POSTUMUS AND THE CREATION OF THE GALLIC EMPIRE
In the first part of an in-depth examination of the coins of the Gallic Empire, Dr Adrian Marsden explains how Roman commander Postumus became leader of the short-lived breakaway part of the Roman Empire, and how coins helped his cause
The base silver or bronze antoniniani – also known as radiates – of the so-called Gallic Empire (260-74) were struck in enormous numbers and can be picked up relatively cheaply. Thus, they offer a good introduction to Roman coins for the beginner. Radiates are instantly recognisable on account of the spiky head-dress worn by the emperor, a visual representation of the sunrays bursting from the brows of the sun god Apollo. On Roman coins it had the significance of marking a double denomination; the radiate started life in 215 as a double denarius under the emperor Caracalla. Its silver content then was around the fifty percent mark; by the early 250s that had dropped still further to around thirty to forty percent. In the 260s the purity was to plummet. By the end of the decade most radiates across the empire contained no more than one or two percent of silver. It is the radiates of Postumus we will discuss in this article; although he issued gold and the last large bronzes to be produced there is not space to look at them here.
There are a many specialist collectors of the coins of the Gallic Empire, particularly on the Continent, and some of the extremely rare varieties can command very large sums of money indeed. Occasionally one of these collections comes under the hammer as was the case with the Michel Thys collection, auctioned by Paul-Francis Jacquier in 2016. Sometimes, large hoards of these radiate coins come on the market as was the case with the Normanby hoard of nearly 48,000 radiates found in 1985. Other large hoards such as the Cunetio or Mildenhall hoard of nearly 55,000 coins have been acquired by museums.
Compared to the centuries either side of it, we know comparatively little about the third century and, about the Gallic Empire itself, very little. It was a regime that, although it survived for some fifteen years, was ultimately conquered and the statues and histories of its usurper emperors were destroyed. What writings about it that survive are often highly unreliable and much of what we know about the Gallic Empire and the dating of its emperors comes from the coins themselves.
The Gallic Empire came into being in 260, shortly after the senior emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persian king Shapur way out east at Edessa. Valerian’s son and co-emperor, Gallienus, had to pick up the pieces as ambitious generals in various parts of the empire took advantage of the disaster to declare themselves emperor. That seems to have been what happened in what was then the province of Gaul. Gallienus had left his young son, Saloninus, probably his only surviving heir, in the city of Cologne on the Rhine where the mint serving the needs of the army based on the frontier provinces was located.
One of Gallienus’ generals, Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus, was not slow at seizing his opportunity. Saloninus’ youth cannot have inspired his troops with confidence and the capture of Valerian and the resulting usurpations across the empire had cast the dynasty into a sea of troubles. Saloninus was quickly bottled up in Cologne by Postumus’ forces; the city soon fell and Saloninus was promptly seized and executed. The Gallic Empire had begun.
Postumus was not long in striking coins to advertise his position as ruler of the new Gallic Empire. A number of provinces were to recognise his authority, not only the Gallic provinces but also those of Britain and Spain. Postumus’ very first issues, including radiates of a relatively debased but reasonably goodlooking silver, intended to put his details out to his new subjects, give the full details of his name M[arcus] CASS[ianius] LAT[inius] POSTIMVS and depict the emperor as a middle-aged man with a medium length beard (figure 1). Interestingly, these very first issues show a different style of portrait to the later ones; the emperor’s head is narrower, his beard not so long as it becomes and his nose not so upturned as it is later. This, together with the mis-spelling of Postumus’ name as Postimus, might suggest that the mint staff at Cologne were not very aware of exactly what their new emperor looked like or how his name was spelled. Probably, Postumus was not actually in the area when the city fell.
Just as the obverse of this early issue shows the people of the Gallic Empire their new emperor, so the reverse puts forward a piece of propaganda. A river god representing the Rhine – on the shore of which Cologne stands – reclines by the prow of a ship.
The legend of SALVS PROVINCIARVM, referring to the Health of the Provinces comprising the Gallic Empire, proclaims that Postumus will guard well his new provinces, ensuring that the German tribes across the Rhine frontier pose no threat to the security of his dominions.
Another type to feature very early in Postumus’ reign was that showing Hercules, specifically Hercules of Deuso who is honoured with the legend HERC[uli] DEVSONIENSI accompanying a figure of Hercles, naked but for club, lionskin and bow (figure 2). Throughout Postumus’ reign Hercules remained a popular feature on the coinage; the emperor clearly had a special veneration for the god and frequently made reference to him on the coinage. Sometimes Postumus was
even seen borrowing the deity’s lionskin headdress and posing with it, holding Hercules’ club over his shoulder (figure 3). A third reasonably early type shows the emperor holding a spear and globe (figure 4) with the legend SAECVLI FELICITAS, an Age of Happiness. The message here is clear; the new emperor’s heroic courage will usher in a new order of prosperity.
As the reign progressed Postumus’ radiates called up other themes. Most of these were very standard and used across the Roman world in the third century such as PAX AVG[usti], the Peace of the Emperor (figure 5), SALVS AVG[usti], the Health of the Emperor (figure 6), VIRTVS AVG[usti], the Courage of the Emperor (figure 7), VICTORIA AVG[usti], the Victory of the Emperor (figure 8), PROVIDENTIA AVG[usti], the Providence of the Emperor (figure 9), and MONETA AVG[usti], the Money of the Emperor (figure 10). These are generally amongst the commonest of Postumus’ coins.
Others, however, were rather more unusual, and carry designs of slightly more complexity or originality. Some show less well-known divinities such as the Eastern god Serapis with a legend reading SERAPI COMITI AVG[usti], To Serapis, Companion of the Emperor (figure 11) or Aesculapius with a legend SALVS AVG[usti], the Health of the Emperor (figure 12). Both of these types are not rare. One less common radiate shows PIETAS AVG[usti], the Piety of the Emperor, represented by a figure of Piety surrounded by four children (figure 13). Other rarer types show DIANAE REDVCI, Diana Returning, with a figure of the goddess leading a deer (figure 14) and REST[itutor] GALLIAR[um], the Restorer of the Gallic Provinces accompanied by Postumus raising up a female representing Gaul (figure 15). Sometimes inanimate objects are shown such as a clutch of four military standards with the legend FIDES EXERCITVS, the Loyalty of the Army (figure 16), or a caduceus, the herald’s wand carried by Mercury and a symbol of good fortune with SAECVLO FRVGIFERO, To an Age of Plenty (figure 17).
Coinage in the mid third century was increasingly moving away from coins being closely dated by the inclusion, for example, of how many times the emperor had been consul or how many times he had held the Tribunician power. Given that the Gallic Emperors were effectively usurpers, they could not really claim to be consuls or hold the Tribunician power in any case since those offices were held at Rome and related to the Senate of that city. Postumus solved the problem by setting up a Senate of the Gallic Empire and some of his coins do bear consular and Tribunician dates. An early example, dated to 260 advertises P[ontifex] M[aximus] TR[ibunicia] P[otestas] II CO[n] S[ul] P[ater] P[atriae] (figure 18) whilst another, dating to 262 gives P[ontifex] M[aximus] TR[ibunicia] P[otestas] III CO[n]S[ul] III P[ater] P[atriae] (figure 19). A late coin dated to Postumus’ last year, 269, shows Victory inscribing a shield with the legend P[ontifex] M[aximus] IMP[erator] X CO[n]S[ul] V P[ater] P[atriae] (figure 20).
Examples of this last coin and others
produced in 268 and 269 are usually slightly smaller and significantly less silver-looking than their earlier counterparts. The coinage of Postumus, which had maintained a much better silver content than that of Gallienus for several years now slumped and his latest issues generally look to be made of bronze with no silver content. There are still some rare and unusual types among these later issues such as the PACATOR ORBIS, Pacifier of the World, type showing a head of Sol (figure 21) and some very rare coins that place a C[olonia] A[grippinensis] mintmark in the fields (figure 22) signifying the mint of Cologne.
In late 267 or early 268 Gallienus’ general Aureolus, in command of his emperor’s cavalry strike force based at Milan, declared for Postumus and, taking over the mint there, began to issue coins in Postumus’ name. These radiates are – following on from those of Gallienus produced there – of little more than bronze and struck on small flans. The portraiture is distinctive and – perhaps appropriately – shows a tired-looking, rather down in the mouth emperor. The reverse types almost always allude to Aureolus’ army, advertising the various qualities of the Equites, the cavalry which he led. Emphasis is placed, among other virtues, on their courage, their concord (figure 23), and their fidelity.
Postumus never came to the support of Aureolus. But Gallienus could not easily ignore the fact that his son’s killer now had a de facto base in Northern Italy. He laid siege to Aureolus but was himself killed by his own officers shortly afterwards. This did not help Aureolus; the new emperor, Claudius II, lured him out of Milan and had him put to death in his turn.
As we have seen, one noteworthy fact of Postumus’ coins is how their silver content was maintained for a large part of the reign and it was only in 268 that a truly significant debasement occurs. It has been speculated that this might have been due to more money being needed to pay out to troops disgruntled that Postumus had not moved on Milan when Aureolus declared for him. If this was the case then it did not save Postumus for long. The following year one of his generals, Laelian, based at Mainz, rebelled. Although Postumus defeated his rival, it is said that he refused his troops permission to plunder the city and paid for this decision with his life.
Many of Postumus’ radiates at least have the appearance of being silver coins but, by the end of his reign, these coins were effectively mere bronze. In the next article of this series, we will look at what happened after the death of the founder of the Gallic Empire, the Civil Wars that followed it, and the accession of Victorinus.