I Found this Coin, I: Maxentius and his Temple

There was no post the week before last and only one last week, and the post I wanted to put up next is stalled for lack of information, plus which, I’ve decided not to do two of the ones I promised in my last ‘Chronicle’ post because I reviewed my notes and found that the things in question weren’t quite as exciting as I’d remembered. So instead I shall do what I so often do when at a blog-loss and show you a coin. I spent a decent number of Friday afternoons in the academic year 2015/16 inventorying Byzantine and late Roman coins in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections and every now and then something came up about which a story could be told. This post is about one of them.

Copy of a bust of the Emperor Maxetius now in the Pushkin Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Plaster cast in the Pushkin Museum of a bust of the emperor Maxentius (307-12) in Dresden, photograph by shakko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

The Emperor Maxentius is one of the unlucky figures of Roman history, partly just because of events and partly because he had the misfortune to be up against one of history’s winners, Emperor Constantine I (306-37).1 Constantine was raised to the purple by the soldiers of his father, Constantius I (293-305), when Constantius died, and he handled it relatively well, communicating his submission to the other three reigning emperors and being grudgingly accepted as a new junior colleague. This, however, angered young Maxentius, the son of the now-retired emperor Maximianus I (285-305, 307-308 and 310), who had very much not been allowed to succeed when his father retired. Now that another emperor’s son had, he rebelled, at first rolling his father out of retirement to set up with him at Rome and then, finding him more of a problem than a help, carried on alone. Somewhere in there he had a son, whom he gave the portentuous name Romulus, but who quickly died; this is what I mean about bad luck, really. Eventually, it was Constantine I in 312, who now, as one of only two other emperors, closed Maxentius down in Rome, defeated him in the field at the Milvian Bridge, with God very clearly on Constantine’s side as he later told it, and Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber in the retreat.2

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum, photo by your author

Maxentius thus tends to get a fairly pitiful write-up in the scholarship, but if you stop and look at that, you’ll notice it means that he was in control of the Empire’s notional capital for half a decade, and more than that, he was also in charge of and even suppressed a rebellion in Carthage, shipping point for Rome’s North African grain supply. In fact, he held a decent slice of the middle of the Empire and, apparently, a warfleet, without any real opposition from the other emperors until 312 (a brief and ultimately fatal coup by his father in 310 aside). Furthermore, he built in the city on a serious scale; his ceremonial basilica was not finished at his death, and was indeed finished by Constantine, but its ruins still stand and you can see the scale of the thing. He did finish a smaller but still impressive temple for his dead son, which you can still see in the Forum (and above). He was evidently not a nobody or a do-nothing. He just had bad luck and a very dangerous third opponent. It’s a pity we don’t know more about him, but the winners get to write the history and Constantine really did a number of that. Still, we have some of his coins.

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of the same coin

This coin in particular brings out the ambiguity of our understanding of Maxentius’s reign.3 It was evidently cut fairly carelessly from the sheet, or else the blank was poorly made and no-one cared. The dies were neatly done but not very well applied, and you could plausibly argue that whoever was making them was under pressure to produce quickly. In terms of design, however, it shows Maxentius’s aspirations pretty clearly. Firstly, the portrayal is almost exactly like that of the other emperors of the time, down to beard and dress; he was aiming to join the college and was here showing himself as one of them, and is accordingly entitled AVG(ustus) like them. On the other hand, he had something they did not have, possession of the signal city of the Empire, and he signalled this with the reverse, which shows not any temple of his own building but the temple of the city deity put up by Augustus himself, the very first emperor and origin of their imperial title, Maxentius here identifying himself with the very seat of Empire in several ways at once.4 Of course, we don’t know that Maxentius himself chose that design, rather than telling someone off at the mint to make him some suitable coins, but whoever did decide on it knew what they were doing. Were it not such a rush job, it would look like the work of a successful and self-aware administration. Alas, it was not to be, and at the end of all this I still don’t really know what to think of Maxentius except how different several sorts of history might have been if the elder emperors in 307 had just accepted him as they had Constantine. Probably Constantine would have eliminated him as he did all his other rivals, in time, but it’s still hard to see why it was so easy for him when he in fact did so.

1. I’ve taught this stuff so often now I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s coming from, but at least one source will be Alan K. Bowman, “Diocletian and the First Tetrarchy, A. D. 284‒305”, Averil Cameron, “The Reign of Constantine, A. D. 306‒337”, and Elio Lo Cascio, “The New State of Diocletian and Constantine: from the Tetrarchy to the Reunification of the Empire”, all in Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Cameron (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193‒337, 2nd edn. (Cambridge 2005), pp. 67‒89, 90‒109 and 170‒83 respectively.

2. On the tangly question of what Constantine saw in the sky and what stories were told about it, try Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), pp. 84-105.

3. I reckon it one of C. H. V Sutherland and R. A. G. Carson, The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 6: From Diocletian’s Reform (A. D. 294) to the Death of Maximus (A. D. 313) (London 1966), Ticinum 91.

4. He wasn’t the first to put this temple on coins, either; that seems to have been Caracalla (198-217), though the exact type originates with Philip I (244-248). And, of course, he wasn’t the last either, though it went through some changes

6 responses to “I Found this Coin, I: Maxentius and his Temple

  1. “I spent a decent number of Friday afternoons in the academic year 2015/16 inventorying Byzantine and late Roman coins”

    When I was a young academic I resolved to spend Friday afternoons doing Something Else. So instead of working in the lab, or punching up programs, or teaching, or writing lectures, or writing papers or … I’d spend time in a library.

    I suppose a historian spends so much time in the library that fondling coins makes for a change.

    (The joke was accidental.)

    • This historian would love to be able to spend more time in the library than it takes to scan the next thing for his students… I only read on the train into work these days, it’s the only time there is for research reading alas.

  2. An excellent argument against preposterous high speed trains, then. Let historians be historians!

  3. Pingback: I found this coin, 3: imperial violence | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: I found this coin, 4: a Hungarian enigma | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Chronicle VII: January-March 2017 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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