Featured The Last Of The Romans

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, May 18, 2020.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    The phrase, The Last of the Romans probably rings a bell for most readers and contributors to Coin Talk, except that if readers were asked just who the last of the Romans was, we would get very different answers. For some it might have been one of the commanders of the Roman Army desperately trying hold off the barbarians at the gates of Rome, maybe a Stilicho or an Aetius. Perhaps a late Roman emperor such as Romulus Augustulus fits the definition. For pious Christians that last of the Romans might have been Pope Gregory the Great. For Medieval Crusaders that last truly Roman ruler (and proto Crusader) was thought to have been the Byzantine soldier and emperor Heraclius. For students of early Medieval England it could have been the sub Roman warrior, Artorius.

    Well, I have my own candidate for that role, though hardly a novel one, the late Eastern Roman Emperor, or Byzantine, if one prefers, the Illyrian peasant of the Balkans, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius better know to most by his adoptive name of Justinian I. Often he is the only Byzantine emperor the average person can recall. Why would I consider Justinian I to have been the "Last of the Romans"? That he was most likely the last emperor in Constantinople who spoke Latin as his primary language might help explain it, but by itself that linguistic skill is not enough. It is in his reign that I think one can see that he exemplified the talents and skills, the aspirations and determinations that we associate with the best virtues of being a Roman. Let's see if I can convince you of my choice.

    First of all, we need to establish that Justinian I, and all citizens of the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire called themselves, Romans. The term Byzantine, for the eastern portion of the Roman empire, is an artificial construct of recent times. Everyone there believed that their time and place was the same empire as that of Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Aurelius and Constantine. Yes, it was now a Christian Empire, no longer Pagan, but by the time of Justinian it had been Christian for close to two hundred years and if most of the inhabitants spoke Greek rather than Latin, there was nothing odd about Romans speaking the Greek language. And while there were no longer gladiatorial games in the arenas one could see exciting chariot races in the hippodromes. Justinian was like most the Eastern Romans in the capital sharing in these external aspects of Roman culture. But he was more than that. He was Roman in his heart, to his core and one can see this in how he governed the Empire when he became emperor, in his own name, in 527 AD.

    That he became a Roman ruler at all is a story in itself, a very Roman achievement worthy of a Marius, Vespasian, Septimius or Aurelian. Born to a pair of peasant farmer parents in Illyria (or possibly Macedonia) our Justinian was not likely to go far in this life had it not been for his uncle Justin who, like many an illiterate Roman peasant, traded his pigsty for an army camp. When once established as an officer in the battalion of the Excubitors (the emperor's guards unit) Justin sent for his nephew who took his new name after his adoption by his uncle and Justinian entered the army and was assigned to the garrison of Constantinople. His Uncle, Justin, was in the right time and place when the emperor Anastasius died in 518 and he was proclaimed Emperor and Justinian soon associated himself with his uncle's rule and upon Justin's death he succeeded to the throne where he quickly established a firm control over events. He married and made his empress a most fascinating woman, Theodora (a former actress) and their lives together is a repeat of Augustus and Livia with the two working hand in glove to govern together. And good thing he did. Like any Roman emperor Justinian had to be prepared for assaults on his throne at any time, by disgruntled nobles or a furious mob of the sweepings of the streets and it was Theodora who saved him from the worst of the assaults on his throne. In 532, with the people controlling the streets and threatening the imperial palace, Justinian and his companions had loaded ships with treasure and were about to abandon the throne and the capital, Constantinople, when Theodora shamed them all into staying and fighting back. Saying that she would not flee but preferred a purple, imperial, burial shroud to ignoble flight, they stayed, found an army unit (mostly of barbarian mercenaries) willing to fight the citizens of the city and retained his throne.

    Secure on that throne, Justinian embarked on a campaign to bring the Latin speaking West, mostly now under control of Germanic kings, back into the Empire. He had considerable success doing that, bringing back under imperial control a portion of Spain from the Visigoths, North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths. He managed to negotiate a long term settlement with the Sassanid Persians on his eastern border. At the same time he embarked on a building campaign, one of whose achievements was the domed basilica of Hagia Sophia, still overlooking the Bosporus and until recent times the largest constructed dome anywhere. And while this was going on he had his legal experts compile and codify centuries of Roman law into several concise books. This codification of Roman Law was to become the basis of legal system used widely throughout most of Europe today, and by colonial expansion to much of the world.

    Now, many will argue that he attempted too much. His reconquests were expensive in lives and money (the city of Rome having undergone several sieges and sacks during this fighting was wrecked and almost depopulated) and much of the territory he gained was quickly abandoned. He also involved himself in interminable religious polemics attempting to explain the inexplicable theological intricacies of the nature of the Divinity and managed to alienate a good portion of the population doing it. But all that he did, he did not for himself but for a better Rome. He suffered no delusions of grandeur for himself but was convinced that for the dignity of the Roman Empire his position required that he do all in his power to advance and defend Romanitas, and for the most part he possessed the self discipline to pull it off. That he could not control events after his demise was hardly a flaw in his character.

    Although he was not popular with the populace of Constantinople at the time of his death in 565, later generations of Eastern Romans, Byzantines, would look back on his reign as one of greatness. It is interesting that his name attained a popularity for centuries to come and it is ironic that a Genoese Condottiere commanded the Byzantine troops who futilely defended Constantinople at the end of the empire when the Turks took the city in 1453. His name was Giovanni Giustiniani.

    Now perhaps you think that Justinian deserves that title as the "last of the Romans" or maybe you have another in mind as that person and would like to tell us who you think might deserve that sobriquet as well. If you have coins associated with Justinian or your own pick, please post them here. Below I have a follis (40 nummia) of Justin I, top left, with an unusually, for a Byzantine coin, an accurate facial expression. It was he who gave Justinian his start in life. Next is a gold tremissis of Justinian I, then another, big, 40 nummia follis of Justinian I. On the bottom is a gold solidus of Justinian I and lastly a 40 nummia follis of Justin II who succeeded Justinian I and had to pick up the bill and the pieces when Justinian's conquests turned out to be more of a liability than an asset.

    IMG_1364[5365]Justinian Obverse.jpg IMG_1365[5369]Justinian reverse..jpg
    Last edited: May 18, 2020
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Khnum-Hotep

    Great write-up. The historian Procopius initially wrote panegyrics about Justinian but then changed his color to exaggerated criticism in The Secret History. I suspect this book may have contributed to the mixed reaction one gets about Justinian's greatness in some circles. However, you make a very strong argument that he should be considered amongst Rome's greatest rulers if the Empire is viewed in totality. And a coin, of course.

    Pre-Reform Follis, note the smaller size and weight as compared with later pieces:

    Justinian I (527-565 A.D.)

    AE Follis, Constantinople Mint, 10 grams, 28mm

    Obverse: Diademed, Draped and Cuirassed Bust Right, DN IVSTINIANVS PP AVG

    Reverse: Large M, cross above, star to left and right, officina letter below

    Reference: SB 160, Dumbarton Oaks Collection 30.


  4. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I was going to mention Procopius as he is one of the main sources for everything on Justinian. Oddly enough his secret history (the Anekdota) is not all scandal mongering, though that is the portion that gets well read. He is not to be relied upon when it comes to Theodora, some of what he writes looking like it first appeared on a high school bathroom wall, but he is willing to give Justinian his due. Though hostile and critical of the emperor he does, begrudgingly, write of his finer points and admits that he has some.
    ancient coin hunter likes this.
  5. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    I don't collect post-Imperial roman coins at all, but I do have this one example of a TINY, pentanummium of Justin II
    Justin II.JPG
  6. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I have to admit that my main interest is also in Greek and Roman coinage. I don't collect much after the time of Constantine but over several decades, from trades and junk box finds I have built up a modest collection of late Roman and Byzantine coinage. I guess I prefer the earlier coinage as the tool and die engraving gives a more accurate rendition of the images and the historical characters are better and more written about. It's hard to top one of those superb big sesterces of a Flavian emperor. By the way, that's actually a nice looking coin that you have there of Justin II.
    DonnaML and hotwheelsearl like this.
  7. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    And for $0.81 it was a great deal!

    I have always liked classical sculpture and architecture much more than late classic or Byzantine. I suppose that interest bled over into my interest in Roman coins!
  8. AussieCollector

    AussieCollector Moderator Moderator

    Thanks @kevin McGonigal - great write up.

    I do enjoy discussion around 'the last Romans' or 'the last Roman' as you put it.

    I take a slightly different view.

    The term Byzantine is a modern invention, because our western culture ignored the Eastern Roman Empire (or more accurately, the Eastern Roman Territories ruled by the Roman Emperor 'in the East') for centuries when teaching history and so forth. We had always been taught that the Roman Empire fell in 476. And even when presented with the history of the Eastern Roman Empire, it is often met with "Yea, but they weren't real Romans." It's almost like it's too late to change our thinking, despite evidence to the contrary.

    If you link the Roman Empire to the Latin language, your conclusion is solid, and as good as any.

    However, in my view, Rome was so much more than Latin.

    It was a set of laws. It was a set of values. It was the style of government, including the Senate. It was an identity.

    The Byzantines didn't call themselves Byzantines, they called themselves Romans. And let's not also forget that Roman culture was heavily influenced by Greek culture, with a long list of examples.

    So, from my perspective, the Roman Empire lasted until 1453, with the 'last Roman' being Constantine XI.

    There is even perhaps a case to be made that the last Roman was David Megas Komnenos of Trebizond, finally losing the last Roman territory in 1461.
  9. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    As I remember it, Constantine XI was crowned while standing on a small square of imperial porphyry. By the 15th century, all knowledge of carving and even the location of imperial porphyry was lost. Any traces of the precious stone were direct callbacks to Rome.

    By standing on the porphyry, Constantine proved that not only was he “porphyrygenitus” - born of the purple, but he was also a ROMAN emperor. Despite everything, the last Roman emperor considered himself, and his country - Rome.
  10. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Yes, indeed, and Justinian tried hard, very, very hard to preserve those Roman laws, those Roman values the Roman identity and I think more so than those emperors who came after him. Those who followed Justinian often had enough to worry about just surviving. Justinian I think, was the last of the emperors in Constantinople to try to extend and restore those values and laws and identity to places that had enjoyed the benefits of Romanitas until recently and in that sense he was "the last of the Romans". By the way, on the use of Latin. Even Justinian had to admit that pushing Latin in the eastern Empire was beating a dead horse. Although the Institutes and the Digest of his codification of the Roman Law were originally written in Latin, when he extended those codes with his Novellae, a synopsis of a simplified code for the use of the average citizen, despite the Latin title, they were issued in Greek.
  11. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Great write-up, @kevin McGonigal !

    Me, I feel the Western World is the Last of the Romans... we use their laws, language, institutions, etc. and they have carried on with our everyday lives. Albeit, molded and changed over time... :)

    I am bummed that I have no Quinarii from this time...


    BZ Justinian I 527-565 CE AE Folles 30mm 17g 40 Nummi M monogram


    BZ Justin I 518-527 CE Copper Folles Antioch 20 nummia K monogram
  12. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Did anybody have any quinarii at this time? Well, since a quinarii was a coin of five asses, maybe a pentanummia of five nummia would suffice for our purposes. I notice that your Justin I has that same expressive look on his face that mine does. I find most Byzantine coins to have facial expressions that make you think you are looking at the face of the Divinity. Some of Justin's faces look semi-human. As for the modern Western world still being Roman, I agree that it is, much to the annoyance of some people. Every time we use the languages of the West, we borrow from the Latin language to do it. Even English, which is not a Romance language, has a vocabulary that is about 60% derived from Latin. So, almost every time we open our mouths and speak we carry on the traditions of Rome.
    Alegandron likes this.
  13. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Here's a decanummum of 10 nummi which was struck in Constantinople under Justinian.

    JustDecanum.JPG JustDecan R.JPG
  14. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

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  15. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Khnum-Hotep

    There is an old Greek legend that Constantine XI will return one day and drive the Turks out of Constantinople. The genesis for this idea is that his body was never found.

    "Following his death, he became a legendary figure in Greek folklore as the Marmaromenos Vasilias, the "Marble Emperor" who would awaken and recover the Empire and Constantinople from the Ottomans. His death marked the end of the Roman Empire."

    If this is the case then he can be considered "the last of the Romans." While not particularly religious, after visiting Hagia Sophia I had the feeling that it would be nice if the authorities in Istanbul would re-activate it as a church, rather than a museum. From the inside the dome seems to float above the windows that let in the sunshine. Definitely a beautiful and almost ethereal sight.
    Last edited: May 19, 2020
  16. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Active Member

    Excellent article @kevin McGonigal and it has spawned a most educational thread. My favorite link to Justinian is Hagia Sophia/Aya Sophia. Truly an amazing structural engineering feat, considering the knowledge and practices of that period. I've visited it many times with just as much awe and appreciation on every visit. I think I'd have to say it is among my top three favorite man-made structures of the world (which would include the Giza Pyramids and Angkor Wat and its related temples)
  17. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    A beautiful write up and you touch on some interesting salient points - I really enjoyed it. Thanks! And nice to tie in that reminder of Giovanni Giustiniani!

    However, for myself, I will always consider Constantine XI the last Roman emperor. But I offer the following anecdote that carries the concept even closer to our own date. Many years ago I attended a lecture by a Greek "Byzantine" historian who told of an event that led him to his profession. He was a child on a Greek island when it was liberated from the Turks in the 19th c. He related how, as the Greek marines were jumping from their boats onto the shore, he, like the local populace, was waiving a Greek flag and was shouting "Οι Ελληνες, Οι Ελληνες" - "The Greeks, the Greeks!". He said that a marine came up to him and replied "Δεν είμαστε Ελληνες, είμαστε Ρωμαίοι." = "we are not Greeks, we are Romans." It was that sense of continuity that propelled him into a life of scholarship of the Eastern Roman empire. And so, in tribute to that spirit, here are my 2 little coins of Constantine XI.

    Constantine XI. Constantinople. 1449/53. Eighth Stavraton. 0.63 gr. 12.7 mm. hr. 11. Sear -; DO 1789. Bendall, “The coinage of Constantine XI” (Revue Numismatique 1991, pp. 134-142), #110 (this coin).

    Constantine XI. Constantinople. 1449/53. Eighth Stavraton. 0.63 gr. 13 mm. hr. 12. Sear -; DO 1789. Bendall, “The coinage of Constantine XI” (Revue Numismatique 1991, pp. 134-142), #129 (this coin).
    Bendall 110 and 129.jpg
  18. NicholasMaximus

    NicholasMaximus Well-Known Member

    Great Thread! I find the original argument to be fascinating and I do think it holds water.

    @hotwheelsearl @AussieCollector

    I understand your points regarding Constantine XI, but I have to disagree with them. I wouldn't read a ton into the Imperial Porphyry. Yes it was an old roman tradition, but it is such a small piece of the puzzle.

    Would you claim that Charlemagne is a Roman emperor too? He was crowned on an even bigger piece of Imperial Porphry, over 600 years earlier. Also, by the time of Constantine XI, Porphry came to symbolize Christ.

    Even if the Byzantines called themselves Roman, they didn't have any connection to Rome for 1000 years by time Constantine XI came to power. They also stopped speaking latin and switched the official government language to Greek almost a thousand years earlier.

    I know you already addressed the point on language, but are you saying that Byzantine culture and government were so similar to Ancient Rome, that they should be considered an extension of the original empire ?

    One last point on Constantine XI, don’t you have to actually rule an empire to be considered an emperor in the first place ?? I wouldn’t exactly call what he ruled an empire. By the time he came to power, his “empire” consisted of one major city and a couple of small provinces.

    It is also worth noting that Constantinople was sacked in 1204 and under the control of latins for nearly 60 years before it would be taken back by the first ruler of the Palaiologos dynasty. This creates even more separation between Constantine XI and the original Roman Empire.
  19. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    The professor for the Byzantine History class I took in college was also of Greek origin, and was very enthusiastic about the subject of the Byzantine Empire. All these years later, I remember the class fondly as one of my favorites. I still have all the books from the class, including one of the professor's own books, Emperor Michael Paleologus and the West, 1258-1282.

    Perhaps unfortunately, despite my interest in the Eastern Empire's history, I've never been able to develop any enthusiasm for the coinage. I simply don't find it very attractive!
    kevin McGonigal likes this.
  20. Agricantus

    Agricantus Allium aflatunense

    How about Franz / Francis II? He called himself and was called Roman Emperor. Römischer Kaiser.

    This thread brought back fond travel memories. I would add Abu Simbel to Robidoux' list.
    Robidoux Pass likes this.
  21. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Some year ago I visited both Greece and turkey. I bought my self a tour book of Greece. It had pullout of the maps of the major Greek cities, a big one on Athens and smaller ones on Salonika and the like. To my surprise (and delight) the book on Greece had a big pullout on Constantinople. I am glad that Turkish customs did not look at the tour guide book on Greece with Constantinople on the map.
    Last edited: May 19, 2020
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