Brief Identification Edit

This Byzantine gold solidus (coin) was found in Thrace, in modern day Turkey. The front of the coin depicts Theodosius II (r. 402-450 CE) [all dates CE unless otherwise specified], emperor of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, while the rear features a wedding scene. It was stamped in 437 to commemorate the marriage of Theodosius II's daughter Licinia Eudoxia to the Western Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) [Grierson and Mays, 1992, 145]. Aside from the rather minor political significance of the marriage,


Byzantine Gold Solidus of Theodosius II, 437 CE. Front.


Byzantine Gold Solidus, 437 CE. Back

the production of standardized gold coinage in the 5th century CE reflects the economic and political success of the eastern half of the Empire following the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, even as the Western Empire crumbled.

Technical EvaluationEdit

The front of the coin depicts Theodosius II in military dress, with a helmet, shield, and spear; and bears the legend DN THEODOSIVS PF AVG. DN for Dominus Noster ("our lord"), PF for Pius Felix ("dutiful and fortunate"), and AVG for Augustus, or emperor [Grierson and Mays, 1992, 77]. The reverse side of the coin depicts the wedding ceremony, with the standing figures of the couple, hands joined in the dextrarum iunctio, flanking a larger figure of Theodosius. All three are dressed in court garb, and bear nimbi. The legend FELICITER NVBTIIS ("felicitous the marriage!") celebrates the wedding, while the stamp CONOB identifies the mint (Constantinopolis) and the material (obryziacus, a technical term for gold) [Grierson and Mays, 1992, 50].

The solidus weighs 4.44 g. This is a minor deviation from the standard established by Constantine the Great of one 1/72 lb, or 4.5g, of gold per solidus. This standard was introduced by Constantine in his territories as early as 309 and proclaimed across the empire in 312, and represented a decrease from the Diocletianic standard of 1/60 lb gold per coin [Hendy, 1985, 466]. Modern convention distinguishes between the Constantinian and Diocletianic standards by referring to the former as "solidus" and the latter as "aureus," but this is contradicted by Diocletian's Edictum de Pretiis Venalium Rerum of 301, which refers to coinage issued at the 1/60 lb standard as "solidus." [Hendy, 1985, 450]. According to M.F. Hendy, the terms "solidus" and "aureus" were used interchangeably throughout the early 4th century, and Constantine's currency reform thus should be viewed merely as a change in weight, rather than the introduction of a new coin with a new name. [Hendy, 1985, 450].

Though there are no specific sources referring to the coin-making process of 4th and 5th century Rome, we can presume that Late Roman/Early Byzantine coin production followed a similar pattern to production elsewhere in the ancient world. Bullion of the desired metal (in this case gold) was melted down into blank coins, or "flans," of the desired weight and size. Dies were fashioned out of metal, typically bronze, and carved with an inset and reversed version of the desired image. The obverse, or "front" of the coin (generally featuring an image of the ruler) was typically set into an anvil and placed below the flan when struck, thus protecting the obverse die from direct hammer blows. The reverse die was typically mobile. When the coins were struck, a heated flan was placed between an anvil and the piece containing the reverse die and then struck with a hammer. The process is illustrated here.

The legend CONOB tells us that this coin was produced in the mint of Constantinopolis, which probably was located within the Great Palace, in the far southeast of the city. Unfortunately, there is "no contemporary evidence that would allow us to form a picture of the size and internal structure of a fourth- or fifth-century mint" [Grierson and Mays, 1992, 51]. Textual evidence from the year 115 suggests a mint staff of around 100, with at least another 100 involved in melting and refining blanks. The division of labor within the mint is unclear, but probably featured a large number of hammermen (due to the tiring nature of the work), and a somewhat smaller number of supervisors and their personal slaves [Grierson and Mays, 1992, 51]. It is probable that both the supervisors and artisans were employees of the state.

Local Historical ContextEdit

As noted above, the coin was issued to commemorate the 437 wedding of Thedosius II' daughter Licinia Eudoxia to Western Emperor Valentinian III. Valentinian, born in 419, was the son of co-emperor Constantius III and Galla Placidia. Following Constantius' death in 421, a bitter struggle broke out between the remaining co-emperor Honorius and Placidia. Placidia and her son were forced to flee to Constantinople to seek Theodosius' protection, despite the fact that Theodosius backed his uncle Honorius' claim to the throne. However, after Honorius' death in 423, a reluctant Theodosius sent an army to the West to defeat a usurper of Honorius' party and place Valentinian on the throne. The boy became emperor in 425, at the age of six, with his mother ruling as an éminence grise until being ousted by the military man Aetius in 432, who would exercise effective political power in the Western Empire until his murder at the hands of Valentinian in 454 [Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome, Valentinian III].

From an economic perspective, the mere existence of a standardized gold coinage in 5th century Rome/Byzantium is a testament to the success of emperors Diocletian and Constantine in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries in arresting the seemingly terminal decline of the Roman Empire. In the words of M.F. Hendy: "although the conditions essential to the existence of a viable gold coinage were brought into being by Diocletian in his restoration of political stability, his administrative and financial reforms, and his re-standardisation of the weight of the 'aureus' (see above), the succesful provision of such a coinage was in large part the work of Constantine... [through] his acquisition of his defeated rivals' accumulated reserves... ; his confiscation of the treasures immobilised in the pagan temples... ; and his institution of new taxes in precious metals." [Hendy, 1985, 284]. Of these three sources, it is likely that the confiscation of temple treasures (itself a product of Constantine's conversion to Christianity) provided the largest single source of gold for coinage, making these coins an indirect marker of the religious changes of the late Empire. [Hendy, 1985, 285]. For example, the abundance of gold was so great during the reign of Theodosius II that he was able to accumulate reserves of over 100,000 lb gold, or 7.2 million solidi, even as the Eastern Empire paid out large annual sums as tribute to the Huns. [Hendy, 1985, 224].

A sixth century author, Cassiodorus, claimed that imperial coinage had three functions: "embellish the ruler's liberalitas (generosity), display his effigy for the present and future centuries and nourish his subjects through commerce." [cited in Cottrell et. al., 2007, 27]. The economic function of coinage, therefore, was, if not subordinate, then certainly equal to the educational and political value of the circulation of an image of the emperor. Theodosius II is depicted in military garb, a stylistic convention originating in the 3rd century CE, when, in the face of barbarian invasions, the primary function of the emperor became the maintenance of the Empire's military security [Burnett, 1987, 141]. The reverse side of the coin depicts a political scene–a marriage–with all three figures with court robes and a nimbus. Though this religious imagery is relatively light compared to later Byzantine artifacts, the combination of robes and nimbus suggest an ongoing Christian sacralization of the position of emperor: "to be born in purple [i.e., in the imperial robes, as was Theodosius II], indicated a divine decision to perpetuate the dynasty founded by Theodosius the Great" [Traina, 2009, 29]; a clear demonstration of the development of Christianity into state ideology.

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

Although Valentinian III was essentially a figurehead, his marriage to the daughter of Theodosius represented an attempt to consolidate dynastic power over both halves of the empire and maintain the stability of imperial succession. The marriage re-unified both halves of the House of Theodosius (Valentinian and Licinia were first cousins), and the long reigns of Valentinian III and Theodosius II were indicative of periods of relative stability in both the East and West.

This solidus represents the last years of the Roman Empire in the West, while the East continued as the Byzantine Empire, generally marking the transition between "Late Antiquity" and the early "Middle Ages." Though the Theodosian Dynasty would end in the East with the death of Marcian in 457, the Eastern Empire itself would survive another millenium. After Valentinian's death at the hands of one of Aetius' vengeful retainers in 454, however, the Western Empire had a mere 21 years to live. [Grant, 1978, 434]. Valentinian's importance thus comes less from any of his policies than the mere fact that he was "the last relatively stable ruler of the Western Empire" [Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome]. Stylistically, the coin also suggests the ideological and religious transition from pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium, another critical point for periodization.


Grierson, Philip, and Mays, Melinda. Catalogue of the Late Roman Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1992.

Traina, Giusto. 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire, tr. Allan Cameron. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Burnett, Andrew. Coinage in the Roman World. Guildford: Biddle Ltd, 1987.

Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: Scribner, 1978.

Morrisson, Cécile. "'One Money for an Empire': Achievements and Limitations of Byzantium's Currency from Constantine the Great to the Fall of Constantinople" in From the Athenian Tetradrachm to the Euro, ed. Philip Cottrell et al. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.

Hendy, M.F. Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Staatliche Museum zu Berlin,

Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome,

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