Welcome to the Roman Baths Blog!

This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Debasement and deception: The 3rd Century crisis and the Beau Street Hoard.

The Roman Empire has always been famous for the monuments of Rome and a prosperous Empire, spanning most of modern Europe and the Mediterranean. So it is surprising to know that, in the 3rd Century AD, a very serious financial crisis took place, caused by prolonged civil wars and invasions. The Beau Street Hoard contains coins from a long date range (32 BC - 275 AD) and so it tells the story of this crisis.

At the start of the Roman Empire the metal used to make coins was of very high quality. The silver coins issued by early Emperors (such as Augustus and Tiberius) contain around 98-100% silver. As time wore on however, the cost of maintaining a huge Empire put financial strain on the Emperors. Base metals, such as iron and copper, were added to the silver to make it less pure and cheaper to produce. This process is called debasement. By the start of the 3rd Century AD, only around 40% silver was being used to produce the main denomination of the period, known as the

Things only got worse as the 3rd Century progressed. The Romans faced threats from both the Northern and Eastern Frontiers. The Northern frontier provinces, Gaul and Britain, even formed a breakaway Empire. Severe financial strain, caused by the cost of wars on the frontiers, meant that the silver content of the radiate was reduced to less than 10%. Images of coins from the Beau Street Hoard show a timeline of debasement in the Roman Empire.

Timeline of debasement – left to right
50s A.D. Nero denarius90% silver
190s-200s A.D. Septimius Severus denarius65% silver
250s A.D. Trajan Decius radiate40% silver
260s A.D. Gallienus radiate20% silver
270s A.D. Tetricus I radiate: 1-2% silver

As well as debased coins, unofficial copies of the radiate are frequently found in Britain. These coins are known as barbarous radiates. The production of copies had always been a problem in the Roman Empire, but by the mid-3rd Century AD it had become endemic. Presumably, when official supplies ran low, coins were produced locally to meet demand.

There are examples of barbarous radiates from the Beau Street hoard and images taken by the Roman Baths U3A volunteers show just how different these copies were. As well as being smaller and thinner, barbarous radiates also have very poor quality images and inscriptions. It’s a wonder anyone was fooled at all!

An official coin of the Emperor Claudius II and an unofficial copy (right) from the Beau St Hoard. This particular coin was issued after the death of Claudius in 270 AD and the reverse shows an altar.

An official coin of the Emperor Quintillus (270 AD) and an unofficial copy (right) from the Beau St Hoard. The reverse of the coins shows Pax (Peace) holding a branch and caduceus.

Emma, Future Curator

Monday, 1 December 2014

Greek coinage at the Roman Baths

Ancient Greek coinage had been in use for around six centuries before Greece became part of the Roman Empire. Hand made in the same way Roman coins are (struck using a cast die), these coins had a variety of images and symbols which can be connected to Greek Heroes and Gods. This symbolism could be used to prove an individuals power and right to rule within the ancient world.

For my Money Monday handing session in the summer, I chose to focus on Greek coinage and connections that could be found to Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Son of Phillip II of Macedon and part of the Argead dynasty, Alexander became king at 20 years old and ruled one of the largest ancient empires by the age of 30. Covering an area of 2,000,000 sq mi, Alexanders empire included modern day Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and covered an area as far east as India. Greek influence  in these areas would last for 200-300 years after Alexanders death.

This map shows the extent of Alexanders empire before his death in 323 BC.

The Greek coins within the Roman Baths collection show a rich variety of connections to Alexander the Great and a number were selected to use during the handling session. Key themes included Alexander's connection to the hero Heracles; who the Argead dynasty claimed to be descended from, Alexander's connection to Zeus and his deification in Egypt and the spread of Hellenistic culture across his empire.

The coins often show  the image of Alexander wearing the skin of a lion, portraying himself in the image of Heracles after he slew the Nemean lion.  The lion is a recurring theme and can be seen on a number of the coins within the Roman Baths collection 

Hemistater of Macedon with lions head

The next coin that was used for the handling session shows Alexander as a God. Pronounced a son of Amun in Egypt by the oracle, Alexander referred to Zeus-Ammon as his true father. The ram horns seen on the first image are a symbol of his divinity. The writing on the reverse (second image) shows this was a coin of  King Lysimachus of Thrace who came to rule part of Alexander's Empire after his death. The use of the image of Alexander was used by Lysimachus to show his right to rule during the war of the  diadochi or successors.

When looking at the coinage of an individual, it can tell us a lot about their personality and what they see or think of themselves. This makes this type of coinage invaluable to our understanding of the period.