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Chapter XIV
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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 p275  Chapter XV

Coins and Roman Britain

Allusions to Britain — Mints in Britain —
Archaeological Value of Coins — Hoards and their evidence

Britain shared in the monetary system of the western portion of the Empire generally, and with comparatively few exceptions the coins that circulated here were struck in Continental mints. The subject of the Roman coinage is too large and intricate to be even reduced to a mere sketch in this book, and it is unnecessary, as there are many works which treat of this branch of numismatics. The coins, however, which were struck in Britain, and those which, wherever struck, commemorate events in Britain,​1 come within our purview, as also certain points of archaeological interest arising from the occurrence of coins generally on Roman sites.

The first allusion to Britain on the Roman money was a triumphal arch bearing the inscription, de Britann, on some of the coins of Claudius to commemorate his triumph after his successful invasion of our shores. Hadrian's visit in A.D. 120 gave rise to a type, which with variations appeared not only on some of his coins, but on some of those of his successors, Antoninus Pius and Commodus. Britannia is personified by a draped female or male, seated on a rock, and holding a spear, javelin, or standard. By the rock is usually a spiked shield, and in most instances the free hand rests upon it. The male figure is wearing trousers, showing that he represents a barbarian. The female in one  p276 instance has her right foot on a globe; in another she is seated on a large globe surrounded by waves. The female figures are of special interest, as they are the proto­types of the 'Britannia' introduced by Charles II on our coins. The Caledonian victories of Severus, in which his sons Caracalla and Geta were associated, were commemorated on their coins, the usual type being Victory with the inscription Victoriae brittanicae. After these, direct reference to Britain ceases on the Roman coinage.

The earliest evidence of a Roman mint in Britain is under Carausius (A.D. 287‑293). The mint-letters on the coins of this emperor and his successor Allectus, prove that there were several minting places. L. and M.L. are identified as London (Londinium and Moneta Londinensis);​a C., CL., and MC., as Camulodunum or Clausentum (Bitterne), or possibly both places; and R S R., the most frequent combination, as Richborough (Rutupiae). The meaning of the last letters is obscure, but they may stand for Rutupiae Statio Romana. RSP. and MRS. appear to refer to the same mint. There are also other obscure initials which may relate to other places. LON. and ML. occur on coins of Diocletian and Maximianus, and PLON. (Pecunia Londinensis) on many coins of Constantine the Great and his family. These indicate that the London mint was in operation down to the middle of the 4th century; but there is evidence that it was revived during the short reign of Magnus Maximus (A.D. 383‑388). It is probable that the other mints ceased with Allectus.2

The coins found on sites inhabited in Roman times are often helpful in determining the approximate period of their occupation; but without the exercise of caution they are liable to mislead. Then, as now, some of the money in daily circulation was old. In almost every hoard of the era, the coins cover several or many reigns, and it is not unusual for a few to be a century or more older than the latest. Hence the presence of coins of emperors before the conquest of Britain and of republican coins of the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C., on the sites of our Roman towns, forts, and villages, is no evidence that these places were in existence before the Claudian conquest: these early  p277 coins may very well have been in circulation for some time after that event. The latest coins on a site more definitely indicate the approximate close of its occupation, provided these are not the latest that were in general circulation in Britain. The latest on the sites of most towns of the era are those of Arcadius and Honorius (A.D. 383‑423), but we know that some of these towns survived the English conquest and that those which were eventually deserted or destroyed continued a century or more after these reigns. The absence of the coins of later emperors is due to the conquest of northern Gaul by the barbarians, which brought about the severance of Britain from the rest of Europe.

The proportional numbers of the coins of the different emperors is of service to the archaeologist. The coins found at Richborough, Caerleon, Cirencester, Lydney, and in Pitt-Rivers' excavations at Rushmore and Woodyates cover all or most of the era, and a comparison of their lists shows that the proportionate numbers substantially agree. The coins of the Constantine period are the most numerous, and those of the 'Thirty Tyrants' (A.D. 254‑284) follow next. Or, taking the emperors whose coins are the most numerous, — Constantine the Great heads the list; then follow, Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus, Carausius and Constans; next, Tetricus and Constantius II; next, Victorinus, Probus, Valens and Gratian; and finally, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Faustina I. This enumeration must be accepted as somewhat tentative: a tabulation of the coins found at Silchester and Caerwent would certainly give more precise results.

Buried hoards of Roman coins have been found in all parts of the country, not only in the vicinity of the dwellings of the time, but in places remote from these — on moors, in woods, and among rocks. They are usually in earthen vessels, sometimes in those of bronze or lead, or in wooden boxes, and if found loose in the soil they were probably placed in bags or wrapped up in cloth. Hoards of bronze coins are the most numerous, and those of silver come next, while those of the two together are few. Gold coins are comparatively rare, and they appear to be always associated with silver. In several  p278 instances gold rings and other articles of jewellery have been found with the coins. The number of the coins varies exceedingly. It may be anything from a dozen or so to tens of thousands. A hoard found at Baconsthorpe, Norfolk, contained about 17,000 coins; one at Bishopswood in the Forest of Dean, 17,226; one at Blackmore, Selbourne, 30,000; while the quantity in one near Falmouth could only be estimated as 25 gallons! A hoard of one or two thousand coins is not unusual, but these and higher numbers are bronze coins, occasionally with a few of silver mixed with them, the hoards of silver coins alone or with a few gold ones rarely exceeding five or six hundred.

The burial of treasure for safety is perhaps as ancient as man himself. The dog, for the same reason, buries a bone, yet not for the benefit of other dogs that may chance to find it, but for his own enjoyment at a convenient season. That any of these coin hoards should remain to us is accidental, and probably due in most instances to the untimely death of the hider; but the large number so remaining indicates how common the practice must have been in Roman Britain. The approximate dates of the hoards, as indicated by their latest coins, prove that while the practice was continuous, there were times when more hoards than usual were buried or more hiders than usual failed to secure them, but probably both contributed to the result. That these were times of strife and disquiet is confirmed by history. The first of these hoard-periods was shortly after the reign of Aurelius. It coincides with a troubled state of affairs under his successor, Commodus, which began with a serious inroad of the Caledonians, was followed in A.D. 184 by a mutiny of the army in Britain and the murder of Perennis, the Pretorian Prefect, who had been sent to quell it, and it was not suppressed until A.D. 187, under a new legate, Pertinax. The death of Commodus in A.D. 192 was followed by a struggle between claimants to the purple, which ended with the victory of Severus over his rivals in A.D. 197. The next hoard-period, and the one to which the highest number of hoards belong, was a century later. During the last thirty years of this century, confusion and strife prevailed in most parts of the Empire, especially in the west, where pretender  p279 after pretender, most of obscure origin and the creatures of the military, seized the supreme power, the last two of whom, Carausius and Allectus, successfully and on the whole tranquilly held Britain for nine years. The defeat of Allectus in A.D. 296 left Diocletian and his colleagues masters of the Empire, and ended this period of confusion. The hoards fall into two series, those without and those with coins of Carausius and Allectus, the one series apparently being secreted during a few years before the accession of the former emperor, and the other during the struggle between Constantius and Allectus. A considerable number of hoards have for their latest coins those of Constantine the Great and his family (A.D. 306‑350), and it is probable that they were secreted when Magnentius seized the supreme power, first in Britain and then in Gaul, in A.D. 350, or was dispossessed of it in 353. History is silent as to what transpired in the former country on that occasion, but these hoards seem to indicate a disturbed state of affairs. The last great hoard-period followed the reign of Honorius (A.D. 395‑423), when Britain, cut off from the rest of Europe, had to fight single-handed her own battles with the over-sea barbarians, and with results that are well known.

Coin-moulds have been found at Edington in Somerset,​3 Lingwell Gate in Yorkshire,​4 Wroxeter and Candover in Shropshire, Castor in Northamptonshire, and elsewhere. They were undoubtedly used for the production of false and debased money, but they occurred in such large numbers at the first two places, as also on several sites in France, as to suggest official connivance. The moulds were built up in two or three piles or columns in such a manner that a dozen or more coins could be cast at a time. In making the moulds, discs of fine clay were prepared, about six going to a pile; and between every two discs a coin was pressed. The pile completed, a notch was cut in the side so as to expose the edges of the coins. These were then removed, and the discs were fired at a low temperature. The discs replaced, the pile was ready for use. Two or three such piles were placed together notch to notch, which thus formed a channel or tube. The angles between the piles were thenº luted with  p280 clay, and the molten metal was poured into the channel and entered the cavities which had been occupied by the coins. Most of the moulds appear to date from the 3rd century, a period when a large amount of spurious and base money was in circulation.

The Author's Notes:

1 For list and description of these see Akerman, Coins of the Romans relating to Britain.

2 For list of coins struck in Britain, Arch. Jour. xxiv, p149.

3 Archaeologia, XIV, p97.

4 Phil. Trans. xxiv; Numis. Jour. ii.

Thayer's Note:

a You'd think that Ward would have provided some illustrations, especially considering what a good job he did elsewhere in his book. No mind, gentle reader: if you want to get an idea of the numismatic output of Londinium, see James Pickering's very thorough site on Roman Coins of the London Mint (as archived by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek), with plenty of quality photographs.

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