The augustalis of Hohenstaufen monarch Frederick II ©Bundesbank

A coin fit for an emperor The augustalis of Hohenstaufen monarch Frederick II

Kingdom of Sicily
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1197–1250)
Augustalis, from 1231

Mint: Messina
Material: Gold
Weight: 5.26 g
Diameter: 19.1 mm

Frederick II, of the House of Hohenstaufen and King of Sicily, took an extraordinary step when he started minting gold coins in 1231. This is because, for many centuries, the Christian West had been shaped purely by silver currency. Frederick II’s gold coins, called augustales, were something special: the quality of the image and their embossing are unique for their time. Augustales are extraordinary coins minted by an extraordinary ruler.

In 1197, Frederick II succeeded his father Henry VI as King of Sicily at just three years old. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily had come to the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and thus to the Holy Roman Empire, in 1194 through Henry VI’s marriage to Constance, the daughter of King Roger II and heiress of Sicily. Not only did Frederick II feel more closely bound to this country throughout his life than to his Germanic territories, he also made it one of the most modern states of its time. This also included the new gold coin he created in 1231 in connection with Sicily’s new legal code. The large number of stamping dies and the stamping of coins worth half the value are indications that Frederick II was not just minting augustales merely for representation purposes. The coins continued to be struck after his death until 1266 and circulated mainly in Italy and Sicily.

The name augustalis, translated as "the imperial one", paralleled the image on the coin: The obverse side features the royal bust of Frederick II wearing a laurel wreath and the robes of a general. The garment is held in place over the right shoulder with a ring brooch. A bangle or the border of his tunic can be seen on his right upper arm.

A comparison with the coin portrait of the Roman emperor Hadrian makes it clear that the way Frederick II depicted himself was very much in the style of a Roman emperor.

There is debate about whether the coins show a true likeness of Frederick II or just an idealised image of an emperor. There are no other portraits of him. However, the coin portrait is an official depiction of this member of the House of Hohenstaufen. It shows Frederick as he wished to be seen by his contemporaries and by posterity.

The reverse side depicts an eagle turned to the left while looking backwards, with open wings. The eagle was already a symbol of authority and power in ancient times and was made the imperial coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick I Barbarossa (around 1122–1190). The eagle symbolism was especially significant to Frederick II because the House of Hohenstaufen was by then also named gens aquila (house of the eagle).

The legend refers to Frederick II’s position as a Holy Roman Emperor: The obverse side gives his title "IMP(erator) ROM(anorum) CESAR AVG(ustus)" and the reverse side shows his name "FRIDERICVS".

The artistic quality and the political imagery of this coin are remarkable for their time. This is especially clear when compared to contemporary coins from the Holy Roman Empire where minting was shaped by the regional nature of money flows. Countless small coin issuers struck coins for their sphere of influence and regularly carried out coin recalls. Frederick II also had silver coins with relatively simple designs struck for coin circulation in these areas.

In Christian Europe, the money used was a silver currency based on the penny as the only denomination of coin. However, it was only one of the three monetary systems that came into contact with each other in Mediterranean countries during the High Middle Ages. The Byzantines and Arabs used a coin system based on three metals, where the Byzantines’ was primarily based on gold and copper and the Arabs’ was primarily based on silver coins. All three came into contact with each other in southern Italy and Sicily.

It is thus unsurprising to find similarities between the coinage standard of augustales and Byzantine and Islamic gold coins. At 20½ carat (885/1000), the augustalis’s purity equals that of the Byzantine hyperpyron. Its fine gold weight of 4.54 g matches the contemporary Islamic double dinar of the Tunisian Hafsids. This was also the fine gold weight of Roman and early Byzantine solidi.

The Sicilian gold coins of Hohenstaufen Frederick II were intended to be circulated in the Mediterranean region and not in Germanic territories, where only a small number of augustales have been found.