Coins of Roman Usurpers and Unofficial Emperors

Coins of Roman Usurpers and Unofficial Emperors

Roman Coins of the Unofficial Emperors


Gold Coin of Aureus of Eugenius

Aureus of Eugenius (usurper in 392-93 AD)

Photo courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


Throughout Roman history, there were numerous instances where ambitious individuals, known as usurpers, rose to power by force, reigning for a short period before being overthrown. These unofficial emperors sought to take control of territories or establish their authority, often leading to chaos and instability within the Roman Empire. While some usurpers, like Vespasian and Septimius Severus, eventually became recognized emperors, this numismatic article will primarily focus on the lesser known figures and the coins that they minted during their short lived reigns. These coins minted by usurpers are a representation of extreme rarity and collectability that many collectors are unaware of their history.


The Significance of Usurper Coins


Usurper coins hold immense historical and numismatic significance due to their rarity and desirability among collectors. These coins were often minted out of defiance towards the Roman government rather than for monetary purposes. In many instances toward the later portion of the 5th century AD, usurpers would imitate existing coins with crude copies of popular types. Their limited production sheds monetary light on the challenges faced by minting coins in haste.

Coin minting is a meticulous process, with the inexperienced designer producing coins of crude aesthetics and deviant weights. A notable characteristic of usurper coins is their crude craftsmanship and deviation from the artistic style of the period. Unlike the carefully designed and meticulously executed coins of recognized emperors, usurper coins often exhibit a lack of artistic finesse. The rough and sometimes simplistic designs reflect the urgency and limited resources available to these self proclaimed emperors. Additionally, many of these coins do not conform to the correct weight standards for their supposed denomination.

Some of the most tumultuous times in Roman history occurred during periods known as the "Year of the Four Emperors" and the "Year of the Five Emperors." These periods were characterized by intense power struggles and usurpations, followed by civil wars which plunged Rome into chaos. In the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD), Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian successively claimed the throne, with each emperor (save for Vespasian) reigning for only a short time before being overthrown or killed. This rapid succession of emperors destabilized the empire and exposed the competition for ultimate leadership. Similarly, the Year of the Five Emperors (193 AD) witnessed a series of power shifts. Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimius Severus all vied for control, resulting in political unrest and uncertainty. Pertinax, the first emperor of the year, reigned for a mere three months before his assassination, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Septimius Severus seizing power.


The Lesser-Known Usurpers


While figures like Vespasian and Septimius Severus are classified as usurpers due to their rise to power during periods of chaos, it is the lesser known individuals who primarily fall into this category from a numismatic standpoint. These obscure usurpers minted coins during their short lived reigns, leaving behind fascinating numismatic evidence of their attempted rule. While their reigns were often short and unsuccessful, their coins provide valuable historical documentation and contribute to our understanding of the complex power dynamics within the Roman Empire.

            Numismatists are faced with the task of categorizing the usurpers into those who attempted to rise to power and those who actually succeeded. Prior to the establishment of the Tetrarchy and the split empire, numerous individuals opposed the reigning emperor and declared themselves rulers. This was often achieved through either political or military means. While some usurpers, such as Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus in 42 AD and Nymphidius Sabinus in 68 AD, are often regarded as opportunistic "lunatics" who sought power in times of struggle, there were others who had more legitimate claims to the title of emperor.

Among the usurpers, the most legitimate ones were often generals and officers who were declared as emperors by their own troops. These individuals marched into Rome not to cause chaos, but to restore order and stability. One notable example is Macrinus, who in 217 AD became the first legitimate emperor resulting from usurpation since the year of the four and five emperors. Macrinus, a former prefect of the praetorian guard, had a brief rule that was marked by an extensive coinage output. He minted a wide range of popular denominations, including some provincial issues, demonstrating his efforts to establish his legitimacy and solidify his authority.

Following Macrinus, a series of usurpers emerged, including Elagabalus, Maximinus, and the Gordian dynasty. These individuals, like Macrinus, rose to power through military support and the declaration of their troops. Additionally, there were several illegitimate usurpers, such as Uranius, Taurinus, and Magnus, who were typically governors in various provinces and succumbed to power hungry ambitions. These usurpers often faced significant challenges in maintaining their authority and facing opposition from other claimants to the throne. Their reigns were often marked by power struggles, military conflicts, and attempts to assert control over the vast Roman Empire. Despite their short lived rule, the coins minted by these usurpers are extremely rare. Many of these rulers did not issue coinage at all.


Very rare Roman Denarius Coin of Uranius

An extremely rare Denarius of Uranius (usurper in 253-54 AD)

Photo courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


            The crisis of the third and fourth century brought about significant changes in the Roman Empire. During this tumultuous period, it became exceedingly difficult to establish a consensus of power, leading to a rampant proliferation of usurpers. The people, disillusioned with their Roman overlords, often refused to submit to their authority. In the span of approximately two hundred years, from 230 to 350 AD, the empire witnessed the rise of nearly fifty usurpers, making it impractical to list all their coins and recount their individual histories. Among the many usurpers that emerged during this period, the reign of Gallienus stands out as particularly challenging. Among them were Ingenuus (260 AD), who committed suicide in Pannonia; the Macrianus family consisting of Macrianus Major, Macrianus Minor, and Quietus (September 260 – Autumn 261 AD), all of whom were killed by their own soldiers in separate incidents in the East; Regalianus (260 AD) in Pannonia, who ruled jointly with his wife; Balista (also known as Ballista) (Autumn 261 AD), a former Praetorian prefect associated with the Macrianus usurpers; Piso and Valens (around 261 AD) in Achaea, with the details of their reigns being questioned and Valens being killed by Macrianus; Memor (around 261 AD) in Egypt; and Mussius Aemilianus (261 – Spring 262 AD) in Egypt, whose reign was short-lived and likely ended with his overthrow. These usurpers, through their rebellions and attempts to seize power, demonstrated the instability and power struggles that characterized Gallienus' reign, reflecting the challenging circumstances faced by the Roman Empire during this crisis period and highlighting the constant threat to the central authority. Gallienus faced a multitude of challenges during his rule. He had to contend with external threats, including ongoing battles in the north, while simultaneously attempting to maintain the integrity of his own empire. Moreover, Gallienus had to confront numerous power-hungry usurpers in the western and southern regions of the empire, posing a constant threat to his authority. At one point, he was on the verge of being overthrown. Ultimately, Gallienus met his demise at the hands of Cecropius. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are not entirely clear, but it is believed that Gallienus was assassinated. This event marked a significant turning point in the empire's history and further highlighted the prevalence of usurpers during this era of instability.


roman coin

roman coins

Antoniniani of the usurpers Macrianus and Aureolus

Photos courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


The final group of fictitious rulers in the Roman Empire comprises those who held weak and ineffective rule. After the empire was split by Constantine I, the Constantinian dynasty emerged but lacked substantial power and influence. The cultural shift in Rome was notable, transitioning from a society obsessed with war and dominating the known world to one focused on the arts and the pursuit of an ideal society. Unfortunately, this weakening of the empire was accompanied by a devaluation of currency and scarcity of precious metals. Crime was rampant, rulers were weak, and they often found themselves influenced by shadowy figures. Rome faced near collapse on three separate occasions before its ultimate fall in 475 AD.

Eugenius stands out as one of the Roman usurpers who successfully seized power. The coins minted during Eugenius' reign are rare and highly sought after by collectors, commanding significant premiums. In the year 392 AD, Eugenius capitalized on a moment of vulnerability following the assassination of the Western Roman Emperor, Valentinian II. Joining forces with Arbogast, a Frankish general in the Roman army, Eugenius orchestrated a coup, proclaiming himself as the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. With Arbogast's influential military backing, Eugenius gained vital support for his bid for the imperial throne. Another short lived usurper was Constantine III, who ruled alongside his son Constans II, who unfortunately died shortly after his rise to power in 411 AD. The coins of Constantine III and Constans II are considered exceedingly rare. However, it is worth noting that some numismatists dismiss the Siliquae minted by Constans II as counterfeit pieces created in Bulgaria. Despite this skepticism, many auction houses and scholars affirm the authenticity of these coins, which could potentially make them the rarest coins minted during the late imperial age.

Before the fall of Rome at the hands of the Goth leader Odoacer, there were other unsuccessful usurpers vying for power. Julius Nepos, for instance, attempted to assert his authority in Dalmatia following the siege of Rome in 475 AD, but his efforts proved relatively fruitless. Tragically, he was killed by his own soldiers around 480 AD.


Roman Gold Coin depicting Tremissis of Julius Nepos

Tremissis of Julius Nepos (minted 475 AD)

Photos courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


Article :

By. Colby J. Abele


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