Selling out core values

The Historia Augusta, probably dating to the fourth century A. D., is a most peculiar assemblage of imperial biographies, much of which may be pure fiction.

In the context of the Life of the Deified Aurelian, an emperor of the third century A. D. (270–275), the following story is related (ch. 38, transl. D. Magie):

There was also during the rule of Aurelian a revolt among the mint-workers, under the leadership of Felicissimus, the supervisor of the privy-purse. This revolt he crushed with the utmost vigour and harshness, but still seven thousand of his soldiers were slain, as is shown by a letter addressed to Ulpius Crinitus, thrice consul, by whom he had formerly been adopted:

“From Aurelian Augustus to Ulpius his father. Just as though it were ordained for me by Fate that all the wars that I wage and all commotions only become more difficult, so also a revolt within the city has stirred up for me a most grievous struggle. For under the leadership of Felicissimus, the lowest of all my slaves, to whom I had committed the care of the privy-purse, the mint-workers have shown the spirit of rebellion. They have indeed been crushed, but with the loss of seven thousand men, boatmen, bank-troops, camp-troops and Dacians. Hence it is clear that the immortal gods have granted me no victory without some hardship.”

The ‘revolt among the mint-workers’, or monetariorum bellum, as it is called in the Latin original, which took place in the first half of the 270s A. D. (though an exact date cannot be established: likely dates are A. D. 271 and 274), allegedly resulting in the death of some 7,000 soldiers, is certainly a remarkable incident. (For a fuller, academic investigation of the matter read C. P. M. Conway’s article here.)

The report in the Historia Augusta is substantiated by another fourth-century source, Aurelius Victor and his history of imperial Rome, De Caesaribus. Victor writes (ch. 35.6):

In the same manner the mint workers in the city were destroyed. Since, at the instigation of the treasurer, Felicissimus, they had been filing off the coin marks, in fear of punishment they had fought so serious a war that after gathering on the Caelian Hill they killed about seven thousand troops.

Another source for this incident, also from the fourth century, is Eutropius, who, in his Breviarium, reports it as follows (ch. 9.14, transl. J. S. Watson):

In his [i. e. Aurelian’s] reign, the people of the mint raised a rebellion in the city, after having adulterated the money, and put to death Felicissimus the commissioner of the treasury. Aurelian suppressed them with the utmost severity; several noblemen he condemned to death.

As the sources partly contradict each other, it is difficult to understand what precisely happened, and even more difficult (if not impossible) to gather the motivations of those involved.

The sources report the matter at hand largely to illustrate the unreasonable, cruel behaviour of the emperor himself. All one can reasonably say is that, while the number of casualties has almost certainly been exaggerated, the incident was of major significance, involving deployment of armed forces to rein in the violent riot of the monetarii, who in turn appear to have gained support of certain (privileged) parts of Rome’s society.

The role of Felicissimus, and in fact even his actual title and role, remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that one of the issues at the core of this conflict must have been the continued debasement of Rome’s coinage – which the mint workers either no longer felt able to support, or complicity to which made them feel increasingly uneasy: after all, they would have to deal with the eventual backlash if found out.

If this narrative comes close to the truth, then the riots instigated by Rome’s mint workers were a response to their initial readiness to sell out their core values to increasingly corrupt regimes – right up to a point where they had to fear severe retribution.

At that point, however, they had become complicit in a fundamentally corrupt system to such an extent that the emperor saw no other choice than to wage war against them and everyone who supported their cause – and then to close the mint at Rome for a number of years, waiting for the dust to settle.

Perhaps it would have been better after all not to sell out to powers who suggest that shaving off a bit here and there won’t have a major impact on the core values or the system as a whole . . .

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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