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Coins of Catastrophe


kevikens
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I have been reading a book on the mid Third Century of the Roman Empire by an author who has pointed out the period from ca. 240-260 AD was a period that saw the Empire rapidly begin to go to pieces and only by fortune and some genuine perseverance were the Roman Emperors and the citizens of Rome, barely, able to survive and, to a certain degree, recover from heavy losses and reestablish some degree of stability, enabling the Empire to survive another some two centuries longer. But like Waterloo, it was a close run thing. The author describes the heavy death toll from the Plague of Cyprian, possibly a form of Ebola, and a constant hammering of the borders by  the Goths and the Persians in the East, and by aggressive, incipient tribal alliances by the Western Germanic tribes. It may be possible to get an idea of what was going on by examining the coinage of that period. It should not be difficult to find examples of Roman coinage from the time period as the coinage was abundant, and often did not circulate much before being taken from circulation and was quite commonly hidden in hoards for protection against loss to these enemies of Rome. For us today as collectors that means the coins of this period are quite affordable, often in very fine condition.

Our period begins with the Empire being ruled by Philip I the Arab and began pretty well in the mid 240's AD. The emperor had a son as Caesar and later co Augustus and Rome was about to celebrate the Secular Games and these games for our year 248 was the one thousandth year, A.U.C. from the founding of Rome. Happy Days are here. The coinage reflects this as the silver content of the antonianus, the double denarius, was between 43%and 47% (according to Harl p. 130). Not bad as when Caracalla first issued this denomination it was at just a tad above 50% The large sestertius coin was still common and of good style and weight. The style was quite good as well. These are attractive coins. Unfortunately for Rome's rulers issuing attractive coins was down the list of important achievements. Emperors were expected to lead their forces in person and that meant trouble, often lethal trouble. Phillip was killed in battle (by the Usurper Trajan Decius)  as was Phillip II, his son. Decius was killed two years later fighting Goths and his successors, and a whole slew of would be contenders, lasted little longer. And while the Goths and a resurgent Persia battered the Empire, the Plague of Cyprian carried off, gruesomely if the accounts are accurate, something like 30%-40%  of the population. Valerian and his son Gallienus came to the throne in 253 AD and for a short while the Empire seemed to stabilize. That was undercut by the decisions of both Decius and Valerian to launch a full throated war on the Christians. The last thing Rome needed was internal domestic uproar but that  is what it got. And then it got worse. Valerian was defeated and captured by the Persians and Gallienus had to handle intrusions along the Rhine as well as a new spate of usurpers, seemingly everywhere. For those interested in the happenings of this period a cursory summary can be found in Sear's Roman Coins, Vol III and for those who want go into depth you might want to try Paul N. Pearson's, The Roman Empire in Crisis 248-260, an excellent read and quite well illustrated with contemporary coins.

And now my coins; first are several coins of Phillip the Arab , his empress, Otacilia Severa (both double denarii of about 4.9 grams, a copper As of the emperor, then a sestertius and double denarius of his son, Phillip II. After that come two coins of Trajan Decius, a Syrian tetradrachma of 11 grams and an Alexandrian tetradrachma of the same weight. Next a double denarius of Trebonianus weighing 3.0 grams and about 35% fineness of silver. Next a double denarius of Valerian of about 18% fineness . Then,  a double denarius of Gallienus, soon to be on his own, of about the same fineness and weight as his father's . Next is a bronze sestertius now becoming a scarce issue,as its weight in bronze made it about the same intrinsic value  as the supposed more valuable double denarius. Next a really so  debased double denarius of Gallienus that it has barely any silvering at all. Next to last is a double denarius of one of the contenders that Gallienus had to contend with, Postumus, whose double denarii had more silver and looked a lot better than the coins of the supposed real emperor , Gallienus. Postumus even issued a heavy double sestertius to add more insult. So, perhaps readers can take a look at their own coins of this period and see and post what you can find of these Coin.thumbnail_IMG_2450.jpg.74cdd5298eea5ee0c62d3e966612e834.jpg

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Nice post and coins, @kevikens. May I ask the name of the book you mentioned about the period? Of course there are also plenty of historical novels that take place during this era, including the lengthy "Ballista" and "Iron and Rust" series by Harry Sidebottom (an Oxford history professor), which began with the assassination of Severus Alexander and is now in the reign of Gallienus. The most recent book was just published a few weeks ago: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/s/harry-sidebottom/falling-sky.htm . I've read all of them except the new one, and highly recommend them!

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I'm also curious about the book you are reading, is it fiction or non-fiction 🤨? I've got dozens of coins from the period you're referring  to, but will only post a group photo of Philip I, his wife & son. All three coins are ex Michel Prieur collection.

1291076231_PhilipIOtaciliaSeveraPhilipII.jpg.bae7a4380ebfc7ddb7cb593f937e547e.jpg

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10 hours ago, DonnaML said:

Nice post and coins, @kevikens. May I ask the name of the book you mentioned about the period? Of course there are also plenty of historical novels that take place during this era, including the lengthy "Ballista" and "Iron and Rust" series by Harry Sidebottom (an Oxford history professor), which began with the assassination of Severus Alexander and is now in the reign of Gallienus. The most recent book was just published a few weeks ago: https://www.fantasticfiction.com/s/harry-sidebottom/falling-sky.htm . I've read all of them except the new one, and highly recommend them!

Thanks, Donna. The book is The Roman Empire in Crisis 248-260 by Paul N. Pearson, Pen and Sword Military, 2022. I got my copy from Amazon but I think Thrift Books is carrying it as well. I have read all of the Harry Sidebottom novels. Harry is eminently readable. Pearson also wrote a book on Maximinus (Maximinus Thrax:from Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome) which I no longer have. I think it came out in 2016. I was surprised to find out that Ballista may very well have been a historical character and not figment of imagination and Pearson writes about him in both of his books. I also can recommend another 2019 publication by Pen and Sword, The Reign of Emperor Gallienus, the Apogee of Roman Cavalry. It is a translation of the author, Ilka Syvanne, and does not quite read as well as other books but it is well illustrated and covers a period not well documented as others. It came out 2019 and I purchased it from Thrift Books. I'll order that new Sidebottom book shortly. Thanks again for the pleasant response.

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12 minutes ago, Al Kowsky said:

I'm also curious about the book you are reading, is it fiction or non-fiction 🤨? I've got dozens of coins from the period you're referring  to, but will only post a group photo of Philip I, his wife & son. All three coins are ex Michel Prieur collection.

1291076231_PhilipIOtaciliaSeveraPhilipII.jpg.bae7a4380ebfc7ddb7cb593f937e547e.jpg

Quote

Pearson is very much an academic though his background in formal education seems more in the area of the sciences, but his interest in the Classical period more than makes up for any deficit, if there is any at all. In his book he goes into some detail on the use of the palimpsest as a new source of information for this particular period of Ancient History. I find he is an excellent balance (in medio stat virtus) between academic rigor and telling history in a very readable manner. The book is superbly annotated and documented. I hope he keeps writing about this period of time as I think there are some great emperors of this period who are not well understood to have been that  great because our primary sources from this period are few and garbled.

 

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George C. Brauer, Jr. wrote "The Age of the Soldier Emperors," (1975) which I loved when I was beginning collecting. In his preface he says he is a professor of English and "... my hobby, the collecting of Greek and Roman coins. The hobby developed into an enthusiasm, if not an obsession, and led me into reading in the fields of ancient history and culture."  "It my have been partly because coins of the mid third century after Christ are plentiful that I became especially interested in that age."

My development is similar, and I'll bet some other NF members could say the same.

To show a coin, here is one of Philip:

 image.jpeg.a0ef030567386f269ef09c9fa576b616.jpeg

PAX FUNDATA CVM PERSIS  (Peace founded with Persia). 
This type was struck after the retreat from Persia (under the Sasanians) after the death of Gordian III. The retreat became necessary even after the successes of Gordian III because Philip undermined Gordian's authority with the army which lead in the murder of Gordian. Philip took over in 244. 

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I have prettier Gallienus coins… but I’ve always found this one interesting.

It seems to straddle eras… the portrait style is in between the more realistic earlier portrait styles and the later, abstract and simplified style of Gallienus’ late reign. The silvering, an early example of what’s to come, tries to convey that the state is strong and money good, but gives away the truth in the base metal bronze showing through. One side of the coin shows a round flan with room for the legends, while the other side is ragged and sharpe, cutting off the legends. It’s a prefect 2 gram visual, showing the decline of Rome mid-third century.
GallienusPAXAVGUnattributed.PNG.55707876aecae206e8f5c5472262823a.PNG

Edited by Orange Julius
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I cut my teeth with this book

s-l500.jpg.79148449eccb1191dabe8922c69e6b3f.jpg

A few years into my University career where I studied to be a teacher (This being career #2 that cratered before I was 25 years of age.) I discovered ancient history at about the same time as I discovered ancient coins. (Early 1970"s) The books of this series became my bible for studying Roman coins. I still have my copy though in the shape it is it would have no value. Given that this book was published in 1958 I suspect that it is now rather out of date. 

Since @Valentinianposed one of my favorite coins of Philip I s I will post this one

Philip I Ar Antoninianus 247 AD  Obv Bust right radiate draped and cuirassed seen from back Rv VICTORIA CARPICA Victory advancing right holding wreath and palm RIC 66 4.45 grms 21 mm Photo by W. Hansen

philsnr10.jpg.e7fa21cc6549ce3756445e7424441387.jpg

One of the biggest issue of this period of history is that the sources are less than ideal. In the case of Philip we know little about the man before he became Emperor. He became emperor under circumstances that could best be described as dubious. He apparently won a signal victory over the Carpi. From the sources we have he appears to have tried to rule with moderation and there is some evidence that he might have been trying to improve the quality of the antoninianus before he died. 

Edited by kapphnwn
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41 minutes ago, kapphnwn said:

I cut my teeth with this book

s-l500.jpg.79148449eccb1191dabe8922c69e6b3f.jpg

A few years into my University career where I studied to be a teacher (This being career #2 that cratered before I was 25 years of age.) I discovered ancient history at about the same time as I discovered ancient coins. (Early 1970"s) The books of this series became my bible for studying Roman coins. I still have my copy though in the shape it is it would have no value. Given that this book was published in 1958 I suspect that it is now rather out of date. 

Since @Valentinianposed one of my favorite coin of Philip I s I will post this one

Philip I Ar Antoninianus 247 AD  Obv Bust right radiate draped and cuirassed seen from back Rv VICTORIA CARPICA Victory advancing right holding wreath and palm RIC 66 4.45 grms 21 mm Photo by W. Hansen

philsnr10.jpg.e7fa21cc6549ce3756445e7424441387.jpg

One of the biggest issue of this period of history is that the sources are less than ideal. In the case of Philip we know little about the man before he became Emperor. He became emperor under circumstances that could best be described as dubious. He apparently won a signal victory over the Carpi. From the sources we have he appears to have tried to rule with moderation and there is some evidence that he might have been trying to improve the quality of the antoninianus before he died. 

Was "the Arab" a contemporaneous nickname, or one bestowed upon him later on? Where was he actually from? 

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23 minutes ago, DonnaML said:

Was "the Arab" a contemporaneous nickname, or one bestowed upon him later on? Where was he actually from? 

No it was not. The earliest sources descripe him as Philippus the Syrian … Arabs comes later. And it’s not sure what that’s mean. 

It is not logical that he was an Arabian Nomade - because his family (father) has a important position. So it’s also possible „Arabs“ means a region. Or it’s an description for „an oriental“ person. But first sources told from „Philippus the Syrian“. 
 

Sib. Or. XIII,22, with F. Millar, The Roman Near East. Cambridge, MA/London, 1993, p. 530. Note that D.S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire, a Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle. Oxford 1990, p. 216-218, argued that „the description of Philip as a Syrian exemplifies a common type of geographical confusion“. However, it is not entirely certain that the Hauran had become part of provincia Arabia by the time Philip was born, see Millar, The Roman Near East, p. 531. Cf. G. Bowersock, Roman Arabia. Cambridge, MA/London 1983, p. 112-114.“ 

 

Edited by Prieure de Sion
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@DonnaML

 

It's often impossible to know if a nickname is contemporaneous or not. We only know about things such as "Caligua", "Caracalla" etc. from often throwaway remarks in primary sources. Most nicknames that people receive aren't conducive to effective propaganda so it makes sense that we are at the mercy of the literary sources here. Philip may have been known as Arabus, but we simply don't know for sure. I do agree he was certainly not an Arabian nomad, but it's not impossible (or even unlikely) that people of Arabian ethnicity were prominent in Eastern cities.

To further expand on the primary sources, and what @Prieure de Sion says. The earliest source is indeed the Sybilline Oracles but they are very bizarre, not very reliable , rely heavily on symbolism and have multiple authors/redactions . Wikipedia says it best in my opinion. " Instead, the text is an "odd pastiche" of Hellenistic and Roman mythology interspersed with Jewish, Gnostic and early Christian legend.

I've included the passage below that calls Philip "coming out of Syria" for a taste of the flowery flavour of the work. 

https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/sib/sib13.htm

Insatiate in war and leading on
His spearmen against the Assyrians
Shall draw near, a young Ares, and as far
As the deep-flowing silvery Euphrates
25 Shall warlike Ares stretch his deadly spear
Because of . . .
For by his friend betrayed he shall fall down
    In the ranks smitten by the gleaming iron.
And straightway coming out of Syria
30 There shall a purple-loving warrior rule,
Terror of Ares, and also his son,
A Cæsar, shall even all the earth oppress;
And the one name is unto both of them: On first and twentieth there are to be placed
35 Five hundred

 

The coded message in the last few lines is explained by the website. " The Greek letter for five hundred is {Greek F}, initial of Philippus. The "one and twenty" is to be understood as denoting the initials (A=1 and K=20) of Augustus, the title assumed by the father, and Cæsar (Kaisar), the name of his son."

Philip's birthplace of Auranitis was in the Roman Province of Arabia Petraea (the village is actually in modern Syria, however) and he renamed his birth village Philippopolis and began a building program after he became emperor.

Zosimus in the 6th century declares that Philip was a native of Arabia in Book I of his New History. However, it is thought that Zosimus had access to the history written by Dexippus who was a contemporary of Philip. Dexippus is also a source in the Historia Augusta and this work calls him Philip the Arab. This work is a bizarre fourth century historical account that blends history, literature, satire, comedy and is therefore once again not very reliable. The funny caveat is that the Historia Augusta cites Dexippus explicitly, although some scholars argue it often does so erroneously.

In my opinion, although it cannot be known for certain and could simply be confusion with his province of origin, his Arabian ethnicity would be a strange thing to invent, or for someone with access to Dexippus to get wrong. 

I would also argue that he looks quite Arabian on his coinage, and the reason I bought my Philip coin below was because I felt that it included an Arabian looking portrait. This may be a case of confirmation bias, however.

image.png.30cbafda0289dae3ce594f5c6cb60b58.png

Edited by Steppenfool
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