In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.
Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.
In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).
The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.
Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.
About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.
So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.
The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.
Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.
Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.