Coinage of Odovacar and the Ostrogoths


Coinage of Odovacar

The emissions of Odovacar were minted in Milan, Rome and Ravenna,[1] initially respecting the authority of Zeno (474–91), the reigning emperor in Constantinople, and the deposed Roman emperor Julius Nepos who remained exiled in Dalmatia from 475 until his death in 480. They were produced in three metals: gold, silver and copper alloy.

Gold coinage

The gold emissions ascribed to Odovacar and struck in the name of Julius Nepos and later Zeno retained the previously minted late Roman/early Byzantine denominations: solidus, semissis and tremissis. In his catalogue, Wroth had attributed to Odovacar four solidi and three tremisses from the mints of Ravenna and Rome; however these were reattributed to periods outside of Odovacar’s reign by RIC X.[2] Maintaining the title of Zeno on the obverse, the solidi show the three-quarter frontal bust of the emperor on the obverse and a standing Victory with cross on the reverse. The semissis bears on the obverse a profile bust on the right and a Chi-Rho on the reverse, whilst the tremissis maintains a profile bust on the obverse and a simple cross on the reverse. The exergue mint mark on the reverse of the coin is CONOB (CONstantinopolis OBryzum (pure gold standard from the mint of Constantinople) or COMOB (possibly deriving from COMes, relating to the court, and expressing a mobile mint following the ruler).

It is likely that production started soon after the fall of Romulus Augustulus in 476, but there are no known examples of gold coins issued in the name of the exiled Julius Nepos. It is believed that most of the coins minted in the name of Zeno, produced in the Italian mints between 480 and 491, were in fact issued by Odovacar. However, it is likely that Theoderic also minted in the name of Zeno after 491, although it is as yet impossible to discern between the two authorities.[3] Kent’s subdivision of Odovacar’s issues seems to be the most exhaustive work carried out so far,[4] although it was recently disputed by Metlich.[5] Awaiting further study in this area, the collection in the British Museum currently follows the subdivision dictated by Kent.

Silver coinage

The silver coinage of Odovacar was initially produced in the name of Zeno, with only emissions of ½ siliquae and three different reverse types: a typical city personification of a turreted figure holding a sceptre and cornucopia that also displays a mint mark MD or RV on the reverse field; an eagle with spread wings; and a Victory advancing to the left, holding a wreath and cornucopia. These three types were minted in Milan and Ravenna, leaving only one issue from Rome: a Christogram within a wreath on the reverse and a mint mark CM in the exergue. According to Metlich, this latter instance is the only type that can be assigned to Odovacar.

Arslan followed Kent’s classification, but also recognized the need for more study as well as an analysis of distribution in order to obtain a better insight into chronology and mints.[6] Also minted in silver, one type that is widely recognized as issued by Odovacar is a ½ siliqua that bears on the obverse the title and name of Odovacar and on the reverse his monogram (and Ravenna mint mark). The dating of the issue is still being debated: Kent suggests that an early date (circa 477)[7] should be considered due to the high level of production, whereas Arslan proposes a later date (circa 491) when Odovacar was besieged by Theoderic in Ravenna.[8] The presence of both the name of the rex as well as his monogram is considered by Arslan as a clear attempt to proclaim Odovacar’s legitimate power when he no longer recognized the authority of Zeno. Contrary to this opinion, Kent suggests that the emission was produced with Odovacar’s name before he had decided to recognize the authority of the exiled Julius Nepos.[9]

Copper alloy coinage

The 5th century witnessed a continued reduction in the weight and size of the nummus.[10] According to Wroth,[11] Anastasius (491–518), whose reign was entirely without a western counterpart and is therefore often considered the first Byzantine emperor, carried out the reorganization of this impractical denominational system in 498.[12] The result was a series of nummus multiples creating a handy suite of denominations standing between the basic unit and the much higher value precious metal coinage. Hitherto an intermediate bronze ‘denomination’ had only been possible by bagging up nummi into standard purses of set amounts known as folles (sing. follis); now a follis-worth could be more practically contained in a single coin type. However, other scholars believe that the introduction of nummus multiples are likely to have happened during the reign of Zeno, with the introduction of the follis coin that Odovacar (and perhaps Theoderic) minted in Zeno’s name[13] occurring at the same time as Anastasius’ reform.[14] An alternative chronology was recently proposed by Alan Stahl who suggested that copper alloy coins minted in the name of Zeno were perhaps produced under Theoderic and not Odovacar.[15] This would date the reform of coinage minted in the former western part of the empire to after 498 – the year of Anastasius’ reform – therefore occurring after, and not preceding, the Byzantine reform. For the purpose of this catalogue, Kent’s classification has been adopted.

The copper alloy coinage of Odovacar was minted as two types: the large follis emissions in the name of Zeno and the small nummi with the monogram of Odovacar. There is disagreement surrounding the follis emission, the issuing authority as well as the date of production. For example Wroth and Grierson[16] placed this type among ‘Autonomous’ or ‘Municipal’ coinage,[17] whilst Kent recognized them as issues of Zeno. More recently, Arslan suggested the possibility of Theoderic,[18] whilst Metlich believes that they belong to Odovacar who would have started minting large coins after Romulus Augustulus had been removed from power in 476.

The second source of disagreement is that of the mint mark placed vertically under the head of Zeno, which is composed of four vertical lines, IIII. Grierson, Hahn and Metlich give an interpretation that is related to the dating of the emission, suggesting that the four lines should be taken as symbolizing the fourth year after the coming to power of Zeno – 477. For the type without the IIII, a broader date is proposed of between 474 and 491. Kent notes that although it is possible that the interpretation could be right, there is no tradition of dating Roman coins in this period. Therefore, he proposes that the Zeno bronzes could actually be part of the early stages of the anonymous coinage of the Ostrogoths, which also uses the same reverse legend, IMVICTA ROMA.[19] The issue should have been struck in the mint of Rome in one of the five officinae (numbered I to V)[20] known to have minted Ostrogothic coins with the she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus.

This hypothesis is supported by Arslan, who also suggested that it is likely that both Odovacar and Theoderic were both minting in the name of Zeno in separate mints during the period from 488 to 491.[21] His conclusion is that Odovacar did not mint this issue, but that it was produced under Theoderic.[22]

The other copper alloy emission is the 1 nummus denomination, with the bust and inscription of the rex on the obverse (rather than the emperor) and his monogram on the reverse. The type is generally attributed to the mint of Ravenna during 489 and 493 when Odovacar was besieged in the city.[23] More recently, Arslan[24] has expressed some doubts about this being a product of Ravenna since the recorded archaeological finds have mostly been in central and southern Italy. However, recent finds in the Veneto region[25] and Classe[26] have widened the distribution, leaving the debate open.

Coinage of the Ostrogoths

Amongst the coinages of the post-Roman ‘successor kingdoms’, that of the Ostrogoths was the most elaborate and was the only system developed on a tri-metallic base with issues in gold, silver and copper alloys. Monetary production had started by 491, initially in the mints of Rome and Milan and followed by Ravenna from 493 onwards. It is possible that Ticinum could also have been active from 493 to 498[27] in the production of silver. It was certainly active after the loss of Ravenna in 540,[28] probably between 542 and 553.[29] It has been suggested that some Ostrogothic issues were minted in Marseille, Siscia and Sirmium.[30]

The recognition and ordering of Ostrogothic emissions, particularly gold, has been carried out mainly on stylistic grounds (a method that is still widely retained) and originated from the works of Friedlander,[31] Wroth,[32] Kraus[33] and Kent.[34] However, it was Hahn[35] who created a real milestone for the subdivision of the productions, constructing the foundations for later numismatists that have been revised most recently by Arslan[36] and Metlich.[37] Keeping in mind this earlier research, the main classifications will be referenced against Metlich’s publication since it is the most comprehensive work on the subject at this present time. The work of Arslan (in particular his latest publication[38]) will also be taken into consideration to offer a possible different interpretation on this subject.

The general chronology of the issues is dictated by the legends on the obverse of the coins, since the reverse inscriptions and representation of Victory remain unchanged in gold coinage throughout the whole period. The immobilization of the iconography, particularly that recorded on the reverse, does not reflect the variations in contemporary Byzantine prototypes that Ostrogoths imitated in the early years of Theoderic’s reign. On the obverse of the coins, the legend refers to the Byzantine emperors who were contemporary to the Ostrogothic rulers. After the death of Anastasius, it seems that Ostrogothic coinage was simply adjusted to acknowledge the new emperor, Justin I. It is not clear, however, if the amendment was immediately carried out after his death, or if there was some time lapse.

Theoderic minted in the name of Zeno, Anastasius I and Justin I while Athalaric minted in the name of Justin I and Justinian I. Theodahad and Witigis also minted in the name of Justinian I, creating problems of recognition in their gold emissions. This practice was followed until Baduila who minted in the name of the long deceased Anastasius. After the start of the Gothic wars, Baduila chose Anastasius I on account of his being the authority who had legitimized the power of the Ostrogoths on Italian territory in 497.[39] After Baduila, Theia is the only king to have produced coinage.[40] In spite of Baduila’s short reign the number of recorded emissions is high, suggesting that this large number of minted coins was produced to finance the last stages of the Gothic war. Metlich also suggested that types in the name of Theia could have been produced and circulated well after his death by the kings who succeeded him in the latest period of resistance against the Byzantines.[41]

However comprehensive, the work of Metlich does not cover all the types in the British Museum’s collection. In this work, discussion of the coinage present within the collection will be organized according to the current arrangement of trays and cabinets in which the coins are stored: by authority, mint, metal and denominations (in decreasing size) within each metal.

Gold coinage

Ostrogothic gold was minted in three denominations: solidus (with a weight that corresponded to 1/72 of a pound of gold, equivalent to c. 4.5g); semissis (also semis) (½ a solidus); and tremissis (a third of a solidus). The production of semisses is known only during the rule of Theoderic and was minted in Rome.[42] Metrology and typology followed the Byzantine system[43] and also maintained a good standard of engraving. Initially, the quality of the engraving in Ostrogothic coinage surpassed that of its Byzantine counterpart,[44] but it is possible to witness a steady decline particularly with the emissions of the later kings. In the past this was interpreted as a result of the absence of good engravers trained in the Roman tradition.[45] Arslan recently proposed that the decline in style was probably due not only to a lack of craftsmen, but also to a slow change from Roman classical traditions to customs that put more emphasis on the symbolism and meaning of the images than on the epigraphy.[46]

As a result of the similarities between Ostrogothic issues and contemporary Byzantine coinage, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two during the earlier stages.[47] There are however a few stylistic features that are important in the recognition of a coin that can be defined as ‘Ostrogothic’ as opposed to those produced in Constantinople,[48] for example:

  • The initial three-quarter facing bust of the emperor on the obverse, while Byzantine emissions show a full frontal bust.
  • The obverse inscription that ends with PF AVG [PIVS FELIX AVGVSTVS] instead of PP AVC [PERPETVVS AVGVSTVS] (or even PERP AVG at an earlier stage) for examples from Constantinople.
  • Immobilization of the iconography on the reverse of gold coinage, which does not follow the changes that occurred on the reverse of Byzantine coinage.
  • The general use of COMOB rather than CONOB in the reverse exergue (except as noted below).

Once a coin has been identified as ‘Ostrogothic’, the next step is to establish the mint of production. Gold emissions were issued in the three imperial mints of Rome, Ravenna and Milan and, in later years, Ticinum (modern Pavia). In some cases it is easy to recognize the mint of production because of the mint marks on the coins, a feature that had already been taken into account by Wroth. Recent studies[49] have taken a more in-depth look at the issue and identified features and patterns that allow the attribution of a given production to a specific mint.

The most widely accepted features that allow us to identify which mint the coin belongs to are as follows:[50]

  • A more rounded head of the emperor is seen in the issues from the mint of Rome, an aspect that was already visible in the coinage of Odovacar.
  • The spear head that is barbed in emissions from Rome is plain or barbed in examples from Ravenna and plain on those produced in Milan.
  • The inscription on the obverse legend that ends with PF AVC in Rome changes from PP to PF in Ravenna and is recorded as only PP in emissions from Milan.
  • According to Metlich, the letter Θ found at the end of Theoderic’s gold emissions is a mark of the production of Rome, whilst the Christogram is used for those minted in Rome and also Milan.
  • The exergue inscription is COMOB for Rome and Ravenna, CONOB for Milan (at least in the early years of the kingdom[51]) and CONOT, in which the final T is taken as an indication of the mint of Ticinum.

Other minor features are recorded and characterize some of the different issues recorded and these will be discussed where necessary.

After the death of Justin I, Ostrogothic gold coinage maintained the same general characteristics of the recognized emissions of Theoderic and Athalaric. However, Justinian’s long reign and the contrasting short period of the rule of the Ostrogothic kings has not enabled scholars to distinguish the emissions of the three kings – Athalaric, Theodahad and Witigis – who minted under the authority of Justinian I.

Baduila’s issues are recognizable since he struck his coins in the name of Anastasius, the emperor who had legitimized the Ostrogothic kingdom (rather than in the name of the hostile contemporary Emperor Justinian). The absence of monograms as well as the style and care put into the engraving and lettering on the legends distinguish his productions from those of Theoderic.

Silver coinage

Silver emissions of the Ostrogoths were produced in two denominations: ½ siliqua and ¼ siliqua. Some rare emissions of miliarensis[52] and siliqua[53] have also been recognized. These were minted in Rome in the later years of Theoderic’s reign, but there are no examples in the British Museum’s collection.[54] As with the gold, the obverse of silver coins portrays the effigy of the Byzantine emperor who was contemporary to the Ostrogothic king, from Anastasius I to Justinian I. Baduila, who initially minted in the name of Anastasius instead of Justinian I, later struck coins in his own name. The legend of Anastasius I is also used by Theia.

On the reverse, the early emissions of Theoderic bear the image of a star or a Christogram, followed by productions with the monogram of the king. From the kingdom of Athalaric onwards, the two denominations bear on the reverse either the name of the king written over three or four lines or the monogram. The introduction of symbols such as the monogram, but especially the inscription with the name of the king, seems to show the desire for strong symbols intended to assert the power of the Ostrogothic kings. This identified their constitutional position in Italy and was therefore destined as a message to communicate their authority. It is also believed that the introduction of silver coinage in the king’s name was meant for internal circulation,[55] whilst gold (which continued to bear the name of the Byzantine emperor) seems to have mainly been circulated outside the borders, being recorded as far as Gaul and Scandinavia.[56]

Revising his hypothesis, Arslan[57] suggests that silver coinage would also have been accepted within the Byzantine Empire, but that the differences in the two economies and its scarce use in long distance transactions would have meant that silver as a metal was used mainly for local trade. The economy of the Italian peninsula under Ostrogothic rule relied heavily on silver coinage, especially as it allowed the completion of valuable transactions without relying solely on gold. For this reason, Ostrogothic silver was instead widely accepted in the Germanic world. It is perhaps because of the circulation in this ‘Germanic’ market, that smaller denominations, starting from the ½ and ¼ siliqua as well as the 20 and 40 nummi, underwent stylistic changes with images that become more overtly ‘Gothic’, proposing the abandonment of the ancient ‘Roman’ traditions for a new type of symbolism.[58]

The weight of silver emissions is not as clearly determined as that of gold productions. However, the study carried out by Metlich calculated the likely standard weight on the base of known ¼ siliquae; this allowed him to set the standard at 1/360 of a pound (the equivalent to 0.9g – making a ½ siliqua 1.80g). After the death of Odovacar, the weight was reduced to 1/224 with a ½ siliqua equating to 1.45g.[59] Arslan does not fully agree with Metlich’s work and sets the value of the ½ siliqua to 1/288 of a pound, which corresponds to 1.13g.[60]

Copper alloy coinage

As a consequence of a widespread economic crisis throughout the Roman Empire, particularly in the west, monetary production at the end of the 5th century was considerably reduced. It witnessed a deterioration both in quality and style, with the use of copper alloys of poor standard and flans of slowly decreasing diameter, often identified only by metrological analysis and defined as AE4.[61] This is witnessed by the weight of the nummus that remained quite stable until the beginning of the second reign of Zeno (480–91), after which point it started to decline from the average weight of about 0.93–0.92g to about 0.22g, which Arslan considers to be the weight of the nummus on the eve of Anastasius’ reform.[62]

Following Odovacar’s emission of heavy folles minted under the reign of Zeno, Theoderic also began the production of bronze coinage marked as 40 nummi. Theoderic and his successors minted copper alloy coinage in denominations of 40, 20, 10, 5 and 2½ nummi (also called minimus or the plural minimi). These denominations are widely accepted by scholars, although Arslan[63] has long suggested the existence of the production of 15 nummi (corresponding to the emissions with the name of the emperor on 4 lines on the reverse) and 3 nummi instead of 2½.[64]

Some of the copper emissions can be easily attributed to a specific Ostrogothic king as they bear on the obverse the image and inscription of the contemporary Byzantine emperor and on the reverse the name of the king himself, written over three or four lines. As in the case of gold and silver emissions, the chronology is determined by the presence of the Byzantine emperor on the obverse of the coin, which was maintained up to the reign of Baduila who minted in the name of Anastasius I and later in his own name. No copper alloy productions of Theia are known as yet. Brenot[65] and Arslan[66] record issues that Metlich does not include in his work, but as these are not relevant to the examples in the British Museum’s collection they will not be discussed in this catalogue.

The Ostrogoths also minted issues of 40, 20 and 10 nummi that have long been debated over, without however reaching a point of agreement. These issues are characterized by an obverse that bears the image of the personification of Rome, Ravenna or Ticinum, with the legend INVICTA ROMA, FELIX RAVENNA or FELIX TICINVM. On the reverse the images vary, from a she-wolf with suckling twins, a fig tree with eagles, a forward facing eagle, the monogram of Ravenna to the personification of Victory walking towards the left. None of these images provides an indication of issuing authority or mint of production. Both Metlich and Arslan have suggested some contrasting hypotheses regarding their interpretation. As a result, they will be discussed separately.

[1] MEC 1, 28; RIC X 213–19.

[2] BZ3 43–4 (nn. 1–7), 45 (nn. 12–15).

[3] Arslan 2011, 368. Arslan correctly points out that Theoderic, who had been raised as a ‘Roman’ at the court of Constantinople, would not underestimate the legal and symbolic value of legitimizing his position with the issuing of ‘official’ emissions.

[4] Arslan 2011, 368. Arslan seems to follow Kent’s classification, however recognizes that the work needs to be updated.

[5] Metlich 2004, 11. Metlich observes, for example, that the style of the tremisses can be linked to the early emissions of Zeno.

[6] Arslan 2011, 368.

[7] RIC X, 213.

[8] Arslan 2011, 368 and bibliography.

[9] RIC X, 213.

[10] At the end of the 5th century the nummus was exchanged at a rate of 7000–7200 nummi per solidus (Codex Theodosianus, Novella 16), which allows us to calculate a weight of about 1.137g (equivalent of 1/288 of a pound) (Arslan 2003, 28; MIBE 1, 14). According to Arslan the weight remained stable, at least in the eastern part of the empire, until the reign of LEO I (a theory that would be supported by his study of Cafarnao finds) (Arslan 2003; Arslan 2004). Arslan claims that the weight only fell during Zeno’s reign with hoards that record higher percentages of coins weighing around 0.7g (Arslan 1991). However, in reality, the weight of the nummus fell even further, reaching a weight as low as 0.22g, which Arslan believes to be the basis on which Anastasius’ reform was based. This theory is contested by Hahn (MIBE 1) who claims that the weight of the nummus never reached such low levels.

[11] BZ3.

[12] BZ3, MIBE I, 14.

[13] MIBE 1, 13–14.

[14] Arslan 2011, 370.

[15] Stahl 2012, 637–9.

[16] MEC 1, 32ff.

[17] Grierson argues that there was a revival of senatorial privilege visible in similarities between the issue and earlier coinage of the Roman Empire, such as the FELICISSIMVS in the legend, the SC in the reverse field and the depiction of Victory, all very popular in the Flavian period (Grierson and Mays 1992, 31).

[18] Arslan 2004; Arslan 2011, 369.

[19] RIC X, 218–19.

[20] BZ3, 104–5.

[21] Arslan 1984; Arslan 1989; Arslan 2011.

[22] Arslan 2011, 370.

[23] Arslan 1989, 20.

[24] Arslan 2011.

[25] Asolati 2012.

[26] Baldi 2013.

[27] Metlich 2004, 102.

[28] Ibid., 33

[29] Arslan 2011, 370.

[30] Demo 1994; Mirnik and Šemrov 1997–8; Arslan 2011.

[31] Friedländer 1849.

[32] BZ3.

[33] Kraus 1928.

[34] RIC X.

[35] MIB 1.

[36] Arslan 1989, Arslan 2004, Arslan 2011.

[37] Arslan 2004.

[38] Arslan 2011.

[39] Suchodolski 1989, 156; Arslan 1984, 46; Arslan 1994.

[40] This is likely to have resulted from the fact that some of the kings reigned for a very short period.

[41] Metlich 2004, 46.

[42] Metlich 2004, 9.

[43] Arslan 1989, 18.

[44] MEC 1.

[45] Arslan 1984; Arslan 1989.

[46] Arslan 2011.

[47] Arslan 1984, 423; MEC I, 35; MIB I; Metlich 2004.

[48] Arslan 1984, 423; MEC I, 35; MIB 1; Metlich 2004.

[49] MIB 1; Arslan 1989; Arslan 2004; Metlich 2004.

[50] Arslan 1989, Arslan 2004; Metlich 2004.

[51] Arslan 1989, 26.

[52] Metlich 2004, 53; Arslan 1989, 13. Arslan describes it as a ‘double siliqua’.

[53] Metlich 2004, 54; Arslan 1989, 14.

[54] Metlich 2004.

[55] Arslan 1989.

[56] Ibid., 45–6 and bibliography.

[57] Arslan 2011.

[58] Suchodolski 1989, 163.

[59] Metlich 2004, 56–69.

[60] Arslan 2011, 327, n. 58; RIC X, 16.

[61] RIC X, 17. It is very hard to link written ancient texts and the known emissions of the 5th century. To overcome this problem the flans were subdivided into four denominations that differ according to the diameter and weight of the coins, in descending order: AE1, AE2, AE3 and AE4.

[62] Arslan 2004, 437; Hahn does not agree on this value (MIBE 1, 12–14).

[63] Arslan 2004; Arslan 2011.

[64] Arslan 2011 and bibliography, in particular Arslan 1989 and Arslan 2004.

[65] Brenot 1980; Brenot 2003.

[66] Arslan 1989; Arslan 2001.