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The End of Imperial Coinage in the West and a Brief Revival Under the Ostrogoths

c. A.D. 450 - 525

The last hundred years or so were rather dismal ones for Roman coinage, especially when it comes to the bronze denominations. The governments in both East and West managed to keep the weight and fineness of the gold fairly constant during this period, but the style became very unlifelike and iconographic. The letters in coin inscriptions became increasingly more sloppy in form and placement. There is evidence that mint craftsmen couldn't even read the inscriptions they were cutting into the dies, simply mimicing the form of earlier inscriptions. After a last attempt at striking a decent sized bronze coin during the reigns of Valentinian I and Valens, the bronze slowly declined in size until they were the size of a modern day aspirin tablet or smaller. During the reigns of Honorius and Arcadius (until about A. D. 423) a few larger coins of about 22mm diameter were issued, but few bronze coins larger than 15mm were struck in following years. The image at upper right depicts some of these rather sorry-looking coins. If your computer monitor is set to 72 dpi (14 inch display, 640 X 480 resolution), these coins will appear actual size.

A few coins of the Eastern Emperor Leo I were struck a little heavier, being 22 or 23mm in diameter, but for the most part, the bronze coins were small, of poor artistic quality, and were sloppily struck. They nevertheless must have circulated heavily, as most are found today in worn condition. Miserable though they are, most any Roman coins struck in the West after the death of Valentinian III in A. D. 455 are rare and expensive today.

Often the flan was too small to fit the emperor's name and titles, which resulted in the development of reverse types bearing the emperor's monogram. This practice was more popular with Eastern emperors than Western ones, and coins bearing monogramms of Marcian and Leo I are not too hard to find today. These monogrammed types form an interesting series for those who like to follow those off-beat and out of the way paths in scholarship or numismatics.

The traditional date given for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West is A. D. 476. In that year, the Ostrogothic chieftain Odovacer set himself up as an independent king in Italy, supposedly ruling in the name of the Eastern emperor Justinian. He sent the boy emperor Romulus Augustus off into retirement and delivered the imperial regalia to the court at Constantinopolis.

Odovacer was a rather petty barbarian king who really never did amount to much of anything, but the man who succeeded him on the throne of Italy was of a much different stripe. Theodoric the Ostrogoth became king of Italy after having murdered Odovacer at a dinner party in A. D. 493 and immediately started trying to turn around the steady military and cultural decline in Italy. Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino during the reign of Theodoric, and other churchmen and philosophers like Cassiodorus and Boethius strived to keep intellectual activity alive. For a time, it seemed that the sad decline of the Western Empire might be reversed and Rome might return to her former glory. In fact, the Romans of the late Fifth and early Sixth Centuries did not seem to notice that their empire had "fallen" at all. Life just went on as usual but with a man of German descent on the throne and no foreign provinces to govern. There was even an attempt to reform the coinage as well. The bronze piece to the right above was struck durimg the early Sixth Century and is about 28mm in diameter in real life. The obverse portrait shows the allegorical figure of Roma wearing a helmet. The inscription around the helmeted head reads INVICTA ROMA, meaning "Unconquered Rome". How ironic it is that a coin issued by a barbarian king in Rome, a quarter of a century after the traditional date given for the fall of Rome, should issue a coin bearing the legend "Unconquered Rome!" In that day of brief respite from the enceoaching darkness, the Romans once again proclaim their invincibility. Within another thirty years, warring armies from the Eastern empire of Justinian and the Western ostrogothic kings would totally devastate the Italian countryside as well as the inhabited cities remaining and plunge Western Europe into a political, cultural, and economic darkness that would last another five hundred years.


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