Roman Coins from the Sacred Spring

The Roman Baths is lucky enough to have a massive collection of Roman coins. A great number of these come from the Sacred Spring (also known as the King's Bath), into which visitors to the site in Roman times would throw gifts to the goddess. These ranged from small personal items such as combs to flashier things like jewellery. But most of all, they threw in coins - lots of them. Over 12,000 were discovered at the bottom of the Spring in the 1970s, when a systematic excavation took place. It is thought that this does not represent that actual number of coins that were thrown in during Roman times, as cleaning and dredging operations in Roman times will inevitably have resulted in many coins being removed.

The display - a timeline of coins from the Sacred Spring - Roman Baths, King's Bath Corridor.
The Sacred Spring coins are an integral part of the Baths' collection, and not too long ago were installed in a shiny new display case in the King's Bath Corridor - metres from where they were found. The display format is a timeline: the earliest coin (minted before the Roman occupation of Britain) is located at the top, while at the bottom is one of the final coins to have been thrown into the Spring in the dying days of traditional Roman religion. 

The big advantage of this display format is that it helps visitors grasp the chronology of this unique site, which welcomed visitors and pilgrims for most of the Roman occupation of Britain - some 400 years.

Next to the coins themselves is a graph, showing how many coins of each emperor were found in the Spring. The numbers vary wildly: some emperors like Hadrian are represented by hundreds of coins. Other emperors are barely represented at all - especially in later times. 
This phenomenon prompted a lot of coin-related questions from visitors, who wanted to know why the coins of some emperors outnumber those of others so substantially. What puzzled people all the more was that even when two emperors reigned for an equal length of time, the coins of emperor X would still outnumber those of emperor Y.

In modern Britain, we're used to the face of only one ruler appearing on our coins: the Queen's. Most people thus have context for understanding why different reigns were represented in different proportions across the coinage in Roman times. With this in mind, I thought I'd dedicate a blog post to addressing these issues (at least in part...)
Lots of factors to do with the coins themselves and how people used them go into explaining why the number of surviving coins from emperor-to-emperor can vary so greatly...

First off, the really obvious answer: some emperors had really long reigns, so it stands to reason that their coins are going to outnumber those of other emperors who ruled for a shorter period of time! For example: Hadrian’s 20 year reign meant that the overall amount of coins he issued dwarfed the number issued by other less long-lived emperors. With that in mind, it makes sense that the number of surviving Hadrianic coins is so great in proportion to some other emperors.
But we shouldn’t think that an emperor will be well represented in museum collections and archaeological finds just because he was on the throne for quite a while, or minted lots of coins. There are external factors to consider.

One good explanation is that some emperors’ coins simply stood less chance of surviving than others. The coins of some emperors were more 'debased' than those of their successors or predecessors, which reduced their value. What does this mean? It means that when an emperor found himself strapped for cash, he or his mint administrators would order that base metal be added to the precious metal used to mint the coins. By diluting the precious metal mixture with iron, bronze, or tin, an emperor could produce more coins from technically the same amount of metal. Geddit? Of course, the deception didn't last for long, and people would cotton on pretty soon after the coins were released into circulation. This reduced confidence in the worth of the coinage.

Numerous emperors ordered 'debasement' to occur (for various reasons) but mainly because they found themselves needing to cover major expenditures but didn't have enough precious metal at their disposal to mint the necessary amount of coins in payment. What seems to have happened is many people stashed away older and purer coins for a 'rainy day',  but continued to use the new debased ones for day-to-day stuff. The result was that the older more valuable coins had an increased chance of survival, while the debased ones got lost, broken, or were chucked into the melting pot. Successive regimes also sporadically attempted to withdraw and melted down the less valuable coins of their predecessors to make sure that people did not continue to pull the nicer coins out of circulation and into their savings. Domitian certainly tried to do this (to a limited extent) with the coins of his father, brother, and their predecessors back to the time of Nero. For reasons such as this, certian coins stood less chance of making their way into the Spring and the historical record.

That's one possibility. Another factor to consider is that the supply of coins to different parts of the empire was sporadic and fluctuating. Let’s take Britain as an example, since that's where the Roman Baths are located, and since the Sacred Spring is thought to be a fairly reliable reflection of the monetary stock in Britain at the time. This allows us to see which types of coin/emperors were most represented in the money supply of the province.

Immediately following the conquest of the island in the 40s A.D., the supply of coins from the Continent is thought to have been minimal and intermittent, but picked up by the middle to late 100s A.D. What does this mean? It means that we see few coins from the reigns of Claudius (which, given their debased content, are the ones you'd expect people to want to throw into the Spring...) and Nero  - in fact, at this time, lots and lots of 'imitative' coins were created to make up for the lack of official specimens. On the other side of the coin (pardon the pun), better supply meant that we see plenty of second century specimens from the reigns of emperors like Hadrian or Antoninus. After the second century, regular 'imports' of coins are thought to have dropped off again, so coins after this time are less well represented, even though some of the emperors that issued them reigned for just as their counterparts from the second century. The reasons for such inconsistent supply are varied – war and conflict could disrupt the reliability of supply lines, and the demand for coins in a specific place may have had a large part to play in whether coins were shipped there in great numbers. There's also the fact that the Roman government did not consider it as it's duty to supply 'normal' people all over the empire with regular shipments of coin, to facilitate daily transactions.

There's also the fact that the Romans - over the 400 or so years that the Baths site was functioning - would have cleaned and dredged out the Sacred Spring. A natural feature such as this chucks up a great deal of silt and sediment, and if not properly maintained there's a risk it could become blocked, and disrupt the water supply to other pools on the site. Even today, the Spring is periodically drained and maintained for this purpose, amongst others. Take a look at the graph on the photo again - notice how the proportion of coins from later periods is much lower than those from earlier ones (indicated by the spikes on the graph)? Of course, the supply of coins in later periods was less regular than in earlier ones (as we saw above). But also, as the site continued to be used - and as layers of coins continued to build up - over generations, the earlier coins from the first three centuries would be sealed in the bottom layers of sediment, whereas more recent ones on uppermost layers would be swept away with each successive dredging.

NB: also, don't imagine that coins from the Sacred Spring look are nice and shiny. This is actually how most coins look after being excavated from deposits at the bottom of the Sacred Spring (especially base metal coins):

Sorting through a bag of several hundred first to third century A.D. coins in preparation for the installation of the Sacred Spring display.
The mineral-rich water that bubbles up in the Spring has attacked and correded the metal of the coins, to the extent that many retain no trace of their original design. Base metals (bronze, copper, alloys) are particularly vulnerable. 
As case-in-point, the bag pictured above contained hundreds of base metal coins from the Spring. Of these hundreds, this solitary dupondius of Domitian was the only one that had resisted corrosion (and even then, only one side of it - the reverse is badly corroded, indicating that it was the side in contact with the water):

Domitian dupondius: IMP CAES DOMIT AVG GERM COS XIII CENS PER P P. Bust of Domitian wearing radiate diadem.

These are my more-or-less incoherent thoughts, on a Saturday afternoon. I hope they're of some use! If anyone wants to know more about Roman coins, their supply, or anything else connected to them, please get in touch!

Ridiculous Portraits!

Inspired by a little Twitter conversation with Andrew Woods (numismatics, York museums), this blog is dedicated to those imperial portraits that seem so patently ridiculous that you wonder how on earth they were ever approved. And believe me, there are some stonkingly awful portraits of the emperors out there.*

Mostly, the coin portraiture of Rome’s first imperial dynasty (the so-called ‘Julio-Claudians’) is executed in fine style. Claudius’ and Nero’s official portraits are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful of the imperial period, and in some cases you really get a sense of what the ‘real’ man looked like (so good is the engraving; see below: aureus of Claudius).

When they went wrong, though, boy did they go wrong. There were lots and lots of imitations of Claudius’ official coins, often made by local people in response to a likely shortage of official coins. There’s also a case for saying lots of them were made by soldiers, too! If I was a forger (NB: I’m not) I’d want to make sure my forgeries passed for the real thing, or at least *looked* like the real thing. Maybe that wasn’t high on the forgers’ list of priorities, because their takes on Claudius’ official portrait were often, well, just take a look...

An official as of Claudius, with a fine portrait and Minerva reverse
...and the imitation of that coin (ok, I know this doesn't count as an 'official' portrait, but still). Even in newly-minted state, the portrait on the coin would have looked ridiculous!

Then there’s Nero, Claudius’ adopted son and successor. Nero was an art lover (his name later became a Roman byword for good taste), and the mastery of the engraver really comes through on some of his coin types. Even small details, such as Nero’s tousled hair, are finely picked out.


Nero got a little... porky. As the reign progresses, the portraiture on his coinage reflects the emperor's journey from a sprightly and handsome young Prince, to a globulous, sweaty mound of fat (the British Museum's Citi Money gallery has a wonderful display on just this theme). Slowly, the neck widens, the face becomes pudgier, and before you know it - bang! - Nero is just one big neck with a face. And all before he was 40.

The loss of Nero's chin! Left to right: from youthful prince to the podgy Henry VIII of the ancient world (from the Portable Antiquities website). 
 Here, we see the chinless wonder on a denarius. This coin celebrates Nero's survival of a plot against his life. Sadly, his chin had perished many moons before.

I don’t know about you, but if I was the most powerful man on the face of the earth, I’d want my 60 million-or-so subjects to see images of me that put me in good light. You know, with a chin. I’ll never fail to be amazed at how Nero’s later chinless portraits were officially approved. Yes, there’s always the ‘oh, but wasn’t being fat a sign of wealth in ancient times?’ argument, but still - how seriously do you expect your subjects (and scheming nobles) to take you when you can’t even command the willpower to own a chin? What confuses me even more is that Nero’s coins show him aging (and expanding) in this way, whereas those of his predecessors - and most of his successors - did not. Augustus, his venerable great-great-something, reigned for several decades, and his portraits display no aging at all.

Ridiculous portraits don’t die with Nero (who died none too pleasantly, may I add). After his death, there came a year of civil wars, which saw four claimants for the throne battle it out for power. One of these was Otho. Take a look at his portrait on this coin:

 Fashion crime: look at Otho's 'hair': what's odd?

No, you’re not imagining it. Wig. Toupé. Hairpiece. Call it what you like, this would-be emperor of the Romans allowed his alopecia to be broadcast far and wide on the coinage.  Why, I will never fathom, but I’m convinced his defeat was almost solely down to his stonkingly bad hairpiece. The reverse of this coin celebrates the Securitas Otho offered the Roman people, but who amongst the Romans would want the protection a man who couldn't even guarantee the securitas of his own hair? Suetonius, one of our main sources for this period, tells us that Otho had his whole body depilated, and that his wig was apparently so well fitted that nobody suspected its existence! Suetonius, you need glasses; Otho’s wig is as awful (and obvious) as the worst-fitted elderly gentleman's’ today. Sort it out.

After the civil war of 69 A.D., came Vespasian. Mostly, Flavian (Vespasian's family name) portraits are well-executed, and can be strikingly beautiful. I’ve even heard the term ‘Flavian Baroque’ used to describe the complex quality of the artistry displayed on some of these portraits. And rightly so - take a look at Vespasian on this as:

Vespasian was a tough, frugal, penny-pinching soldier from humble tax-collecting Italian stock. Looking at his sagging jowls and scrunched-up frown you’d think the coin engravers were deliberately making him look as ugly as possible. Silly as he might look to us, the reasoning behind this style of portrait is far clearer than that behind the ridiculous images of Nero and Otho. To the Romans, a face covered in lines and frown marks signified dignity, authority, and respectability - just the qualities Vespasian was trying to re-associate with the emperorship after the chaos following Nero’s death and the civil war. Not so silly after all!

Disappointingly, much of the post-Flavian second century A.D. is dominated by entirely sensible portraits that are hard to mock. Thankfully, though, this period isn't entirely devoid of portraits that make you wince. Take a look at this image of the Empress Plotina on a denarius:
 Yes, this *is* a woman

You’d be fooled into thinking this coin doesn’t depict a respected imperial lady, but a man in drag. Plotina was the (frankly, rather boring) wife of the emperor Trajan. It seems the only way the mint thought it could communicate this fact was by modelling her features so closely on her husband’s (notice the mouth, nose, and jowls, and compare to Trajan the coin below) that, to you and me, she looks just like Trajan in a dress and huge, ridiculous hairpiece. If I was Plotina, I’d be pretty pissed off. But she was too much of a boring goody-two shoes to leave any trace of her displeasure in the historical record.
Further ridiculousness is found in Maximinus, emperor toward the middle of the troubled third century. He was meant to be a giant of a man (eight feet high according to one account!), rising to the imperial throne by virtue of his reputation as a fearsome fighter. One source (Herodian) tells us he was a “man of such frightening appearance and colossal size that there is no obvious comparison to be drawn with any of the best-trained Greek athletes or warrior elite of the barbarians”. Going by his official portraiture on the coins, I agree with Herodian on the 'frightening appearance' part:

 Maximinus: it appears the Chin dynasty had a Roman offshoot

Unlike Nero, Maximinus had chin in abundance. Can you imagine meeting him? It'd be such an elephant in the room. You'd want to point and shout at it like Austin Powers did to that man with the unfortunate mole on his face. But, since by all accounts Maximinus could crush your skull in the palm of his hand, it would probably have been a good idea not to make fun of the chin.

Maybe Maximinus was pleased with his look on the coins - he might've thought the pronounced chin made him look tough. I mean, why else would you approve an image like that if you didn't like it? Then again, he might've been too busy chinning people to notice. I’m minded of Chuck Norris, as depicted in Family Guy:

Maximinus, the ancient world’s Chuck Norris? NB: the Roman state was in no way affiliated with Fox.

Anyway, moving on... in the the period after Maximinus and his chums, imperial portraiture by-and-large becomes more stylised. In other words, portraits begin to depict the ideal emperor, rather than an attempt to represent the man as he appeared in real life.

  Not that these 'idealised' portraits couldn't look silly from time to time: here, a block-headed Galerius from the late third century A.D.

Occasionally there are some even more wonderful relapses into silliness. Take this portrait of Licinius I:

Licinius I: the love child of Kim Jong-Un and Wayne Rooney?

Face-on portraits were very rare occurrences on Roman coins, and would remain so for some time. You can see why. The engraver has tried to show the emperor full-on, but in reality his face has just been widened. Not flattering. Forget the political and military squabbling: maybe offensive images like this are the reason Constantine I had Licinius (his co-emperor for a time) brutally murdered.

Moving forward a few years, most of the emperors of Constantine’s family and era employed portraits more-or-less along these lines (though subtle differences did exist between them):

However, one of the glorious exceptions to this rule comes in the form of Magentius, a rebel general who tried to grab the throne for himself in the 350s A.D. I’ve saved this one until last; all the stupid Neronian chins and Othonian wigs couldn’t rival the ridiculousness of Magentius. Just look:

The eyes! The hair! The monobrow!
In all honesty, he scares me a little. It must be the stare. I suppose the big, big eyes are something to do with the rise of Christianity; I know in other art of this period, people are shown with enlarged eyes - windows onto the soul - and that this was an extremely important part of Christian art. But still - and here an element of the old adage 'times change but values remain the same' comes in - he looks ridiculous, and I defy anyone who believes people at the time didn't find this double-chinned, mulleted fool completely hilarious. Imagine coming into contact these coins for the first time: this style of portrait is so radically different to those that came before it that people can't not have found it hilarious!

One of the funny things about images of Magnentius is that they all follow broadly the same lines (silly hair, eyes, etcetera) but display slight stylistic variations that imbue his various portraits with perceptibly different 'emotions':

Pouty Magnentius...
...angry Magentius!...
...and my favourite: rectal-examination-surprised-face-Magnentius.

But above all, there's no beating his surviving portrait head. It takes the ridiculous biscuit and gobbles it right up:

Jabba the Magnentius
This roster of ridiculous imperial coin portraits is by no means comprehensive, but the product of my slightly deranged and sleep deprived post-thesis brain. Comment if you think of any that deserve inclusion!


* This is not an 'academic' blog, but light-hearted fun. Leave any academic tenancies on the coatstand by the door as you come in.


Ooops. I've rather allowed this blog to fall to the wayside. Sorry, blog. Promise I won't abandon you again. The radio silence has not been down to laziness on my part! 

First, I'm trying to write (read: make a hash of) my thesis. Deadlines loom, so little side projects like this have been slightly forgotten.

Second - and more interesting - I've been up to fun/constructive things, prime among which was the time I got to call this place home for a week:

NB: Didn't actually live *in* the museum.

I spent what was possibly the anorak-iest week of my life (and believe me, there've been many) based in the Dept. Coins and Medals learning about all aspects of Medieval world coinages from resident curators and invited experts. It was really, really fun. We set the tone of the week by striking our very own English medieval long-cross pennies on some replica dies the department owns. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance (been dying to have a go at striking coins the traditional way) and got a coin to take home with me.

Apart from jollying round with replica dies, we (the 9 other people present on the course) were given a week of really informative talks, workshops, and gallery tours. I was really keen to attend the medieval week, as my deeper knowledge of medieval coins isn't that fantastic. What better way to increase your knowledge of a subject area than to be introduced to it by museums service experts? Talks ranged on subjects from medieval English coins, to Byzantine coins (thanks to Euridyce Georganteli for a great lecture via Skype from Harvard!), to museums practice, conservation, and display design. 

One of my big 'goals' for the week was to understand more about the connection between the late Roman monetary system and those that followed it. I wasn't disappointed! We had an excellent talk (courtesy of Cambridge's Rory Naismith), which focused on the early medieval coinages of Europe (esp. England) from c.600-1000. It was great to handle some really early Saxon pennies, and to see how some early English kings portrayed themselves on their coins. 

One especially interesting coin, minted around 1003-09 (which we got to handle!), showed a Æthelred the Unready in the style of a third century Roman emperor. 

Spot the similarities! Æthelred (gold coin) is shown with the spear, scale armour, pelleted shield and helmet/radiate crown combination first seen on this coin of Probus over 700 years before! 

What amazed me about this was how this design, over half a century after it was issued by the Romans,  still resonated with the Saxons of England, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. If anything, little windows onto the past like this show how we shouldn't always be so tempted to neatly slice up history into distinct eras. There's always a bleed-through between periods.

This was just one of the talks we were treated to. At the opposite end of the spectrum were a couple of workshops given on medieval Islamic and Indian coins. I'd never gone out of my way to research them, but I will in future. One fascinating fact I learned was that Muslim rulers were more than happy to put aside religious beliefs when it came to the coinage. In India, they routinely put aside the Muslim prohibition on images and portrayed local gods on their coins to appeal to non-Islamic locals. In their lands around the Mediterranean, Muslim rulers there were also happy to reject the ban on images if practicality demanded it - proof, if ever it were needed, they weren't the fanatics they're often unkindly made out to be. When establishing their own gold coinage, for instance, Arab rulers directly imitated the Christian designs found on Byzantine coins of the same date. Why? Byzantine solidi were the dollars of their time, accepted everywhere. In imitating their designs, these new Muslim rulers were telling the world their gold coins were just as reliable and acceptable as Byzantine ones. 

Aside from talks (I shan't talk about all of them - we'd be here all year!), we were treated to some trips. On Tuesday, we got to visit the Tower of London's Mint Street Project. Basically, the Mint used to be sited within the walls of the ToL, and the team there have sought to recreate it on its original location using some amazing objects and really fun interactive displays. The lead curator, Megan Gooch, gave us a great talk on how this new project came to be, and that its aim was to transport the visitor back in time - to get a feel for what the Mint would have been like over its 500 years at the Tower.

... it lived up to expectations! Some amazing objects were on hand to give a sense of the materials the mint was working with, including dies, coins, sheets of precious metal (waiting to be struck into coins), and other minting paraphenalia. They even re-created the furnace in which metals were melted! 

medieval long cross dies

sheet metal

The exhibition was also centred around the stories attached to the mint, as well as the objects themselves. Thus, as soon as you arrive, you're greeted by a set of carts, tables, bags of money in the street outside the mint. It's not immediately apparent what they're there for, until you go inside and look out of the window.

The window is actually a projector, and plays you a recreation of a scene some 700 years before, as mint staff process the recently arrived ransom of France's King John II (captured by the English at Poitiers in 1356). The ransom was massive, and the mint was expected to recoin it into English coins. This window was amazing, and shows the mint men scurrying around the street with chests of coins almost like you were looking out at the scene as it happened.

You really should visit the Mint Street Project if you can. It's fascinating. 

The final highlight to our week was a free 9am visit to the brilliant exhibition on life in Pompeii. It, too, is fascinating, and you should go! Much of the stuff on display has never been seen in Britain before.

I can only thank all the people at the Department of Coins and Medals for a thoroughly enjoyable and informative week!


Monuments, Reconstruction and Numismatics

The other day, someone at the museum asked me if the Romans ever showed anything other than gods and goddesses on their coins. The answer, of course, is yes. Some of the most interesting images they placed on the coinage are those of buildings and monuments from around Rome and the empire.

Predicament: want to know how the ancient city of Rome looked? Harder than it sounds. Thanks to hundreds of years of dilapidation, incorporation into other structures, neglect, robbery, and adaptation, many of ancient Rome’s most famous monuments are either long gone, or in a state of great ruination.

Solution: to reconstruct much of ancient Rome’s original appearance, it is to the coins contained in museum collections that we can turn. In the images of ancient buildings and monuments on coins, we possess some of the only remaining depictions of their appearance and grandeur.

In the cases of some long disappeared structures, coins are our only remaining record of their appearance. The Baths possesses many coins that show this exactly. Some of my favourites are a couple of Neronian coins:

The first is this wonderful sestertius (below) -  one of my favourite in the collection - which shows the triumphal arch Nero erected for himself after successful Roman military campaigns against the Parthians in Mesopotamia and Armenia. Problem is, the arch is long gone, and without the evidence of this coin, we’d have no clue at all as to how it once looked. I really like the way the engraver tried to give the viewer an idea of the dimensions of the arch by showing one of its sides. Usually buildings were simply shown front-on; Nero’s reign saw some really beautiful designs, and the employment of some top engravers.

Nero's triumphal arch shown on a sestertius

One of the best things about coins like this is not only that they show what a building’s dimensions were (as in the case of the arch), but how greatly ornamented Roman public structures could be. One glance at this sestertius shows that on the empty niches and pedestals that today fill the remains of Roman public buildings once stood statues and works of art. The quality of engraving here is so high, in fact, that we can see a statue of Mars (nude, with spear) once occupied a niche on the arch’s side, that other statues stood at the each corner of the attic, and that the whole was topped by a bronze sculptural group showing Nero in his triumphal chariot, flanked by two Victories holding palm leaves (ancient symbols of victory). These details are simply lost from remaining triumphal arches today, and it is with coins such as these that we get a good sense of their original magnificence.

Take another look at the coin. You’ll notice that between the springs of the arch is draped a  garlanded festoon (an arrangement of flowers, foliage or fruit bound together and suspended by ribbons), with which buildings were decorated on important festive occasions like triumphs. It is common to see buildings on coins decorated in this way, and you get the feeling that engravers really wanted to evoke peoples' memories of these structures as they would have seen them on festival days and holidays. An effort really was taken to show buildings at their most pristine. Temples, too, are very often shown with their doors flung open, as on public religious holidays (see the temple coin below).

 Temple on a denarius of Faustina I

The second Neronian coin is this dupondius (below). Again, we know that Nero erected a  monumental macellum (marketplace) in Rome, but it too has long vanished. You can't see them here, but on nicer issues of this coin the whole building is decorated in... yep - more festoons. The sources are sketchy on its appearance, and as I said, the building itself has since been lost, buried, and built over. Were it not for this coin, we’d have no idea it was a massive two storey colonnaded structure, with what looks to be a central rotunda. Is that background colonnade just one side of a colonnaded courtyard, with the rotunda standing in the middle of it? That's likely - maybe Nero's macellum was a grander version of an earlier one situated in Leptis Magna, North Africa (see picture below the coin).

Neronian sestertius showing his newly constructed macellum, from the Roman Baths collection

How Nero's Rome macellum may have looked on a smaller scale (shown: Leptis Magna macellum). Notice the two rotunda-like structures in the middle of the colonnaded court. 

I could mention other coins - not in the collection at Bath - that show how richly ornamented Roman public buildings could be. A number of coins depicting the Colosseum show how the archways and exterior walls of this now gaunt and shattered structure were once filled with statuary and other decorations. Over one of the ceremonial/VIP entrances, it is even possible to see a bronze chariot and rider statue group once took pride of place. Were it not for these coins, we’d probably only be able to guess at how the Colosseum was once decorated (below).

Colosseum sestertius minted by Titus from the British Museum. Shows statues filling the tiers of arches,  the uppermost level decorated alternately with windows and shields, and a triumphal chariot occupying pride of place over one of the entrance arches

Coins can also settle arguments! I’ve heard it said that the frieze that winds its way up Trajan’s column (which depicts the emperor’s war of conquest in Dacia, modern Romania) may have been added after his death. Oh, how wrong they were. Obviously, these historians had never actually taken the time to consult contemporary images of the column itself before speculating! I was able to pull this denarius of Trajan out of the collection, which clearly shows that in Trajan’s day the column was already covered in its winding decorative frieze.

You can clearly see the frieze winding its way up the coulmn in this picture of the coin

Partial view of the frieze, which documents Trajan's war of conquest in Dacia, winding its way round the column.

There’s another - and final - coin to show you. To my knowledge, the Baths only possesses one quite worn example of this sestertius issued by Trajan (below). This is a rare example of a coin showing a structure not in Rome.

Trajan's bridge over the Danube shown on a sestertius from the Roman Baths collection. Quite worn...

... so here's a better preserved example (not from the Baths).

The structure is Trajan's bridge. I’ve put a comparatively nice example (from the internet) alongside so you can see how the Baths’ coin would have looked originally. The biggest event of Trajan’s reign was a massive war of revenge-cum-conquest against the Dacians, a nation north of the Danube river. In order to actually get there, he built a bridge. A big one - one of the longest of pre-industrial history, in fact. Only a few piers of this massive structure remain today (see picture below) but it is reckoned that this coin shows the sum of Trajan’s bridge building efforts in all their glory. At each end is a ceremonial triumphal-style arch, topped with statuary.

This rubble wall is all that remains of one of the massive stone piers that carried Trajan's bridge across the River Danube (seen in the background).

This coin is also a lesson in how coins are sometimes not that useful in ascertaining a monument’s original appearance. Because of the limitations placed upon design by the smallness of a coin, really large structures were often be depicted in stylised form, with their most significant decorative elements most blown up in size at the cost of the rest. The bridge over the Danube was supported on dozens of stone piers, but here is shown as a single span, disproportionately dominated at each end by its elaborate arches. The coin evidence, showing how each end of the bridge was ornamented, complements and works alongside the remaining evidence of multiple bridge piers still in situ to give us a good idea of what the bridge looked like before being dismantled.

One section of the bridge reconstructed to full original size

These are only a few examples from a few coins. I  wanted to work as much as possible within the evidence presented by the coin collection here at Bath, but there are so many more interesting architectural types that you can look at and learn from!


The Beau Street Hoard - Public Consultation

The Beau Street Hoard project is coming along nicely. A recent entry on the Baths blog ( tells you how the design of displays, signs, and a programme of events surround the Hoard is now taking shape.

Part of the planning process is public consultation. The idea behind this is that the museum takes to the streets, and asks the public exactly what it would like to know about the Hoard. Obviously, acquiring this information means the Baths are able to design displays and events that are far more informative, interesting and enjoyable. Doing this is a really key part of the grant application made to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), who  will assess whether the Beau Street Hoard project is to be given funding. Besides, I quite like the idea that museums, as well as relying on in-house expertise, ask the public what they would like to be seeing; to my mind this sort of thing is in keeping with the core values of a museum, and I’d like to see more of it.

So, how do you ask people questions about something they’ve never seen (and in many cases - heard of) before? After all, apart from a small temporary display of some of the coins at the Baths, the Hoard has never been seen in public. Solution: take the coins with us! I took this picture of the display table at our most recent public consultation. The smiley Jenn, just to the right, was on hand with questionnaires. Our clever ploy was to draw members of the public close with the promise of glinty coins, and to take advantage of their subsequent interest by asking if they’d fill a consultation questionnaire.

I presented some of the coins alongside information and pictures regarding its discovery, history, and conservation

So far, I’ve taken part in all three of our public consultations. The first was a handling and information table laid on for Museums at Night (about which I blogged - see earlier entries!), which was really fun. I was on hand to provide information about the coins and their history, and to address any questions. Once they’d taken a look at the coins, we asked visitors if they’d mind filling in a questionnaire asking them all sorts of questions regarding what they’d like to know about the hoard come exhibition time. A couple of weeks ago, we took a condensed version of the Museums at Night display table out of the museum and planted ourselves in the entrance lobby of Bath and North East Somerset Council’s One Stop Shop. Here, we took advantage of the building's high footfall to lasso visitors into filling in more of our questionnaires!

The third, and most recent, public consultation took place last week (12th June). We repeated our display once again, and plonked ourselves firmly near the entrance of an unrelated event in another shameless attempt to take advantage of footfall.

It was a success, and as a result of our consultations we now have lots of completed questionnaires. I personally spoke to people with backgrounds in museums, marketing and fundraising, whose completed surveys and feedback will be really very useful.

Alongside the obvious questions, we also asked people if they knew of any existing events that it’d be good to take the Hoard to, as part of a coins ‘roadshow’. As the project is (hopefully!) to be Heritage Lottery Funded, we also wanted to get an idea of how many lottery contributors/players showed an interest. Perhaps you’d like to contribute? The questions were:

1. What stories/information would you like to see when the coins go on display at The Roman Baths?

Some of the things you might want to think about:
-Where they were found/who buried them
-The science/technology used to conserve them
-Do you like to read text panels or see audio/visual (e.g., moving images/film/sound) interpretation, or a bit of both?
-Do you want to see all the coins, or a selection?
-Do you want to know what they were/are worth?
-Would you like to know what you could buy with them in Roman Britain?
-Anything else?

2. Are you local (includes former Avon counties, Somerset and Wiltshire)? Do you have a Discovery Card?
3. Are there any community events you think we should take the coins to?
4. Do you know a group that would like a talk on it?

5.Do you buy a lottery ticket?


'Just Like Us'? What Roman coins can tell us

One of the things that really niggles me when people talk about the Romans is the oft-uttered line ‘they were just like us, weren’t they?’. Popular culture (need I refer you to The Life of Brian's 'what have the Romans done for us!?' sketch) has certainly played on this stereotype, as has more informative general-access stuff like Adam Hart-Davis’ What the Romans Did for Us on the BBC.

‘Just like us’, then? Well, in some ways, yes. But it pays to give a moment’s thought to the differences. And, to be honest, I’m not really sure that there’s an agreed definition of ‘Us’ - I suppose it means the culture and country the speaker happens to be from.

Like any other people, country, or culture either today or in the past, the Romans weren’t ‘just like’ anybody. Similar in some instances, yes, but different too. And those differences are just as revealing. It's nice to see that nowadays the tide is turning, and the historical fashion (esp. in popular access stuff) is to emphasise how different the Romans were, as well as their similarities to us. Mary Beard's book and programme Pompeii, for instance, tired to get the viewer to establish a more human connection with the Romans, but pointed to some really key differences as a reminder that we can't say they were 'just like us' in every way.

Working with the Baths’ collection of Roman coins, I’ve seen the wide range of the designs the Roman government thought appropriate to put on their money. First, the similarities: it is true that Roman coins informed the ‘look and feel’ of our coins today. Take a look at a modern pound coin (I’m British, so this is my natural example, but many other modern currencies operate on the same lines):

For one thing, the Queen is shown in the manner of most Roman emperors: in profile, magisterial, and wearing her crown (in some of her early coins, the Queen even wears a Roman-style laurel wreath in place of the crown). Her titles are shown in abbreviated Latin, much as the Romans did on their coins. All English monarchs from the Anglo Saxon period to the modern day used Latin on their money. Even the dotted ring around the edge is an echo of Roman coins: in those days, it acted as a way to prevent people clipping slivers of precious metal off the coin. Nowadays, it's just decorative. This is not a comprehensive list, but you get the idea.

But these are quite superficial similarities, and are largely concerned with the appearance of a coin. The underlying attitudes and mindset that informed which images were placed on the coinage, however, are quite different. When we look at Roman coin designs, we can see that beneath an outward appearance of similarity, there existed a government - and possibly a wider population - with a set of core values really quite different from our own.

Clearly, the Romans considered coin designs showing acts of extreme violence perfectly acceptable. Take a look at the coin below. It shows the emperor (Trajan), on horseback, about to kill his prey. What makes this scene interesting, though, is that the prey happens to be a human being: a barbarian he’s chased down and is about to spear. The legend around the edge even makes clear that this sort of nastiness is what was associated with a good emperor: SPQR OPTIMO PRINCIPI. Optimo Principi: ‘The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this] to the Best of Emperors’.

Vespasian - builder of the Colosseum - issued a very famous set of coins (see below) celebrating his defeat of a rebellion led by the Jews in Judaea (modern Israel and Palestine). Designs variously show the emperor in armour standing over a weeping and bound personification of the Jewish nation, or  Jewish captives bound and hunched below a trophy made of captured arms and armour. The legend IVDAEA CAPTA roughly translates as ‘Judaea conquered’. This reminds me a little of that big ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner George W. Bush draped across the control tower of the USS Abraham Lincoln as he declared the Iraq mission formally over in 2003. In its victory, though, the U.S. did not glory in images of dead Iraqis, and it even (but for by-standers with camera phones) tried to avoid images of Saddam Hussein’s execution being released. What I find remarkable about these coins is that they unashamedly glorify the killing and enslavement not just of the leaders of the Jewish rebellion - the 'bad guys' - but of the whole Judaean people. In modern parlance we would classify what the Romans did in Judaea a genocide; an historian (Josephus, The Jewish War) of the time recorded how Vespasian and his army descended on the towns and cities they met on their march to confront the rebels. When he reached one, called Gabara, he behaved in a way typical of ancient warfare, “putting to the sword all except small children, the Romans showing no mercy to neither young nor old... he burnt down not only the town itself but all the hamlets and villages around. Some he found completely abandoned; from others he carried off the occupants as slaves”. These were terror tactics, carried out on non-combatants to cow them into submission. But here they are, celebrated on coins, without any thought given to the fact that innocents had been murdered in the course of the war, or that survivors of it might have seen these (by our standards, insensitive) designs.

Roman coins were not ‘just like’ ours - they might have looked similar (head on one side, nationalistic designs on the other, etc), but they gave off very powerful, and (to our sensibilities) shocking messages. To my knowledge (and for whatever historical reasons) showing the king or queen, in military stance, killing enemies has never really been a feature of British coins - from the Anglo-Saxon period to the modern day. Certainly today, such designs would be considered out of the question. Far from being ‘just like' our own, Roman coins are distinct in that their designs reflected a mindset that saw the killing of foreigners, and the subjugation of free peoples, as a good thing that warranted a good degree of boasting. Given the multicultural nature of the Roman Empire, you have to wonder at how a Jew in Rome would have felt when he saw a coin depicting his countrymen being imprisoned, enslaved and killed. Factors like this were evidently not taken into account.

My final example has to be my favourite Roman coin of all. This coin is much later than the ones I’ve talked about above, but no less relevant. It shows the a soldier (possibly the emperor), armed to the teeth, triumphantly standing over a barbarian mid-way through falling from his crippled horse. The practically unarmed barbarian  looks up - terrified - at his impending doom. The emperor ignores his pleas, and is about to plunge his spear into the barbarian’s chest. Pretty nasty. The legend around the edge says it all: 'FEL TEMP REPARATIO' (in full: ‘FELicium TEMPorum REPARATIO): ‘the happy days are back!’.

This coin is one that - more than any of the others - shows that the Roman mindset could be very, very different from our own, and that people should think twice before saying the Romans were ‘just like us’. Coins, one of the most abundant pieces of evidence to come down to us from Roman times, can help banish this presumption.

...All of that, from some coins boxed up in the back-room of a museum.


Museums at Night 2013: The Beau Street Hoard

This week saw museums around the country inviting visitors in after hours, putting on extra shows and displays, and generally having a bit of fun - all for Museums at Night. 

As part of my contribution to the Museums at Night effort, I did a display on the Beau Street Hoard. This collection of 17,577 Roman coins was found in a stone-lined box beneath the floor of an Roman building during a routine pre-construction archaeological excavation in 2007. A hotel now stands on the site of the discovery.

As soon as archaeologists realised they had a hoard on their hands, they removed the fused-together block of soil and coins and shipped it straight to the British Museum. There, it underwent lots of conservation work, which is now nearing completion.

There are so many things that could be said about the Beau Street Hoard, so I'll try to limit myself! While at the BM, it was x-radiographed so that conservators and archaeologists could take see how the layers of coins inside the excavated block were arranged. Everyone was surprised (and pleased!) with the images that came out. In the image below (taken from my table), you can see the x-radiograph of the hoard block on the left. If you look closely, you'll see that the coins aren't all jumbled together, but separated into eight clumps. With much excitement, it became plain that this was a hoard composed of several bags of coins... which were still there!

The hoard was then picked apart and deconstructed, bag by bag. As each bag was lifted from the block it was photographed and examined. It was presumed that the leather bags themselves would have long decomposed, and that all we were seeing was the coins within them fused together into lumps. To a great extent that was true, but...'s one of the bags. The dirty brown stuff still covering the coins of this bag isn't soil. It's the original leather! 

The bags were then picked apart, and the coins cleaned up so numismatists could provide identifications. Most of the coins are called antoniniani, but amongst them were a fair number of earlier, purer coins with a higher silver content. These coins (called denarii) were the main silver currency before the antoninianus was introduced, and by the time of the hoard's deposition they were much sought after because of the higher amount of silver they contained. Bag 6 was really fascinating, because whoever put the hoard together had the sense to wholly fill this bag with denarii. This would've been a convenient bag to grab if the owner(s) of the hoard found they had to leave Bath in a hurry and didn't have time to load the rest of the coins onto a cart! Sadly, they didn't even get to do that. Their loss is our gain, I suppose...

The British Museum ran an interesting blog on the care and conservation of the hoard, which is well worth a look: 

My table was all about delivering information and news about the hoard to visitors. Although it has spent most of its life in a vault somewhere underneath London, I was surprised at how many people had heard quite a bit about it.

Among the items on display were some uncleaned coins, so that people could handle them and get a sense of what the coins typically looked like when they came out of the ground. In the background was also a slideshow with pictures of the excavation of the hoard in action - Bathonian visitors in particular understandably loved the idea that such a large body of coins had been found on their collective doorstep.
Sample of some uncleaned coins for visitors to handle
Examples of some shinier cleaned coins were also on the table for visitors to gaze at. No matter how many times I repeated the fact, people found it hard to accept that they could clean up so well after years in Bath's claggy soil. These are what people are admiring in the photo below!

A favourite of many visitors to the table was that the hoard contained two silver denarii minted by the famous Marc Antony, all the way back in 31-32 B.C. When they considered the hoard was deposited around the 270s-80s A.D., this meant these denarii were still around 300 years after being minted! To put it into context for people I said that the denarius hadn't been a valid coin for years by the time of the hoard, so that'd be like finding the odd George III penny in your change today. Their relatively high silver content meant these coins had probably been pulled from circulation by the owner for savings, rather than being used to buy things at the shops.
The hoard was declared treasure and, as such, the Baths needs to raise a considerable sum of money to buy it back from the government. This will hopefully be done with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. At present, the first stage of Heritage Lottery money has been awarded the Baths; when the second stage of funding comes, it will be used to fund the display and use of the hoard within the museum and in events around the Bath and North East Somerset area.
We hoped that in displaying coins from the hoard before its arrival in Bath, we would be able to ask visitors to the Museums at Night event what they thought about the hoard itself, what they would like to see done with it, and what more they'd like to know about. That way, we can gauge what sorts of shows and events to put on when the museum acquires the hoard. In that vein, I was joined by Catherine, a PhD student from Bath Spa University, who asked visitors to fill in our survey. We incentive-ised them with the reward of a chocolate gold coin!

Catherine surveying visitors

All in all, a really worthwhile display. I'm really looking forward to the hoard's arrival!


And Finally...

...the Roman Baths made for an excellent night time venue, and visitors got to experience some excellently recreated historical music. Michael Levy, an expert in ancient music, played his recreated  ancient lyre and filled the area around the Temple Pediment display with music (

Aside from the jazz band situated at the east end of the Great Bath, my absolute favourite act was Waytes and Measures, who treated us to a good three hours of authentic Medieval music on their wonderfully recreated instruments ( My favourite instrument was the fabulously named 'Hurdy Gurdy', which is a sort of Medieval one-man band (imagine Bert from Mary Poppins, but in hose) - a mix of keyboard and violin/fiddle with a turn handle.

 Jazz musicians by the Great Bath
 Waytes and Measures mid-perfomance