In the mid-3rd century the once-mighty Roman Empire was in disarray, threatened by waves of Germanic invaders along its north-eastern borders, while the Near East was immersed in the seemingly never-ending war with peoples from Persia.
At a time when stability and strong governance at the top would have been of paramount importance, emperors were routinely assassinated after being in power for a few years at most.
Anarchy ruled and economic decline was its constant companion.
The decline of silver
A middling-value silver coin worth two denarii, known nowadays as an antoninianus (its name during Roman times is unknown), had been introduced by Caracalla in 214 AD. On these, the emperor’s bust was presented wearing a radiate crown.
By the reign of Valerian their silver content had been debased to no more than 20%.
At the same time a number of provincial mints were opened across the empire to serve the needs of the army – through which most currency flowed. These included one north of the Alps, most likely at Cologne, the main Roman base on the Rhine frontier.
During the rule of Valerian’s son, Gallienus, antoninianii contained no more than a miserable 4% silver. Under the administration of Claudius II they were degraded to around 2%, and finally to virtually none at all.
Coinage that once shone bright of silver, had become merely small change.
The emergence of the ‘Gallic Empire’
Gallienus had elevated his teenage son Saloninus to the rank of Caesar in 258 and sent him north to Cologne. In 260 he was promoted to co-emperor, at around the same time as the barbarians launched a major advance into Roman territories.
Faced with the barbarian threat, Postumus, the governor of Upper and Lower Germany, was quickly proclaimed emperor by his troops. The hardened veterans of the army had more faith in their general than in a young, inexperienced nobleman and Saloninus was put to death.
With the attentions of Gallienus elsewhere – his father had been captured by the Persians – Postumus added the rest of Gaul to his domain, then Britain and Spain, to form the ‘Gallic Empire’.
The ailing Roman Empire disintegrated further in 270 when Palmyra in Syria declared its independence and extended its dominion into eastern Anatolia, and south along the Levant to Egypt and North Africa, where Rome traditionally obtained most of its grain supplies.
Aurelian re-unites the Roman Empire
Into this catastrophic decline stepped Aurelian, a cavalry commander who had been involved in the plot which led to the assassination of Gallienus two years earlier. In the summer of 270, when fighting Gothic invaders in the Balkans, his army declared him emperor.
The current incumbent in Rome, Quintillus committed suicide as his support evaporated.
Aurelian, now undisputed master of what remained of the Roman Empire, set about its restoration. By 272 the Palmyrenes had been crushed; two years later he defeated the forces of Gallic Emperor Tetricus I and his son at Châlons-sur-Marne in northern France.
Remarkably for this period, he allowed both to abdicate and live on as a civilians in Rome, though there is a suspicion of complicity as Tetricus was likely to have understood that his position was indefensible.
Not content with reunifying the empire Aurelian set about reforming the now dire currency and, by 274, antoninianii were being issued at an increased weight with a silver content of 4.5%. These bore XXI on the reverse exergue to signify that one coin was worth one-twentieth of its equivalent weight in silver.
Yet in the former Gallic Empire, few of Aurelian’s new coins entered circulation and those that did had a far higher value than the small change that everyone was used to.
In the world beyond regal slaughter, life continued much as it had done for decades before. The essential, but low cost, ingredients of daily living, such as bread, still had to be purchased. As has been the situation many times in history, those for whom low value coins were indispensable took matters into their own hands.
Some of the barbarous radiates they created from the mid-270s and into the next decade (and maybe beyond) were tolerable copies of coinages from earlier emperors, particularly the Tetrici and Claudius II, and may have been produced with official sanction.
That they have been found in places as far apart as the Near East and North Africa – probably carried there by soldiers – lends support to this impression.
Others were distinctly less than tolerable and the work of ever-present forgers can be held accountable for their manufacture.
Whatever their source, these scruffy little coins helped to maintain the smooth running of the local marketplace in troubled times, especially in the northern regions of the former Gallic Empire.
Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, as Aurelian made his way to confront the Sassanids of Persia in 275 he was murdered by members of his staff. The Romans had lost both a great general and the stability that came with his control. This re-established the ill-fated status quo as the empire proceeded to stumble on to its next crisis.
Peter Johnson has a background in academic research and was a part-time university lecturer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and has published a number of papers in this field. Small Change: A History of Everyday Coinage, is his most recent book, published on 15 August 2019, by Amberley Publishing