Domitian II – the Lost Roman Emperor

Alfred Deahl


On 4 February AD 211, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus died in York (Roman Eboracum). His dying words to his sons Caracalla and Geta were (allegedly) “Be united, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men” (Dio 77.15.2). By December of that year, Caracalla had had his younger brother put to death; Geta was subsequently erased from the historical record. Despite Caracalla’s apparent disregard for his father’s reported last words, they proved remarkably suitable for the political crisis which was to unfold throughout the course of that century.

Bust of Caracalla, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, mid-18th cent. (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA).

Severus highlighted the importance of the army, the chief source of the Emperor’s power – everything else was trivial. This crucial dependence on the military led to the advent of the ‘soldier emperor’ – Roman emperors whose power derived solely from their standing within the army.

The period known as the ‘Third Century Crisis’ began with the succession debacle which followed the deposition of the emperor Severus Alexander in AD 235. The ensuing half-century was politically unstable: high-ranking Roman generals consistently turned on each other, wresting political control of territories, and/or institutions of government and administration, and/or the imperial throne itself, with their armies. Throughout the Third Century Crisis, legitimate succession meant little: political success was contingent on the size of your army. The Roman world was fractured throughout: the political stability that was ultimately recovered, insofar as it existed, became dependent on power sharing. One man could no longer rule comfortably.

This political mayhem peaked around AD 260, when the unthinkable happened. At the battle of Edessa, the emperor Valerian was captured by the Sassanian king Shapur I. This meant that Valerian became the first Roman emperor to be enslaved by a ‘barbarian’.

Shapur’s victory relief at Naqsh-e Rostam, just outside Persepolis showing the kneeling captive Valerian.

This disaster unsurprisingly shook the stability and unity of the empire as a whole. The rule of Gallienus, Valerian’s son, was endangered. Revolts across the empire destabilised the state, and significant regions broke away from Roman control. In the east, the ‘Palmyrene empire’ broke away under Odaenathus, who took with him the provinces of Syria Palaestina, Arabia Petraea, and Egypt. In the west, the general Postumus had Salonius (the son of the emperor Gallienus) killed; then he established another separatist kingdom made up of Gaul, Roman Germania, Britannia, and (briefly) Hispania.

These separatist kingdoms modelled themselves after the Roman state, and often even posed as allies to the rest of the empire. With all the trappings of the Imperial state, including imperial-style office titles, and their own copious issues of coins, they formed curious parallel states, each of which which sought its own autonomy rather than necessarily seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the empire as a whole. And it is in the breakaway ‘Gallic Empire’ that we find our lost emperor.

Map of the fragmentation of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD.

The Gallic Empire

The life expectancy of breakaway Gallic emperors was not high. When a given emperor’s constitutional legitimacy and claim to sovereign authority was based solely on his control over the army there was little to stop other commanders from attempting to claim legitimate authority by doing as he did and wresting control of the armed forces.

Postumus was actually surprisingly successful in lasting nine whole years before a challenger stepped up. In Mainz in AD 269 the commander Laelian proclaimed himself emperor, but he was ultimately defeated by Postumus, and thus unable to establish his reign. Postumus, however, made a fateful mistake and denied his soldiers the opportunity of sacking the city once it fell. It was always important to allow your men to enrich themselves through booty, plunder and the spoils of war if you wanted to retain their loyalty.

In rather murky circumstances Marius, another general, deposed Postumus, only to be killed himself before the year was out by Victorinus, who was in fact the head of Postumus’ ‘praetorian guard’. Victorinus was (predictably) unsuccessful at retaining power, and was replaced by Tetricus and his son in AD 271. Aurelian ultimately defeated Tetricus at Chalons-sur-Marne in 274, reuniting the empire. Graciously he allowed Tetricus to retire. A few years later, Tetricus became the first emperor or imperial pretender since Septimius Severus to die of natural causes (other than plague).

The Gallic empire was short-lived and brutal, featuring coup upon military coup. Yet it is hard to ascertain the precise circumstances of each of these coups, because surviving evidence is so scanty.

Statue of a Gallic knight, Antoine-Augustin Préault, 1853 (Pont d’Iéna, Paris, France).

Another Emperor?

The historical consensus on the Gallic Empire remained stable until a shock find in 1900. Agricultural work in a vineyard at Les Cléons in the Haute-Goulaine region of France unearthed a few coins. An excavator was called in, and a hoard of 1,456 coins was found, dating from between the reigns of Gordian II (AD 238) and Aurelian (270–5). The coins were largely uninteresting antoninianii – a rather miserable denomination that had been introduced in AD 215 by Caracalla as double-denarius silver coin, yet by the 260s it had become so severely debased that it amounted to a mere copper coin containing less than 5% silver. But in this hoard, one coin stood out.

The first Domitianus Antoninianus.

The style and design of this coin seemed standard, save for the obverse legend: IMP С DOMITIANVS P F AVG: “IMPERATOR CAESAR DOMITIANVS PIVS FELIX AVGVSTVS”. There is only one ‘imperator’ (emperor) Domitian known from the written historical record – Caesar Domitianus Augustus, the last of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, who ruled between AD 81 and 96. But to associate this coin with the 1st-century emperor would be ridiculous. The coin clearly belongs to the 3rd century, and even its first publisher François-Maurice Allotte de la Fuÿe (1844–1939) recognised its striking similarity to Gallic empire coins – of which, here are some examples:

                                           Tetricus Antoninanus with Hilitas Reverse, c.271.
Victorinus Antoninianus with Sol Invictus reverse, c.271.

The similarities are obvious, especially in the portraits, which appear so alike that changes in regime during this period probably led to merely superficial alterations to the dies used to strike coins.

The discovery of this coin, and its association with the Gallic empire, immediately sparked controversy. No ‘Domitianus’ is securely attested in the historical record. The Historia Augusta (which is itself a historiographical minefield)[1] mentions a soldier ‘Domitianus’, a dux Aureoli fortissimus et vehementissimus – “a formidably bold, impetuous commander under Aureolus” (Aureolus was a general under Gallienus who also eventually rebelled). He was involved in putting down the revolt of Macrianus in the Balkans in the 260s. A second potential ‘cameo appearance’ for this figure is found in the Byzantine historian Zosimus, who in passing mentions a conspirator Domitianus, whom Aurelian executed in AD 271.

There is no evidence that either of these mentions might be our Domitianus, or might even be the same person, although the chronology could plausibly fit. The absence of other available evidence forces us to rely on the numismatic material which indicates that Domitianus was a usurper who claimed imperial titles. As noted above, the legend IMP С DOMITIANVS P F AVG. can be expanded to Imperator Caesar Domitianus Pius Felix Augustus – he has fully adopted the imperial titles, and is intending to present himself as emperor. But is it really plausible to infer the existence of a hitherto-unattested unknown Roman emperor based on the evidence of just one coin?

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, AD 250s (found in the Vigna Bernusconi tomb in Rome, and now in the Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy).

Some suspected that the ‘Domitianus’ coin was simply a more common type that had been retooled, and was thus a forgery. The Italian numismatist Lodovico Laffranchi (1875–1952) declared in 1942 that it was a fake – a retooled Tetricus coin (specifically the one with the Hilaritas reverse).

In fact, the reverse of the ‘Domitianus’ coin featured a reverse personification of Concordia, a type which is not found in the coinage of any other Gallic emperor. Laffranchi’s conclusion that this coin was a fake was based on the assumption that the Hilaritas reverse had been adjusted: the representation of the goddess Concordia is otherwise rather similar to the standard Hilaritas depiction, after all.

To add to sceptics’ suspicions, the landowner and (thus the rightful owner of the coin) offered the ‘Domitianus’ at the excessive price of 8,000 gold francs to the Cabinet des Medailles, the French National Library’s collection of precious coins, engraved gems and antiquities. The Cabinet proved unable to purchase the coin, which then sunk into obscurity, finally ending up in a local museum in Nantes, where it was subsequently misplaced. Information about this coin, and indeed knowledge of its very existence, came to depend on a rather faint plaster cast – and the owner forbade photographs.

The plaster stand-in for the lost coin.

As a result, the coin was not properly re-examined for nearly a century.

A further issue was the lack of praenomen and nomen on the coin. This is unusual, and supported the conclusion that it was not real. The scholar Lawrence Okamura comfortably claimed in his 1992 article “Forging a Usurper in Late Roman Aquitania” (Hermes 120, 1992 103–9)  that “the shade of Domitianus should be laid to rest”.

Lost and Found

In April 2003, on farmland in Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, metal detectorist Brian Malin discovered the find of a lifetime – for the second time in his life. Fourteen years previously he had found a huge hoard of 4,145 antoniniani in two Romano-British ‘Black-Burnished’ ware pots – a find most metal detectorists can only dream of. And in 2003 he did it again, this time finding another 4,957 antoniniani. The hoards were less than 100 feet apart and were probably buried in the ground by the same Roman.

The second Chalgrove hoard.

The second hoard proved harder to analyse than the first, as copper corrosion had caused most of the coins in the hoard to fuse together. But Simon Dove and Abby Dickson of the British Museum carefully picked through them, identifying mostly the same few antoniniani from the mid-3rd century as those in the previous find. But amongst the morass a second ‘Domitianus’ coin was found. This was, in fact, a “die duplicate” identical to the first, and thus part of the very same strike. The existence of the second coin proved beyond doubt the authenticity of the first – and this coin was much clearer.

The Second Domitianus Antoninianus.

Around this time, the original coin was found again in Nantes, allowing for close comparison. Re-examination conclusively confirmed that the first coin had not been retooled, and was just as genuine as the second.

Domitian the Usurper

Although his existence has now been proved, it still remains unclear how this second Domitian related to the Gallic empire. The best guess is that he was involved in the deposition of Victorinus before himself being deposed by Tetricus. This would make his claim to power a flash in the pan at some point in AD 271.

In the wake of his own failed coup, Laelian was still able to strike enough coins between February and June 269 for a few to have survived; perhaps these provide a useful point of comparison. Given the extreme scarcity of Domitianus’ coins it is probable that his reign was even shorter than Laelian’s. A third coin found by another metal detectorist in 2006 (near Vidin in Bulgaria) contributes to this picture. Significantly this Domitianus coin had a different reverse type, with a representation of Laetitia on the reverse. This demonstrates that Domitianus had enough control of the mint to strike more than one issue of coins, although of course in extremely small numbers.

Coin find locations: (1) Les Cléons commune of Haute-Goulaine in the Loire-Atlantique department, France (1900); (2) Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, UK (2003); (3) Vidin, Bulgaria (2006).

It is also striking that the Concordia type is unique to Domitianus. He did not simply alter the coin dies used by Victorinus, but actually had whole new dies cut. Thus, despite the brevity of his reign, he was still able to exert a significant amount of effort in proclaiming his power simply though striking coins, whose faces were the most important form of mass-produced propaganda available for Roman sovereigns (would-be and genuine). It was a shrewd political manoeuvre, but one which ultimately never came to fruition.

Ironically, the legend around Concordia on the ‘Domitianus’ asserts CONCORDIA MILITVM (“harmony of the army”). This refers to the precious relationship between a ‘soldier emperor’ and his army – the essential concord on which these emperors’ power rested. This alleged concordia was clearly an ambitious claim for Domitianus, and more aspirational than genuine, as he was probably only able to maintain his position for a few days. Domitianus thus remains an obscure figure – hopefully further coin finds may elucidate his life further – yet he well typifies the bleak political fog of the ‘Third Century crisis’.

Alfred Deahl is an undergraduate reading Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has previously written for Antigone on the evolution of Roman coinage and the chaotic character of Alcibiades. He is a keen metal detectorist but is yet to find a hoard.

Further Reading

Clifford Ando’s Imperial Rome AD 193 to 284: The Critical Century (Edinburgh UP, 2012) provides a great overview of the period and I would also recommend Alaric Watson’s Aurelian and the Third Century. For a numismatic overview, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (Oxford UP, 2011; available here for those with access) provides a comprehensive coverage. Chapters 28 and 29 are especially relevant for this piece. As for Domitianus himself, nothing beats a visit to see the Chalgrove coin in the Ashmolean’s coin room at Oxford. A nice overview of how Domitianus might have benefited from a connexion to his more famous nominal predecessor is given by Llewelyn Morgan in “Domitian the Second?”, Greece and Rome 53 (2006) 175–84.


1 Sir Ronald Syme called this “the most enigmatic work Antiquity has transmitted”. It is notoriously unreliable and often simply fictitious; we cannot even be sure who wrote it. Stories are made up and even false documents and historians are cited. Mining anything of historical value form its pages requires extreme caution. A nice example is the story of Firmus, a usurper against Aurelian, whose life is so embellished that it includes details of him riding an ostrich, swimming with crocodiles, and eating so much meat he got through an ostrich every day. And this “Firmus” probably never even existed.