Maximian—Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculeus—formed the Dyarchy with
Diocletian from 286 to 292. He served under Aurelian and Probus earlier in his
career, and continued his military campaigns as a soldier-emperor against the
Bagaudae, Persians, and Germans during his reign as Augustus. When Diocletian
adopted Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus in 292, Maximian in turn adopted
Constantius Chlorus to rule at his side in the West, thus forming a political system
of tetrarchic rule. As one of the two emperors named Maximianus during the
Tetrarchy, Maximian was distinguished from Galerius Maximianus sometimes with the
inscription of SENIOR, but also with the title Augustus, a title bestowed to him by
Diocletian in 286; Galerius Maximianus had only been known with the title of Caesar
at this time, and did not receive the title of Augustus until after the abdication
of Diocletian and Maximian in 305.1
The University of Virginia Art Museum has in its possession an aureus issued by
Maximian. Its obverse reads MAXIMIANVS AVGVSTVS and depicts the head of Maximian
facing right, wearing a laureate. The reverse, whose legend is CONSVL IIII P(ATER)
P(ATRIAE) PROCO(N)S(VL), displays an image of the togate emperor standing facing
left and holding a globe (a symbol of power) in his right hand. The legend dates to
the fourth consulship (between 293-295) of the emperor. The exergue contains the
mint mark SMA, referring to the Sacra Moneta Antiocheia.2
Aurei from Antioch in this period were struck with the Greek numeral for 60,
signifying that there were 60 coins struck to the pound, at an average weight of 5.5
grams (84 grains), which had been the standard set by Diocletian in 286 when he
reintroduced gold coins of very pure quality, perhaps as a stable basis of a future,
post-inflationary currency. Diocletian’s monetary reforms had been a continuation of
Aurelian’s efforts to restore confidence in the state’s currency by implementing
regular weight and finer design after decades of debased coinage that the state
itself had become reluctant to accept in taxes. Additionally, he began issuing the
pure silver argenteus in 294 at a ratio of 96 coins to
the pound and 20 argentei to the aureus. The reinstitution of precious metals into
the currency system ultimately failed due to the scarcity of the metals, although
inflation did eventually level off.3 The year 294
coincided not only with economic reform instituted by the Tetrarchy, but
also—perhaps more notably—with a new and uniform iconography designed to reflect a
political stability that was to be associated with a newfound economic stability
following decades of volatility.
The new portrait style seen on coins has been referred to as “cubistic,” i. e., bold,
angular, and in high relief. The emperors are generally shown as hardy rulers with
short hair, bearded, square jaws, and eyes that stare straight ahead. The neck is
unnaturally thick, the lips tight, and the brow furrowed. Many of the extant busts
are also in the strongly angular style that dominated the coinage.4 Group identity is the essence of tetrarchic portraiture;
the tetrarchs rarely saw each other, so concordia is
expressed with homogeneity. The most famous depiction of tetrarchic symbolism is
that of the porphyry group from Constantinople, now residing at San Marco, Venice
(fig. 1). This sculpture shows the four rulers in military dress, with identical
posture—left hands grasping swords, right arms grasping their neighbor, and feet
In a vast empire governed by four rulers, each issuing his own coinage, it became
necessary to establish a single image to represent them all as legitimate rulers.
Accordingly, it is often impossible to differentiate between portraits of Maximian
and Diocletian (fig. 2). Although few portraits from the eastern or western
provinces are great works of art, they represent the basis on which fourth-century
imperial style was founded. This style persisted until the reign of Theodosius, when
significant alterations were made to imperial portraiture.6 Stevenson suggests that silver minted by Maximian are rare, and aurei such as
this one are rarer still.7
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Stevenson 1964, 544-5.
RIC vol. 5 part 2, Revised Ed., 1968, p. 207.
Ibid.; Williams 1985, p. 116-7.
Rees 1993, p. 188-9; Strong 1988, 264.
Rees 1993, p. 182-3.
Strong 1988, 264.
Stevenson 1964, 545.
The gold coin of Maximian, an aureus of A.D. 293-295, is not significantly later than
the bronze of Maximinus, but it marks a watershed in Roman history and imperial
portraiture. Maximian was co-emperor with Diocletian. Diocletian himself was a
soldier emperor who came to power by violent means, but he transformed the office by
instituting the tetrarchy, a system in which four
rulers controlled the vast empire now divided into an eastern and a western half.
Each half was controlled by a senior Augustus and a junior Caesar. Maximian was
chosen by Diocletian to be the Augustus in the west. When the Augusti retired (a new
concept for a Roman emperor!), the two Caesars would advance to Augusti and appoint
two new Caesars. Diocletian and Maximian retired in A.D. 305, but the system did not
endure for long. The ensuing struggle eventually led to the sole rule of Constantine
Tetrarchic portraiture, as seen in this coin of Maximian, rejects the individualized
features and psychological dimensions of the earlier soldier emperors and institutes
instead a more abstract image. Individuality is stripped away and Diocletian and his
three colleagues (in their own portraits) all look alike. If not for the obverse
legend that firmly proclaims that Maximian is Augustus, MAXIMIANVS AVGVSTVS, one
could easily mistake this portrait for that of Diocletian, and that is precisely the
political message that the artistic style proclaims. The similarities between the
two emperors and the two juniors supported the principle that harmony and
uniformity, not individuality, reigned supreme. Although Maximian sports the short
military haircut and short beard, the sharp edges of the hair as it meets the face,
the rounded jaw line, the unnaturally large and expressive eye, and the stiff
features overall introduce a new geometric and abstract quality that marks a new
trend in imperial portraiture.
The emperor’s additional titles, CONSVL IIII PP PROCOS (on the reverse of the coin),
surround an image of Maximian standing and facing left, holding a globe as a symbol
of power. The indication that the emperor is consul for the fourth time allows the
coin to be dated closely. Below his feet is the mintmark, SMA[symbol]. “SM” is sacra moneta, or sacred currency. “A” identifies the mint
as Antiocheia, (Antioch), and the mark of value indicates that there were sixty
coins to the pound of gold.
The University of Virginia’s numismatic collection contains, at this writing (2008), ten
splendid gold coins ranging in date from the Hellenistic dekadrachm of the Sicilian tyrant Hiketas (287-278 B.C.E.) to the two late
Roman solidi of Valentinian I (C.E. 364-375) and
Valentinian II (C.E. 388), dating to the period after Constantine had moved the capitol
from Rome to his “new Rome” at Constantinople. Between those extremes are the remaining
seven Roman imperial aurei that span the arc of empire from
the Julio-Claudians (aurei of Claudius and Nero), through
the Flavians (aureus of Domitian), to the second-century
emperors (aurei of Trajan, Hadrian, Lucius Verus), and
finally to the Tetrarchy (aureus of Maximian).
The Roman coins from Claudius to Valentinian II cover a period of well over 300 years and
evoke the aspirations of several dynasties and document various approaches to the
organization of the empire. As works of sculpture they present fine portraits of many of
the key players in the extended drama of the Roman empire. Using these nine coins as
touchstones, one could narrate the whole history of the Roman empire from its beginnings
to the point at which it evolved into Byzantine empire.
In this collection of Roman coins the dekadrachm of Hiketas
is an outlier. It was purchased because it had a good provenance, was available,
affordable, and above all, beautiful. As a Hellenistic coin it anchors the collection of
gold coins in the Greek period and documents the influential Greek presence in Italy
(Roman coinage owed a great deal to the coinage of the Greek cities in Italy). Although
Hellenistic in date, the head of Persephone on the obverse is Classical in style. It is
a fine example of Greek sculpture and forms an important point of reference for other
coins in the collection.
As works of portraiture the nine Roman coins present many of the changing sculptural
styles that appeared between the inception of the empire under Augustus and the late
empire of the time of Valentinian I and Valentinian II. While aurei of the first three emperors are not present in the collection,
Trajan’s “restored” aureus of Tiberius (Rome’s second
emperor from C.E. 14 to 37) presents the idealized portrait style of the early empire.
By the time that the aurei of Claudius and Nero were struck
the pendulum had swung in the direction of more accurate renditions of the emperor’s
appearance. Domitian belonged to the next, i.e., the Flavian, dynasty begun by
Vespasian. Our aureus was struck late in his reign (he was
assassinated in C.E. 96), but it masks any signs of aging and emphatically denies that
the emperor was balding. Changing hairstyles are always part of the imperial portrait,
and the aureus of Hadrian presents the new fashion for
longer hair and a beard. The beard continued to be worn by the emperor until
Constantine, in the early fourth century, broke with tradition, shaved his beard, and
created a portrait that served as a precedent for the portraits of Valentinian I and
Hadrian not only grew a beard, but also wore his curly hair longer than the emperors who
immediately preceded him. That style set a trend, and the aureus of Lucius Verus depicts one of Hadrian’s successors with a very full head
of curly hair and an ample beard. The “soldier emperors” of the third century wore
close-cropped, military-style hair and beards and presented vivid countenances that
displayed psychological depths rarely found in imperial portraiture. No gold coins of
the soldier emperors are in our collection, but the sestertius of Maximinus Thrax
( C.E. 235-238) illustrates the style.
In the late third century Diocletian and his co-emperor, Maximian, brought to an end the
chaotic period of the soldier emperors. Each emperor took a junior colleague who was to
succeed him, the result being that the empire was controlled by a tetrarchy, or a rule
by four individuals. The new tetrarchic form of government required a new portrait style
that emphasized the harmony and cooperation among the tetrarchs. Consequently, most of
the individual characteristics that are seen in the earlier portraits are erased from
the portrait of Maximian who appears strong and powerful, but devoid of individual
features that distinguish the emperors on the other coins (View Essay). Within our collection
we cannot compare Maximian to his co-emperor, Diocletian, but such a comparison would
show that the two appear to be nearly identical to support the idea of the harmony that
existed between them. The portraits of Valentinian I and Valentinian II stand at the
threshold of the Byzantine world. They look backward to the portraits of Constantine and
forward to the icons, mosaics, and frescoes of the Byzantine period of the sixth century
The essays on the gold coins are the product of a graduate seminar on Roman Numismatics
that I offered in the fall of 2007. Each of the nine seminar members wrote an essay on
one of the ten gold coins. Seminar members were Jared Benton, Katherine Boller, Robert
Coleman, Nicholas Genau, Renee Gondek, Ethan Gruber, Stephanie Layton, Ismini
Miliaresis, and Carrie Sulosky. In addition, seminar member Ethan Gruber designed the
present website with the help of a grant from the University of Virginia Library.
Acquired from Worldwide Treasure Bureau, November 4, 1992.