Review: Roman Bronze Coins: From Paganism to Christianity 294-364 A.D.

Victor Failmezger, Roman Bronze Coins: From Paganism to Christianity 294-364 A.D. Washington, D.C.: Ross & Perry, Inc., 2002. Hb. 156 pp., 42 color pls. ISBN 1-932109-41-2. US $49.99

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to spend much time in the serious study of late Roman bronze coinage knows that it is virtually impossible to keep track of the complex minutiae of type variety as well as mint and officina marks without resorting to the organization of data into a multitude of lists and tables. This perennial need for tabular information in the quest to properly identify and understand the coinage of the late Roman world, has led to the publication of such important supplements to Roman Imperial Coins (RIC) VI-VIII as Late Roman Bronze Coinage (LRBC) and G. Bruck’s Die spätrömische Kupferprägung. With the publication of Roman Bronze Coins: From Paganism to Christianity 294-364 A.D., Victor Failmezger follows in the tradition of these late Roman tabular studies, but at the same time attempts to break new ground by turning the focus away from individual mints to the larger historical picture and by extending the period of coverage from the rule of the house of Constantine back to the establishment of the first Tetrarchy.

The first chapter (pp. 1-15) introduces the reader to the turbulent history of the decades between AD 293 and AD 364 by means of an extended chronological table. Here the author provides a year-by-year history of the period that includes not only the main political and military events, such as the retirement of Diocletian and the battle of the Milvian Bridge, but also important economic developments like the Edict of Maximum Prices. Whenever connections between coin series and specific events are known or suspected, as in the case of various consular, VOTA, and commemorative issues, they are also discussed.

Chapter two (pp. 16-45), devoted to the various reverse types employed on fourth century coinage, is probably the most important and innovative section included in the book, as it consciously eschews the traditional arrangement by mint used by Roman Imperial Coinage and LRBC. Instead, Failmezger has grouped the material into 26 discrete historical and thematic units, such as “Diocletian and Monetary Reform (AD 294-300/1),” “The Three Sons of Constantine I (AD 337-340),” and “The Festival of Isis Coinage (AD 313-364).” This form of organization places emphasis on the larger political and economic history of the period, rather than on the history of individual mints, thereby making the material more easily accessible to those unfamiliar with late Roman mint organization. While this approach will certainly appeal to many students of this period, and no doubt even to those long used to the older arrangement by mint, it also makes Roman Bronze Coins a potentially useful tool for field numismatists at archaeological sites. For archaeologists, the historical context of the coins is paramount in order to use them to date excavation strata. The coinage tables within the historical and thematic divisions list a total of 476 individual types, but readers should be warned that the encoding of certain information is not intuitive and that it will take some practice before the tables can be used with ease. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the author has chosen to use a new numbering system that does not allow for easy comparison between coins listed in the present volume and those in RIC and LRBC.

The following chapter (pp. 46-79), entitled “Dating and Controlling the Coins: The Roman Way,” is a very thorough overview of the letters and symbols used on late Roman coins as a means of identifying the originating mint and workshop, as well as the place of individual issues in the minting sequence. The chapter begins with an excellent introduction to mintmarks, honorifics and officina numbers commonly found in the exergue and includes quick reference tables for their easy interpretation. A set of mint charts, essentially distilled from those found in RIC VI and LRBC, also shows the usage of marks and symbols at all twenty late Roman bronze mints over time.

The great usefulness of this chapter is somewhat marred by excessively speculative interpretations of field marks, although we should point out that Failmezger is very forthright and warns innocent readers that his views do not represent those of the majority. Despite the fairly obvious use of individual letters as sequence marks (note the alphabetic sequence in the tables on pp. 53-54), some are considered to be abbreviations. For example, C is said to stand for CONCORDIA, while H and I represent HERCVLI and IOVI, respectively, referring to the divine patrons of the Augusti and Caesares of the Tetrarchic system. Multiple letter field marks, less clearly related to mint sequencing, are given even more peculiar meanings. KP is said to be a value mark (20 PONDVS) while RXF is expanded to the rather unlikely ROMA DECIENS FELIX (“Rome is happy 10 times over”).

The fourth chapter (pp. 80-94) will be of interest to specialists in individual late Roman bronze series, for it is in the course of these pages that we are treated to tables listing the known varieties of major reverse types. However, the tables are not always complete and sometimes fail to include all issuing mints. For example, the mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus have fallen out of the listings for the GLORIVS EXERCITVS series, while the reader is left to guess which mints were responsible for a number of types listed for GENIO POPVLI ROMANI, IOVI CONSERVATORI, MARTI CONSERVATORI, PRINCIPI IVVENTVTIS, and SOLI INVICTO COMITI. To uncover the missing information it is necessary to consult the pages of RIC VI and VII.

Chapter five (pp. 95-119) opens with a descriptive catalogue of reverse types, including commentary on their political and religious symbolism. While this section provides a good introduction to late Roman numismatic iconography, we should probably doubt the author’s alternative interpretation of the famous Constantinian type of a snake pierced by the Labarum (Failmezger 359; RIC VII, 19 and 26 (Constantinople). Rather than the usual understanding of the type as a symbol of victory over Licinius I, he suggests that it “could be a promotion of Christianity bringing good health” on the grounds that in traditional Roman religion snakes often symbolize health. While there is no question that snakes are associated with Salus, the Roman personification of good health and safety, the snake looks singularly unhealthy, if not actually dead, on the coins in question and seems to have much more in common with the serpent crushed by the elephant on the denarii of Julius Caesar (M. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage [1974], no. 443).

The typological catalogue is followed by several sections devoted to some of the most well known and heavily studied reverse types, including the VOTA types, commemorative series, “camp gate” types, anepigraphic types, and the FEL TEMP REPARATIO series.

The popular “camp gate” series is dealt with in some detail, although the author sidesteps the old controversy over what the “camp gate” is actually intended to represent. Instead of noting the various schools of thought, which have suggested the turreted gates of legionary camps or walled cities, Failmezger baldly asserts that the “camp gate” is really a type of watchtower and that the “turrets” are really beacons for relaying fire signals. He even goes on to reconstruct possible signal codes based on the letters of the Greek and Latin alphabets and groups of two, three, and four fire beacons. Quoting Julius Africanus, who indicates a system of three signalers for sending messages in Greek, the author suggests that the watchtower with three “beacons” should be connected to the Greek speaking eastern Empire, while those with two or four should be linked to the Latin west. However, a close look at the listings in RIC shows that the three “beacon” type is found at mints as far west as Rome, Ticinum, Aquileia, Siscia, and Serdica, thus making the theory of eastern and western signaling systems hard to accept. The present reviewer also finds the basic premise of the “camp gate” as a watchtower equipped for fire signaling somewhat problematic because of the existence of certain aurei of Rome (RIC VI, 5-8) and Ticinum (RIC VI, 8-10) that depict the building in perspective. On these there are a total of five “beacons” (more than required for any of the proposed signaling systems) and all look suspiciously like turrets with conical roofs (see also issues of Treveri (RIC VI, 635-638). In any case, whether one subscribes to a camp gate, city gate, or watchtower theory, the table for the PROVIDENTIAE AVGG/CAESS “camp gate” issues will no doubt be of interest to specialists.

By far the most thoroughly discussed series in chapter five is the ubiquitous FEL TEMP REPARATIO coinage and especially the issues with falling horseman type. It is obvious from the care lavished on this section that the author has spent much time studying this series and holds it very dear to his heart. Here tables list not only the major typological varieties, but also almost three hundred mint sequence varieties as well. While there is enough to delight any enthusiast of this popular series, the lists are not exhaustive and Failmezger himself admits that there are still many mint sequence varieties that remain to be discovered.

The concluding chapter (pp. 120-133), entitled “Roman Rulers, Relatives and Usurpers” gives an overview of the individuals who issued coinage in the Tetrarchic and Constantinian periods through the use of various quick reference tables, including charts listing the full names and dates of each ruler, their consular dates, their common titulature on the coins, as well as a summary of the six Tetrarchies. These are followed by a very brief treatment of imperial portrait types in which individual features of iconography, such as headgear, clothing and other objects, are discussed. Unfortunately, the attention to detail and interest in variants that is evident throughout the book with respect to reverse types is for the most part lacking as far as obverse types are concerned. While the author admits to the interest of imperial portrait varieties and touches on minute details like laurel wreath tie knots and armorial decoration, only the Constantinian BEATA TRANQVILLITAS series (those of Licinius I and II are left out on the grounds that they are very rare) receives any specific attention in the form of a table, and this is far from complete. The total absence of discussion concerning the association of obverse and reverse types, or even obverse inscriptions and legend breaks with obverse portraits tends to minimize the usefulness of this chapter for serious students of late Roman coinage, or anyone attempting to identify a coin with a well preserved obverse but an incomplete reverse. In general, the cursory treatment of the subject and its somewhat peculiar placement at the end of the book, when we might have expected it at the beginning, suggest that it may have been an afterthought. There can be little doubt that the author’s true passion is the reverse type.

In addition to the author’s tables and text, brief commentaries by Warren Esty on such topics as contemporary Roman counterfeits and the family of Constantine the Great are also included in Roman Bronze Coins. Those interested in contemporary forgeries are well advised to visit Esty’s website on the subject, which can be found at: Unfortunately this address has dropped out of the text on p. 20.

Many readers will be pleased to learn that Roman Bronze Coins keeps up with the increasing trend of publishing plates in full color. Examples of many of the coin types and variants included in the tables have been digitally photographed by Doug Smith and appear in 42 plates. The quality of the photography is excellent and there are no problems with excessive pixellation, always a concern when printing digital photos. However, while it is nice to see some of the attractively patinated coins in all their full color glory (i.e. Failmezger 223, a gorgeous Maximinus II anepigraphic AE 3 of Antioch with desert patina, and Failmezger 360 a nice green Cyzicene AE 3 of Helena), one cannot help wondering whether a traditional black and white format might have allowed for the inclusion of photographs of better preserved specimens taken from sale catalogues or other sources. All of the plate images, as well as some bonus material, is available on an inexpensive CD-ROM (Windows and Macintosh OS compatible) that can be ordered from the author through

Despite its problems, Roman Bronze Coins can be a helpful resource if one keeps its limitations in mind. The time has not yet come when RIC VI-VIII has been superseded. But until that distant day arrives, Victor Failmezger has provided a much needed, if not entirely complete, synthesis of the data in these volumes and created an ancillary tool to be used alongside the classic scholarly works. It is hoped that the popular and introductory character of Roman Bronze Coins will open up the world of late Roman coinage to new students and instill in them the desire to pursue deeper study.

—Oliver D. Hoover