Mark Lehman's NJCL Lecture
From Lydia to Byzantium: 
A Short History of Ancient Mediterranean Coins"

by Mark Lehman 

The following "performance" was written and delivered at the Singletary Center, University of Kentucky by our opera-singing numismatist ACE President Mark Lehman to students attending the National Junior Classical League Convention, August 2, 2002.   It accompanies a navigable set of coin images entitled "Images:  From Lydia to Byzantium" on the ACE CD which you can show students in your classroom.  Feel free to adapt any portion of the following presentation for your classroom use, including, if the spirit moves you, the singing! The narration features clever techniques for introducing students to basic coin concepts as well as a wealth of historical information and entertaining news tabloids befitting those colorful Roman emperors.

Some excerpts of historical information are based upon John Ryan's lecture outline "Ancient Coinage of the Mediterranean World" also available on the ACE CD.  Emperor tabloids come from "The Imperial Tattler" ( written by Scott Uhrick. 

Image Cues in Red

1. Modern US, a few foreign, "the washer"

US Change with Washer
US Change with Washer

I've got to start this out with a question for all of you: What is a coin?  What is a coin?  Anyone?  Now, I suppose you all think you know everything you need to know about the change you have in your pockets (go in pocket to produce quarter, washer, etc - hold them up). But, can anyone tell me what is it, exactly, that distinguishes THIS, from THIS?  Look, they're both stamped metal discs, just about the same size, hey, with luck, you might even be able to stick this one (washer) in a parking-meter and get away with it, right?  Why can't you expect that the counter-person at the Donut shop would accept it too?  Sing: "There's a hole in yer quarter and it goes right through, says I, there's a hole in yer donut too", right?

Anyone?  No?  Not because there's hole in the washer- as you can see -

2. Modern coins with holes Plenty of countries have used coins with holes in them in recent years and some still do. 
Coins with holes
Coins with holes
These are all 20th century coins, the Spanish piece is 21st century. OK - Anyone want to trade me a quarter for this washer?  (wow, I should have brought more washers, they're only three cents apiece - but those quarters cost even less to produce - alternately, no? why not? They're both stamped metal discs?) - so what is a quarter, anyway, except an overpriced, defective washer? What it is that distinguishes a coin from a washer is that we all agree that this one is worth a quarter of a dollar and that this one, well, it's valuable for other reasons, very useful if you happen to need one  - but just because it's a stamped metal disc doesn't make it a coin, does it? 

A quarter is "money" because of a Social Contract we all have with each other - a mutually accepted authority - the United States government - has put its official stamp on this, otherwise fairly useless stamped disc of metal - see, no hole, you can't even use it as a washer in a pinch - It's only valuable because we agree it is - that's our social contract. 


You'll see, too, as we go along, how changes in the social contract are clearly represented in the changes in Roman coins, You remember Roman coins, right?  "We came here to hear about Roman coins, so what's this maniac raving about social contracts and washers for?"  - bear with me please while we stroll briefly down memory lane.

Now, not too long ago,


3. 20th century. - Familiar looking -US including gold

US Silver and Gold coins
US Silver and Gold coins

and as I look around I see I'm just about (well, maybe not) the only person here who can remember this - OUR US coins, most of them at least, had intrinsic value - not quite as much silver as their nominal value, but our pocket change was solid silver within living memory. (tap head - memory may be getting dim, but sometimes we remember)  A generation or two earlier, gold was legal tender in the US, too -it was more money than most people walked around with, but it was out there - my grandfather saved the gold coins in this picture out of circulation just before gold was demonetized in the 30's.  Back then, almost all coins had an intrinsic value  - a significant fraction of their nominal value - regardless of the issuing authority, they were worth at least the value of the precious metal they were made from.  This sort of arrangement is known as SPECIE or BULLION coinage -

Now, humans managed to trade commodities by Barter since, well, since forever.  The intrinsic values of commodities like a cow, or a chicken, or a loaf of bread, were obvious - they might have varied from time to time and place to place, but their values were easily recognized. 
Unfortunately if you weren't in a mood to eat a loaf of bread, or a chicken, or a cow (pause) you had to DO something with your barter item or it might lose its value quickly.  Metal was durable, it had many practical uses, and its value was universally recognized, so from its first discovery it was a natural as a medium of exchange - and you didn't have to eat it, feed it or worry about it running away. 

Nuggets of Electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy of silver and gold, that washed-out of streams in a part of the world we call Turkey today, and that happened to be occupied at the time by people who called themselves Greeks, proved very convenient as barter objects - they seemed ideal for commerce - and they were used for centuries - but the problem was, how much metal was in each nugget? - and if it was a precious metal, how pure was it?  So, convenient as these nuggets were for trade items, they each had to be weighed and assayed at every transaction. 

4. Early (EPI PHANOS/ siglos, etc.)

Epiphanes and slugs
Epiphanes and slugs

And so this, this is where it all began - where it all came from - "hallmarked slugs" we call them - some early king decided to settle the issue of weight and purity of the metal in commerce, and at the same time - get his own name advertised around as the guy smart enough to say "It's a known weight of good metal because I say it is and if you don't like it you may discuss it with my army!"  That's essentially what the inscription on this piece says "I am the Badge of Phanos" So the first Western coins were basically "slugs", but NOW they were slugs of a known weight and fineness. And it was convenient for people to accept this part of the social contract, since the coin's worth was still precisely the value of the precious metal it was made from.  


 Interestingly, but of no great concern to this discussion, the Chinese came up with essentially the same idea, government-issued discs of metal, at almost exactly the same time, certainly within fifty years, give-or-take.  Was this a totally coincidental occurrence?  Or did both societies merely achieve the needed "critical mass" at the same time? We have no historical evidence to say either way, but interestingly, the Chinese went straight to token coinage -

 - bullion coins wouldn't be widely used in China for quite a while yet, but remember, the Chinese invented paper money at just about the same time, too, and the fact that the government enforced its legal-tender status with draconian penalties was sufficient to ensure its acceptance, for all debts, public and private, as they say.  An enforced social contract. 

Meanwhile, back in the West,

5. Pre-Hellenistic

Pre Hellenistic coins
Pre Hellenistic coins

The shot-in-the-arm provided to commerce by the new, dependable, portable, widely accepted store-of-value in the form of coined precious metals had the effect of spreading this idea like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean basin- within a century, or so, all the city-states of Magna Graecia  had to have their own variety. 

The result was a multitude of types and weight standards, all competing for "product placement" and "brand-recognition" - usually a region's coinage designs reflected the products or favorite deities of that region.   Almost all city-states had their own "Name-brand logos"

6. Tiny Greek Fractions & Greek bronzes

AR Fractions, bronze
AR Fractions, bronze

One big problem with intrinsically-valued, strictly bullion coins was, that to make small change, one had to make, well, small coins - some were so tiny that people are reported to have carried them in their mouth in order not to lose them.  - you'd better hope nobody slapped you on the back on your way to market, right? - The solution - Token Coinage, made of bronze - now bronze was certainly valuable in its own right as well, but not nearly so highly valued as silver - by the way, even though a few gold coins were minted in pre-Roman times, they were only intended as a store of value, or for making major transfers of wealth - like "A king's ransom" ferinstance - Gold in general has always been so valuable that coins made of it were of about as much use in everyday commerce as a thousand dollar bill at a garage sale.  You see, nobody could afford to make change!  Many Greek cities came up with similar solutions to the small-change issue and token coinage was born as a new part of the social contract - Just like our quarter isn't worth a quarter unless we agree it is.  This is important to remember because the Romans would really embrace and develop the concept of token coinage as we'll see later.

7. Hellenistic/Republican
Hellenistic and Republican coins
Hellenistic and Republican coins

Along came folks like Darius and Alexander and with them the concept of empires spanning the "known-world", and although many localities continued to issue their own distinct types and denominations, some types were recognized, accepted and copied universally.

In this era we tend to see beautifully crafted coins - usually the highest artistic standards and workmanship, which might be issued using the same basic designs with only minor changes over long periods of time. 


Now of course, some states copied the designs of more established coinages so that their coins could ride on the coattails of existing reputations in international trade.    This is where Rome comes into the picture, both chronologically and stylistically, as their power and influence in the Hellenistic world grew.

This picture shows how coins looked when the Romans were just getting started, right after Alexander the Great "conquered" - actually connected-the-dots around the known world - despite their high opinion of themselves the early Romans at this time, by and large, were still pretty much living in mud huts and you can see in their early coins how they crudely tried to imitate the pinnacle of Hellenistic culture with which they were beginning to trade.  Note how much the early Roman denarius looks like a knock-off of the stater of Corinth - how the Janiform As is about the same size as that "paperweight" bronze of one of the Ptolemies. 

8. Golden Age-late Republican, Early Empire through Antonines
Roman Coins
Roman Coins

By the time of the "Pax Romana" say, late-middle of the first century BC to the middle of the third century AD or thereabouts, and with the notable exception of Parthia - modern Iraq and Iran, approximately - which continued to issue a Hellenistic-style regal coinage - and I'll talk more about that eastern empire when we get to Valerian and Gallienus, a little later -

                        PAUSE FOR EMPHASIS

all significant areas of the Classical World were under Roman rule or influence by the reign of Augustus Caesar.  

You can see how far Rome had come in sophistication of execution by the time the Republic was becoming Empire.  The portraiture was trending towards photo-realistic and the Romans were really working with an idea - originally the Greeks' idea for "advertising" the wares or power of individual city-states- the Romans were nothing if not great adaptors of what worked well! - the Romans were working the idea of using the coin as a sort of "advertisement" for the state - a tiny billboard in your purse - or maybe in your mouth - beginning with proclamation of representative government side-by-side with empire - the "SC" types - and working through an entire pantheon of deities and allegorical personifications to tell the Roman in the street what sorts of virtues the emperor espoused, and by association he should be espousing too.


So beginning in the late Republic, and expanding dramatically in early Imperial times, the coinage shifts from long-term designs to constantly changing designs of short duration. - Somewhat like our modern "State Quarters" series.  With the Classical world pretty much under one (Roman) roof, the coinage was co-opted by the Imperial propaganda machine.   There were three main objectives this constantly changing coinage tried to achieve:

9. "Anatomy" Plate of Nero Obverse with Inscription Explained
Anatomy of a coin obv
Anatomy of a coin obverse
The first objective was Bringing the Emperor and His Family to the People.

In the early Imperial period, the concept of an absolute monarch was alien to the Romans. The Emperor was originally viewed as simply a "first citizen" (princeps) "primus inter pares", and justified his authority by simultaneously holding a number of the political offices of the old Republic.  So quite often Emperors proclaimed on their coins the various offices and titles they held, I call these the "laundry list inscriptions" listing offices like consul, imperator, censor, holder of the tribunican power, and pontifex maximus.  Honorary names and titles such as Caesar, Augustus, Germanicus (victor over the Germans), Britannicus (victor over the Britons), Parthicus (victor over the Parthians) Pius ( faithful to the memory of a preceding Emperor) are very common parts of inscriptions, too.  Beautifully executed and highly (sometimes even brutally) realistic portraits of the imperial family on the coins brought their faces to every corner of the Empire.

10. Typical Reverses


Typical Reverses
Typical Reverses


The second objective was "Cranking" The Imperial Propaganda Machine

Since the Romans didn't have printing presses or newspapers, not to mention internet-news or soundbite-teasers with "film at eleven" they hit upon the idea of using the coinage to bring the people a broad spectrum of news, commemorations, religious instruction, and whatever other messages or propaganda happened to be being pushed by the Imperial authorities.  This was particularly true of the large bronze "small change"  - with the large "frame" they afforded, the engravers-"celators" as they ere called - were able to express complex ideas to a proto-literate public. Coins' designs were usually changed dozens of times each year:  Had the Emperor beaten the Germans again?  Conquered a new province?   Built a new temple?  Given a donative to the plebs?  Reduced taxes?  Traveled around the Empire?  Brought in a big new shipment of grain for the public dole? All these things, and many more, could be and were advertised on the coinage.   And if the Imperial authorities wanted to exalt a particular god, or to tout a virtue such as justice or clemency, particularly if that virtue was to be attributed to the Emperor or was emblematic of a behavior they wished more people would adopt, that could go on the coins as well.

11. A Few DIVVS Types
Divvs Types
Divvs Types
A third major objective was to produce an Emperor's Final  "Report Card".  

Emperors who were "popular" and did well, were often deified by the Senate following their deaths, with an accompanying coinage issue to commemorate this fact.  The better the Emperor, the more extensive his commemorative coinage.  The "so-so" Emperors were denied deification and a posthumous coinage, and a really bad Emperor like Caligula or Elagabalus might receive the "damnatio memoriae", or declaration of cursed memory.  In such event, the Emperor's statues would be destroyed after his death, and even his coinage defaced.  Caligula's coins are often encountered with deliberate-looking gouges and scratches.

12. Run of "Silver" from Early Empire to Septimius Severus
Silver coins thru Septimius Severus
Debasement of the Silver Coinage. 

At first, since money was only worth it's weight in whatever precious metal from which it happened to be struck, silver and gold were typically as pure as the refining technology of the era was able produce, but when the social contract made the trading value of coins exceed their bullion value, and since people were already used to token coinage for small change, it was no great leap for a financially strapped empire to start debasing. Debasement of the purity of the Roman silver coinage began gradually, starting in the infamous reign of the notorious narcissist and reputed nutcase Nero from 54 to 68 AD.  Most people don't know that the Colisseum did not earn that name merely because it was colossal - it was of course - and still is, but it was originally and officially called "the Flavian Ampitheater" for Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian during whose "Flavian" dynasty it was built and dedicated - it was called colisseum because of its location - the site of the Colossus of Nero, a huge gilded bronze statue that stood at the gates of his 80 acre "golden palace" in the middle of Rome - clearing all the valuable urban real-estate necessary for building that palace was probably the reason for the great fire you've undoubtedly heard the old chestnut about Nero fiddling through.  Historians of the age do record that Nero was much taken with his musical talents and made the senate, among others suffer through his singing recitals, accompanying himself on organ and lute as this pigheaded idiot styled himself as the young Apollo - Can you imagine!?! - It must have been even worse than sitting through this lecture! The silver in the denarius remained at a purity of roughly 80%, give or take, from Nero's reign until the time of Commodus in 180 AD.  Then the debasements started coming one after another, so that within 30 years the denarius was no more than maybe 45-50% silver. 


Septimius Severus, who came out on top of the heap of contenders and pretenders to the throne after January 1st 193 AD and Commodus' demise -I suppose you all saw "Gladiator"? Well, Forget "Gladiator" and Commodus dying in the arena! I know, the picture that movie paints of the Roman Empire is vivid and compelling and is total fantasy, historically speaking- Even though he eventually became crazy enough to fight animals in the arena and think he was Hercules' reincarnation, Commodus was actually stabbed to death by a bath-attendent while "on the commode" - Isn't it too bad that pun only makes sense in English? -  Septimius Severus, who won the imperium during the ensuing period of chaos, had risen to power through the military ranks although born of humble African Provincial stock - He became profoundly self-conscious about his origins once he reached snobbish Rome - so much so that he had himself proclaimed to be officially adopted by Antoninus Pius - posthumously, of course - Antoninus had been dead for 32 years at the time, so he wasn't in any position to object, you understand - Septimius evidently wanted to have a nice influential brother, like Marcus Aurelius, who of course had been dead for 13 years, and so the scions of the Severan Dynasty all wound up with official names like "Antoninus Pius" and "Marcus Aurelius" and "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus" - a tradition, incidentally, that was carried on by most emperors for another hundred years - just about all of them - all except for Caracalla's younger brother Geta - quite a story there, maybe he would have done better if he'd HAD an Antonine-sounding name - 

Now I've told you how coins were the newspapers of the age - let's imagine for a moment what it might have been like if there had been supermarket tabloids in the Roman empire, this is what you might have read at the time.

13. Plug for Scott's Uhrick's website and "The Imperial Tattler" -  (

Tabloid Numismatics
Tabloid Numismatics!!

I'm reading here from a wonderful website by ACE member Scott Uhrick

"Emperor Stabs Brother in Mother's Arms - Gains Support of Elder Brothers Everywhere."

"He kept looking at me funny", says Caracalla. "And Mom always liked him better".

14. Group of Severan portraits

Severan Family
Severan Family

"Dateline Rome - February, 212 - Anyone with children knows that they just can't seem to share their toys. So why did our late Emperor Septimius think his sons could share the world? It probably wasn't his fault. There are few indications that he intended to share the Empire he had won between his two sons. The eldest, Caracalla, was raised to Caesar in 193 when he was seven years old. Raising the younger son, Geta, seems to have come as an afterthought - although only one year younger, Geta wasn't raised to Caesar for five more years - in the same ceremony in which Caracalla was raised to Augustus. Geta finally gained the title of Augustus in 209 - eleven years after Caracalla. So why promote Geta at all? One word - "Mom". Julia Domna, wife of Septimius, has been consistently protective of the interests of her youngest son. While Geta proved far more personable than Caracalla, this enforced equality seems to have been his undoing. Since Septimius passed to Hades, er, Eleysium, last summer the two brothers have been plotting against each other. Plans to divide the empire between them broke down when Julia asked them how they planned on dividing Her. (It is lucky for her she didn't have Nero for a son - he might have taken her literally!). Caracalla won the contest last week when he lured his brother to a conciliation meeting at their mother's house. Conciliation was indeed achieved, as Geta was attacked by Caracalla's hired thugs. The murder wasn't a clean one; Geta staggered into his Mother's house followed by the assassins where he was finished off in his mother's arms. This publication publicly deplores the actions of our Emperor and demands a Senatorial inquiry into the mur... URK!   Note from new editor; This paper fully supports our Augustus Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (occasionally referred to by his military nickname of Caracalla) and rejects as spurious any allegations that our Emperor ever had a brother.

15. Run of Silver - Caracalla through Gallienus

Antoninianus: Carracala thru Gallienus

Caracalla followed in father Septimius' footsteps and continued debasing the silver coinage until in about 212 AD he made a "minor adjustment" that would cause a tremendous change in the coinage that would actually dictate the sort of coins the empire used for the next century.  He introduced the antoninianus - now we don't really know whether or not the Romans called this coin by that name, but that's what we numismatists call them - the most prevalent coin of the 3rd century.  It contained only 1 and ½ times the silver of the current denarius. It was distinguished as a "double unit" by the radiate crown on the emperor's head, and was tariffed as the equivalent of two denarii. Neat trick, eh?  We can see what sort of trouble it got the Romans into - You know, It's something that has always struck me - there's a real irony here - what was arguably the pinnacle of portraiture on Roman coins occurred just as Rome came to the brink of the fiscal cliff.

And indeed, only 50 years later, the "noble" Antoninianus, once the "3rd century flagship" of Roman coinage, now thoroughly and repeatedly debased, was a smallish bronze coin, about the size of a US cent, perhaps issued with a thin, silvery wash, or maybe, depending on the mint, just bronze.

Now you'll remember I said the Parthian empire had remained politically independent of Rome and kept on with their own "Regal" coinage back when everyone else had "gone Roman" right?  Well, just when things were getting dicey in the Roman Empire, this eastern empire, a continuous antagonist of Rome, got an infusion of "new blood" when its moribund Parthian dynasty was replaced by the Sassanid dynasty and then, they started becoming really troublesome to the Romans - this is what the tabloids of the time might have recorded:

Emperor Captured by Sassinian Foe, made into Footstool.

"Keep sending me Emperors", says Shaipur, "I need the furniture. It's a shame I missed Nero, I could have made a whole bedroom suite"

-Dateline Rome, 263 A.D.-

Rumor has come to Rome that our former Emperor Valerian has passed away while a prisoner of the Sassanians. We say, good riddance. The source of Rome's greatest shame has passed from human vision and perhaps we can now begin to repair our reputation and our empire. Ever since Valerian was treacherously captured during negotiations three years ago Shaipur has used him as a means to humiliate and demean the Roman people. Keeping him in a cage, parading him in front of foreign ambassadors like a paid dancing boy - never was Rome's pride brought so low. Hopefully now Rome's shame can be properly buried. 

Dateline Antioch, 264 A.D. -

Well, it looks as though you can't keep a mediocre man down. Reports from friendly envoys to Ctesiphon report that Valerian hasn't completely dropped from sight. It seems that Shapur has decided to prolong Rome's humiliation by preserving the body of our deceased Emperor. Conflicting reports have Valerian either skinned and hanging on a wall or stuffed and turned into a footstool to assist Shapur in mounting his horse. No official report has come from the palace but insiders have relayed that Rome has warned Ctesiphon that when it comes to interior decorating, in their humble opinion, purple clashes with everything.


So, the supposedly "silver" coinage continued to be debased until by the early 260s AD, the antoninianus had been reduced to a very small, and usually crude, billon or copper coin with a silver wash.  Later, even the silver wash was abandoned. Once the antoninianus had for all practical intents and purposes been reduced to a base metal coin, around 240 or so, production of the larger, standard bronze denominations that were supposed to be its fractions ceased, and so did the output of almost all of the once-multitudinous, local, provincial issues, often with Greek inscriptions, from hundreds of mint-cities throughout the fringes of the empire. 

So, The Romans were faced with one terrible fiscal crisis after another resulting in runaway inflation, because all their silver and gold was going east to pay for their expensive, luxurious tastes, and also to pay for an even more expensive defense budget because the empire was continuously beset with pretenders and contenders for the throne from within, and hostile "barbarian" neighbors all wanting a piece of the Roman pie from without.  They didn't have a John Kenneth Galbraith or Alan Greenspan to tell them how to run a deficit budget, either, so their solution was to debase and downsize the coinage - unfortunately the government did it without asking anyone else if THEY thought it was a good idea, so public confidence in the value of the money was eroded - the social contract had been unilaterally breached - and consequently, the coins became almost worthless.  Aurelian, who came along in about 270 AD restored some modicum of order and somewhat improved the coinage, but soon after his death it deteriorated again, along with the political situation. 


16. Later Antoniniani - Aurelian, Probus, House of Carus

later ants.
Later Antoninianii

The Late Roman Period, 250 - 498 AD.  

17. Diocletian through Constantine

Folli: Diocletian to Constantine

So, when Diocletian came along and restored order again at the end of the 3rd century, his reforms scrapped what little was left of the old Imperial coinage system in favor of a new, empire-wide coinage based on a large, silver-washed billon coin.  A new system of mintmarks - relatively easy to understand even today, identified what mint-city the coins came from even though the designs were now the same throughout the empire.  One of the only names we have for the myriad of bronze coins from the late Roman era is "Follis" - what Diocletian called his new denomination - and it's not even clear if that denomination-name "Follis" meant the coin, or a whole bag-full of them.  The very last of the local, provincial issues with Greek inscriptions were finally abolished, and the new, standard Imperial denominations and types with all inscriptions in Latin were now issued simultaneously and exclusively from the centralized imperial mints in a system that spanned the ancient world in an arc that extended from London, through Europe and Asia, all the way to Alexandria in Egypt.   Unfortunately, the cycle of debasements soon resumed, and the Follis rapidly declined in weight and silver content.  So, By the time of Constantine the Great and his extended, dysfunctional family, the real circulating money was once again just about all small token bronze coins, occasionally with a silvery wash, but more often, just bronze. 


So this is an excellent place for me to put in a big plug for Ancient Coins for Education!  The Roman government issued these small coins in astronomical numbers to try to make-up for inflation, but pouring more coins into an inflationary market without enough public faith in government to support the social contract worked precisely like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, And the Romans went on inadvertently feeding the inflationary spiral ensuring that ever greater numbers of nearly worthless coins had to be struck.  These coins didn't have sufficient intrinsic value to make them worth melting down, and a lack of anything like banks as we know them caused vast amounts of them to be buried for safekeeping.  The worse things got, the more people buried their money and the less likely it was they were going to survive to dig it up again.  So many of these pieces have survived and are just now being dug-up and coming on the market in "as-is", uncleaned condition that our organization is able to donate, free of charge, genuine, uncleaned late-Roman coins to enrich the classics curriculum for students in Latin and History classes in High and Middle schools as they clean and study the coins - 40 schools from coast to coast and in Canada participated last season and we hope we will be able to provide enough free coins to enable even more schools to participate this coming year - So, if you think your class might want to participate AND you feel you have an exceptional teacher - because it takes a special teacher to make the program work properly - a teacher who has imagination and can really take advantage of our cleaning - identification - and essay-contest program, or, if you happen to BE that teacher, please let me know at the end of the lecture and I'll give you information about how your school can apply for the program.

So, lets go back to the dysfunctional family of Constantine the Great and what the "tabs" might have made of it.

18. Constantinian Era AE Family Group

Family of constantine
Family of Constantie

Constantine Believes Wife, Kills Son, Then Believes Son, Kills Wife. Is This Guy Great, or What? 

Rumor has it that the Emperor's wife is really steamed.  -        

Dateline Rome - June, 326 A.D. -

How often do we have to hear the same sad stories caused by broken families? The latest tale of our royal family is so sadly typical - boy meets girl, girl has child, man leaves girl for Emperor's daughter, Emperor's daughter accuses first girl's child of treason, boy executes child, repents and executes Emperor's daughter. The boy in question in our present Emperor Constantine. A product of yet another broken marriage, Constantine's father (Constantius I) left his bar-maid wife Helena to marry Theodora, step-daughter of our late Emperor Maximian. This pattern of broken families continued to Constantine - he chose to leave his paramour Minervina to marry his step-mother's step-sister Fausta, daughter of Maximian and Theodora. This marriage strengthened Constantine's claim to power but left a pretty dysfunctional family in its wake. It also left a son behind with Minervina, our late Caesar Crispus.  At least our Emperor Constantine proved a better supporter of his children than the average single father. Crispus was educated by the best minds in the Empire and at age fifteen he was raised to the purple, becoming Caesar along with his step-brother Constantine II. The following year saw Crispus serving as Consul and beginning his military career. This military career saw its high point five years later when Crispus led a fleet of 200 ships against the much larger fleet of his father's rival, Licinius. Crispus' victory was complete and his destiny as Constantine's heir seemed assured.  Yet now we are deprived of our Caesar. His very success seems to have led to his fall. Last June our Crispus was put to death, accused of rape by his stepmother Fausta. We shall never know the validity of Fausta's accusations - the justice administered by our Emperor was harsh and swift. But the result may show the motivation - Fausta's sons Constantine and Constantius are now destined for the purple.

Update - October, 326 A.D. 

In a stunning reversal of fortune, reports from the palace indicate that Constantine has apparently repented executing Crispus. The recent arrival of the Emperor's mother Helena may have something to do with this change of heart. Now disbelieving Fausta's allegations, Constantine reportedly had his wife boarded up in a bath and the hypocaust stoked until she boiled to death. Imperial spin doctors are trying to convince the public that Fausta's death was a suicide but this observer doubts that anyone would choose to die in such a horrific way - steamed like a prawn.  Contributions to erect a golden statue to Crispus are being accepted at the palace. Donations are, of course, voluntary - but highly recommended.


19. Late Roman - Folles Ae 1's and Descending Sizes, Siliquae 
Late Roman coins
Late Roman Coins
Over the next century, the billon and bronze issues change size so often that nobody knows now where most of them stood in relation to gold and silver, and history has not recorded the names of this multitude of denominations.  Around 350 or so AD, the Mints finally gave up for good trying to silver-wash the low value coins, and simply issued bronze coins without trying to disguise them as silver. 

Since we don't really know what to call the late Roman bronze denominations, we classify coins from this time by size and call them: AE1, AE2, AE3 and AE4, with AE1 being roughly silver-dollar sized, like the old imperial sestertius and the smaller the coin, the lower its "AE. Number".

The late imperial bronze coins themselves declined in size, until by the early fifth century, mostly, only very tiny (about 15 millimeter, or smaller than a US Dime) bronze coins were being regularly issued. 

Interestingly, in the fourth century, as the final decline of the Roman bronze coinage proceeded, a viable gold and silver coinage was reestablished.  Constantine I (307-337 AD) introduced a new gold coin, called the Solidus, which stayed at a consistent weight and fineness of about 4 and a half grams of pure gold, and continued unchanged well into the Byzantine era, right down to the eleventh century AD.  By the end of the fourth century, gold fractions of the Solidus - the Semisis and Tremisis - respectively ½ and 1/3 of a Solidus - began to be issued in large enough quantities that they actually circulated.  Constantine also resumed the issue of a high purity silver coinage, about the weight and fineness of Nero's denarius, initially coined at a confusing array of different weights, but settling down by the end of the fourth century to become the widely-circulating Siliqua, worth 1/24 of a Solidus.  

From the late third century AD, the Roman Empire typically was divided administratively between two or more Emperors.  After Constantine I founded Constantinople, the normal division was into eastern and western portions roughly demarked by a north-south line drawn from Belgrade in Serbia to Bengazi in Libya. When Theodosius I, the last man to rule the entire Roman Empire, died in 395 AD, the Empire was divided between his two sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West.  Soon, the western half of the Empire was crushed by invading Germanic tribes -Ironically the most dishonorable "sack of Rome" by Alaric's Visigoths in 410 AD occurred during Honorius' not very honorable reign. 

This surviving eastern portion of the Roman Empire after about 500 AD is known to us as the Byzantine Empire, after the Greek city of Byzantium, that Constantine I made his new capital of Constantinople.  Of course "Byzantine" is a misnomer, since the so-called Byzantine Empire, with full justification, always considered itself  "THE Roman Empire", AND her citizens, Romans - THEY called themselves "Romaion" However, the Eastern Roman coinage soon developed into forms very different from anything known in more Classical Roman times.

20. Byzantine AE's

Byzantine coins
Byzantine Coins

For numismatic purposes, we usually say the Byzantine coinage begins and the purely Roman Coinage ends with Anastasius I, who reintroduced large bronze coins, which, in marked contrast to the Roman Imperial bronzes, invariably carried a numeric mark of value.  The value of each denomination was a multiple of those tiny bronze AE4 "nummus" coins that had made up the bulk of small change for the past century, and the denomination was represented by a Greek numeral.  So, "M" was 40 nummi, "K" was 20, "I" was 10, and "E' was 5.  Since we need some point in time to divide the "ancient" Roman coinage from the more properly medieval Byzantine coinage, and the political events of the era don't provide us with a convenient temporal "landmark", AND the introduction of a mark of value was a true innovation in the Roman Imperial coinage, the monetary reform of Anastasius is generally accepted as the dividing line between the Roman and the Byzantine coinages, if not generally between the Roman and Byzantine imperial eras which sort of segued one into the other. The eastern, Byzantine division, of the Roman Empire was not finally extinguished until the Turks conquered its capital, Constantinople, on May 29, 1453, only 39 years before Columbus' fateful voyage.

And there we have to end our own voyage through the history of the Romans.