This job that I do

As I’ve mentioned here and there, my current post is as a Research Assistant at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I am slowly working my way through the process of documenting the uncatalogued part of the holdings of the Department of Coins and Medals. On good days this mainly means copying details off the tickets into a spreadsheet and batch-scanning the actual coins, on bad days where there are no tickets, it means identifying the coins from the various standard reference works and getting the data from there, and obviously from the coins.

Now the unticketed stuff tends to be a bit nasty, in terms of corrosion and also of rarity, and that’s why it’s been left, often for most of a century, without any record. Sometimes however it contains treasure, of a sort. Today has been one of those days.

What do you know about the Gallic Empire? Maybe more than I do, but, if not, it goes roughly like this, without trying to do the sort of source criticism it really needs. In 260, during the reign of the Emperor Gallienus, there is a rebellion in the west of the Empire under one Postumus, who is a general on the Rhine. A large part of the army are with him, and so Gallienus is unable to reduce the rebellion, and Postumus’s empire takes in a large part of Gaul, including and especially the Rhine frontier, and maybe briefly Spain. It also includes Britain, and he and his successors and rivals, Marius and Lælianus (rivals, in 268, both put down by Postumus), Victorinus (successor, 268-71) and Tetricus I & II (father and son co-emperors 271-74) maintain themselves there and in Gaul through the reign of Emperors Claudius II and into that of Aurelian, who it is who finally brings the provinces back under central control. Of course within a few years they, at least Britain, are off again, and not for the last time, and you can find people telling you that this persistent secession is why the Empire in the West falls, and maybe one can’t completely dismiss that argument. But although that would be more medieval, that isn’t what this edit is about.

Now, partly because there is a lot of war going on, and therefore a lot of soldiers to pay, all these emperors mint a lot of coin. Because however, especially in the Gallic Empire, resources are scant, the standard of the coin tends to fall, and Victorinus and the Tetrici are basically minting in silvered bronze and pale gold. This means that more actual specie is used in circulation, and because of the political situation it doesn’t circulate as far as Roman coinage usually does, and all in all this means that it is quite common to find this stuff, corroded to ruination because of the British climate and the poor metal used, in digs in Britain. Consequently, British collections formed either on a budget or by accident tend to have lots of it, and it’s often hard to identify. Nonetheless, the types used are fairly well fixed, and the real problem arises in that the stuff was also very widely imitated by forgers due to money shortage, and that this went on for some time even after the emperors themselves were long gone. So there really is a lot, and very varied, but usually along the lines of the few types the real stuff used, and a huge hoard from Mildenhall that I mentioned before has provided some kind of reference from which almost all of these types, and a lot of the imitative ones, are known.1

Now, while going through the rather dubious mixture that is the rubbish end of the St John’s College Collection, I have today found two new types. They’re not in the standard references and nor is anything like them, they are as best I can discover unknown, and being up to weight (for the time) and sharp enough of design and lettering, they are probably also real issues. So this should be exciting, no?

Well, look:

  1. antoninianus, Victorinus, obverse: Bronze antonianus of Victorinus, obverse showing radiate bust of Victorinus right
  2. ditto, reverse: Billon antoninianus of Victorinus, reverse showing Providentia leaning left on column
  3. antoninianus, Tetricus I, obverse: Billon antoninianus of Tetricus I, obverse showing radiate bust of Tetricus right
  4. ditto, reverse: Billon antoninianus of Tetricus II, reverse showing Securitas leaning left on column

Now, get excited about those, go on. They’re treasure. Can’t you tell?

1. E. Besly & R. Bland, The Cunetio treasure: Roman coinage of the third century A. D. (London: British Museum 1983).


One response to “This job that I do

  1. Pingback: Learning all the time « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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