Featured Revisiting the date of a scarce series of bronzes in the name of Helena at Alexandria

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by seth77, Jun 26, 2020.

  1. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Inspired by the very smart and inquisitive posts of @DonnaML regarding the family of Constantine the Great, I have decided to add a new thread to the theme.

    Most of us who dwell on the Late Empire have noticed that the dates assigned to some coinages in RIC VII to X are too general or even added just as the generic dates of a reign -- "c. 310-313," "340-350" or "383-388."

    Others seem to be wrong when compared to newer insights and research in the history of the era. For instance in 1966, the common wisdom (based on Alfoldi) was that Helena, Constantine's mother, died after 330, perhaps not as late as 335 to 337 as it had been considered by Otto Seeck for instance, but sometime between 330 and 333. As a matter of fact, Alexandria is shown to have a pause in any and all mintage between 330 (the last issue for Helena according to RIC) and 333 (the introduction of the GLORIA EXERCITVS soldiers and standards type).

    The last coinage from Alexandria assigned to Helena is a very scarce series of two issues, struck by two officinae, distinctly identified as I and II, together with the last issues of the campgate type for Constantine and his two sons.

    AE18mm 2.98g follis, minted at Alexandria, 329-330 (according to RIC)
    FL HELENA - AVGVSTA; pearl-diademed bust wearing imperial mantle and pearl necklace.
    SECVRITAS REIPVBLICE; Securitas standing left, holding olive branch in extended right hand; wreath in left field, I in right field.
    RIC VII Alexandria 53, rated R4.
    The I marking seems to be scarcer than the II marking during the series, which was obviously short-lived itself.

    The coinage is one of the most elegant series of Alexandria, showing Helena as a slender figure, with a pearl diadem and a rather striking hairdo. The notes in RIC p. 710 try to draw a parallel to the issues of Magnia Urbica (c. 282/3), similar if we disregard the pearl diadem that Magnia issues are missing.

    But the dating of 329-330 seems odd.

    First, Eusebius notes that she died soon after returning from her Holy Land pilgrimage via Cyprus that lasted from the end of 326 (possibly put in motion by the tragedy of that summer) to 328. In the later part of 328, she was likely in Trier. The autumn campaign of Constantine against the Goths on the Rhine demarcation line adds to the likelihood of Constantine being at her side when she died, as remarked by Eusebius -- according to Vita Constantini (XLV-XLVII) -- possibly by the early winter of 328-9.

    Secondly, this would also be coherent with Constantine taking the trip in early 329 from Trier to Rome to have the funerals of his mother (Ramskold p. 432), and marking his visit with another set of dynastic issues for himself and his two sons (of which I have added two examples in Donna's thread), a series which lasted at least until spring 329.

    So a dating after the summer of 329 for this lifetime issue at Alexandria is very unlikely. The scarcity of the type also hints at a sudden stop of the series, likely on the account of the news of Helena's death reaching Alexandria. The other types assigned to Constantine and his sons are scarce too by this time, another sign of an overall short-lived issue, brought to a sudden halt.

    So perhaps this coinage should be scaled back as far as dating goes to early or at the very latest mid 329 instead of the generic 329-330 attribution. And although a lifetime issue by design and type, it is possible that by the time it was minted, Helena had already died.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2020
    Peter T Davis, Factor, PeteB and 12 others like this.
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  3. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    What you say makes sense to me, anyway. FYI, David Sear states in RCV IV (at p. 512) that Helena died "probably in 329," and that upon her death "she was buried in Rome in a newly constructed basilica on the Via Labicana." Sear also dates the Alexandria SECVRITAS REIPVBLICE coinage with officina marks "I" and "II" (RIC VII 53 and 57) as having been minted in 329 AD, the last of her lifetime coinage. Sear RCV IV 16632. (He also dates an Antioch SECVRITAS REIPVBLICE issue [Sear RCV IV 16628, RIC VII 82] as having been minted in 328-29.)
    seth77 likes this.
  4. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    I have long reached the conclusion that a catalog's purpose is to give you a reference point so that other numismatists/collectors know what you're talking about even without seeing the coin in question, and at best you can get general notes on some other aspects like dating and overall historical context. Thus any and all further answers must be gathered from individual research into more specialized literature and/or direct/indirect historical sources. It is all well known. But sometimes it's easy to get pedantic, especially regarding RIC.
    DonnaML likes this.
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