Monday, December 16, 2013

A Mystery Emperor...and his Pigeons

My occasional drinking pal MooseandHobbes gets to have more fun than most people.  In particular I am envious of her opportunities to work with the archaeology of the City of London.  Recently on her blog she posted an image of a very distressed coin that came up on the river bank next to the Tower of London.

The front was quite hopeless:

But as is often the case the reverse was tantalizingly close to legible:

photos courtesy of MooseandHobbes

Allowing for wear and tear, for potential mis-strikes, and for anomalous globs of oxidation, I made a tentative identification of it as being a coin from the usurper Magnus Maximus who held tenuous power over Britain and Gaul from 383 to 388 AD.  For a rationale of my pick, and for some amusing tales of MooseandHobbes as pop music fan girl, visit at MooseandHobbes.

This style of coin had a relatively brief run in Britain.  Constantine the Great reformed the chaos that had become Roman money circa 310 AD.  This style of cheap bronze small change, referred to by numismatists as an AE4, was created then.  And of course Roman currency would no longer have reached London much after 400 AD, when rampaging Goths and Vandals stepped up the assaults that eventually destroyed the Western Empire.  This "Barbarian Apocalypse" was probably to the ancient mind akin to our modern fears of a "Zombie Apocalypse".  Its most dramatic event was the Sack of Rome on August 24th, 410.

But after making a preliminary call of Magnus Maxiumus I find myself back pedaling a bit.  Because honestly, I think this is a closer match:

The placement of TOR in VICTORIA, the odd projection extending up and to the left from the figure's shoulder, the double line behind the figure....looks promising.  One small problem is that this is a coin of Arcadius who was Emperor of the East from 395 to 408.  And Constantinople is a very long ways from London.

But I do not consider this an insurmountable issue.  For those not conversant with the mess that is late Roman history, the last Emperor to hold unified power was Theodosius the Great from 379 to 395. Before his death he made his two sons associate rulers, Arcadius in the east in 383 and his younger brother Honorius in the west in 393.  These two kids were lousy Emperors.  Even recognizing the significant challenges that the Empire was facing, they were the Dumb and Dumber of ancient times. The above coin probably dates from the short time when Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius were all living and holding office, hence the designation AUGGG, which refers to three Emperors.

Coins of Arcadius do turn up in Britain and Gaul, and from mint marks it is clear that they were made in places like modern day Trier and Lyon.  So coinage from the Eastern Emperor was circulated in the West and vice versa.

But I prefer to think of this as a coin issued under the aegis of Honorius, at that time the junior ruler of the West under his father's combined rule.

Honorius was an inept and indecisive monarch.  When the populace of the isolated province of Britannia desperately called for help he supposedly sent what is called The Rescript of Honorius, telling them they were on their own, and oh, good luck.  (some scholars have serious doubts on the authenticity of this btw).

When the Eternal City, Rome itself was sacked by villainous Goths in 410 Honorius was hiding elsewhere in Italy.  When the terrible news arrived he is said by Procopius to have been feeding his pigeons and only upset until it was made clear to him that it was the city that had been sacked, and that no harm had come to his favorite bird of the same name.  This tale also is considered dubious and by no lesser figure than the great if uncritical historian Gibbon. And Gibbon liked all manner of odd anecdotes. Still, it did inspire a nice painting by John Waterhouse...

So with no legible front I prefer to give our mystery coin over to Honorius. It seems fitting that one of the last coin issues to reach a dying Roman Britain should come from one of history's least vigorous sovereigns.  And in "Honor" of the event I present the Sesame Street re-enactment of the reign of Honorius....

As Rome was being sacked he was "Doin' the (coo! coo!) Pigeon!

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