The 3rd year students on the Roman Society and Identity Course (ARGY ) had a real treat this afternoon because Keith Sugden brought out some trays of Roman coins to show them. We shared the teaching. Keith took the first half hour and talked about the Roman currency system from the time of Republic to the late 2nd century. There were gold aurei, chunky sestertii and even an issue in memory of Antinoos, favourite of the Emperor Hadrian.
The great thing about this seminar was that students could not only see the coins up close in the trays, they could handle them as well, gold coins included. Roslynne Bell the tutor commented that it was a good turn out for last thing on a Friday afternoon but the pulling power of Roman coins may have had something to do with it.
Meanwhile I think I rather drew the short straw because I picked up the second half of the seminar by talking about coins during the later Roman empire, including the debasement of the silver coinage, copying and coins as archaeological site finds. Of course I couldn’t offer anything as nice as Keith’s choice specimens but perhaps that was the point. The students had to familiarise themselves with the coins that turn up on sites: the incredibly worn, corroded and often low weight copies and even downright forgeries that passed for legal tender in the province of Britannia during the later 3rd and 4th centuries. They are a far cry from the pristine coins that are shown in books about the Roman Empire.
Some of the site finds are vile. However, when they turn up in significant numbers they offer the opportunity to present the information in the form of a table or a coin histogram. Comparing the histograms showing coins losses for a number of sites in Britain showed that many have a similar pattern of coin loss: low rates of coin loss during the first two centuries and then a sudden increase in coin loss during the later 3rd century. Low value radiates make up one of the peaks on the graph in Casey’s Period 18 (260-270). This was followed by the reform of the Emperor Aurelian (270-5).
The high face value of such reformed radiates or aureliani and lack of suitable low denomination coins led to the continued circulation of radiates and radiate copies. There followed a series of falling away from the new standards punctuated by further coin reforms until coinage ceased to be supplied to the province in the early 5th century AD. It used to be thought that the radiate and ‘Fallen Horsemen’ copies filled the gap but it looks as though when gold and silver coins stopped arriving the low value bronze coins that were circulating ceased to enjoy public confidence and the economy collapsed. It is a fascinating period of history. All this in half an hour!