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The Alamanni and Rome 213-496(Caracalla to Clovis)$

John F. Drinkwater

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199295685

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199295685.001.0001

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(p.364) Appendix The Lyon Medallion

(p.364) Appendix The Lyon Medallion

The Alamanni and Rome 213-496
Oxford University Press

The much-discussed Lyon ‘medallion’ is, in fact, a trial-strike, c.8 cms in diameter, in lead of the reverse die of a large denomination gold coin, with the legend Saeculi Felicitas, ‘The Happiness of Our Time’. Its two registers show a pair of Roman rulers receiving men, women and children. These are clearly depicted as crossing into the Empire over the defended bridge at Mainz-Kastel (Fig. 27). The communis opinio is that it commemorates the settlement of Germanic war-captives in Gaul by Maximian Augustus and Constantius I Caesar in the later 290s.1 But there are problems. A coin of this quality must reflect a major imperial victory that could be presented as bringing undeniable benefit to the Empire.2 M. Alföldi identifies this victory as that won by Constantius I against Franks on the Scheldt. She places it in 296, in line with A. Alfoldi’s location—on stylistic grounds—of the terminus post quern for the production of the medallion in this year.3 However, Constantius’ Scheldt campaign took place before his British victories in 296. There is a hint of a second Frankish campaign following Constantius’ defeat of Allectus, but if fighting occurred it is unlikely to have been serious.4 More telling is the medallion’s location of the events it depicts at Mainz.5 Mainz was the base for Roman operations into Alamannia, not Francia: why defeat Franks on the Lower Rhine and then move them miles upstream? Finally, the demeanour of most of the ‘settlers’ on the medallion hardly matches that of the broken Frankish captives described in a panegyric of 297 which, according to M. Alföldi, provides a snapshot of the events which inspired the scene on the medallion.6

The two imperial figures dominate the upper register. The pair, nimbate and magnified, are plainly superior to their supplicants. This part of the composition conforms to Brilliant’s rules for the depiction of submission: ‘a


Appendix The Lyon Medallion

Fig. 27 The Lyon ‘medallion’. Main drawing from the first publication of the piece in Revue Numismatique 1862 [after Alföldi (1953: Fig. 2)]. Shaded area re-traced from a photograph [Bastien (1989: pl. 2)].

triangular form with the head of the great personage at the apex of the triangle.’7 However, some sense of independence on the part of the inferior is given by the three figures on the extreme right—two adults carrying infants and a small child (the taller adult is depicted incorrectly on the 1862 drawing, but is visible in photographs), who look away towards their fellows still crossing the bridge. These, shown in the lower register, are even more strongly presented. There is no triangle: all the adults are much the same size, striding confidently across. Slung around their necks or hung over their shoulders are large double-packs. The first on the left is armed with a dagger.8 All look ahead, except for the striking central figure of a woman who, in looking back as if to encourage those behind her, takes on something of the authority of the rulers shown above. She presents a very powerful figure, with no air of the captive. Early commentators saw her as a Victory (mistaking her pack for wings).9 Many previous commentators, including (p.366) A. Alföldi, put a positive interpretation upon the scene, for example seeing it as a largitio, a distribution of largesse.10

Two other explanations are possible. The first conflates an earlier interpretation, that the events depicted were the result of Maximian’s expedition of 287,11 with Unverzagt’s (1919) view, that it records the happy return of Roman troops from barbarian captivity.12 The two rulers are, therefore, Maximian and Diocletian, and the barbarian captors were Alamanni. Such an interpretation has recently been proposed by Turcan (1987) and confirmed, at least in part (concerning the identity of the emperors), by Bastien.13 Bastien dates the trial-strike to 297,14 but this is no hindrance to relating the events it shows to 287. In the First Tetrarchy, rulers’ reputations had to be carefully balanced.15 In 297, Maximian needed something to counter Constantius I’s brilliant success in Britain. Why not recall a major result of his most daring foreign war on the Rhine? The returning captives are not prisoners of war, but civilians taken during raids into the Empire. Bastien objects that no such exploit is mentioned in the panegyric of 289;16 but it was not needed then. However, in 297 Maximian needed an act of ‘restoration’ that matched that of Constantius.

The second is to suppose that the suppliants are immigrant Germani, but that these are not to be associated with Constantius I’s Frankish victory (M. Alföldi) or with general Germanic resettlement by Maximian while holding the Rhine for Constantius during the latter’s British campaign (Bastien).17 Rather, the medallion picks up another theme of imperial propaganda by showing Diocletian and Maximian not as conquerors but as civilizers of barbarians.18 This is a role in which the panegyricist of 297 famously cast Constantius I;19 and, albeit subject to variation (with the transformation of wild warriors taking place east of the Rhine), it was also emphasized by Symmachus in respect of Valentinian I.20 It found its greatest exponent in the east, in Themistius.21 However, the medallion’s reference to (p.367) Mainz signifies that the people involved were not Franks or Germani in general but Alamanni. And it shows these not as broken and dejected but confident and pleased. It suggests that in the late 280s Maximian settled a significant number of Alamanni by agreement west of the Rhine. The Alamannic settlers of the 350s might therefore have been able to cite precedent in support of their request for residence in the Empire.22


(1) Alföldi (1953: esp. 66–8). Brilliant (1963: 193); Gallien (1980: 27–8, no.2); Nixon and Rodgers (1994: 121 n.28); Burns (2003: 303).

(2) Alföldi (1953: 67 nn. 19–20).

(3) Alföldi (1926>: 168–70); Alföldi (1953: 68).

(4) Above 187.

(5) Cf. Alföldi (1953: 66–7 and n. 18).

(6) Pan. Lat. 4(8).9.1.

(7) Brilliant (1963: 189).

(8) Bastien (1989: 7).

(9) Alföldi (1953: 65); Bastien (1989: 17).

(10) Alföldi (1926: 169), ‘keine Unterwerfungsakt’; Alföldi (1953: 65–6). Cf. Bastien (1989: 18).

(11) Cf. Alföldi (1926: 169 and n.l); Alföldi (1953: 65).

(12) Cited from Bastien (1989: 8 n.l).

(13) Turcan: cited by Bastien (1989: 1); Bastien (1989: 7, 9–12).

(14) Bastien (1989: 24–5).

(15) Cf. Rees (2002: 25).

(16) Bastien (1989: 21).

(17) Bastien (1989: 24).

(18) I owe this important point to Professor Ralph Mathisen.

(19) Pan. Lat.4(8).9.3–4.

(20) Above 299.

(21) Guzmán Armario (2002: 276–7).

(22) Above 218.