The Campgate: A Call for a Cultural History

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Gavin Richardson, Apr 24, 2017.

  1. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    I’m working on writing a popular essay that parallels the current debate in the U.S. over a border wall with Mexico to the fourth-century popularity of the campgate numismatic motif. My basic thesis is that in times of great cultural anxiety, many people are reassured by such images of strength and protection, whether real or imagined. I have no idea whether this piece will ever see the light of day, but I’m writing it anyway. I want to begin by understanding the cultural context of the campgate motif.

    Please, no contemporary political comments below, lest the mods delete this thread. Plus, I think we still pretty much all like each other. Let’s keep it that way, and keep the focus on antiquity.

    Here’s my very broad outline of the development of the campgate motif so far:

    A. City gates and city walls appear on coinage as early as the fifth century B.C., but the campgate received particular interest in the late third and fourth centuries. I know a city wall is not quite the same thing as a border wall (like Hadrian’s Wall), but the cultural effect is similar: separating who’s in from who’s out, Romanitas from “barbarity.”

    B. Diocletian and his cohorts struck an argenteus depicting the tetrarchs sacrificing to the gods in front of a campgate. The coin’s message was that Diocletian’s new organizational scheme, along with the power of the army and strongly fortified walls, would provide Rome a way out of the chaos of the military anarchy of the third century.

    C. The campgate motif seems to really get revived toward the end of the Licinius and Constantine Civil War. @dougsmit has a fantastic discussion of the campgate here: << >>. Doug writes, “To the man on the 4th century Roman street, one of the most important services of government was protection from the barbarian invasions that had troubled Rome for over 200 years. This is evidenced by coin types relating to the military. One popular type is known as the campgate…Campgates were the common coins being issued at the end of the civil war and the type continued for quite a while into the sole reign of Constantine.”

    I suppose my most basic question is why does the campgate get revived at this time? Licinius seems to get into the campgate game early, with an argenteus of 306. He seems to be striking base metal campgates by at least 315 A.D. The earliest Constantine campgate I’ve seen is 324 A.D., the same year as the Battle of Adrianople, in which Constantine defeated Licinius. Did Licinius, then, start this particular campgate trend? Is it accurate to read Constantine's campgates as being reactionary? Is it fair to see them both striking campgates to “compete” about which man could protect Romans better, or was it simply a mutually adopted numismatic motif without a competing element? Does Constantine adopt the campgate late as a appropriation of this Licinian motif as a gesture of triumph over Licinius?

    I wish I were as good at providing answers as I am about asking questions.

    Feel free to help “crowdsource” a cultural history of the campgate and suggest print and online resources, as well as previous related threads. (A Cointalk search of “campgate” turns up scads of hits, most not relevant to my query. If someone recalls a helpful thread, I’d appreciate the direction.) And of course post related coins. The coin shown here is a silvered Constantine campgate from Antioch, 327-8 A.D., a gift from our own @Victor_Clark . CON 1 CAMPGATE 1 SMANT.jpg
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  3. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    An interesting thesis!

    However, the coin shown and others like it may not represent campgates even though we call them such. They may instead represent signaling towers.

    There's a good article about this in an old Celator (Vol 18, No. 1, January 2004), Campgate Bronzes and Roman Fire Signalling, Murray K. Dahm.
  4. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    TIF read my mind. I was going to ask the basic question: what is our basis for calling these "campgates" other than numismatic tradition? Might they not be City gates or something else? I assume that someone at sometime made persuasive arguments for the campgate I.D.
  5. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper Supporter

    Good to see the scholarly spirit so alive and well. I used to love writing large essays back when I was in my 20s. These days I sadly don't have the time to do that kind of research and devote my time to something of that magnitude because of work and family commitments.

    I wrote in 2006 for a class project (professor said pick your own topic, no page limits) on the "Iran Nuclear Crisis: A manifestation of revived post-Cold War tensions between Russia and the US." It was 77 pages long, and to this date it is the finest work of art I've ever written, though it's badly outdated by now.

    I also wrote a 55 page essay once on "The Constitutional Argument Against The Affordable Care Act.". The US. Supreme Court proved me wrong on that one. I am kind of ashamed of that paper now, which was sadly published in my law school's law review. :(:facepalm:
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2017
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  6. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the comments about signaling towers. My thinking was that the campgate and signaling tower were not mutually exclusive interpretations, and that signalling towers would be incorporated into larger defensive structures like a city wall / campgate fortification. This is what I have in the draft on the matter: "Indeed, the campgate dominates the Constantinian coinage of the 320s A.D., though 'Providentiae Avgg,' the 'foresight of the augusti' would replace virtus militum as the reverse legend of choice. The precise meaning of this legend is debatable today, but some classical numismatists believe that the 'turrets' that appear at the top of these numismatic campgates are actually signal fires that would quite literally give emperors the foresight they need to protect Roman citizens from barbarians on the move."

    I've just skimmed that very rich Celator article by Murray Dahm; thank you for the link @TIF . Dahm's suggestion is that Providentiae Avgg and the reverse image constitute a celebration of a new and improved signalling system for the security of the empire. He also discerns an element of competition between Licinius and Constantine here. It's a great article that answers several questions while prompting others.

    I do want to go where the research takes me; perhaps the general sociological parallel I have in mind is untenable. It works better if that reverse motif is part of a larger border fortification rather than a freestanding structure, but the latter may indeed be the case. I welcome further opinions on the matter.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2017
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  7. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    I will be anticipating your paper. Please let us know when you are finished.
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  8. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    I took a moment and grabbed a few images of Roman signal beacons vs. fortification or city gates just for a quick and unscientific "eye test" of these coins. It does seem that the signal beacon is typically freestanding, though I don't know if reconstructions of freestanding beacons mean that castra gates could not also use this signalling system.

    The coin reverse seems visually closer to the city gate image to me, though Dahm strongly disagrees, and he's put in a lot of research. The motif of the doorway, which is developed numismatically in a host of ways and can be quite large, seems more consistent with a fortification gate than a freestanding signal beacon, which would not need such a doorway. But maybe I'm seeing what I want to see in these coins.

    Screenshot 2017-04-24 10.31.06.png Screenshot 2017-04-24 10.31.17.png
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2017
  9. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Well, the analogy might be more effective if these are campgates or city walls rather than freestanding beacons. The piece might be over before it really starts! Though I suppose the general premise still obtains...

    Either way, I'm learning a lot while thinking about it, so the time is not wasted.
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  10. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    I think you are correct. City Gates has always been my thoughts rather than Campgates
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  11. Nyatii

    Nyatii I like running w/scissors. Makes me feel dangerous

    I'm a novice, however it seems that the need for visual imagery used on these ancient coins, would dictate at least one of them showing a fire on top of the structure if it was a signaling tower.
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  12. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Novice speculation is most certainly welcome. I'm practically a campgate novice myself, hence my asking questions that are probably tired ones on this board.

    I wonder if an apologist might suggest that the star is suggestive of a signal, light, or fire. But stars are so ubiquitous on LRBs that it's difficult to say exactly what they mean, whether as mint control marks or just a sign that says, "Hey, this feature is important."
  13. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    The city gate hypothesis makes the most sense to me. Here are some amateurish thoughts on why.

    I understand that the 3rd century crisis resulted in a gradual transition in defensive strategy. The earlier strategy required very large standing armies to protect entire frontiers (the Rhine legions, the Danube legions etc.), with the aim of preventing barbarian incursions. That strategy failed in the face of more organized foes and financial problems, not to mention the constant refrain of usurpers making use of regional armies to overthrow the current emperor.

    The new strategy involved not worrying too much about barbarian forays getting across the frontier. Instead, every city had a wall so the population could retreat there in the face of a barbarian incursion, while a mobile cavalry-heavy army came quickly to drive off the invaders. (Even Rome itself received a wall under Aurelian.) This was more efficient and it reduced the usurper problem, since the emperor could usually be with the main army and there were no huge regional armies to suborn.

    No doubt when this strategy was first developing, the population wouldn't have been all that keen on it. "What, just leave my farm to be devastated??" However by Diocletian's time they would have learned to appreciate the safety that walled cities gave them, and under Constantine the city gate would surely be a powerful symbol of safety. It took another century before large barbarian armies began to understand siege warfare.

    Galerius argenteus issued in 294, usually described as depicting "city walls":
    Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 10.09.57 AM.png
  14. Ken Dorney

    Ken Dorney Yea, I'm Cool That Way...

    Hmm. A really interesting thread, much more so for the correlation to modern political and cultural transition we are now experiencing than for the coins themselves (not that I do not like the series, as I do).

    To my mind: these coins clearly represent a city gate and not a camp gate. I feel that the image and message conveyed by the series is something along the lines of 'our cities are well protected and defended'. What is commonly called a 'turret' is clear to me a signal structure.

    During this time of tumult and invasion/migration simple citizens would want to be reassured that they were safe, that their homes were not to be violated. Thus, the strong image of strength (and this translates to modern society around the world).

    This can easily be linked to many other cultures, times and structures (but for various reasons). Wall of China, Hadrians Wall, Antoninus' Wall (less known and appreciated), Berlin Wall, Israel, America, the list goes on.

    It really is an interesting topic and one that could potentially get political (but I would appreciate it if it did not; I grow weary of politics. I would prefer to stay in my nerd space of history). But it is impossible to ignore the direct correlation between the past and the present.

    It might be an interesting debate to see what comes of the past and present but that isn't for this forum.

    Hmm. Ending this I realize that while I always loved the series, I dont own an example. I should seek one out. Anyone have a nice EF+?
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  15. IdesOfMarch01

    IdesOfMarch01 Well-Known Member

    Speaking of city walls...


    Lucca city wall.jpg


    Pisa city wall.jpg
  16. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    While your description of the militaty strategy might be correct (I don't know, offhand), defensive City walls were certainly not new in the 4th century AD. They'd been around a long time as a last line of defense. Mycenae was famous for its walls over a thousand years earlier. Eight hundred years earlier, Athens kept the Spartans out for decades with its walls, even extending them to the port of Pireaus to enable grain shipments. The Aurelian wall was, I think an extension/improvement of the existing walls at Rome - not really a "new" defense per se.
  17. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Thanks all for these thoughtful replies. I'm glad you posted that argenteus, @Severus Alexander. To my eyes, that coin shows the tetrarchs sacrificing in front of a structure that the die engraver attempted to show "in the round." Those argenteus walls are meant to surround something; if a fire beacon is involved, then it is incorporated into a structure that seems designed to be protective of a delimited space.

    But this coin even elicits a question: Is the structure on the argenteus meant to be the same structure that appears on conventional "campgates"? Or are they two different structures?

    My gut tells me that the campgate is simply a frontal view of the same structure the argenteus depicts in some stylized fashion--a city or camp fortification with multiple towers.

    Screenshot 2017-04-24 13.10.37.png
  18. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Constantine II 19.jpg
    AE Follis
    OBVERSE: CONSTANTINVS IVN NOB C, laureate head right
    REVERSE: PROVIDENTIAE CAESS, campgate with two turrets, star above, eSIS(double crescent) in ex.
    Struck at Siscia 328-29 AD
    2.9g, 20mm
    RIC VII 216
    Maximianus 8a.jpg
    AR Argenteus
    OBVERSE: MAXIMIANVS AVG, laureate head right
    REVERSE: VIRTVS MILITVM, four tetrarchs sacrificing before walls with 6 turrets
    Struck at Ticinum, 295 AD
    2.6g, 18mm
    RIC VI 18b
  19. Victor_Clark

    Victor_Clark standing on the shoulders of giants Dealer

    Val III RIC X Rome 2163.JPG

    a campgate from Valentinian III

    Valentinian III
    A.D. 425-455
    11mm 1.1gm
    D N VALEN AVG; pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right.
    CAST VIC; camp-gate with no doors and two turrets, star above.
    RIC X Rome 2163

    castra is Latin for a fortified military camp
  20. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Well, that CAST legend does lend credibility to the "campgate" reading. Is it retroactive to the 310s and 320s? My vote would be "yes."
  21. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper Supporter

    Here is why the 'Campgate" on Roman coins can't be a camp gate. The legions, when out on campaign, set up a new camp every day. Even when they weren't marching, the camp might need to be relocated if the strategic situation changed. As such, it would make sense for a legion's camp gate to be made of wood and canvass, or other temporary easily disassembled material.

    If you look at the so-called "campgate" on coins, it is clearly a brick structure that would have taken a while to build. We are talking either the gate of a permanent stone fort, such as the ones around Hadrian's Wall, or a city gate. It can't be anything else.
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