A Link to History: Connect with Saints through Ancient Coins

One of Claudius II Gothicus’ most historic pieces is a billon or silvered bronze antoninianus showing two captives seated at the base of a trophy on the reverse. (Photo: Classical Numismatic Group)

By Gerald Tebben

Saints lived common lives, too. They toiled at their vocations. They ate and slept and engaged in the domestic commerce of their day. Today, collectors can connect with saints through coinage.

Very little is known about St. Valentine, but most sources agree he was martyred, possibly at the hand of the emperor himself, during the brief reign of Claudius II Gothicus, a third-century emperor celebrated for defeating invading Goths. No coins show the martyred saint, but Claudius issued an extensive and largely inexpensive series of bronze, billon and gold coins.

While Claudius’ biography is well established, St. Valentine’s is not. His life has been celebrated by lovers for centuries, but no one is exactly sure who he was. He has been variously described as a priest in Rome, a bishop of Terni or a martyr in the Roman province of Africa. Some legends say he was persecuted for consecrating Christian marriages in a pagan society.

When Pope Gelasius set Valentine’s feast day as Feb. 14 in A.D. 496, the saint’s history had already been obscured by time and legend. Gelasius placed his name on a list of early saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Many believe the date was chosen by the early church to supersede the popular and sometimes randy pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia.

Claudius II Gothicus ruled for just a few years (A.D. 268 to 270), but left behind an extensive series of coins both in Europe and Africa. None show Valentine or make any mention of Christians. Many show Roman gods. Most are common and worth only a few dollar each, even in superb condition.

Claudius’ coins typically show a bearded bust on the obverse, wearing either a laurel wreath or a crown with spikes radiating from it like the rays of the sun. His name and title surround his bust. The reverses honor Roman deities or celebrate his victories. One of his most historic pieces is a billon or silvered bronze antoninianus showing two captives seated at the base of a trophy. The legend victoriae gothic— “Victory over the Goths” —surrounds the tableau. In Very Fine condition, the coin sells for less than $100. Well-worn examples can be bought for $25 or so.

The saint’s name meant “worthy” and was popular in its day. Many coins were struck by the similarly named Roman rulers Valerius Valens (A.D. 316 to 317), Valentinian I (364 to 375) and co-emperor Valens (364 to 378), Valentinian II (375 to 391), and Valentinian III (425 to 455). While the emperors have no connection to the saint, most of their coins show the name valentinianus.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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