Roger Bland

Spink, London (2018) h/b 392pp £40 (ISBN 9781907427794)

By the end of 2015, some 3,426 Iron Age and Roman coin hoards had come to light in Britain. This beautifully illustrated book catalogues those hoards and discusses them in their historical context. The author has been President of the British Numismatic Society and head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, as well as holding a senior position in the British Museum until 2015. So he writes with authority.

Coin hoards come about because people have either accidentally deposited them or, more usually, deliberately buried them. There are three possible reasons for deliberate burial. The owner may have hidden the coins for safekeeping with a view to later recovery. Alternatively, the coins may be a votive offering to the gods (like many powerful figures, gods welcomed the occasional bung). Finally, people may have buried coins because they were no longer lawful tender. This was a form of waste disposal but not, alas, recycling. The author looks at the known historical events of each period and explores the reasons for the deposition of the various hoards. Unlike some historians, he is cautious in his speculation and recognises the limits of the evidence.

The late Iron Age and the conquest period are not easy for numismatists to interpret. It is clear that large numbers of republican denarii arrived in Britain before the invasion of AD 43. This is evidence of the extent to which Britain was already tied into the Empire economically. Both the Iceni and the Corieltauvi continued to mint their own Iron Age currency for some 20 years after the conquest. That is understandable in the case of the Iceni. They were a semi-independent client kingdom and, in AD 61, led a rebellion against Rome. There is no obvious explanation in the case of the Corieltauvi.

The so-called ‘denarius period’ runs from AD 69 to the early third century, when the denarius was replaced by a new silver coin, the radiate. The majority of the 701 hoards of this period are of silver coins. Gold coins were occasionally hoarded in the Flavian period, but they progressively reduced in the second century and there are none (during the denarius period) after the death of Marcus Aurelius. It is difficult to link the hoarding pattern to known historical events.

The ‘radiate period’ is treated as running from AD 238-296 (it takes its name from coins such as Sol Invictus, with a crown radiating beams. Its Latin name is unknown). This was an era with rapid turnover of emperors. It included the ‘Gallic Empire’ (when Britain and Gaul were briefly hived off into a separate domain) and the period when Carausius and Allectus operated as self-appointed mini-emperors running Britain and northern Gaul. In 296 Constantius put a stop to that nonsense. He also replaced the radiate with a new bronze coin, the nummus. There is a peak of hoards in the last 30 years of the radiate period. That coincides with the ending of the Gallic Empire and the subsequent defeat of Allectus. It is likely that during these tumultuous events people were burying coins with the hope of recovering them later. Sadly, in the case of the hoards under discussion, the true owners never managed to dig up their coins. We have got them instead.

Some 1,075 coin hoards have come to light from the fourth and fifth centuries. The peak period for hoarding was, unsurprisingly, AD 388-402. That was just before the first Brexit (AD 409). There was much turmoil in the period leading up to our departure from the Roman Empire. It is perfectly understandable that people were burying coins, and indeed other treasures, for safekeeping. The famous ‘Hoxne Treasure’ comes from this period. It includes 580 gold, 14,568 silver and 24 bronze coins. They belonged, apparently, to a man called Aurelius Ursicinus. There is no other record of who Ursicinus was or how he came by so much cash. (In modern times anyone as rich as that would be required to account for his ‘unexplained wealth’, but the Romans were more tolerant towards plutocrats.)

An interesting feature of the fourth and early fifth centuries is that gold and silver coins become an increasingly large element of the buried hoards and, presumably, of the currency that was in circulation. Scholars and numismatists ever since Mommsen have puzzled about why this should be. There are lots of clever theories, but no-one really knows the answer.

This book is beautifully presented and a pleasure to read. It is aimed at people with a background knowledge of Roman Britain and an interest in the subject. For such, it should have a wide appeal. 

Rupert Jackson

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