Amazing Artefacts: Curious Coins

Andrew Lane

Coins are often found in great numbers on archaeological sites. At London’s Roman Amphitheatre 1200 roman coins were found spanning almost the entire duration of Roman Britain. Useful dating tools for archaeologists, coins can also provide an insight into the politics, economy and arts of the Roman world.

Archaeologists recording part of the arena wall during the excavation of London’s Roman Amphitheatre ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

Julius Caesar was the first Roman to issue coins bearing his own portrait, rather than those of his ancestors. The novelty stuck and coins become an important way of disseminating an emperor’s image throughout the empire. Along sequence of distinctive portraits is discernible on Roman coins, with the name of the emperor or empress, often in abbreviated form, added for further clarification. Other details such as political, military, and honorary titles often allow coins to be more precisely dated.

Coins were an ideal medium for conveying political messages and propaganda. Julius Caesar, for example, who traced his family tree back to the goddess Venus included her portrait on several coins - a reminder to every one of his illustrious ancestors. Other members of the imperial family also appear on coins, particularly those being groomed for succession. Designs often reflected the characteristics of the leader, or of Roman society in general. Military references are common with images of Mars, the god of war, Minerva, the goddess of strategic warfare and Victory frequently used, a reminder of the strength of the Roman state headed by the emperor.

Conquered territories also appear on coins personified as female figures. Britannia, a representation of the province of Britain is shown wearing a helmet and carrying a trident and shield. She makes her first appearance during the reign of Hadrian in the second AD and is used for the remainder of the Roman period. Subsequently retired for over a thousand years, Britannia reappears on British coins during the seventeenth century and has stayed ever since. Today, she adorns our two pounds coins and is about to make an appearance on the new fifty-pound note.  

A bronze sestertius of Antoninus Pius found in London with a seated Britannia on the reverse ©Bank of England Museum

Determining the contemporary value of Roman coins is difficult. Made of gold, silver and bronze or copper, they had an intrinsic value – although this changes over time. During the reign of Hadrian, for example, a legionary soldier would receive pay of around 225 silver denarii, or 9 gold aurei, a year. Well paid by Roman standards – this was presumably enough to maintain a reasonable standard of living. The value attached to these higher denomination coins may help to explain why most of those found in the amphitheatre were of low denominations – you simply couldn’t afford to lose a gold aureus!

Many of the coins from the amphitheatre were in poor condition – although archaeologists were still able to analysis the overall group and compare it to assemblages from other Roman sites in London. Finds from the first and second century were surprisingly low with most coins of a comparatively ate date. Difficult to explain, this might reflect the rebuilding of the amphitheatre in the early second century, and the fact that as a well-maintained structure, many lost coins were apparently recovered or cleared away.

Aerial view of the Guildhall Yard with the Guildhall Art Gallery on the far side and a curved line of dark stone in the pavement marking where the arena wall of the amphitheatre would have continued ©Andrew Lane  

We may never know for certain. What we do know is that many of these coins were minted in Rome and other regional centres. Londinium only has a mint for a comparatively short period of time in the late Roman period. Packed full of messages and valid across a vast empire stretching from Britain to Egypt, these amazing artefacts are a reminder of the importance of trade - the very reason Londinium was founded almost two thousand years ago.

If you would like to find out more about Roman coins watch the a short five-minute talk below.