The Avitus AE problem

The coinage of this brief-reigning emperor presents few problems for the gold issues legendary rarities though they may be. However, much controversy has been stirred in recent years due to the arrival on the market of a rather plentiful number of small coppers which, while in their entirety are missing the key part of the obverse legend needed to positively identify them, share in common several features which seem to leave no reasonable alternative. Some of the controversy is no doubt my own fault since I used the approach in my ERIC series and have provisionally helped others make this attribution. Nevertheless, over the last few years as more of these coins have shown up my doubts have grown in step. The main logic of my initial observations rested on a single coin, the RIC plate 2412 which Numismatik Lanz sold in 2000 shown below:

RIC 2412, reportedly one of the rarest of Roman bronzes

At first glance this piece seems to provide a firm foundation upon which to build the case for legend-less coins to be attributed to this reign assuming other details provide a close match. For one, the fifth century coinage from Rome is utterly miniscule compared to that of the previous century. Secondly, the arrangement of the legend on such a small coin leaves only emperors of short names as possibilities. This would rule out Valentinian III whose thirty year rule from 425-455 dominates Roman currency after Rome's first sacking in 410 CE. Based on name length alone it likewise rules out Avitus's own replacement Majorian. Finally, this particular issue very closely resembles the AE4s of Johannes and his colleague in Constantinople, Theodosius II. But while similar in every other respect, the legends here don't fit because those of the former are laid out in the format DNIOHANN [overhead break] ESPFAVG and those of the latter as DNTHEODOSIVSPFAVG without any spacing breaks so as to accommodate the larger number of letters. The RIC plate coin clearly shows the arrangement with a break to form a symmetrical DNAVIT [break] VSPFAVG. The sum of the contemporary coins that show the right-hand VSPFAVG would seem to be attributable therefore to Avitus by default.

Similar issues by Valentinian III (top) and Theodosius II required no-break spacing so that their names could fit.

What about Honorius and Arcadius? Here is where it starts to get interesting. Arcadius is disqualified right away because his death in 408 predates both the type and the degenerate style that will be introduced after the Visigoths pillaged the Roman capital in 410. Honorius, on the other hand, RIC seems to leave out in the cold. The closest match would be catalog number 1357 but this is specifically accorded to the larger AE3 denomination which Kent helpfully further annotates that an unusually heavy specimen weighs over 6 grams. Moreover, he inexplicably assigns this variant a "common" rarity and makes no serious effort at dating besides lumping this (phantom as far as I can tell) issue to the "later groups" which presumably brackets them only to within the 410-422 CE date range. The AE4 coins Kent does list are dated to no later than 395 based on AVGGG ending legends and their style as shown in the plates leaving no doubt that these do in fact belong to the earlier, finer engraving period.

So, taken together, one can be forgiven for gravitating toward Avitus as the likeliest candidate. However, let's begin a more focused analysis.

To start, it stands to reason that the coinage of any one ruler should fit in the overall style of his period; with few changes beyond the legend in the beginning and, perhaps, gradually progressing according to the fashions until his successor takes over who will in turn repeat the process. The easiest way to tell apart a counterfeit therefore is when you spot a coin that just doesn't match the period in some way. Starting with Johannes - for we have tentatively excluded Honorius as a possibility - and then through the reigns of Valentinian III and Petronius Maximus until we reach Avitus who will be followed by Majorian we should therefore expect an evolutionary progression with no odd intervals. But this isn't the case here. The engraving quality of Valentinian III's AE coinage is in the very best of cases crude and more typically downright wretched. By the time we get to Majorian the artistry is somewhere in the realm of surreal and the fabric of the coins themselves uniformly atrocious. Yet, tellingly, RIC 2412 as pictured above is holding it together with a rather fine style not seen since the days of Honorius and Arcadius nearly a half century before. Let's call that red flag number one.

Same type again but from a later period during Valentinian III's reign showing degraded style and workmanship.

Next, seeing the problem from a different angle, we can note that the one thing Valentinian III, Avitus and Majorian had in common was that the bulk of their coinage came from northern Italian and southern French mints. Rome, far to the south, had been gutted by barbarians and considered indefensible. Of the thirteen distinct varieties of all types that Kent recorded for Avitus only a single solidus is referenced to Rome and, in fact, of the dozen or so solidi of his to have come to market in the last twenty years every last one has been from Arles. Yet, every single "Avitus" AE4 that has come on the scene bears the mintmark and/or signature style of Rome rather than a provincial mint. That's strike two.

Less circumstantially, I think the most damning evidence is in Kent's own research. Of the scant three coins he noted in compiling the chapter for RIC only 2412 is unambiguous in design and state of preservation. 2411 is a peerless specimen with a troublingly clear legend also featuring good engraving style. For 2413 he notes that confirmation is required because a similar one in the Paris national cabinet is tooled from an Honorius yet fails to note that the very coin he does use for the plate as proof of its existence seemingly begins DNMAIORI...!!

While naturally this should not be considered a closed case, I am now solidly of the opinion that the whole of the lot of coins nominally attributed to this emperor are in fact misidentified AE4s belonging to the reign of Honorius. Kent erred twice; first by omitting entry of Rome-mint AE4s - or bungling the description - and then by not being sufficiently critical of the material presented in favor of a base coinage for Avitus.

Based on styling similarities to the Lanz coin pictured at top, this AE4 had been attributed as Avitus despite lacking the left side of the legend.

The real problem however pivots around 2412. If genuine, then all my arguments are without merit and though it would be an anomalous insertion into what is already the least understood era of Roman coinage suitable justifications could be arrived at. However, that is an increasingly loud 'if'. I understand that once you condemn an ancient coin as a forgery it takes a monumental effort to rehabilitate it and the damage done is particularly unfair if the one making the accusation is doing so based on a photograph rather than from personal examination. Still, consider the points already addressed. Consider also a couple of other technical aspects. Should a clever forger wish to make a piece to fool experts the most sensible approach would be to alter the legend from a contemporary piece because the rest of the coin would not raise undue suspicions the way a from-scratch approach might. However, therein lies the challenge for this particular emperor. The prospective forger could have chosen a bullet-proof Majorian but these are so rare and valuable that it presents too risky a venture for no potential monetary benefit (discounting the forger who fools for the ego kicks!) However, earlier AE4s are much more readily available. Interestingly, where any relatively common latter-date AE4 could have provided a suitable candidate, in this case a rarer Valentinian III may have been used. This I base on the mintmark which shows a star in left field; an arrangement only accounted for in a single issue (RIC 2122) and which mandates an officina in the right field. Look closely again at the first image and what initially resembled a sideways terminal G is probably an upright T instead. If this is in fact an officina that is a remarkable blunder because officinae markings were only useful for very large issues of similar design so as to keep closer accounting tabs. They were last employed during the early years of Valentinian III's reign.

The likeliest candidate for creating RIC 2412 would be this variant with star in reverse left field.

With this out of the way I will now propose a new arrangement. The Roman economy as a whole had been in steady decline since the third century but went into a quickening downward spiral after Theodosius I's death in 395. Even by this relatively early date the regional economy in Italy proper had flatlined as evidenced in the trickle of coins coming out of Rome for the whole of the latter half of the fourth century. After Honorius is left to his devices when his father died, however, the mint at Rome goes all but quiet. In the aftermath of the raid in Rome, a modest effort at coining to pay for expenses relating to easing the distress of the affected residents may have taken place. That the mint was operational and issuing copper coinage is proven by the meager output in the name of Priscus Attalus who was the nominal figurehead in Rome while Alaric tormented Romans elsewhere. After Alaric deposed Attalus he either continued minting now in the name of Honorius, in an effort to court his approval, or Honorius himself approved of the measure. Either way, these coins ceased to be manufactured once the crisis passed.

Another rare Honorius bronze, this AE3 dates to 410 and may have been actually issued by his rival, Visigothic king Alaric, in hopes of reaching a favorable deal.

Suddenly, at some point between the death of Honorius's hopeful heir Constantius III in 421 (who has no known coinage in bronze by the way) and his own death two years later there is a remarkable resumption of activity in Rome for the little AE4s. The reason is not clear. Perhaps it was simply the happy chance acquisition of a large amount of the metal (a knocked over statue? Tribute payment from afar?). The scrappy little coins were minted on blanks too little to support the entire design and it is because of this that one never finds them with a complete legend. When Johannes comes to power the mint continues the exact same VICTORIA AVGG issue with only the minor alteration of his name and little chin scratches to simulate a beard. He will pump out hundreds of thousands of these, or perhaps millions even, and is thoughtful enough to reserve a portion of the production to honor Theodosius who, as in the case with Alaric before him, is using the strategy as diplomatic outreach. Finally, Galla Placidia manages to oust Johannes with the help of Theodosius and place her son Valentinian III on the throne. The mint at Rome again retools but is soon asked to diversify and include new types. The years 423 to possibly as late as the early 430's remain active in the bronzes but the pace slows down dramatically and whatever quality control had been attained through the initial frenetic production went out the window to leave the awful looking pieces now extant. It is completely likely that by the time of his death in 455 the mint in Rome had not laid hammer to copper in years, or even decades, and this was not to change either during the brief interlude when Petronius Maximus got his chance to wear the purple outfit. Neither, I am guessing, did Avitus who never resided in Rome anyway nor had any close ties to the city.

Another AE4 many collectors would be tempted to call Avitus but now re-classified as a late-issue Honorius.

After Avitus falls, Majorian comes next - another noble whose homebase appears to have been somewhere in northern Italy. Luckily for him he also comes across a sizeable amount of copper at some point during his four year reign and begins coining it.... near home. We have no record to what degree of an insult may have been felt in the Eternal City by this snub but evidently no assignment is allotted to the capital. The task is split instead between Mediolanum (Milan) and Ravenna. The look and feel of these AE4s is similar to the ones issued by Valentinian III only in how utterly decrepit they were. At least the flans this time were marginally bigger, allowing some of them to have nearly wholly readable legends.

Although ineligible to give himself the title of emperor, the kingmaker Ricimer nevertheless took the unprecedented step of making coins with his monogrammed logo during a months-long interregnum. Even after allowing his appointee Libius Severus to play the role of pretend man-in-charge, the AE4 continued to bear his coded name until the last ounce of Majorian's copper was used up and the thousand year old mint of Rome last minted in this metal for the remainder of its days as an empire.

Again, I don't think this essay should be considered the final say on the matter but the way I see it the status of a copper coinage in the name of Avitus should be deferred until a more rigorous study can prove otherwise.

The Real Deal. While the true rarity of this issue is debatable there's no doubt that finding one with the left side of the legend is indeed a rare find. Had it only shown the other side it might well have sold for hundreds as an Avitus but when this one was sold on eBay it reached an absolutely pitiful $1!

Photos 1, 2, 5 & 10 courtesy Numismatik Lanz, 6 & 9 author and 7 & 8 unknown.