Ancient source texts do not tell us much about the Roman emperor Probus (276-282). The most detailed report can be found in the Historia Augusta, which is a collection of biographies from late antiquity that should not primarily be seen as a work of history but rather as an entertaining piece of popular literature. Looking at such a sparse written tradition, coins constitute a decisive source.
No. 1537. Antoninian, Siscia, second issue, 276. From Jacquier auction 45. Extremely rare. Extremely fine. Estimate: 2,000 euros. You need to be an advanced collector to be able to recognize the rarities within the coinage of Probus. This depiction on the reverse is extremely rare!
Consequently, Philippe Gysen made a wise choice when a fellow-collector advised him to concentrate on one emperor. He says: “The [coinage] of Probus had not been collected extensively and seemed ideal: His coinage is abundant and diverse due to its various bust types and the reverses … and at conventions and in auction catalogs the items are still estimated at a very reasonable price.”
No. 1458. Antoninian, Ticinum, sixth issue, end of 279. From Jacquier auction 45. Extremely rare. Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 850 euros. It is often the obverse of Probus’ antoniniani that determines the price. Special busts like this one where the emperor is seen shouldering a trophy are much sought-after among collectors.
No. 1688. Probus, 276-282. Antoninian, Serdica, fourth issue, 280. Very rare. Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 500 euros. The “grail” for any collector of Probus’ coins are the antoniniani from Serdica with extremely rare obverse legends like this one: DEO ET DOMINO PROBO INVICTO AVG (= for the god and lord, the invincible Probus, the emperor.
Those arguments are still valid today. Although the price of coins featuring special busts and special legends, which are quite numerous under the reign of Probus, has increased drastically by now. However, those who are willing to learn the ropes can still find trouvailles. And soon they could conduct their own research as Philippe Gysen did.
No. 1511. Denarius (Bronze off-strike of the aureus die), Siscia, 276. From Jacquier auction 45. Unedited unique piece. Nearly extremely fine / Very fine. Estimate: 850 euros.
No. 1555. Antoninian, Siscia, fourth issue, first phase of 277. From Jacquier auction 45. Unedited. Extremely fine. Estimate: 500 euros. The Gysen collection contains numerous unedited coins of Probus or pieces which are now being cited and illustrated in numismatic works of major importance.
He published his first numismatic article in 1997 and caught the attention of others. Sylviane Estiot, who is the great expert on the coinage of barracks emperors, approached Philippe Gysen and made it possible for him to join her research team. Quite an impressive career for a collector, which began with the interest in a mysterious emperor, with Probus.
No. 1521. Antoninian, Siscia, second issue, 276. From Jacquier auction 45. Very rare. Very fine. Estimate: 125,- euros. On the basis of his Illyrian origin, this coinage from Siscia (= today’s Sisak / Croatia) honors Probus as one of their own with the inscription “AVG NOSTRI” – Our emperor. At that time, there was no mint in Sirmium, his actual place of birth, yet.
The unknown origin
Where this Marcus Aurelius Probus was actually from was unknown to the author of the Historia Augusta already. Thus, it is not surprising that he resorted to his reservoir of literary tricks and creatively invented a career for him. Born on August 19, 232 in the Pannonian city of Sirmium, Probus allegedly was given the command of a legion. Under the reign of Gallienus he was even said to have been made commander-in-chief of all Illyrian troops. Supposedly, Aurelian then entrusted him with the tenth legion and recommended him as his successor. We cannot prove any of the above – except for his birthday and birth place.
No. 1354. Florian. Antoninian, Cyzicus, first issue, July 275. From Jacquier auction 45. Second known specimen. Extremely fine. Estimate: 250 euros.
Consequently, we know almost nothing about the military career of Probus, even though it has been hinted at that he probably distinguished himself as part of the cavalry. It is a fact, however, that Probus must have had a military power base in the east, otherwise it would have been impossible for him to challenge emperor Florian who was acknowledged in the west of the empire.
No. 1472. Antoninian, Rome, first issue, fall of 276. From Jacquier auction 45. Very rare. Extremely fine. Estimate: 150 euros. The senate quickly acknowledged Probus. In the fall of 276 already, the Roman mint was producing coins in his name.
Struggle for power
It must have been around July of 276 that Probus was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers. Whether that decision was really based on divine afflatus and made unanimously may be left undecided. The story of how a statue in a temple was undressed so that the new emperor would have a purple robe was probably fabricated, too. What is not a made-up fact, however, is that the two adversaries, Florian and Probus, came into conflict personally close to Tarsus, which is a Turkish city today. Florian barricaded himself in the city. Probus and his troops laid siege to the town walls. As the siege lasted longer and longer, Florian’s confidantes became proactive: they murdered him and acknowledged Probus. This probably happened at the end of September or beginning of October of 276.
No. 1407. Antoninian, Ticinum, third issue, 277. From Jacquier auction 45. Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 500 euros. On January 1, 277, Probus assumed the office of consul. This spectacular bust including the scepter of an eagle, a globe, and the trabea, the traditional robe of consuls, reminds us of this event.
A fast march to the Germanic frontline
Probus did not have a lot of time to celebrate his victory. Some Germanic peoples had taken advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war. They had crossed the Rhine river and were plundering and destroying Roman territory. But first, Probus eliminated what was left of the Gothic troops at the Bosporus. Florian had already fought them, but had only been partially successful.
No. 1531. Antoninian. Siscia, second issue, 276. From Jacquier auction 45. Nearly extremely fine / Very fine. Estimate: 250 euros. This celebratory coinage was minted on the occasion of the emperor’s arrival in his native province.
On his westward march, Probus and his troops took up their winter quarters in Siscia or his native town Sirmium.
No. 1480. Antoninian, Rome, second issue, 277. From Jacquier auction 45. Nearly extremely fine / Very fine. Estimate: 200 euros. It is still being discussed whether Probus made a slight detour to Rome while his troops were moving towards the Rhine. The coins indicate that he did.
In May of 277, they left that region to move along the Rhone towards Lyon. It is very likely that Probus made a slight detour to Rome in order to confer with the senate while his troops were on their way.
No. 1368. Antoninian, Lugdunum, fifth issue, the end of 277 to the beginning of 278. From Jacquier auction 45. Second known specimen. Extremely fine / Very fine. Estimate: 200 euros.
Probus arrived in Lyon at the end of August / the beginning of September. Coins commemorate the arrival of the emperor. Lyon was not only conveniently located but there was also a large mint capable of producing enough coins to pay all of the soldiers.
While in Lyon, the emperor organized the pacification of Gaul and Germania. He fought the Alemanni. The battle against the Franks continued until 278. For the time being, these victories successfully averted an invasion of the Germanic tribes at the Rhine border.
No. 1415. Antoninian. Ticinum, fourth issue, 278. From Jacquier auction 45. Unedited. Extremely fine / Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 400 euros.
Only these coins are indicative of the fact that Probus traveled through Northern Italy and visited Ticinum (= Pavia) on his way from the Rhine to Raetia.
New invasions at the borders
In the spring of 278, Probus and his troops hurried from Germania to Raetia. There, the Burgundians and Vandals had crossed the Danube river.
No. 1418. Antoninian, Ticinum, fourth issue, 278. From Jacquier auction 45. Unedited. Extremely fine / Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 200 euros.
The emperor managed to defeat them, too. Needless to say, all of these military successes were also presented on his coinage.
No. 1433. Antoninian, Ticinum, fourth issue, 278, From Jacquier auction 45. Rare. Extremely fine. Estimate: 250 euros.
No. 1596. Antoninian, Siscia, sixth issue, 281. From Jacquier auction 45. Extremely rare and unedited so far. Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 1,000 euros.
In the summer he was fighting the Sarmatians in Illyricum and the Goths in Thracia. No wonder Probus felt like Hercules, who had to cope with one task after the other. On his coins, he liked to compare himself to his divine role model.
No. 1572. Antoninian, Siscia, fourth issue, 278. From Jacquier auction 45. Rare. Very fine / Extremely fine. Estimate: 350 euros.
The emperor spent the winter of 278/79 in the province of Illyricum, most likely in the town of Siscia. A rare type of reverse was dedicated to the latter in 278: the city goddess is enthroned in between the river gods Savus and Colapis. Thus, the geographic location was transformed into a picture: Sisak, the ancient Siscia, is located where the Kupa (= Colapis) meets the Sava (= Savus) river.
No. 1674. Antoninian, Serdica, fourth issue, 280. From Jacquier auction 45. Extremely rare. Extremely fine / Nearly extremely fine. Estimate: 500 euros. A large number of coins associates Probus with the god of the sun Sol. But this coins is especially remarkable due to the unusual inscription on the obverse. When translated, it says: “For the good general and Caesar Marcus Aurelius Probus, the undefeated emperor.”
A victory over the Sasanids?
In the fall of 279, Probus declared himself Persicus Maximus. It is unlikely that this was based on a large-scale war. We do not know exactly how he justified adopting this title, but – as the construction of a wall surrounding the Arabic town of Bostra indicates – a Sasanian invasion must have been a tangible threat. Perhaps Probus managed to advert it by way of negotiations or a show of force. But it is unlikely that Probus travelled to the east personally.
No. 1502. Denarius, Rome, sixth issue, 281. From Jacquier auction 45. Very rare. Very fine. Estimate: 500 euros.
No. 1504. Quinarius, Rome, sixth issue, 281. From Jacquier auction 45. Rare. Very fine. Estimate: 200 euros.
At the turn of the year of 281/82, Probus celebrated a triumph in Rome. Gifts were distributed among the people and soldiers, and an extensive emission of coins was issued including rarely minted denominations such as denarii and quinarii.
Games took places as usual and the fact that 80 gladiators managed to escape their quarters caused a great stir. However, they were captured very quickly.
Probus and viticulture
Although the public at large has forgotten the names of most barracks emperors, Probus still enjoys an excellent reputation especially in German regions of viticulture. Some like to hint at the fact that some of their vineyards emerged under his reign. This detail is taken out of the Historia Augusta where Probus is accredited with a great care for viticulture. The quote says: “Subsequently, he [Probus] allowed for the planting of vines and production of wine in all of Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He himself ordered to have the Alma mountains in Illyricum, nearby the region of Sirmium, broken up by soldiers’ hands and planted carefully chosen vine stocks.” (HA Probus 18. 8.)
Soldiers as winemakers? What a strange image! Although it is very likely that Probus used his soldiers for construction and groundwork purposes. He had the Aurelian city wall around Rome finished. And he is also accredited with the construction of fortifications in Gaul and a channel in England.
No. 1749. Carus. Antoninian, pre-issue, September to October of 282. From Jacquier auction 45. Third known specimen. Extremely fine. Estimate: 350 euros.
The rebellion of Carus
In 282, Probus once again led his troops to the Balkans, to Pannonia, where the Danube border was being threatened by Sarmatians. A food shortage as well as the very unpopular groundwork caused a stir among the soldiers. A stir that Marcus Aurelius Carus, who at the time was probably in charge of troops from Raetia and Noricum, took advantage of.
The end of Probus
Probus sent his troops to fight Carus. But they did not fight him, instead they defected to the usurper. When this news became known in Sirmium, a riot broke out there, too – in the emperor’s native town of all places – that claimed Probus’ life. He died, without any offspring, in either September or October of 282. It was Carus or a bit later Diocletian who had him apotheosized.
Even though the reign of Probus only lasted six years and two or three months, his coinage is so diverse and interesting that one can dedicate their entire life as a collector to him.
The Paul-Francis Jacquier auction will take place on Friday, September 14, 2018 starting at 4:00 pm. You can purchase the auction catalogs at a token charge of 15 euros directly at Paul-Francis Jacquier, or look at them on Sixbid or Numisbids. In order to be able to bid online, please register in time online.