Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1993: The Interpretation of Roman Coins – Practice and Theory (pp. 200–212)
The interpretation of Roman coins – practice and theory
Numismatics, together with epigraphy, provided the framework
for the earliest syntheses of the Roman world from Gibbon and on into
the nineteenth century. Historians such as Theodor Mommsen used the
copious evidence from Roman coins to construct the first modern analytical explanations of Roman imperialism. The reasons for this are as obvious now as they were then – Roman coins are readily identifiable artefacts; they were decorated with persons, scenes, and events from the real
and mythological worlds; we can arrange them into tight chronological
sequences; and their function is well known. While those interpretations
of the Roman empire and its provinces that originated in the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries could hardly have been anything other than
products of their times,1 the field of numismatics remains rooted in these
traditions over a century later. 2
The recent debate regarding the usefulness of Romanisation as a model
for interpreting Roman Britain provides a valuable counter-balance to
the established Romano-centric view.3 In the field of numismatics such
alternative perspectives are not part of the research agenda with the re-THE IN1ERPRETA nON OF ROMAN COINS 201
suIt that the study of Roman coins occurs solely from the point of view of
the producer, the Roman state and establishment, rather than the general
population who represent the users of coins.4 It is the aim of this paper to
examine two aspects of the devolution of archaeology and numismatics.
First, I will explore the reasons behind the isolation enjoyed by Roman
numismatists and highlight some of the anachronisms that survive remarkably intact today. Second, I shall attempt to show how Roman coins
might contribute to the archaeological study of Roman Britain and indeed can provide a valuable test of Romanisation as a model of cultural
and social integration. In dealing with the second issue under examination, coin finds from the third century have been selected as the area of
study. This is partly because the third century produces significantly
greater numbers of coin finds than the earlier centuries, but mainly
because it provides the opportunity to look back at Romanisation and
question to what extent the circumstances of the third century were a
result of processes underway in the first and second. The aim is to use the
third century to identify the effects of earlier cultural interactions where
possible and thereby isolate the processes (explicit and implicit) of
change that occurred during the conquest and initial occupation.
PROGRESS AND DIRECTIONALITY
If the archaeological study of Roman Britain and the study of Roman
coins have grown further and further apart over the last century or so,
this is due to the fact that while archaeological theory has tried to integrate ideas from other social sciences in order to pose questions more
relevant to the contemporary world, numismatics has preserved a far
more conservative tradition. As the validity of the orthodox view of
Roman Britain is being increasingly challenged, many of the prejudices
and assumptions that have been the focus of archaeological debate continue to influence the study of Roman coins.
The most obvious expression of orthodox survival is in the question of
the function of Roman coins in Britain. It is almost impossible to find an
interpretation of coins as anything other than money whose primary use
was as the means of exchange throughout the empire.6 The main reason
for this is that coins are a familiar class of object for us today when they
are used widely and exclusively as money. Therefore, the basis of almost
the entire study of Roman coins is simply and fundamentally derived
from the extrapolation of function from the modern to ancient worlds.
This is the legacy of Mornmsen’s great numismatic work, Geschichte des 202 P. GUEST
Tomischen Miinzwesens published in 1860, in which he laid the foundations
of the analytical study of Roman monetary history.7
However, for the moment it is safe to presume that the conclusion is a
correct interpretation of the past, even if the methodological principles
themselves are flawed. Here we begin to see at what point archaeological
and numismatic studies diverged from one another as the practice of reverse extrapolation for Roman coinage embodies the same two attitudes
that have plagued Romanisation as a process itself, namely progression
and directionality. The tendency throughout the twentieth century has
been to view the Roman period as a positive episode in our history that
brought many civilising changes to the population of Britain.8 Unfortunately, this is a conspicuously two-dimensional perception of history
with past, present, and future fixed on the same line of historical progression.
9 This linearity assumes that social history possesses a tendency
towards increasing complexity and that our most complex societies at the
end of the twentieth century have developed at the end of a long series of
These deterministic models of history progressing from then to now (or
them to us) ignore the influence of variation (historical accident or chance)
and the complexities of human societies that need to be emphasised in
order to create more representative three-dimensional histories. At this
point there is much to be learnt from the current debates within other
natural sciences that are also questioning the progressive perspective.
Acknowledging other perspectives and the effects of historical variation
goes some way towards balancing the notion of historical progression,
but consequently undermines the theoretical basis of the orthodox model
of Roman archaeology and, more specifically, coin use in the Roman
PRACTICE: SECURITY OF MEANING
The premise that Roman coins were used by the population of Roman
Britain primarily as a form of money still stands, despite the theoretical
basis having been shown to be methodologically invalid. But even a
stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. If Roman objects could
have had numerous functions within Iron-Age Europe, the possibility
also exists that Roman coins were imbued with a variety of meanings
depending on when and where they were used and by whom12 Understanding that a variety of meanings could have been perceived in the
ancient world weakens the conclusion that coins could only have func-203
tioned as money throughout the empire. Similar arguments have been
made in the past, perhaps most succinctly by Sture Bolin (1958, 15) when
A present-day institution can, of course, trace its descent directly
from an ancient institution and retain the same outward appearance without necessarily having the same functions. In the course
of development its functions may wholly or partly have changed
Bolin was a much under-rated numismatist whose doubts about the
use of coins as a means of exchange in the Greek and Roman worlds
went beyond the speculative.13 Since these words were written, very little
attention has been paid to Bolin’s opposition to the orthodox interpretation of coins, which remains largely unchallenged, hardly altered since
Mommsen’s day. The user remains conspicuously absent from current
numismatic studies, particularly in the northern provinces of Europe incorporated into the empire between the first centuries Be and AD. I can
think of only a handful of instances of a numismatist directly asking how
people might have reacted to Roman coins or assessing the impact that
using such an obviously Roman object must have had upon the cultures
of a new province’s native population.14
Qualification requires quantification and here the numismatist is better
served by the archaeological record than many other specialists. In fact,
the numismatist has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to material available for study, with many thousands of coins recovered from
sites and hoards. However, even in a field that is an obvious candidate
for wider archaeological interpretation, coins from excavations and
hoards have been used mainly as indicators of the economic fortunes of a
settlement or region, however cautiously this has been attempted 15 This
assumes that Roman coins contained a certain security of meaning that I
suggest is largely deceptive, methodologically as well as theoretically.
The traditional approach to studying Roman coins is centuries old and
yet the study of these artefacts remains above all committed to exploring
issues relating to why coins were struck rather than how they were used.
THE THIRD CENTURY – WHOSE CRISIS?
The years from AD 222 to 296 are important to this study for two reasons.
Firstly, the number of coins recovered in Britain as site finds and from
hoards increases dramatically during this period, and, secondly, Britain 204 P. GUEST
had been incorporated as a province within the empire for two hundred
years and more. The third century also saw the collapse of the Emperor
Augustus’ tri-metallic system of currency as the silver denomination, the
denarius, and its eventual replacement, the radiate (introduced in AD 214),
were debased at an ever faster rate.16 By AD 260 all bronze denominations had virtually disappeared and the radiate contained as little as 2%
silver (having had almost 50% when introduced). Over the next few years
even this vestigial amount of precious metal was further reduced as the
mints struck vast quantities of these coins. The Emperor Aurelian reformed the coinage around AD 274 by improving the silver content to
about 4% and restricting circulation. It appears that after this reform the
coin-using population of Roman Britain began striking their own local
copies – barbarous radiates – needed to make good the local short-fall in
supply from the official mints (Burnett 1987,24-26; Reece 1987, 19-21).
Britain produces very large quantities of debased radiates, whose intrinsic value was very low and which must have been struck in enormous
quantities. Leaving aside questions regarding why the cycle of debasements occurred, it is abundantly clear that at this time the population of
Roman Britain consequently had greater access to coins than ever before.
As site finds, coins from the later third century are especially common,17
and they also comprise the most frequently discovered type of hoard
from Roman Britain (Robertson 1988; Casey 1980). In relative terms we
can conclude that from AD 260 to Diocletian’s currency reform in AD 296
Britain experienced greater actual monetisation than at any time up that
date. For the first time coins regularly appeared on rural settlements and
in peripheral areas that previously had shown few signs of adopting
Roman forms of material culture, although it must also be noted that in
some areas coins were still largely limited to circulating around the
army’s forts and dependent vid, particularly in the militarised northern
The correlation between precious metal content of Rome’s silver denominations and the level of production at the mints has formed the basis
of a long-standing academic argument concerning price inflation and its
possible effects in the Roman empire. This does not directly concern the
objectives of this paper, although it does serve to remind us once again
of the overwhelming economic perspective from which coins are discussed.19 The fact is that the Roman treasury could not convert its finite
reserves of silver into ever greater quantities of coins without tampering
with the silver standard, whether by reducing their weight or silver content, and usually both. THE IN’ffiRPRETA nON OF ROMAN COINS 205
This situation can be interpreted in an entirely different way if it is accepted that even the most advanced societies in the ancient world did not
recognise or understand basic economic theory and, therefore, that the
single most important reason for the Roman government to strike coins
was to pay what it owed.2o At certain times the level of state payments
rose too quickly to be met by new and recycled sources of precious
metals, particularly when payments to the military were increased. The
consequence of meeting consumer demand in this form was that the
fineness of these coins had to be reduced by the means described above.
The political background to the third century suggests that the cost of
civil war exacerbated the problems of stretching silver resources to meet
the increased demand for coins from the frontiers of the empire. Therefore the decision-makers in the treasury at Rome faced a dilemma that
had a very real effect on the coins struck by the Roman mints. There was
a tension between maintaining a high standard silver coin that had limited circulation on one hand and expanding production to satisfy
consumer demand for low value coinage while sacrificing the dignity of
the silver denomination on the other (Reece 1987, 42-43).
The overall trend from the first to late third centuries describes an inexorable drift towards meeting the demand for coins, from the Emperor
Nero’s debasement of the denarius in AD 64 to Diocletian’s currency reforms in AD 2%. The long periods of consumer-led coin production,
during which the silver coins were debased, were always followed by reforms that improved the silver standard but reduced the number available to be circulated.21 The main problem was that the idealised Roman
currency system did not provide sufficient low value coins to satisfy the
need for small change within the expanding empireP By AD 270 the
heavily debased radiate had a lower value than the bronze denominations of two centuries earlier and could consequently act as small
change. Paradoxically, at this time there were only low-value billon coins
in circulation and the shift away from the original Roman system was
now at its most extreme. 23
The history of Rome’s currency from the first to late third centuries is at
odds with the model of Romanisation as a largely one-way process of
cultural assimilation, from native to Roman. The greater monetisation of
the third century was not a result of Roman civilisation spreading
throughout the provinces, rather it occurred as a by-product of two centuries of reducing the fineness of silver coins in order to pay the state’s
debts. The tri-metallic currency system of the first century AD was forced
to change in order to meet the demand for coins from the frontier 206 P. GUEST
provinces, thereby monetising an increased proportion of the population.
Despite the efforts of the Roman elite to re-establish the principles of
Augustus’ system by reforming the coinage on various occasions, the
currency of the empire was inevitably drawn away from these ideals by
the provinces. This process of provincialisation ultimately saw the needs
of the periphery lead the centre at the end of the third century.24
Most numismatists would agree with the statement that the successful
economic integration of the empire depended, to a greater or lesser extent, on the population of the provinces becoming increasingly integrated
after conquest and occupation. The administration of the traditional
Roman currency system restricted monetisation within the empire and,
thereby, acted as a barrier to the integration of the provinces within the
wider economy. We might legitimately ask whether full monetisation of
the population and commercial integration were ever goals envisaged by
the Roman conquerors. From the available evidence it seems that any
pressure to achieve these aims came from the provinces rather than from
the Roman government 25
CULTURAL ASSIMILATION: A ONE-WAY SYSTEM?
Perhaps the greatest problem faced by the process of Romanisation as a
model of acculturation by which native societies adopted “Roman” culture is that it lacks the flexibility to include the fact that Roman society
was itself constantly changing. All societies are intricately complex and
naturally dynamic systems and Rome at the centre of an empire was
open to a bewildering diversity of cultural forces that ensured no aspect
of Roman culture could ever remain static. Once Roman Britain had matured beyond the days of Tacitus, the model of acculturation becomes
increasingly misplaced as we can no longer identify the form of romanitas
that the natives were supposed to be emulating.
During the third century the large number of coins hoards from Roman
Britain mirrors the patterns of hoarding from all the European provinces
of the empire (Guest 1994). Viewed in terms of Romanisation this could
be interpreted as the successful acculturation of the provinces within the
Roman system. However, the currency of the third century has been
shown to be a product of changes brought about by the needs of the
provinces and the homogeneity of the empire in terms of coins and
hoards needs some qualification. Can we state that Britain was more fully
Romanised in AD 270 when the province produced a pattern of hoarding
similar to that recorded in Italy? The answer must be no. If the coinage in THE INTERPRETA nON OF ROMAN COINS 207
use at the time developed as a result of tensions between Roman and
provincial cultural needs, then perhaps these hoards were similarly a
result of cultural interactivity. Again the inability of “romanisation” to
represent anything more complex and diverse that one-way acculturation
means that it quickly loses significance as an interpretative model after
the transition following initial occupation. By the third century perhaps
twenty generations had passed since the cultural upheaval of the Roman
conquest and, over this long period of time, Rome itself had become
increasingly provincialised as the provinces became more Romanised.
Any interpretation of Roman imperialism and Romanisation must contain the mechanism for accepting the complexity and diversity of the
empire by viewing historical change as a multi-directional process.
Coins are as integral to the study of Roman Britain as any other class of
artefact By bringing the perspectives and methodologies of study up to
date we can avoid many of the nineteenth-century prejudices that remain
firmly entrenched within numismatics. Questioning the basis of the progressive perspective that dominates the traditional view of Roman Britain
creates a less linear view of the past and allows other experiences a
The premise that coins were used primarily as money in the Roman
empire ignores the complexity of the evidence we have before us. By emphasising the users of coins as a respectable subject for study, we have a
more relevant perspective of the past – one which does not fit well with
the assumptions of earlier generations of academics. Romanisation as an
interpretative model has received much criticism in recent years and the
apparent incompabbility with a complex and diverse past undermines its
validity also in the study of coins.
Fundamentally the past does not need to be viewed as a distant reflection of our own world and in order to fully understand past people we
must speak their languages not only our own. As L. P. Hartley wrote: The
past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Richard Reece and Jonathan Williams kindly commented on a draft of
this paper, while Ross Samson patiently waited five years for me to
rewrite my TRAC contribution. 208 P. GUEST
1. Freeman 1997 provides a useful summary of the intellectual envirorunents
that influenced Momrnsen and the early British Romanists up to Francis
2 Presumably this situation arose as a consequence of the divergence of
numismatic and archaeological thinking that has resulted in the separation
of these scholars. Numismatists have maintained an independence from
archaeology – for example the British Museum has a Department of Prehistoric
and Romano-British Antiquities as well as a Department of Coins and Medals,
while the National Museum of Wales has a Department of Archaeology and Numismatics. This has afforded numismatics a healthy degree of autonomy, but
in following a German tradition of research it has tended to become isolated
from even the most general theories current in Romano-British archaeology.
The notion of cultural assimilation along the lines of Romanisation does not
feature in numismatic literature.
3. Currently this takes the form of a post-colonial critique attempting to
decentre the study of the Roman empire and put forward a case for the
validity of the non-elite as a subject of study, for example Hingley 1996.
4. Thls is not surprising given that numismatics has failed to incorporate a
model of cultural change (n. 2). Thls point is a slight exaggeration as a small
number of scholars have managed to promote the archaeological study of
coins (Reece 1987; Casey 1988). In general, however, the idea that the Roman
empire contained discrepant experiences has not found fertile soil in numismatics (for example the titles of papers in King and Wigg 1996).
5. The problem is that an end product can be the result of a number of potentially valid scenarios.
6. Despite the occasional exceptions noted in note 4, a glance at recent numismatic publications bears this oul For example, Duncan-Jones 1994;
Howgego 1990, 1992, 1995 – none of these mention people as users of coins.
This is simply an observation not a criticism in itself since such studies are
often very useful in other ways. Nevertheless, it is this favoured perspective
together with the lack of any apparent balance in terms of the approaches
adopted that leaves the subject so unhealthily one-sided if we are to present
a balanced picture of the ancient world. “Money” itself is open to a variety of
definitions, but I shall continue to understand money to mean coins used as
a means of commercial exchange as outlined by Polanyi (1957).
7. Not that this has been the approach exclusively favoured by numismatists.
Bolin (1958, 14) criticised thls theory for its methodological frailties thus:
“Momrnsen has quite simply shifted the monetary system of hls own day
two thousand years back in time, and in testing various ancient currencies
he has based hls analyses and made hls classification on principles which
were valid for the coinage of hls own time”. Thls paper would not exist had
those dissenting voices overturned the orthodox view. THE IN1ERPRETA nON OF ROMAN COINS 209
8. See Webster 1996, Freeman 1996, Barrett 1997, and Hingley 1997 for recent
summaries of previous and current ideas.
9. Hingley’s progressive perspective – Hingley 1997, 84.
10. The linear progressive view of history shares many similarities with the classic model of evolution from single-celled organisms, via fish, mammals, and
ending up with Homo sapiens sapiens. Our own “twig on the tree of life” is
most recognisably represented as a line of figures walking to the right, the
males becoming progressively more upright and less hairy with each step.
The directionality of this progression naturally suggests that there was little
reason for the evolutionary existence of Homo habilis other than as a precursor to ourselves.
11. Arguing for a less Homo sapiens orientated view of evolution removes the
arrogant notion of destiny and suggests that as a species we have had relatively little impact. In fact, the world remains much as it did hundreds of
millions of years ago in the Age of the Single-Celled Organism (Gould 1996,
171). Not directly helpful to Roman Britain perhaps, but it provides an alternative perspective that, if developed further, presents a more modest view
12. Barrett et al. 1989. The importance of the debate lies primarily in accepting
alternative, possible, meanings, not necessarily in their precise applicability
to Roman Britain – see Aitchison 1988.
13. Bolin’s approach can be summed up with his own words: One of the main
tasks of science, is to examine and doubt the validity of the self-evident (Bolin 1958,
14). His studies of Roman coins convey a dissatisfaction with the traditional
view of numismatics. In response to Bolin’s questions it has been argued that
although the means of deduction may well be faulty, it is the end result that
is important and we know from various ancient sources that coins were
overwhelmingly perceived and used as money. This is truly the case,
although a pedant might doubt the relevance of written sources describing
the Near East or Rome in the first century AD to the interpretation of Britain
two hundred years later.
14. For example Reece 1988, 41-57. I use the term numismatist cautiously.
15. For example Robertson 1988, Casey 1988, Reece 1995, Davies 1991, Shotter
16. The pressure to debase the silver coin was not unique to the third century,
but had already begun to be felt soon after the system was introduced. From
the time of the Emperor Nero and sporadically throughout the first and
second centuries, the weight and fineness of the denarius were reduced,
although these debasements were less obvious and more gradual than during the third century.
17. Reece 1995, 183. If these coins from Romano-British sites are aggregated together and those dating from AD 222-238 are given the value I, then the
ratios of later coins are as follows: AD 238-260, 1.1; AD 260-275, 19.8; AD
275-296, 16.6 (including barbarous coins). 210 P. GUEST
18. For the spread of coins into rural and peripheral areas see Reece 1991 and
Hingley 1989, 139-148. For the restricted circulation of coins in north-western England see Shotter 1990 and 1995.
19. It is difficult not to be drawn into the debate about inflation in the empire,
particularly as the third century is often pointed to as the period when inflationary pressures directly resulted in the successively severe debasements of
Rome’s silver coins. In principle any argument in favour of inflation is invalid for the Roman period, which did not resemble the highly industrialised, monetised, and commercial world that produced the modern theory
of price inflation (Rathbone 1996, 324). Evidence for increases in prices in the
empire is limited to say the least, consisting mainly of a few records from
Egypt (Finley 1985, 178 and fn. 5) and suggests that while prices did rise
over time, they did so very slowly (Duncan-Jones 1994, 25-32) and sporadically, with long periods of stability interspersed with short bursts of steeper
rises (Rathbone 1996). It is also worth remembering that inflation does not
necessarily pose a threat to consumers, instead in the modern world it tends
to endanger the well-being of those who lend money rather than their
20. Despite the protestations of modernists to the contrary (Howgego 1990 and
Lo Cascio 1981), Finley’s desCription of the ancient economy most coniortably
fits the available evidence (Finley 1985, 18-34 and 182-183). For state payments as the primary reason for the striking of coins see Crawford 1970, 46,
Burnett 1987, 90 (and caveats) 91-92, Duncan-Jones 1994, 45-46, and 108-
21. Nothing reveals the obvious lack of understanding of simple economic principles in the ancient world more than this cycle of debasement and reform.
22. Even the smallest copper denominations found in first-century Roman
Britain had a value that was too high for them to act as small change (Reece
1987, 28-33). I mention the expanding empire because it appears that these
shortages of coin were most acutely felt in the peripheral provinces (Reece
23. The tension between producer and consumer dictated coinages, and this
continued on into the fourth century. The reform of AD 348 was yet another
attempt to improve silver standards that merely reduced coins in circulation.
Only in AD 356 did the system fundamentally change with small bronze
denominations being struck almost in sufficient quantities to meet the need
for low-value coins, while the good-quality silver coins were more of a
24. This represents an alternative ancient history from coinage – less Grand
Narrative but more representative of the forces of change that affected the
25. If this accurately describes an historical phenomenon, I am equally certain
that it was never perceived in such an abstract way, nor can there be any
evidence that the forces of change were consciously understood or used to THE INIERPRETA nON OF ROMAN COINS 211
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