The Money of King Arthur II: Mercenary Gold


In last week’s post we learned of a 5th century Briton, Riotimus, who was recruited to help defend Roman Gaul from the Visigoths by the Western Roman emperor Anthemius. We have to assume that this arrangement was looked upon by Anthemius as a business agreement between the empire and an army of mercenaries. To think that the emperor of  Western Rome viewed a regional barbarian “King” as an equal, and thus an ally worthy of trade agreements, defense pacts, and other benefits between independent nations, would be hard to justify even though Rome hadn’t had a presence in Britain for almost 50 years.

So what did the payoff consist of? Well, you don’t entice a warlord with 12,000 men at his disposal to cross the ocean with small change. The most likely answer: gold.

Anthemius was fresh to his new post in 468. The worsening situation in Gaul prompted the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I to appoint him emperor of the West in 467, a post that had been vacant since the murder of  Severus III in November of 465. The mints were sure to have begun commemorating  Anthemius’ reign almost immediately after his appointment but this coinage certainly would not have been the most likely to be doled out in payment.

Severus III

In contrast, the gold coinage of Anthemius’ predecessor was relatively plentiful and easily at hand in 468. Severus III was merely a puppet ruler of Ricimer, Master of Soldiers, whose power didn’t extend much past the borders of Italy during his brief tenure of 461 to 465.  Although his legitimacy was never recognized by Leo, Severus did manage to produce coinage at the western mints of Milan and Ravenna during his almost 4 year reign and it is here that we find our first likely candidate for the gold paid to Riotimus and his troops.

Majorian preceded Severus, ruling from April of 457 to August of 461. He was very successful in his dealings with the Visigoths and Burgundians, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout his reign. Unfortunately he was another puppet ruler of Ricimer’s design and, once he had shown a backbone, was eliminated in favor of someone more controllable. Most of Majorian’s surviving coinage are small bronzes, definitely not a respectable payment for an army.

Valentinian III

Now we come to Valentinian III. A ruler over a span of 30 years (425-455) who produced gold coinage at the mints of Rome, Ravenna, and Milan to name but a few. During his reign the Vandals arose as a power in Spain, the Visigoths and Franks were successfully defeated, and the capital of the western empire was moved from Rome to Ravenna. Like most late emperors, he was murdered in what the perpetrators might call a “hunting accident”.

 Years later when it became necessary to pay the British warlord for his services, I speculate that the chest of gold he received contained an abundance of the coinage of Valentinian III from the local western mints. There would be a few from the reign of Severus, Anthemius, and the eastern emperor Leo I. But there is one problem. Jordanes, writing in 551, tells us that Riotimus suffered a humiliating defeat (due to treachery, maybe Mordred?) at the hands of the Visigoths and retreated, never to be heard from again, to the land of the Burgundians. Did he ever return for his chest of gold? You decide.

All photos courtesy of

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