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The Fog of Peace: (Pseudo)-Alliances on the Coinage of Late Roman Usurpers

Tristan Taylor

The coinage of most Roman imperial usurpers ignores direct mention of the legitimate regime with which they were in conflict. However, starting in the third century, some men in tension or conflict with the legitimate regime nonetheless had coins struck in their name advertising a positive relationship between themselves and the ruling emperor(s). This paper will examine three examples of this phenomenon. Firstly, the coinage of Vaballathus, prior to his proclamation as Augustus, featuring the Palmyrene on the obverse, and Aurelian on the reverse (eg, RIC V(1) 260, 308). It will be argued that this coinage claimed the legitimate continuation of Vaballathus in the special position in the Roman east held by his father, with Aurelian’s approval. Secondly, the remarkable series of coins struck in the name of the British usurper Carausius (eg, RIC V(2) 550-6) that proclaim him as a member of the imperial college, either as the frater of Diocletian and Maximian, or by representing him as a member through the use of the AVGGG legend with three ‘G’s. It will be argued this was an attempt to portray a period of détente with the Dyarchs, found in literary sources (Aur. Vict., Liber de Caesaribus 39.39; Eutr., Breviarium 9.22.2), as their recognition of Carausius. Thirdly, the coinage of the usurper Constantine III, which attempted to portray Constantine III as a member of the legitimate imperial college alongside Honorius, Theodosius II and Arcadius, and then Honorius and Theodosius II, through the use of legend AVGGG(G) (Grierson and Mays, 1993). It will be argued that such coinage served two, not incompatible, purposes. The first, and perhaps most important, was as a message to those within the claimant’s domains, soldiers in particular, of the usurper’s legitimacy. The Roman empire was a vast area of imperfect information, with much uncertainty about the truth of political events. This was to such an extent that the usurper Procopius had hoped to advance his claim through a false rumor of Valentinian’s death, probably anticipating that the truth would not be learned for some time, after people had committed to his cause (Amm. Marc. 26.7.3). In such a climate of imperfect information the messages of legitimacy conveyed by locally produced coins, whatever their actual truth, could resonate loudly for some time and generate commitment to a leader before any contradictory message could arrive. A secondary purpose of coinage portraying an alliance or recognition was as a gesture of conciliation towards the legitimate regime in the hope of securing such recognition, as Constantine III eventually did. This is particularly pertinent in the late empire, where usurpers usually tried to claim membership of the imperial college first, before resorting to conflict (Szidat 1997; Flaig 1997).

Session/Panel Title

Documentary Fallacies

Session/Paper Number

69.3

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