They came and conquered
Ancient coins and antiquities Brett Hammond, of TimeLine Originals, surveys the collectable Roman coin market and highlights items to suit every budget
The popularity of themes in coin collecting covers all categories, all grades and certainly all pocket sizes when it comes to buying. For example, at one end of the spectrum I have a client who collects only high grade groats of Edward the First. He has barely a dozen specimens and each cost him a four-figure sum. At the other end a client in Switzerland dedicates her collecting passions towards tracking down varieties of one of the most common low denomination Roman bronze coins that circulated during the Empire’s twilight decades - a centenionalis of Constantius the Second. Known as the Fallen Horseman type because of its reverse image, it is a coin that can be bought for well under £10 in decent grade. The Swiss client has more than a hundred minor varieties.
Let me suggest a theme you might consider as a relative newcomer to ancient coins; one that lies between those two extremes. Why not form a collection of at least one f-grade or better example of the coins issued by those famous Romans who visited Britannia (Britain) as emperors, caesars, governors or military commanders during the centuries of Roman occupation?
The story began, as every schoolboy used to know, with Julius Caesar. He came twice, in 55 BC and again in 54 BC, though he does not appear to have minted coins while here. However, some issued across the Channel circulated their way to Britannia carried by soldiers or used in our markets. Examples have turned up in British found hoards.
As a result of his enormous popularity as a figure of history, Julius Caesar’s coins always command good prices. You might add a lower grade non-portrait issue to your collection for around £100; but even a low grade coin with a clear portrait of the man will require an outlay of around £500.
Almost a century elapsed before another Roman leader arrived in AD 43. Emperor Claudius is said to have made a triumphal entry into Camulodunum (later Colchester) on an elephant. True or false, the remarkable portrayal of his life in the TV drama, I Claudius, pushed him up the popularity ladder to at least Julius Caesar’s level. Nevertheless, you can have one of Claudius’s coins in your themed collection for as little as £25.
Next in the steady stream of illustrious Romans came Vespasian, who arrived as a serving soldier - Legate to the Second Legion under Claudius in AD 43. He never returned after his rise to emperor status in AD 69; nevertheless his short service in the occupation force qualifies Vespasian for our theme. Expect to pay around £30 for a decent silver denarius; perhaps £100 for a bronze sestertius with a larger portrait.
Emperor Hadrian’s famous wall - planned during a visit to Britannia circa AD 122 - receives more annual visitors than any provincial museum. And because many of his coins bear striking portraits they are desirable even to non-numismatists seeking a memento of their Great Wall experience. Expect to pay £60 for an example in very fine grade
We come now to an emperor who reigned for just eighty-six days in AD 193, but whose life before then swallowed a generous helping of adventure. Pertinax began as a poor schoolmaster obliged to give up his books and try for a better living as a lowly army officer. The fates smiled; rapid promotion followed; he even managed to avoid assassination when he served as Britannia’s governor circa AD 185. But as emperor he made the mistake of underpaying the Praetorian Guard. He fell to a sword thrust when three hundred disgruntled Praetorians stormed his palace. I need scarcely add that the coins of an emperor with so short a reign always carry hefty price tags, perhaps as much as £1,000 for a silver denarius.
Clodius Albinus was another who served as Britannia’s governor (AD 193). The legions in Britannia and Hispania proclaimed him emperor on hearing of the death of Pertinax; but although he held the western provinces during the years AD 195-197, he was defeated in battle and beheaded by an army of Septimus Severus. Another short reign, so his coins are scarce. Expect to pay around £100 for a silver denarius in fine grade.
Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Geta and Caracalla, who succeeded him, campaigned together in Britain against tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 208. Thus all three qualify for our theme, with their coins even more desirable because some mention Britannia (BRIT) in their legends. Additionally, Septimius Severus fell ill and died at York (Eboracum) in AD 211. Prices for silver denarii of these three range from £20 to £100.
We must now move forward to AD 287- 307, from the usurper Carausius, commander of the Roman Channel fleet who seized the north-west of the empire in AD 287 (only to lose it and his life in AD 293), to Allectus, who died in AD 296 trying to hold his possessions against an army of Constantius . This latter leader campaigned in Britain and also died at York in AD 306 to be succeeded by his son, Constantine the Great, declared emperor in that city. All four have left us an array of coins, some minted in Britain. You can certainly add bronze examples to your theme for under £10.
For the next eighty years Britannia vegetated, fleetingly visited in AD 343 by the emperor Constans, youngest son of Constantine the Great. His bronze coins are quite inexpensive. When we reach AD 383, enter the usurper Magnus Maximus, declared emperor by the Roman army in Britain. A distinguished general who earlier fought against the Picts and Scots, he took a large army to Gaul, won major victories and was declared Augustus in the West, ruling Britannia, Gallia, Hispania and Africa from his capital at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). He and his son, Flavius Victor, were eventually defeated and executed by Valentinian II, who invaded from the east.
The last emperor with British connections was Constantine III, who was an army commander in Britannia in AD 407. He was declared emperor here, took his armies across the Channel, fought bravely against barbarians and Roman enemies from the east, but eventually (AD 411) was forced to surrender and face execution. His son, Flavius Victor, who briefly held the fasces of power, was also captured and executed. Roman rule was never to return to Britannia. The coins of these dying embers of Rome’s glorious flame can now be had for several hundred pounds.
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Guide to Roman Coins in Britain
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10 August 2009
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