World Coins

Five numismatic lives of Maximian: Ancients Today

When Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284 to 305) came to power, the Roman Empire was on the verge of recovering from an especially devastating period in the 260s. Like most Roman emperors, Diocletian tried to rule alone. However, he soon determined that the empire was too vast and too troubled for just one man to rule effectively, and in the summer of 285 he shared his burdens with his trusted friend, an experienced general, Maximian (286 to 310).

The literary record suggests Maximian first held the subordinate rank of Caesar. The new ruler immediately traveled to the far-western provinces — mainly modern Germany and France — which had fallen into anarchy. As Maximian struggled to restore order, Diocletian handled matters in the East.

To give Maximian the authority he needed to rule effectively, Diocletian promoted him to the rank of co-emperor on April 1 of 286. Now the Roman world had two rulers of top rank: the senior Emperor Diocletian in the East and the junior Emperor Maximian in the West.

With this promotion we enter the first of Maximian’s five numismatic lives (no coins are known for him with the title of Caesar): the period 286 through 305. During these 19 years, untold millions of coins were struck for Maximian throughout the Roman world, from the British Isles to Syria and Egypt.

Initially they were of the denominations that had been used by his immediate predecessors, but seemingly in 294 Diocletian revamped the coinage system. He created new denominations for the base metal and billon coinages and he reintroduced silver coins, which had not been used in the Roman world for perhaps 40 years.

The co-rule of Diocletian and Maximian was a period of mixed successes and failures, but there was no lack of loyalty and cooperation. 

In the midst of this era Diocletian expanded upon his system of shared rule: on March 1, 293, he raised two younger men, Constantius I and Galerius, to the rank of Caesar. They were to help Diocletian and Maximian govern and wage war, and eventually they were to replace them as emperors and appoint Caesars of their own.

On May 1, 305, after more than two decades at the helm, Diocletian had grown weary of being emperor and did the unthinkable: he retired. This had never happened in the history of the Roman Empire — rulers had always ended their reigns at death, be it natural or violent.

Being the senior emperor, Diocletian compelled his junior associate Maximian to retire as well, thus allowing the Caesars Constantius I and Galerius to replace them as emperors. Though Diocletian craved this arrangement, Maximian was unhappy with his forced retirement.

Upon his abdication, Maximian entered his second numismatic life. The coins now being struck for him usually are called “abdication” issues. They portray the retired emperor as a senior figure not directly involved in the affairs of state, but still present as a father figure of sorts.

Without Diocletian’s guiding hand, however, the political environment soon descended into chaos, with a series of complicated events transpiring in 306 and 307. Most importantly, the sons of Maximian and Constantius I, both of whom had been passed over for promotion when Diocletian and Maximian retired, rebelled and took power by force.

Constantius I’s son, the famous Constantine I “the Great” (306 to 337), gained control of the westernmost provinces after his father, Constantius I, died in 306. Meanwhile, in Italy and North Africa, Maximian’s son, Maxentius (306 to 312), did likewise. Maximian saw his son’s revolt as an ideal chance to emerge from retirement.

Thus, we enter the third numismatic life of Maximian, when he was co-emperor with his son. 

During this period, many coins were struck for Maximian at mints controlled by Maxentius and Constantine. Constantine in the meantime had forged an alliance with Maxentius and Maximian. Sealing the bond was a royal marriage of Constantine to Fausta, daughter of Maximian and sister of Maxentius.

However, seemingly in April of 308, Maximian and Maxentius came to loggerheads, and Maximian tried to overthrow his son. He failed in this effort and sought refuge in the court of his new son-in-law, Constantine. Maximian was reluctantly received, for Constantine knew the old emperor’s lust for power would be a source of anxiety.

In November of 308, Maximian attended a conference at Carnuntum in the Balkans, at which a variety of political problems were discussed. While there, Diocletian insisted that Maximian abdicate once again, after which Maximian returned to his only safe haven, the court of Constantine.

Thus began Maximian’s fourth numismatic life. Most of his coins in this period were of the “abdication” type similar to those from his first retirement, in 305. Also in this period, some rare issues of Antioch and Alexandria make it appear as though Maximian was still an active emperor.

In the summer of 310, after having been powerless under Constantine for more than two years, Maximian staged a revolt. Through trickery he gained control of part of Constantine’s army, which he led to the south of Gaul (modern France). 

Soon, however, he was trapped by Constantine. Maximian was allowed the dignity of committing suicide, thus ending the life of one of Rome’s most fascinating emperors. Unfortunately, no coins are known from his ephemeral “third reign” as a rebel against Constantine.

But one chapter was still left for Maximian, who now entered his fifth numismatic life. 

Despite the shameful manner of his final days, Maximian benefited from long-established tradition, in which most deceased emperors were deified. Coins were struck in his posthumous honor by his son Maxentius, his son-in-law Constantine, and by another emperor, Licinius I (308 to 324). 

All of them recognized that no matter how badly things had ended, a connection to Maximian’s “royal” heritage was still a valuable commodity. 

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