elevated to emperor and makes a peace treaty with the Goths. Until this point, Jordanes’ history had only mentioned Gallus twice, and in both instances very positively. Gallus, as a general, had driven back the Goths, and later he had received the desperate Emperor Decius into his camp. Jordanes clearly favors this emperor and describes his reign in glowing terms:
“Gallus and Volusian … departed this life after remaining in power barely two years, yet during this space of time which they spent on earth they reigned amid universal peace and favor. Only one thing was laid to their charge, namely the great plague. But this was an accusation made by ignorant slanderers…” (106).
Jordanes’ account of this period closes with a short description of how the general Aemilian “thought that he too might be able to achieve fame and fortune” and took charge of the beleaguered armies of Moesia to successfully drive back the Goths (105). Aemilian then gathers an army and begins to plunder Roman cities (Jordanes’ does not mention how Aemilian deposed Gallus).
“… he [Aemilian] wrought no small harm to the state. Yet he died almost at the beginning of his evil attempt, thus losing at once both his life and the power he lusted after” (105).
There is no ambiguity in Jordanes' views of the emperors Decius, Gallus, and Aemilian: Decius is inept and ungodly, Gallus is capable and good, and Aemilian is greedy and wicked.
Zosimus was a Byzantine court official in Greece during the early sixth century. His “Historia Nova”, or, New History, covered the lives of the Roman emperors from the beginning of the Imperial period through the fifth century. In contrast to Jordanes, Zosimus was an ardent pagan and he used his history in an attempt to discredit the Christians (Vermaat 1).
Zosimus first tells us of Trajan Decius as a senator advising the troubled emperor Philip on how to handle a series of revolts in Moesia. On hearing of the troubles all the senators fell silent but “Decius, a person of illustrious birth and rank and moreover gifted with every virtue, observed that he [the emperor Philip] was unwise in being so much concerned at those events for they would vanish of themselves …” Events occurred just as Decius, "enabled with great experience, had foretold" (14). Philip then compelled Decius to take charge of the Moesian and Pannonian armies despite Decius’ protest that it was improper. Once Decius arrived in Moesia, the army saw what great wisdom and military skill Decius possessed, so they determined that Decius would make a better emperor, “being more expert in civil and military affairs …” Decius objected when they clothed him in purple, but the army would not reconsider, so Decius accepted his fate. Philip, on hearing of these events, assembled an army much larger than the forces of Decius, but lacking the same military leadership skills he was quickly defeated and Decius was made emperor (14). The civil war gave opportunity to the Goths (Zosimus called them Scythians but that is very likely an error) who began to plunder Thrace, but Decius “was not only victorious in every battle, but [also] recovered the spoils they had taken …” (15). After cutting off their retreat Decius posted general Trebonianus Gallus in the rear and led the main army against the Goths “but Gallus, who was disposed to innovation, sent agents to the barbarians” and betrayed Decius. Gallus sent bad intelligence to Decius who fell into the trap that the Goths had lain. Decius and his army were wiped out to a man. Zosimus' final words about Decius are consistent with all he has said about this emperor: “Thus ended the life of the excellent emperor Decius” (15).
According to Zosimus, Gallus openly boasted that he had disposed of Decius, and he also allows the Goths to keep all the spoils and Roman prisoners they had taken. Furthermore, Gallus agrees to pay the Goths an annual tribute. Gallus initially adopts Hostilian, the surviving son of Decius, and elevates him to co-emperor, but fearing that the populace will again yearn for “the princely virtues of Decius” has the boy murdered “without regards … to common honor or justice” (15). Gallus' rule is “so supine” that every Roman province is pillaged by barbarians: Goths from the north and Persians from the east. In addition, a terrible plague sweeps through the empire inflicting death at a rate unheard of in history. After seemingly endless devastation by enemy raiders, one general, Aemilian, finds the courage to defeat the Goths. This comes as a great surprise to both the Goths and Romans alike, and Aemilian’s army proclaims him emperor (16). Aemilian marches toward Rome to depose Gallus, and when the emperor’s men see the size of the approaching force, and consider that their leader is “a negligent, indolent man” they murder him and his son Volusian. Aemilian doesn’t last long however: General Valerian comes south across the Alps too late to aid Gallus. Rather than fight this general, the troops of Aemilian, who see that his character is “more like that of a private than of an emperor, now put him to death as a person unfit for so weighty a charge” (17).
Thus Zosimus' view of Trajan Decius and Trebonianus Gallus is completely opposite to the viewpoint expressed by Jordanes. To Zosimus, Decius is noble, wise and capable, whereas Gallus is treacherous, foolish and weak. Both writers do however agree that Aemilian, while courageous, is not fit to be emperor.
The coins of this period are a valuable complement to the written sources. Whereas the written sources are scant, literally millions of Roman coins have survived until today. While most of the documentary reports describing the period were written several decades or even centuries after the events, the coins were produced as the events occurred, and while the written accounts are based on secondary or tertiary evidence, the inscriptions and designs of the coins are direct messages from the emperors.
When Trajan Decius took office, the primary imperial coin was the antoninianus (also called the double-denarius). It is a billon silver coin (silver mixed with copper) about 4 grams in weight. The antoninianus was produced in mass quantities and was the staple of commerce. Coins of the early empire had been nearly pure silver, but emperors discovered that by mixing copper into the silver, they could produce more coins for the same cost. This was usually done during a crisis, and if the emperor returned to minting high purity coins after the emergency had passed, little or no economic inflation would occur. During the mid third century, when the emperors were faced with one military conflict after another, sound fiscal policy was secondary to the need to raise money for troops. According to Kenneth Harl, modern spectrographic analysis of Roman coins of this period show to what extent the emperors were striving to raise capital to finance their military campaigns. In 248 A.D., the emperor Philip had minted antoninianii with an average mass of 4.12 grams and containing 47.07% silver. This dropped to 3.97 grams, with 41.12% silver content under Decius, and plummeted to 3.46 grams, 35.94% under Gallus, a drop of over 36% of the coin's silver content in only five years (Harl 130). Never before had the Roman currency been debased so rapidly over such a short period of time. Harl also explained how the same spectrographic studies have shown that coins minted by the Sassanid Persians in the 260’s contain the exact same impurities as the Roman antoninianii of the 250’s. This is clear evidence that the Sassanians took spoils and/or tribute from the Romans in vast quantities (129).
But the most useful historical evidence deriving from these coins lies in the inscriptions, portraits, and symbols stamped upon them. In the mid-third century, as one emperor was quickly deposed and replaced by another, the emperors had a desperate need to establish an identity that would connect them to their subjects. The citizens of the empire were mostly illiterate, and made up from a vast range of cultures. Individual written decrees, even though translated into several languages, could reach and communicate with only a limited group of citizens who had the opportunity to read them, but the portraits, symbols and messages on the coins would rapidly reach every person in the empire. Coins were produced in the millions - for example, the third issue for Trebonianus Gallus at Antioch produced about 7 million coins (Metcalf 94). The Rome mint had five issues, and numerous provincial mints were also striking coins. The obverse of each coin would show the portrait of the emperor, or less frequently, one of his family members. Around the portrait would be the name and title of the personage displayed. The reverse would show an image of the emperor in action, or a Roman god, goddess, or personification, or sometimes a message within a wreath. These depictions and the Latin inscriptions surrounding them were used to advance the political views and image of the emperor. Some coins celebrate special events such as a military victory or the emperor’s accession to the throne. Personifications such as PAX (peace), FELICITAS (good luck), or LIBERALITAS (generosity), were used to show the emperor's benevolence. Coins of the emperor's wife would often show the personification and inscription of FECUNDITAS (fertility) or PVDICITIA (modesty).
The Coinage of Decius
Shortly after Decius became emperor in June or July 249 A.D., the Rome mint began striking his first issue with the legend IMP TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG (Imperator Trajan Decius Augustus). No doubt Decius adopted the additional name “Trajan” to associate himself with the emperor of that name who had expanded the empire to its greatest reaches and had earned the title OPTIMO PRINCIPI (The Best Emperor). The Emperor Trajan, 98-117A.D., had annexed Dacia, a province that became the key to Decius’ elevation, and besides being admired for his skill as a general, had been loved for the way that he lived with, and shared the hardships of the common soldiers on campaign. Decius, in a novel move, had chosen a name that would both appeal to the desire of the populace to see a return to Rome’s greatness, but would also endear him to the Roman soldiers who ultimately had the power of life and death over any emperor during the third century. All of Decius’ coins show this new title so it is clear that Decius added this name immediately upon his succession.
Decius' first coinage issue, according to the arrangement laid out by Mattingly, has seven different reverse types, four of which had been used extensively by previous emperors: ADVENTVS AVG (arrival of the emperor) showing Decius on horseback, signifying the emperor's arrival in Rome; PAX AVGVSTI (the peace of the emperor); VICTORIA AVG (the emperor's victory), presumably the victory in the civil war with Philip; and VIRTVS AVG (the virtue of the emperor) (111).
The final three reverse types are unique to Decius: GENIVS EXERCITVS ILLVRICIANI (the spirit of the Illyrian Army); PANNONIAE, depicting the personification of the province of Pannonia; and DACIA, showing the personification of Dacia holding a draco standard (Mattingly 111). That Decius devoted three of his seven silver coin types to such a small section of the empire shows his shrewd understanding of the political situation. The Balkan armies had been involved in several revolts, often setting up one of their own men as a new emperor. Decius had been sent by Philip to quell one revolt, and then Decius became the leader of another when he deposed Philip, and these armies were destined to create two new emperors within two years of Decius' death.
Decius' reforms to the bronze coinage provide further evidence of his insightful and industrious nature. As mentioned earlier, silver coins had become increasingly debased, but naturally bronze coins had not, so that it became uneconomical to produce significant quantities of large bronze coins. Consequently bronze coinage had been slowly falling out of circulation and was not readily available to make change for the antoninianii. Decius became the first emperor in two centuries to introduce a new bronze denomination, and he introduced two of them: a magnificent large bronze of about 40 grams that is typically called a double sestertius and a very small bronze coin called a semis. According to Kenneth Harl, these new coins were part of an overall attempt to revalue bronze coins consistent with inflation so that the semis was now valued as an assarion, the assarion as a dupondius, etc. (135). This would result in restoring the value ratio between bronze and silver coins to near what it had been fifty years earlier, and the small denominations would help slow inflation. Whether or not this interpretation of Decius coinage reform is correct, one thing is sure: Decius was implementing new ideas at an astonishing rate.
Decius actively used his coins to promote his family and attempt to establish a dynasty. Early in his reign he began issuing coins for Herennia Etruscilla, his wife. The coins of Herennia, the Augusta, display virtues worthy of a great lady of Rome: PVDICITIA AVG, the personification of modesty; FECVNDITAS AVG, the personification of fruitfulness and feminine fertility; and JVNO REGINA, depicting “Juno the Queen”, the wife of Jupiter. Decius’ two sons were also portrayed on coins that showed the traditional Roman virtues expected of their position. Herennius Etruscus, Decius’ elder son, was elevated to Caesar early in Decius' reign but coin evidence indicates that his elevation to Augustus came very late. In a recent study of coin hoards, Daniel Schaad found that of 823 coins of Herennius, only four showed him with the more senior title of Augustus, the rest were all as Caesar (256). Numismatic evidence has also established that Hostilian, Decius’ youngest son, was given the title Caesar fairly late in Decius' reign, but well before Herennius was made co-emperor.
Decius' final issue of coinage was as unprecedented as his overt promotion of the Balkan armies and creation of new coin denominations. The emperor issued a series of eleven antoninianii portraying the busts of deified emperors including Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, and Severus Alexander (Mattingly 130-132). It is very interesting that Decius chose to honor deified emperors on his coins but Jupiter and his family are conspicuously missing. This contemporary evidence rebuts the many later Christian writers who saw Decius' religious persecution as a sign of pagan religious fanaticism (such as Jordanes' gratuitous mention of Decius' “strange sacrifices to idols”). Judging from the themes of Decius' coins, it appears that the persecution was not motivated so much by religious (or anti-religious) fervor, but from a desire to rid the Roman world of what Decius saw as a fifth column that did not respect traditional Roman ways.
During his short reign of two years, Decius was surprisingly original in his use of coins for propaganda and for improving the economy. He honored the army and provinces whose support was crucial to his success; he portrayed his family as upholding the traditional Roman virtues; he associated himself with the great emperors of Rome’s past; and made significant changes to resurrect the bronze coinage that had begun to lose its usefulness.
The Coinage of Gallus
Trebonianus Gallus was the only emperor of the mid third century that did not become emperor as a result of civil war or regicide, but he did have the disadvantage of having to buy peace from the Goths at a very high price. Gallus was quick to use coins for political purposes and his first issue included an antoninianus with the inscription MARS PACIFER (Mars the peace bringer) "to put a good light on the peace bought from the Goths” (Mattingly 156). Two other of Gallus' first-issue coins also bolster a positive image of the treaty: PAX AVGVS (the peace from the emperor) and PROVIDENTIA AVG (the foresight of the emperor).
Throughout his entire reign, Gallus' coinage portrayed him as a different kind of emperor. Unlike Decius, who had promoted the strength of the army and the greatness of Rome, Gallus’ coins displayed the traits of a benevolent ruler (or rulers; many of Gallus' coin legends end in AVGG meaning that the coin honors both Gallus and his son, the co-emperor Volusian): CONCORDIA AVGG (the harmony between the co-emperors); LIBERTAS AVGG, (the liberty of/from our emperors); PIETAS AVGG (the moral virtue of the emperors); and VIRTVS AVGG (the manly virtue of our emperors). It is ironic that a coin in Gallus' last issue from Rome did include the inscription VICTORIA AVGG, "victory of the emperors", but this was probably a case of Gallus taking credit for Aemilian's great success.
Gallus' advancement of the surviving members of Decius' family is clearly documented by the numismatic record. Gallus’ first issue contains coins of Hostilian as Augustus which are more common than the concurrent minting of coins depicting Gallus' own son Volusian with the lesser rank of Caesar. Similarly, Gallus never struck coins for his own wife Baebiana; according to Mattingly, the rare coins of Herennia with the reverse PVDICITIA AVGG may well have been struck by Gallus to honor his predecessor’s widow (153). These two instances where Gallus used his coins to honor the family of Decius rather than his own family strongly support the idea that he did attempt to live up to the ideal personified on another of his coins, Aequitas (fairness).
While the plague that started in 251 A.D. is well known, the only literary mention of Gallus' response is that he arranged for state-paid burials for the deceased, but several of his coins show his religious and political attitude towards the epidemic that so devastated the empire. Gallus appealed to the gods by a coin honoring Salus, the personification of health, and another with the inscription APOLL SALVTARI, referring to Apollo as “the healer” - unique in Roman history. A third type, minted exclusively by Gallus, was the antoninianus picturing the temple of Juno with the legend IVNONI MARTIALI, "to the warlike Juno." Juno, the consort of Jupiter, was often called upon for the blessing of health and fertility, and it is possible that this unique combination of her name with Mars, the god of war, was a call for Juno to make war on the plague. Gallus' use of two or three coins to appeal to the gods for aid against the plague is singular in Roman history and indicates his desire to show the people that the emperor was personally concerned about the impact of the deadly epidemic.
In spite of Gallus' public promotion of peace and benevolence, recent coin hoards provide strong evidence that his short reign was mainly spent fighting the Goths and Persians. A special series of antoninianii with the obverse legend IMP C C VIB TREB GALLVS AVG had previously puzzled historians. Mairat observed that these coins have a style similar to that of the Rome mint, but have been discovered predominantly in hoards found in the Balkan area (1). Besly and Bland postulated that based on mules (accidental pairings of an obverse of one series of coins with the reverse of another series) mixing this special series with coins of Rome, that the special issue was either struck in a Rome workshop, or struck with dies made at the Rome mint, but that the issue was shipped in mass to support the armies in the Balkans (21). Their analysis of nineteen coin hoards also showed that this special issue accounted for about half of all the Rome mint coins of Gallus. Such a huge portion of the empire's coins being shipped to this single area is strong evidence that major military action against the Goths was being funded (Besly and Bland 19-21).
In 1975, a hoard of coins minted under Gallus at the Antioch mint in Syria was analyzed by William Metcalf (71). Metcalf found that the Antioch mint had produced nearly ten times as many coins during the second half of Gallus' reign as it had during the earlier years. In addition, the later coins were of a crude style and frequently had spelling and mint mark errors (83-85). This massive and apparently hasty increase in production indicates a pressing military need in the eastern provinces, as does one of the main coin types of Antioch: MARTEM PROPVGNATOREM; "...the type appears only in the last issue of Antioch; what is more, Mars is invoked not in his usual aggressive aspect ... but instead as propugnator: literally a protector or defender of a place" (Metcalf 71).
What emergency would require the mint to strike so many coins in such a rush, and what was Mars being called on to protect against? Almost certainly the Sassanid Persians (Metcalf 86). Historians had long known that Shapur the Great, the Sassanid king, had invaded the eastern Roman provinces at some time during the decade of 250 A.D., but these coins provide strong specific evidence that the invasion took place in the spring of 253 A.D. before Gallus was deposed by Aemilian but after Gallus had conducted a massive minting operation for that year (Metcalf 88).
The coins of Gallus show us that his short reign was absorbed by war with both the Goths and Persians, and with the devastation caused by plague. Gallus' coinage advances the political image of a just and humane ruler who treated Decius’ descendants with unprecedented consideration. The three instances in which Gallus used the name of Mars on his coins are indicative of his unique peaceful approach: Mars is pacified by a peace treaty; an appeal is made for Juno to “make war” on disease; and Mars’ name is invoked to protect Rome from the Persians. With such a consistent appeal for peace and fairness as evidenced in the coins, it is hard to believe that this was merely a political ploy as suggested by Zosimus.
The Coinage of Aemilian
Because of the short reign of Aemilian and scant mention of him in written sources, historians rely heavily on the numismatic record for evidence of his life and views. For example, according to Vagi, Aemilian's wife, Cornelia Supera, is unknown to history except from her coins (344). Aemilian's coins tell us the titles and powers he received from the senate. All of his coins show the title PIVS FELIX (pious and blessed) - no doubt awarded by the senate immediately upon his arrival in Rome. One unusual coin shows an image of Aemilian in military dress making a sacrifice, surrounded by the legend P M TR P I P P (Pontifex Maximus, Tribunicia Potestas One, Pater Patriae). Military dress is not the norm for making sacrifices, but Aemilian seems to place all his hopes on his ability as a general. The title that surrounds the image indicates that the coin was issued in Aemilian's first year with the power of Tribune and that he is not a Consul. This supports the idea that Aemilian had been a soldier who had risen through the ranks, and not a senator as most other generals were during this period. Likewise, on his coins Aemilian brings back the patron deities of the army in victorious and warlike aspect such as DIANAE VICTRI (Diana the victor) and ERCVL VICTORI (Hercules the Victor). When Aemilian issued coins inscribed VICTORIA AVG (the victory of the emperor), for once there is no question as to whether the emperor had earned this honor.
Aemilian’s coins show that he based his political hopes on his reputation as a strong and victorious general and his coins reminded the Romans that when no one else could, he had driven the barbarians out of Roman territory and restored the empire's honor. In this one special case, it is the written sources which support many of the conclusions derived from the coins, and not the reverse.
A Comparison of the Written and Numismatic Sources
The coins of Decius, Gallus, and Aemilian not only provide evidence that does not exist in other textual or archeological sources, but they also can be used to evaluate the written sources, particularly the points where the writers disagree.
There is no doubt that both Zosimus and Jordanes wished to advance their own religious and political views. Zosimus was fiercely anti-Christian and was willing to refashion history to advance his ideas. For example, he reordered the events of Constantine’s life so that the emperor’s victories all occurred before he converted to Christianity. Thus, it is no surprise that Zosimus praises Decius, the pagan persecutor of the Christians and disparages Gallus, who had let the pogrom die.
Jordanes also had an agenda: Jordanes was a Christian and a descendant of the Goths, and by his own words we know that the purpose of his writing was to advance Christianity. It is natural that Jordanes would only see the worst in Decius, an emperor that had been called the anti-Christ by many of the Christians of his time. Jordanes’ positive view of Gallus could well be influenced by Gallus’ treaty with the Goths, and Gallus’ apparent discontinuation of religious persecution.
The coins too have their own particular bias in that their images and inscriptions do not necessarily tell us the opinions and political strategies of the emperors so much as they indicate how the emperors wished to be viewed. Nevertheless, there are several instances where the coin evidence speaks clearly to resolve the contradictions of the written sources.
Jordanes would have us believe that Decius was incapable of winning a battle against the Goths, but one of Decius’ last coins, inscribed VICTORIA GERMANICA (victory over the Goths), shows Decius on horseback being led by Nike (Victory). This coin is too specific to discount as being a generic type and must surely commemorate a genuine victory won by Decius (or at least a battle that could reasonably be presented as a Roman victory). Jordanes’ account is certainly skewed towards ignoring any of Decius’ successes. This is also true of Zosimus’ claim that “Gallus was so supine … that the Scythians … laid waste to all the countries … not leaving one nation subject to the Romans unpillaged” (16). Gallus had sent half of the coins minted at Rome to the Balkan area, and had greatly expanded production at the Antioch mint when the area was threatened by the Persians. That such a huge portion of the production of the only two imperial mints was being poured into the empire’s most threatened areas does not support the idea that Gallus was oblivious or inactive in the face of his foreign enemies, but quite the opposite. These wars with both the Persians and Goths also discredit Jordanes’ idyllic overview of Gallus’ reign where he stated that “they [Gallus and his son Volusian] reigned amid universal peace and favor” (106).
Perhaps the most interesting question that arises from the differences in Jordanes’ and Zosimus’ accounts is: did Hostilian die of the plague or was he murdered by Gallus? The coin evidence seems to side with Jordanes’ claim that Gallus and Volusian were blameless (106). Gallus’ public promotion of Hostilian was made clear and prominent by the significant number of coins struck for Hostilian with the senior title of Augustus while he issued far fewer coins for his son Volusian who had taken the lesser title of Caesar. Additionally, Gallus used his coins to promote the image of a moral and benevolent leader. To show such consideration to Decius’son, only to dispose of him after a few months, is very difficult to resolve in the light of the ideals that Gallus consistently displayed on his coins. Furthermore, we would expect that Gallus’ wife would appear on coins after the death of Hostilian, but no such coins exist. It seems that Gallus continued to respect Herennia and allowed her to retain the title of Augusta. From the coin evidence, it appears that Zosimus was reporting an anti-Gallus rumor as fact. There is no doubt that Hostilian’s death would have created suspicion that the young emperor had been disposed of by Gallus, and it is equally certain that Zosimus would have preferred recording that version.
I have provided a only brief introduction to a broad field of research, but I have endeavored to show that a careful study of what may have seemed trivial archaeological artifacts may often reveal substantive and reliable evidence that adds to, or even corrects, the accounts found in the detailed commentaries that have been known for centuries. Unlike the later texts dealing with the years 249 to 253 A.D., the coin evidence comes direct from the middle of the chaotic period: their design, production, and distribution originate from the minds of the emperors. By adding this entirely new perspective to what we see in the written sources, we can come much closer to knowing the truth.
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