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March 9, 2017

Ancient Roman Overstrike:

Herennia Etruscilla Antoninianus Over

Gordian III Denarius Highlights Pragmatism

During Monetary Collapse

Herennia Etruscilla Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.

The recently-aired Netflix docudrama, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, was dedicated to the crumbling of the Roman Empire under Commodus, AD 171-192. In the opening credits, the statues and structures of Rome are seen crumbling before the viewers’ eyes. The succession of Roman rulers was never an easy and rarely a bloodless process; but Commodus’ ineptitude began a downward spiral of chaos that would last 200 years. In AD 238, for instance, intrigue and mayhem would produce no less than six emperors. The only one to survive the year was 13 year old Gordian III. But in 244, he too was either murdered or killed in battle, likely conspired against by his adviser and eventual successor, Philip I (1). The exact truth is unknown. From 247 to 249, Philip I, and his son, Philip II, ruled jointly. They were both eliminated in 249 by Decius, who became Emperor Trajan Decius; declared “Trajan” by the people and the Senate; with his wife, Herennia Etruscilla (2). In AD 251, Decius and his son, Herennius Etruscus, both died in battle against northern invaders. Herennia’s surviving son, Hostilian, and Decius’ general, Trebonianus Gallus, became joint Emperors upon Decius' demise. Hostilian died almost immediately, and Gallus’ own son, Volusian, replaced Hostilian, becoming joint Emperor with Gallus. Both of these rulers were killed in battle in 253. Herennia Etruscilla lived until 254. If that was a little confusing, our point was accomplished. (3)

Now imagine that all of the emperors on this convoluted list had their own coinage; along with their wives, children, and potential heirs to the throne. The striking of new coinage was as ceremonial and religious as the procedures of the Roman Senate; every achievement and milestone of the Emperor was marked by new coinage, featuring new gods who would curry favor on the undertaking. There were supposed to be legal production standards for these emissions, too; but with political matters in complete upheaval, it should not be surprising to see inconsistencies in coinage production, as well. Standard weights were not being followed (4). Further, Roman coinage was in the process of being debased, with silver being replaced by other metals, often subversively.

As a result, the Denarius held less and less purchasing power. It was actually during the reign of Gordian III, AD 238-244, that the legendary Roman Denarius was finally discontinued, altogether, in favor of the more useful Double Denarius, properly known as an Antoninianus. Yet, even this new denomination had its shortcomings. In fact, due to significant weight variances; a Double Denarius was not always heavier than a single Denarius. Sometimes, the only way to tell what denomination you have is by the design used. By the end of the 3rd Century, silver would be completely, and openly, eliminated from the smaller Roman denominations, in favor of new bronze and brass denominations.
Obverse Herennia Etruscilla Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.

RIC 55b:


“Bust, diademed, draped, on crescent, r[ight]

Reverse. Herennia Etruscilla Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.


“Fecunditas st[anding left], holding r[ight] hand over child st[anding] r[ight], with hands raised, and cornucopiae (sic) in l[eft] hand” (5)

The very rare, featured coin ties all of these themes together. It is a Herennia Etruscilla Double Denarius that was over-struck on a coin of Gordian III. A diademed bust of Herennia transposed over a crescent moon is featured on the obverse in Herennia's design. The reverse motif and inscription, "Fecunditas Aug[,] honors Etruscilla as mother of two young princes," Herennius and Hostillian. (6). As a “Flipped-over Over-strike,” it is literally two coins in one, with both sides showing the head of a ruler. Struck and re-struck, roughly a decade apart, this two-headed Roman coin attests to the legacy of both Gordian III (AD 238-244) and Herennia Etruscilla (AD 249-251).
Obverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.
Reverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.
With so much imperial turn-over, and so many different coins issued (Gordian III is probably in the running for the most coins issued by any emperor), it was not uncommon in Roman times to re-monetize the coins of former emperors by counter-stamping them with an inscription supporting the new regime, or simply melting them and minting new coins. Occasionally, old coins were actually over-struck with the new ruler’s design, as is the case here. Over-struck Roman coins are scarce today and were attempted only infrequently; the process rarely produces a good result. Sometimes, over-striking was done to make a political statement. However, there seems to be something more practical going on with this piece. The first clue is that, oddly enough, the Herennia Etruscilla Double Denarius does not seem to be struck over another Double Denarius.
Obverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Overstrike. Image courtesy DM Rare Coins coin photography service.
Enough of the underlying Gordian III design is visible to clearly identify the face of the young Emperor, and also to see that he is wearing only a crown of laurels atop his head. This is important because the bust of Gordian on a Double Denarius wears a radiate barbed crown; the absence of which confirms that the under-type is strangely only a single Denarius of Gordian III.
Obverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Denarius. Image courtesy Heritage.
Laureate bust used only on Denarius and gold Auria. (Courtesy of Heritage Galleries)
Obverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Antoninianus. Image courtesy Heritage.
Radiate Barbed Crown seen only on Double Denarius. (Courtesy of Heritage Galleries)
The reason for this particular over-striking was a practical rather than political one. At 3.99 grams, the original Gordian III Denarius was simply too heavy to be practical; other Denarii of the period range from 2.5 to 3.0 grams, on average. A Double Denarius typically weighs between 3.75 and 5.00 grams. Thus, one can extrapolate that it made better sense to simply over-strike this piece rather than melt it down, as it was already the right weight for a Double Denarius. The Roman mint under Trajan Decius and Herennia Etruscilla was doing everyone a favor by turning what was an overweight single Denarius into a more typically-sized Double Denarius. Of course, Gordian discontinued the single a decade prior, so they had little choice but to make it a Double.
You’re probably thinking about Big Mac’s right now, but the next question in this riddle concerns which Denarius of Gordian we are actually dealing with. The placement of the remnants of Gordian’s obverse legend confirms that we are dealing with the IMP GORDIANVS PIVS FEL AUG inscription, which narrows down the vast Roman Imperial Coinage, or RIC, reference to
Denarii of Gordian’s Fourth emission (AD 241-243) and “Special Issue For Marriage” in the “Summer [of] A.D. 241” (7). Interestingly, these were the last major emissions of Roman Denarii ever struck.
While these 4th Emission issues all share the same obverse design, narrowing the reverse down is more challenging. Across the face of Herennia Etruscilla, one can observe the clear impression of a long pole, starting on the neck and running all the way through the top of her head, right into the field above. This rod runs roughly through the center of the original Gordian design. Further, just beneath her ear is the remnant of a bent arm, with a narrowing
at the wrist defining the hand that grasps the rod. Finally, ragged grooves across her cheek and forehead, and shadows in the fields, are all that remain of the body of a standing figure that was once holding the pole. No lettering fragments are visible on this side.
There are only two designs of Gordian's 4th Emission Denarii that show a long, centrally located shaft that could account for this configuration. One design is a standing figure of Diana holding a torch, which reads DIANA LVCIFERA. This is RIC 127, struck in AD 241, in celebration of the wedding of Gordian and Sabinia Tranquillina. RIC notes that Diana Lucifera was a fitting tribute for this occasion, being the "great whom women bear torches when, as wives and mothers, they invoke her aid" (8).
Reverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Denarius. Image courtesy Heritage.
“Diana st[anding] r[ight], holding lighted torch” (9)
(Courtesy of Heritage Galleries)
It is worth noting that this Diana with Torch motif is a good fit to be our under-type because it only appears on Gordian III, single Denarii. Additionally, studies of Gordian’s coinage actually reveal a significant average weight increase from AD 241 to 242, which might help explain the existence of our featured, unusually heavy Denarius (10). Tranquillina's father, Timisitheus, was then advising Gordian, and is known to have ushered in a new era of public trust in the young Emperor, his mother had presumably been influencing him, to this point (11). Perhaps the increase in the heft of the currency was a deliberate gesture to instill confidence. It is also tempting to think that, if the mint under Decius knew of this batch of heavy coins from Gordian's reign, they may have purposefully targeted this issue for over-striking, although the rarity of surviving over-strikes, at present, makes this seem implausible.

RIC 127 seems as though it could be a match, but we must explore a second option; if for no other reason than its similar style; and the only other Denarius to show a centrally located pole; Gordian Holding Spear and Globe, RIC 115. This design was part of Gordian’s dated coinage, and reads “P.M. TR. P. III COS. II P.P.;” the "Cos. II" corresponding to Gordian's second Consulship, beginning January AD 241. (12)

It appears on both single and Double Denarii. Unfortunately, no fragments of the Gordian III reverse legend are visible to decipher. Further, no clear remnants of the front end of the shaft remain to determine whether it ends in a flame or a barbed spearhead.

Reverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Antoninianus. Image courtesy Heritage.
“Gordian, in military dress, st[anding] r[ight], holding transverse spear and globe” (13).
(Courtesy of Heritage Galleries)
The posterior of the shaft and the arm remain our best surviving evidence, but we must tread carefully because many different, hand-cut dies exist for both types, with what can show extreme variations in the shape and position of major design features. That said, our observations after examining an extensive number of both, are that the visible characteristics more closely match the Diana with Torch motif. The Gordian with spear and ball theme typically shows a much longer, slightly thinner posterior spear shaft, and the arm position, in relation to body, of RIC 115 is generally less favorable than RIC 127. Thus, we can reasonably deduce that the under-type is probably Diana with Torch. But regardless, this is a fascinating  Ancient Roman Error Coin.
Gordian III face captured by DM Rarer Coins coin photography service.
Reverse. Gordian III image captured by DM Rarer Coins.
Obverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Denarius. Image courtesy Heritage.
Reverse. Gordian III Anchient Roman Denarius. Image courtesy Heritage.

Finally, we do not want to overlook the quality of the present piece. As far as over-struck Greek and Roman coinage goes, it is superb. The surfaces display their original “find patina” and have not been cleaned or stripped like so many other examples from this period. It even shows nice original luster under the attractive toning. Moreover, the Gordian III under-type survived the striking process remarkably well, despite a very sharp, high relief strike of the Herennia design, over-top. The only strike deficiency of note is a gulf between Fecunditas’ knees and feet, where the high relief profile of Gordian III prevented her legs from showing up completely. However, this anomaly was a blessing, enabling the face of young Emperor Gordian III to show through, unscathed, even after almost 2000 years.

Image Gallery:

Footnotes & Bibliography

1) The Roman Imperial Coinage: Gordian III – Uranus Antoninus. Ed. by Harold Mattingly, Edward A Sydenham, C.H.V. Sutherland. Volume 4, Part III. London; Spink and Son, LTD. 1949 (p 10). (January 2017)

2) ibid, 113.


4) RIC, 10.

5) ibid, 127.

6) ibid, 115

7) ibid, 22, 27, 28.

8) ibid, 10-11.

9) ibid, 47.

10) “The weight of the coinage is indicated by the two dated types. It was slight in the months January to July 241, very heavy throughout 241-242, and still heavy in 242-3, again light in A.D. 243-4.” ibid, 10

11) ibid, 10.

12) ibid, 24-25, 27-28.

13) ibid, 25.

All Gordian III coin images used with permission from Heritage Auction Galleries: