I have been interested in coins since I was a young age and enjoy collecting coins and writing about them.
The Lure of an Ancient Coin
The thought of owning and holding an ancient coin in your hands is very appealing to many people, especially coin collectors. We daydream about the history of the coin: Who owned this coin a thousand years ago? Was it blood money? Whose pockets or purses has it been in? Plus, the history of the coin is fun to understand and research. What do all the strange symbols and lettering mean? What is the story behind the emperor Licinius—was he a cruel despot or a benevolent leader of his people? These are the types of questions that fascinate coin collectors and motivate them to collect these small and sometimes inexpensive artifacts from history.
This article is about one particular coin, the follis of Licinius I from the fourth century of the Roman Empire. In the article I explain the meaning of the inscriptions and figures on the coin, cover the history of the Roman Empire during the third and fourth centuries, and give a brief sketch of the life of the emperor Licinius and his role in history.
The Obverse (Front) of the Coin
The obverse features the bust of the Roman emperor Licinius I. He wears a wreath of laurel, oak, or ivy branches in his hair. Surrounding the bust is the Latin inscription IMPCVALLICINLICINIVSPFAVG. The inscription is a series of abbreviations that breaks down as: IMP C is for Imperator Caesar, Commander-in-Chief Caesar; VAL LICIN LICINVIVS is an abbreviation for the emperor’s full Latin name Valerius Licinianus Licinius; and P F AVG stands for Pius Felix Augustus, which translates as [the] pius (dutiful) [and] fortunate (happy) emperor.
The Reverse (Back) of the Coin
The reverse of the coin is loaded with symbolism. The legend around the standing god Jupiter reads IOVI CONSERVATORI, a Latin abbreviation that translates as “to Jupiter the protector,” and AVGG, which is a Latin abbreviation of Duorum Augustorum—“the two emperors”—refers to the fact that Licinius ruled the Eastern Roman Empire while Constantine I ruled the western half of the empire.
Jupiter is standing nude with a cloak over his shoulder. In his right hand is the winged goddess Victoria on a globe; in his left hand is a long scepter; and an eagle sits at his feet with a wreath in its mouth. To the right of Jupiter is the symbol Δ and under Jupiter are the letters: SNHT. Both the symbol and the four letters indicate that the coin was struck at Heraclea, the Greek city of Perinthos, located in the European part of Turkey, west of Istanbul and along the northern coast of the Sea of Marmara. The mint was established by the emperor Diocletian (ruled 284 to 305) shortly before his reform of Roman coinage, and the mint was still in use until the reign of Theodosius II (ruled 408 to 450).
The coin weighs 4.11 grams and is 24 mm in diameter.
The denomination of the coin is that of a follis, about the size of a modern quarter. The emperor Diocletian first minted the follis as a bronze coin with a small amount of silver beginning around AD 294. Due to the continual debasement of Roman coinage, it rapidly decreased in size and weight.
Where Is the Date on the Coin?
Ancient coins don’t have dates on them like modern coins do. The approximate date of the coin is determined by the portrait of the ruler and any information contained in the legend. Since Licinius ruled from AD 308 to 324, we know the coin is from that period. Additional information about the date of ancient coins can be determined from the mint, if it is known, and when it was operational. Dates didn’t start routinely appearing on coins until the end of the 15th century.
The Symbolism of the Reverse
The dominant figure on the reverse of the coin is the god Jupiter, who was the supreme deity of ancient Rome. Jupiter, also called Jove, was equivalent to the Greek god Zeus. As the chief god he received the title Optimus Maximus and ruled over the sky and the events that occurred there. Jupiter was responsible for the rain, hail, and thunder. He was the guardian of all property, and every Roman citizen was considered to be under his protection. Jupiter is normally seen with a scepter, a symbol of his absolute authority, and an eagle at his side.
Situated atop the globe in his right hand is the goddess Victoria, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Nike. Around the Roman empire there were several temples erected in her honor. Victoria was a symbol of victory over death and determined who would be victorious in war.
The Value of the Coin
There are many factors that determine the value of an ancient coin, including: condition of the coin, scarcity, and the demand of the collecting public. The condition of the coin is reported by assigning a “grade” for the coin based on systems put together over the years by coin collectors, dealers, and researchers (numismatists). The Licinius follis grades in the range of Very Fine (VF) to Extremely Fine (EF). These are well defined terms that are used by one collector to describe the condition to another. For example, a coin grading EF will have sharp details, with only light wear on the highest point, and should have some traces of the original luster from the minting process. Few ancient coins reach this level of preservation. The grade of VF corresponds roughly to the condition where the coin has all the inscriptions visible, and the portraits and images (called devices) will be moderately worn.
The second parameter that determines price is the scarcity of the coin. In this case, the follis is rather common, in relative terms. Roman coins from the third and fourth century were commonly hoarded due to the debasement of the coinage that occurred. Hoards of these old coins are still occasionally found by archeologists and amateurs with metal detectors.
The third factor that determines a coin’s value is the collector appeal. Luckily, ancient Roman coins are popular with Western collectors due to their historical significance. Putting the three factors together of grade, scarcity, and demand, the Licinius follis in this article can be purchased from a reputable coin dealer in the range of $30 to $50.
The Third Century Crisis in Rome
During the third century AD the Roman empire was in turmoil with a rapid turnover of emperors between AD 235 and 284. Both internal and external warfare was the norm during this period, causing large government expenditures for the military. In order to pay wages of the vast army the government was forced to debase the silver currency. The situation was partially brought under control by the emperor Diocletian through reforming measures within the government and in the coinage system. The emperor Constantine (AD 306-337), often called Constantine the Great, succeeded Diocletian and continued the reforms, which laid the foundation for the recovery in the fourth century
Debasement of the Coinage and the Resulting Inflation
Modern monetary policies of governments allow them to issue bonds to generate current income to finance the government; however, this was not an option in ancient Rome. As a result of the need to keep paying the troops in the large military and provide for their support, the alternative was to slowly reduce the amount of silver in the coins. As each of the new emperors came to power, they issued coins with their portraits and reduced the amount of silver in the coins.
As a natural result of the debasement of the coinage, prices began to rise. Merchants demanded more of the lower quality coins in payment for their products, and as a result of this, prices rose rapidly, causing real difficulties in the exchange of goods for the average citizen. The populace gradually came to realize that the current intrinsic value of their coins was worth much less than their face value. The effect, called Gresham’s law today, was to drive older and purer coins out of circulation to be hoarded by the citizens. This turned out to be beneficial for modern coin collectors because many of the ancient Roman coins now available come from the hoarded coins of the fourth century.
Gold and silver disappeared from circulation so rapidly that Diocletian and Constantine had to institute special taxes payable in only gold or silver to fund the treasury. The spiraling escalation in price for common goods, once set in motion, was hard to stop.
Diocletian and the Establishment of the Tetrarchy
To bring a sense of order to the empire, Diocletian established in AD 293 a system of power-sharing known as the tetrarchy (rule of four). In this system there would be two Augusti and two Caesars, the latter answering to the former and destined to replace the Augusti at their death or abdication. The tetrarchic system lasted until Constantine seized sole power of the empire upon the death of his father Constantius. To establish the system of governance, Diocletian raised Maximian, another Illyrian solder, to the post of Caesar. He also adopted him as his son, even though he was just a few years younger. Maximian was given the western part of the empire while Diocletian took control of the eastern empire. To complete the four-leader system, Diocletian appointed two Caesars, Constantius and Galerius, under Maximian and Diocletian, respectively. The arrangements were cemented by dynastic marriages and the adoption of Diocletian’s family name Valerius.
Diocletian’s system remained in place after his retirement in AD 305. The tetrarchy provided a period of relative stability lasting nearly twenty years, which was long enough for some far-reaching policies to be put into place. The third century Roman writer Lactantius associated Diocletian’s reforms to the establishment of the tetrarchy, writing: “…He appointed three men to share his rule, dividing the world into four parts and multiplying the armies, as each of the four strove to have a far larger number of troops than any previous emperors had when they were governing the state alone” (Cameron, pp. 33).
The Emperor Licinius I
Licinius rose to power as a capable military commander and comrade of the emperor Galerius, who made him co-emperor in 308. After Galerius’ death in 311, Licinius shared the Eastern Roman Empire with Maximin II. Licinius visited Constantine I, ruler of the Western Roman Empire, and married his sister, Constantia. With Constantine, Licinius issued the so-called Edict of Milan, which recognized the Christian religion and restored their rights. Licinius eventually became alienated from the Christians and around 320 initiated a mild form of persecution.
On his return to the East, he defeated Maximin in 313 and became the sole emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Two years later he fought a battle with Constantine that ended in a temporary truce declaring their three sons Caesars. Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 at the Battle of Chrysopolis and was exiled to Thessalonica. The following year Licinius was executed under the order of Constantine for attempted rebellion.
Edict of Milan
An important event that occurred during the reign of Licinius was the issuance of the Edict of Milan. Since the death of Jesus Christ early in the first century AD, his disciples had gathered followers, known as Christians. By the start of the fourth century, the number of Christians had grown in the Empire to the point that they were a significant percentage of the population. Up until this point, depending on the emperor, Christians were either tolerated or persecuted. To bring an end to the persecution of Christians, Licinius, who was a pagan, and his co-ruler, Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, met in Milan in September of 313.
The exact details of their meeting at Milan and what came out of it are controversial as the two accounts of contemporary historians disagree. Eusebius, a Bishop in the Christian church and writer, claimed that an edict of toleration was issued for the Christians and those of any faith. Others contend that Constantine had already granted religious freedom and that whatever was done in Milan was by Licinius and was intended only for the eastern portions of the Empire that Licinius controlled. Though the details are muddled on the outcome of the meeting in Milan, this event was a significant turning point for the fate of Christians in the Roman Empire. Going forward the Christians went from the status of a persecuted minority to, within a few decades, the dominant religion in the Empire.
- Cameron, Averil. The Later Roman Empire AD 284-430. London: Fontana Press, 1993.
- Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome 31 BC – AD 476. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997.
- Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity Volume 1: to AD 1500. Revised Edition. Peabody: Prince Press, 1975.
- Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values. Fourth Revised Edition. London: Seaby Publications Ltd., 1989.
- The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. New York: Americana Corporation, 1968.
© 2021 Doug West