BMCR 2024.05.38

The coinage of Gordian III from the mints of Antioch and Caesarea

, The coinage of Gordian III from the mints of Antioch and Caesarea. Royal Numismatic Society special publications, 60. London: Spink, 2023. Pp. 548, 100 pp. plates. ISBN 9780901405396.

The importance of the coinage of Antioch on the Orontes, the third largest city of the Roman empire, has long been recognised, producing as it did not just issues for local and provincial circulation, but also—at various points in its history—Roman imperial coinage that circulated across the whole empire. This book focuses on a particularly important period in Antioch’s history as a mint, namely the reign of Gordian III (238-244 AD), and gives an in-depth analysis of all coins produced in this reign at Antioch and at the associated mint of Caesarea in Cappadocia. It is a revised and updated version of the author’s PhD thesis, defended in 1991 at University College, London. The thesis itself is available online and has long been widely cited in the numismatic literature, but this volume adds over 3,500 coins to the data set, draws on more recent metallurgical analyses, and presents nuanced—though not radically altered—conclusions.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the historical context of Gordian’s reign, the material under consideration, and previous scholarship on the topic. Chapter 2 addresses some debated points of chronology, fixing for use in the rest of the book the date of Gordian’s accession, the annual date for the renewal of Gordian’s tribunician power, and the start date of years in the Caesarean era. The following four chapters provide in-depth studies and catalogues of the four coin series that stand at the heart the work: the first series of radiates from Antioch (chapter 3), the Antiochene tetradrachms (chapter 4), the second series of radiates from Antioch (chapter 5), and the coinage of Caesarea in Cappadocia (chapter 6). Chapter 7 explores the metallurgy and metrology of all four series, while chapter 8 presents the evidence for their circulation patterns. Chapters 9 and 10 form a double conclusion, connecting the coinage to the historical events of Gordian’s reign.

This work is clearly a major piece of numismatic scholarship, but given the importance of coinage as a historical source for the third century AD, will also be of significant interest to ancient historians. I therefore propose to divide the remainder of this review into a discussion of what the book offers to both groups of scholars.

Numismatists will find here, first and foremost, an exemplary study that highlights how much is to be gained from combining all possible techniques in the modern numismatic toolbox. Each coin series is studied from the point of view of iconography, find-spots, metrology, die-axes, and metallurgy,[1] as well as looking—where relevant—at the evidence of overstrikes and countermarks. Each of these approaches adds to our understanding of the coinage and its historical significance. For example, the iconography of the first series of radiates is used to argue for a visit to Antioch by Gordian in 239, while the weights and fineness of the silver coins of Caesarea are used to establish their values in relation to both the imperial coinage and the coinage of Antioch. At the heart, however, of each analytical chapter is a comprehensive die study, which allows Bland to (a) distinguish more definitively between the products of the mints of Rome and Antioch, (b) determine the chronology and structure of production, and (c) quantify—with appropriate caveats—the volume of coinage produced in each series. As he rightly notes, die studies of Roman imperial coinage have tended to focus either on aurei, which were produced in smaller quantities, or on the coinages of shorter-lived emperors. This study demonstrates the benefits to be gained from using this technique on a larger scale for major Roman silver coinages.[2]

The book’s blurb highlights that it “shows how to distinguish the radiates of Antioch from those of Rome,” since previous scholarship has long recognised a separate series without clearly explaining how the two might be differentiated. Bland’s answer may be underwhelming to some (p. 42: “the Antioch coins can most simply be identified on negative grounds, in that their style is different from that of Rome”) but it is still the best answer possible. The challenge to numismatists now is to use Bland’s work when identifying coins, particularly site finds, in order to clearly differentiate between coins minted in Rome and those minted in Antioch. The usual reliance on RIC will no longer suffice.

Finally, numismatists will be grateful to Bland for his major contribution to piecing together the complex monetary history of the third century. As the author notes, the reign of Gordian can be seen as a pivotal moment in the transformation of the early imperial monetary system into that of late antiquity. The relationship between the imperial coinage struck in both Rome and the provinces, and the provincial coinage proper, is key here, and Bland’s investigation of both concurrently provides a fully rounded picture. His conclusions, therefore, have ramifications well beyond the mints of Antioch and Caesarea; I note, for example, his restatement of his arguments that, during the reign of Gordian at least, the radiate was tariffed at 1.5, not 2, denarii.[3]

I turn now to what this book offers to ancient historians. Many will no doubt be drawn to chapter 9, entitled “The historical events of Gordian’s reign,” but most of this chapter in fact draws on literary sources and does not move beyond established scholarship. The points that depend on the numismatic evidence are somewhat tangential: Bland’s contention that Gordian visited Antioch in 239, and his suggestion that the mint of Antioch was closed in 241 and its workmen and dies transferred to Caesarea.[4] As I see it, the book raises far greater points of interest for historians, even if Bland himself does not highlight them.

Firstly, anyone interested in imperial finances, particularly the financing of military campaigns, will need to take note of Bland’s quantitative approach. Based on the die study, he provides estimates for the volume of coinage produced in each series, something that is particularly relevant for the second series of radiates, production of which began in late 242, seemingly to fund Gordian’s upcoming Persian campaign. Barring a brief paragraph on p. 510, the significance of these figures for our understanding of imperial finances is nowhere explored. However, anyone wishing to push this material further will have to pay close attention to Bland’s thoughtful discussion of the numerous caveats that come with using die studies to estimate the size of a coinage (pp. 8–18).

Furthermore, historians interested in the relationship between local and imperial administration, between the needs of the provinces and the power of the imperial state, will find much to ponder here. Bland shows convincingly how one mint—situated variously at either Antioch or Caesarea—produced, in turn, radiates for circulation across the whole empire, then tetradrachms for use in Syria, then silver and bronze coins for use in Cappadocia and central Anatolia, then more tetradrachms for Syria, before finally a massive issue of radiates that could circulate anywhere but were intended to finance a military campaign against Persia. The limited overlap between these issues suggests careful coordination of local and empire-wide needs. This clearly has ramifications for our understanding of how the Roman state gathered, marshalled, and deployed its resources, as well as how local administrations fit within the broader imperial system.[5]

In general, the book is well-produced and a number of editorial decisions deserve particular praise. The placement of the catalogues at the end of each relevant discussion chapter made them much easier to refer to when reading the text than had they been collated into one mass at the end of the volume.[6] The book is lavishly illustrated. Inline images occur at every point necessary to support points made in the text; each catalogue entry begins with an image of that type; and finally the plates illustrate one example of every single obverse and reverse die. The only disappointment in terms of production is that all of the graphs are quite badly pixelated, meaning that the axis legends are often hard to read.

A book with such a specific remit may seem to be aimed at a highly specific and technical audience. There is no doubt that it will become a standard reference of numismatic literature, but it should also be read by non-specialists, whether they are interested in the history of Syria, of the third century AD, or of Roman imperial finances and administration.



[1] No metal analyses were conducted specifically for this study. Instead, Bland draws upon the analyses of Le Gentilhomme (1946), Cowell (1987–1993), and Cope (1997), as well as unpublished results of 50 analyses conducted by Kevin Bucher and Matt Ponting.

[2] Two caveats to the die study should be noted. (1) On two occasions (for all reverses of the Antiochene tetradrachms, and for three major reverse types of the second series of radiates), Bland uses data from his 1991 thesis because the number of new specimens that have appeared in the interim make it too laborious to create an updated dataset. We cannot know whether these new specimens would change the picture presented here. (2) I checked a small sample of Bland’s die attributions (obverse dies with left facing portraits from the first series of radiates) and found a number of discrepancies: Bland counts 11 dies, but I believe that two are the same (6 = 5, 9 = 3). This may just reflect the subjectivity of die attribution, but if these discrepancies are repeated across the larger dataset, Bland’s statistics might require considerable revision.

[3] Previously presented in R. Bland, ‘The development of gold and silver coin denominations, A.D. 193–253’, in C.E. King & D.G. Wigg (eds.) Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World (Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 10; Berlin, 1996), pp. 63–100. Confusion is thrown upon this important point by an unfortunate typo on p. 310 where Bland writes “the radiate was worth one and a third denarii and not two denarii”; that this is just a mistake is confirmed by the longer discussion on pp. 427–32, where the ratio is given as 1:1.5. The same ratio is used for all of the calculations on p. 310, despite the mistaken claim there.

[4] Bland does not, however, see this as evidence for the fall of Antioch to the Persians, as suggested by various scholars, following SHA, Gordiani Tres 26.5 & 27.5. Rather, he believes the mint moved due to fear of an imminent Persian attack.

[5] More is said on this topic using similar material, albeit over a longer time span, by K.E.T. Butcher, Coinage in Roman Syria. Northern Syria, 64 BC – AD 253 (Royal Numismatic Society Special Publications 34; London, 2004), pp. 239–64.

[6] My one quibble with the catalogues was the ordering of specimens within each catalogue entry. These are sorted according to the coin’s current location, beginning with public collections, then private collections, and finally coins from trade. This makes it rather laborious to find coins struck from the same dies; ordering by obverse or reverse dies would have been more useful.