Illuminating Coins of a Dark Period

Today’s post is a guest post by Jane Sancinito on some of our coins!


Bust of Trajan Decius, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Trajan Decius, Capitoline Museum

The coinage of the third century CE is often used as a case study for how debasement, the steady, intentional decline of precious metal in a currency, leads to economic decline. The political turmoil of the period, represented in the rapid turnover of emperors and in texts like the amusing Scriptores Historia Augusta’s Thirty Tyrants, adds to our sense that the Roman world was barely holding it together during the fifty years from 235 to 285. These emperors, who were generally supported by their military and abandoned by them as soon as the money ran out, were desperate to make less precious metal stretch to pay more troops. As a result, they produced coins that contained less and less silver as century went on.

In the middle of this period, right when the quality of the coinage was going from bad to worse, a Roman Senator capitalized on an important military command to present himself as a viable candidate for emperor. Trajan Decius, more properly Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Augustus, killed his predecessor Philip in battle outside of Verona, Italy and became emperor in the autumn of 249 CE. From that point until his death in the battle of Abritus in June of 251, Decius minted coins across the empire in his image, including this billon tetradrachm, struck in Antioch, ancient Syria, modern southern Turkey.

These coins were minted in large numbers in Antioch during the roughly twenty-two months that Decius was emperor. They are billon, an alloy consisting of less than fifty percent silver, and were a local currency, struck only in Syria and expected, though not required, to stay within that province. As the name suggests these were tetra-, four, drachm, drachma, pieces; this was a reasonably large coin, and their mostly-bronze composition makes them feel solid and heavy.

The iconography of the series shows an eagle, the traditional symbol of Zeus, standing on a palm branch, a symbol of victory, on the reverse, and Decius, his wife Herennia Etruscilla, or one of their sons, Herennius Etruscus or Hostilian, on the obverse. On this coin Decius wears a crown of laurels, a symbol of his rule and also of his status as a victorious general. Decius also wears military attire on the coin: his cuirass and draped cloak. There were many foreign conflicts during his short reign, along the northern and eastern borders especially, so Decius needed to appear ready to take on the challenges coming his way in his portraits.

Antioch was the largest major city of the empire that was close to the various invading forces. Rome at the time was approaching a major invasion by the Sassanian King Shapur I, who would conquer Antioch a few years after Decius’ death. The city was a very important one and it is described in ancient authors as being a beautiful, developed, cosmopolitan center. It was also a major hub for trade in the Roman economy, since many goods, and especially luxury items from the east like silk and spices, traveled through Antioch before they crossed the Mediterranean. To facilitate this trade, the Roman government struck coins that it used to pay its military as well as the bureaucrats who oversaw legal, political, and economic activity. These officials and soldiers spent the money and introduced the new coins into the greater monetary system of Syria.

It is generally supposed that Roman soldiers were paid in antoniniani, a coin worth two denarii (the tetradrachms were probably worth four denarii) first struck in silver by Caracalla but gradually also debased to billon. Antoniniani were struck all across the empire, not just in Syria, and would therefore be a good coin to use when traveling or, like soldiers, when at risk for reassignment to other provinces. Tetradrachms could work for local purchases, but antoniniani were a currency that was sure to be accepted everywhere. It is interesting, in light of that assumption, which has been accepted by so many historians, what archaeology can tell us about how these coins circulated.


View of the Palmyrene Gate. Yale University Art Gallery, Dura-Europos Collection

There have been numerous digs in Syria, but two of the largest were the excavations of Dura Europus, a border garrison in eastern Syria, undertaken by Yale University, and the excavations of Antioch led by Princeton University. Interestingly, though the coins were minted at Antioch and would have, presumably, entered into circulation there as pay to local officials, not one of these coins was found in the excavations there. The excavations at Dura Europus, however, produced dozens of these tetradrachms, despite its distance from Antioch and the fact that much of the population of that site are believed to have been soldiers.

These facts of the archaeological record cannot tell us why there was this unexpected result, however there are two possibilities that we might consider. First, most coins found in excavations are those that were lost in casual use. They were dropped and not picked up by a later passerby. This means that most coins found in excavations are small, and usually dark-colored coins that would easily blend in with a dirty road or dark corner. In Antioch, tetradrachms like this coin may have been cleaner, fresh from the mint, and heavy enough that someone would notice that they had dropped them. As a result, few, if any, were left to sit in the dirt and be buried over the years. At Dura, the new, shiny coins would be those paid to the soldiers, the silver(y) antoniniani, which would be lost in far few numbers that the dull brown-green tetradrachms.

Second, it is possible that scholars have been mistaken in their theory that soldiers were only paid in antoniniani. A large number of tetradrachms suggests that there were many of these coins being used in Dura Europus, a military base. It is possible that they were being used to pay soldiers, since it was efficient to pay the legions in a coinage that would be immediately accepted in the province where they would be serving, and which was worth more so fewer had to be struck to pay them.

Work is ongoing to test this second hypothesis, especially to see if enough tetradrachms might have been struck to pay the soldiers. A preliminary result suggests that as many as eight million tetradrachms may have been struck at Antioch during Decius’ reign. It is not yet clear if that would be enough to pay the legions, but that number can tell us that coins like this one were definitely used, spent, and traveled before they joined museum collections.

Consequently, a single coin like this one offers us an opportunity to talk about all kinds of issues. We can think about the ways in which a Roman emperor wanted and needed to be viewed, as well as the necessities that pressed upon him, like paying for an army. In conjunction with other coins we can think about circulation and spending, about how people used coins in antiquity. Finally, every coin makes up a piece of a greater economic picture. The tetradrachms of Antioch are part of a local picture, and can show us a highly monetized world, but one that focuses on the military and its needs. Working with these objects can shed light on all kinds of issues of the region and the period, and in this case one that needs all the illumination it can get.

About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

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  1. Pingback: Trial by Fire: Reflections on a first TA assignment. - From Stone to Screen

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