Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roman Silver - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When you first start excavating on an ancient site you can be forgiven a bit of "treasure hunting" mentality.  It is undeniably cool to find something as recognizable as a coin, and we are by long habit accustomed to thinking of such an object as having inherent worth. Of course most of the coins you pull out of the ground are worn out, corroded specimens that somebody dropped long ago, looked down at and thought "Do I really want to pick that up out of the muck?".

After you have been at it for a while you get more interested in how and why walls, pits, roads and so forth all fit together structurally.

But because I still get asked about coins pretty often I thought a brief word on the topic would be in order.

Roman soldiers generally were paid in silver coinage.  Bronze was for making change and gold was for investment level finance.  (Sometimes the troops would get a special bonus in gold to keep them happy, or get a payout in same at the end of their enlistment).

Roman silver coinage is a very complex topic, and I am about to display my knowledge and ignorance in equal portions.  But here goes:

First an example of "official" coinage:

(note please, these are all from an assortment of coins I have purchased here and there....everything we find at Vindolanda gets turned over to our supervisors!).

The above example is a denarius from Septimus Severus.  A rather "severe" emperor he did put out some nice coins.  The term denarius by the way lives on....the dinar is the official currency of 9 Arabic countries and the slang term "dinero" for money recalls this ancient currency.

This is a nice solid coin.  Good clean silver, well struck.  To visit the other end of the quality spectrum, check this out:

This is a "silver" coin from the rather dodgy emperor Claudius Gothicus.  His reign from 268 to 270 was just about low tide for the Empire.  The coinage was lousy looking copper with a faint trace of low grade silver on top.  This was an era of hyper inflation and economic collapse.  Bad coinage can be either a cause or effect of a bad economy.  It certainly did not do much to inspire confidence in Rome!

In between the extremes of sound coinage and poor excuses for money we have some interesting intermediates.  Here is a coin from the empress Juila Mamea.

This coin has some ok parts, but something is going wrong on the edges.  What we have here is what is called by collectors a "fouree" coin.  It has a base metal core.  The silver was applied by wrapping a fine silver foil over it, heating it up and striking it in the die. They presumably looked great on issue but over time wear on the high points shows the falsity within.  Nobody is quite sure if these were the work of criminal counterfeiters, corrupt local mint officials, or official policy by greedy emperors.  A detail on the wear points:

Julia Mamea was the mother of Emperor Severus Alexander, and the real power behind the throne during his reign.

Another odd category of Roman coinage are the so-called "limes" coins.  This is a reference not to the citrus fruit but the Roman term for limits, or boundaries.  It is theorized that way out on the periphery of the Empire it was difficult or perhaps unnecessary to supply high quality coinage.  Simple base metal versions of conventional coinage were just given a quick splash of silver.  When you see something like this:

You get the impression that nobody was even trying very hard.  It makes particular sense when you see it, as in this case, from an Emperor who generally had pretty decent coin quality.  (This is Severus Alexander 222-235).  Limes coins are common enough in some areas that it is assumed that they had a level of official sanction.

Pity the poor merchants of the Roman Empire.  They had little choice but to accept Imperial coinage generally, but no doubt were quite skeptical of individual coins that looked wrong or felt light.  The  practice of biting a coin to assess its quality comes down to us from ancient times.  Here is "Under Dog", a cartoon of my younger days keeping the tradition going!

You would imagine that we would find coins with various tooth marks and other "proof" marks on them.  And sometimes you do.  Here is an extreme close up of Julia Mamea's nose from the above coin:

Is the X a natural bit of damage?  Perhaps, but it sure looks to be in a rather sheltered area!

As to coins found on the site of a fort like Vindolanda, the quality is generally much better than what is found in the surrounding communities.  You could afford to cheat the merchants.  But start paying the troops in monkey money and your reign may be brought to an abrupt and unhappy end!

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