The London Review of Books article also reviews a new compilation titled Coin Hoards and Hoarding in the Roman World .
Coin Hoards and Hoarding in the Roman World
edited by Jerome Mairat, Andrew Wilson and Chris Howgego.
Oxford, 368 pp., £90, May 2022, 978 0 19 886638 1
However valuable the information ancient coins provide as individual artefacts, even more valuable is what they teach us in the aggregate. A hoard can be defined as two or more coins deposited together, usually but not always intentionally, and not subsequently recovered. Since a hoard's owner usually intended to retrieve it, the non-recovery acts as proxy evidence for its historical circumstances. Broadly speaking, there are four categories of hoard, each defined by the way it was created: accidental loss, sudden response to an emergency, storage of savings, or deliberate abandonment. Each tells us different things. Accidental hoards are things like dropped purses, or the basket of coins discovered on the docks of Herculaneum, now a fused mass of bronze and silver bearing the imprint of the container that was incinerated along with its owner in the pyroclastic surge of Vesuvius. Emergency hoards are what they sound like: collections secreted to prevent discovery in a moment of crisis, often war or the threat of it. Savings hoards are surplus wealth kept in hidden reserve by their owner. Finally, there are deliberately abandoned hoards, such as grave deposits, sacrifices and votive offerings. Each type reveals different things. Accidental and emergency hoards can be dated, usually closely, by the youngest coin they contain, and offer a snapshot of the currency circulating in a particular place at a particular time. Savings hoards represent deliberate selection over time. This generally means higher rather than lower value coins, and better quality specimens, whether measured by weight, level of wear, or precious metal content. These hoards are harder to date, because their youngest coin may come from long before the time of deposition. For that reason, they don't provide a snapshot of monetary history, but they do reveal social choices about relative monetary values and economic decision-making. Finally, abandoned deposits represent another kind of deliberate selection, and were more likely to contain demonetised pieces which were no longer usable as currency.
Collections of scholarly articles are rarely coherent, but Coin Hoards and Hoarding in the Roman World contains plenty to enlighten the non-specialist and surprise the expert. Both emergency and savings hoards can tell us a lot about coins' longevity. There was, for instance, a five to tenfold increase in circulating silver between 200 and 50 bc and no mechanism for withdrawal save natural wear and tear. Because Republican denarii were so pure, even very worn examples were hoarded well into the second century ad. Particularly large issues from the last century bc – for instance, the massive issue of slightly underweight ‘legionary' denarii struck by Mark Antony in the run-up to his final war with Octavian – distorted the record for a hundred years or more. It's not surprising that the huge sums needed to pay for a standing army of several hundred thousand men should have a dominating impact on supply in the most heavily garrisoned provinces, but consideration of things like die-links can show us how likely coins from the same issue were to stay together over time. (Die-link studies, tedious but valuable, require meticulous comparison to match coins struck from the same dies, either on both sides or on one: reverse dies, which absorbed most of the force of the hammer, wore out faster than obverses.) There are some unexpected findings when we use hoards to trace how coins circulated. We know for a fact that the emperor Postumus, who ruled a separatist Gallic regime for a decade in the third century, was recognised in Spain because a great many inscriptions tell us so. But while coins bearing Postumus' image are common in Gallic and British hoards, they are hardly found in Spanish ones. This opens up new lines of inquiry about how, or whether, Postumus paid the legionaries garrisoned at León.
Finally, evidence from accidental and emergency hoards in particular helps us understand people's actual economic lives rather than the normative lives implicit in government issues. The proliferation of unofficial coinage and the imitations of official coinage in various parts of the Roman Empire in the second, third and fourth centuries used to be interpreted as a sign of crisis (it was seen as an example of ‘siege money', or Notmünzen). Hoard evidence now shows the reason for the existence of such coins. Ancient states coined money to make payments, to assert prestige and identity, and occasionally, as in Ptolemaic Egypt, to create a closed economy, but never deliberately to enable a market economy among private individuals. This meant severe coin shortages were a frequent problem. As with the commercial tokens used in Victorian industrial cities or the boiled sweets used in lieu of small change in 1970s Italy, Roman imitative coinages weren't a sign of crisis but of a highly monetised market economy that demanded more specie than the state was able to provide. The hoard evidence from third-century Gaul and fourth-century Spain, now well studied, shows definitively that official and unofficial coinages were accepted at par and that there was no selection bias in either direction. This completely recentres the way we think about the later Roman economy.
Coin Hoards and Hoarding shows how far from antiquarian stereotypes modern numismatics have come. More important, though, it's a reminder that cheap, ugly and plentiful coins have as much to teach us as rare and priceless specimens. Like Holt's amble, this book manages to evoke the pleasures of handling ancient coins and thinking about and with them. It also reacquaints us with a way of using money with which we are rapidly losing touch.
To read the complete article, see:
What the Badger Found
For more information, or to order, see:
Coin Hoards and Hoarding in the Roman World
Wayne Homren, Editor
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