Commodus issued coins with either BRITANNIA or VICT(oriae) BRIT(annicae) on them following the campaigns of Marcellus.
By Dr. Philippa Walton and Dr. Sam Moorehead
Walton – Classical Archaeologist, Research Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Oxford
Moorehead – Classical Archaeologist, Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman Coins, British Museum
Walton, P. and Moorhead, S. (2016) Coinage and Collapse? The contribution of numismatic data to understanding the end of Roman Britain, Internet Archaeology 41. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.41.8
Coinage forms one of the most recognisable categories of material culture dating to the late fourth and early ﬁfth centuries. As a result, it has played a pivotal role in dating the ‘end’ of Roman Britain. This article summarises key numismatic evidence for the period and tries to go beyond chronology, illustrating how hoards and site ﬁnds can be used to explore the nature of coin use throughout the diocese of Britannia and to provide some insight into its apparent collapse in the fifth century AD.
When archaeologists investigate the ‘end’ of Roman Britain, they are usually interested in addressing two fundamental questions: when did it happen and how? While most acknowledge that it would be a somewhat misguided quest to search for a specific date or a particular cause (Esmonde-Cleary 2011, 1), it is clear that numismatic evidence can make an important contribution to our knowledge of the late Roman to Early Medieval transition. The perceived status of coins as closely dated objects has thrust numismatic evidence into the limelight in a world where pottery and other forms of Roman material culture are either lacking or frustratingly undiagnostic (Rivet 1964, 97; Kent 1978; Frere 1987, 363; Millett 1990, 219; Esmonde Cleary 1989, 14; Mattingly 2006, 330 passim). However, coinage can be used as much more than just a tool for dating late Roman contexts. As the primary mechanism for paying the army and administration and as a medium for the collection of taxation, the presence or absence of coinage in the archaeological record may serve as an indicator of the status and stability of the diocese itself.
Sources of Coin Data for the Late 4th and Early 5th Centuries
Britannia is endowed with a comprehensive numismatic record. The quality and quantity of numismatic data available for study for the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD is remarkable, comprising not only hoard data, but excavation assemblages and ‘site’ finds. Records exist for 232 hoards with a terminus post quem of AD 388 (note: the main sources for hoards are Robertson 2000, the Coin Hoards from Roman Britain series (Vols 1-13), Coin Hoards 1–7 (Royal Numismatic Society 1975-95), and summaries in the Numismatic Chronicle (1994-2011) and British Numismatic Journal (2012 onwards), the Treasure Annual Reports (1997-) and for Wales, Guest and Wells 2007. A thorough listing and analysis of gold hoards is in Bland and Loriot 2010.). Although this is in part a reflection of Britain’s established record of reporting hoards, the diocese does proportionally have a higher number of hoards from this period than any other province in the Roman Empire (note: 62% of early 5th-century precious metal treasures and 58% of all hoards containing silver coins from the period AD 300-500 come from Britain; Britain also had 24% of all bronze hoards from the period (Guest 2005, 28); 80% of all known silver coin hoards from the period 388-410 come from Britain (Abdy 2002, 62).)(Bland 1997a; Guest 1997, 411; 2005, note 33; Hobbs 2006). A large number of these hoards, for instance the Hoxne, Haynes and Coleraine hoards, include other objects such as precious metal jewellery, plate, ingots and spoons, illustrating the complex relationship between bullion and currency in this period (Guest 2005; Johns 2010; Inscker and Orna-Ornstein 2009; Robertson 2000, 405-6, 1621).
|Hoard composition||Number of hoards|
|Gold and silver||31|
|Silver and bronze||34|
|Gold, silver and bronze||5|
Table 1: Frequency of late Roman coin hoards (AD 388-423) found in Britain
The data provided by hoards can be supplemented by numismatic material from archaeological excavations. Although such data are scattered through excavation reports and often not published fully enough to enable meaningful analysis, the summaries produced by Richard Reece and Philippa Walton for 140 and 368 sites respectively provide a very useful overview (note: Reece 1991 records 27,736 coins of the period AD 388-402, of which 22,822 were found at Richborough; Walton 2012 records 29,073 coins of the period AD 388-402; other corpora include Moorhead 2001 for Wiltshire, Shotter 2011 for the north-west and Penhallurick 2009 for Cornwall.). In addition, a selection of assemblages with a major Theodosian element has been generated by Moorhead (Moorhead et al. in press).
Hoards and site find data can also be supplemented by unstratified ‘stray’ losses, found by metal detector users and other members of the public. Since the foundation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in 1997, over 225,000 Roman coins of this type have been recorded throughout England and Wales. These include 7532 Theodosian coins of the period AD 388-402: 8 solidi, 323 siliquae and 7198 nummi (note: http://www.finds.org.uk; the PAS data includes 52,804 coins from Wales (Guest and Wells 2007). The denominational composition of the PAS assemblage as of 23 April 2014 taken from query at http://www.finds.org.uk/). A major analysis of late Roman coin finds recorded with the PAS has been published by Walton and the recently published volume on the Traprain Treasure includes a detailed analysis of late Roman silver coins on the PAS database (Walton 2012; Bland et al. 2013).
Roman coinage in Britain: c. AD 388–430
Theodosian gold coins struck between c.AD 402 and c.AD 408 at the Italian mints of Milan, Rome, Ravenna and Aquileia are mainly found in hoards. Of these hoards the most well known are those from Eye and Hoxne, in Suffolk, Boscombe Down in Wiltshire and Good Easter in Essex (Robertson 2000, no. 1620 ; Guest 2005, 134, nos 45-9; Burnett 1992; Bland 1997b; Abdy 2009a; Bland and Loriot 2010, 249). A recently discovered hoard of 159 gold solidi from near St Albans in Hertfordshire should also be added to this list (PAS record BH-D67AF4). With a terminus post quem of AD 406-8, the coins are unworn and it is quite possible that they were deposited during the chaos that engulfed the province in AD 408-9 (Thorold 2013) (The hoard will be published in a forthcoming volume of CHRB; also Money and Medals 2012).
After c.AD 410, it appears that only a very small number of gold coins found their way to Britain. Twenty-eight pieces spanning the reigns of Jovinus (AD 411-413) to Zeno (AD 476-91), including some pseudo-imperial issues or copies, have been recorded (PAS record KENT-DEF360). They tend to have been found during the excavation of Early Medieval cemeteries and their distribution is concentrated on the south-east and East Anglia. While their presence attests to continued links with the Continent, it is unlikely that these coins circulated within a currency system in 5th-century Britain. Instead, their small numbers and presence predominantly within grave deposits suggests their re-purposing as jewellery and use as bullion (Bland and Loriot 2010, 86-88).
The last major issue of siliquae in the west was struck at Milan some time between AD 397 and 402 (RIC X, nos 1227-8) and these Milan pieces have been found in great numbers in Britain, both in hoards and as site-finds (PAS record DUR-CE5622). Siliquae of Constantine III struck in Lyon in AD 407-8 are also known from the Hoxne, Coleraine and Haynes hoards but they are not numerous (Guest 2005, 146, nos 752-3; Robertson 2000, 405-6, no. 1621; Inscker and Orna-Ornstein 2009, 385, nos 97-8; AVGGGG refers to Constantine III, Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius II).
Very few silver coins dating to the period post AD 408-411 have been found in Britain, although as already noted, the production of silver coins in the Empire had declined markedly after AD 402. Only two later silver pieces of Constantine III, struck between AD 408-11 have ever been found in Britain, one at Richborough and one in the Patching Hoard (Reece 1968, 200; Orna-Ornstein 2009, 392, no. 43). The Patching hoard also contained a siliqua of Theodosius II from Trier, struck c.AD 425-30 (Orna-Ornstein 2009, 392, no. 44). Two similar siliquae of Theodosius II were found pierced for use as jewellery alongside a later siliqua of Anthemius (AD 467-72) in an Early Medieval grave at Chatham Lines in Kent (Blackburn 1988). As with the gold issues discussed above, it is unlikely that these coins formed part of a coherent currency system, but rather were viewed as bullion or jewellery or perhaps as both.
The phenomenon of ‘clipping’, whereby the outer circumference of the coin is removed is a characteristic of many siliquae found in hoards and as site-finds in Britain (PAS record IOW-3818C7). While it has been argued that siliquae were clipped in order to reduce the weight of coins to match silver issues of the Visigoths and Vandals (King 1981, 9), it is more likely the silver was reserved as bullion (Abdy 2013, 109) or to make copies (Guest 2005, 146ff), allowing the remaining coin to continue in circulation (Burnett 1984). The head of the emperor was not touched by clipping, although the inscriptions could be totally removed. This respect for the imperial portrait suggests that, even if of reduced weight, these clipped siliquae still played a role as currency.
The exact chronology of the phenomenon has been the subject of vigorous debate for over 30 years, although it is now generally agreed that it is in some way connected to the cessation of coin supply to Britain. The virtually unclipped Terling hoard has been used as evidence that the practice began after AD 404 (Burnett 1984), analysis of the Stanchester hoard pushed that date forward to c.AD 406 (Abdy 2006, 84; 2013, 107-9; Abdy and Robinson 2009) while a comparison of the date of clipped siliquae and imitations in the Hoxne hoard has been used to suggest clipping occurred ‘for several years, perhaps decades’ after AD 409 (Guest 2005, 114). Meanwhile, Portable Antiquities Scheme data illustrate that the later the date of issue of the siliqua, the more likely it is to be clipped, providing a further indicator of an early 5th-century date for the phenomenon (Walton 2012, 111).
In addition to silver coinage, it appears that ingots were increasingly used as a store of wealth and means of payment in the late Roman world and its peripheries. For example, the Coleraine hoard from Northern Ireland contained a mixture of clipped siliquae, terminating with a coin of Constantine III (AD 407-8), hack-silver from Roman plate, and ingots of fixed weights (Robertson 2000, 405-6, no. 1621). A similar hoard with hack-silver and clipped siliquae was found at Traprain Law in East Lothian (Robertson 2000, 402-3, no. 1617; Guest 2012, 100-2). In the Coleraine hoard, there were fragments of official silver ‘ox-hide’ ingots, but also unmarked ingots: two flat ingots of good-quality silver that weighed a pound each and three smaller finger ingots of lesser weight that contained more trace elements, suggesting a wider range of metal sources (Abdy 2013, 110-11). An ‘ox-hide’ and official ingot were also found in the Canterbury Hoard, and a finger ingot has been found in excavation at Vindolanda (Robertson 2000, 1541; Wiegels 2003, pl. V, 1-2; PAS record NCL-62C367). The presence of these alternative stores of precious metal in hoarding contexts may be an indication of the gradual demise of coin use and its replacement with bullion in a variety of forms.
Just as was the case for siliquae, the supply of bronze coinage to Britain in the early 5th century AD was limited. Bronze nummi of the VICTORIA AVGGG type ceased to be struck in Trier, Arles and Lyons mints in c.AD 395 with Aquileia following suit soon afterwards (Delmaire 1983, 166) In the west, only Rome continued to issue SALVS REI PVBLICAE nummi until AD 402. (LRBC 109, VICTORIA AVGGG type 2; for a general overview of late Roman coinage, see RIC X and Moorhead 2012; for a general overview of late Roman coinage in Britain, see Reece 2002, 59-66; PAS record BH-FCCB01)
In the short period between AD 402 and 407/11, only a handful of nummi are known to have arrived in Britain. These include two VRBS ROMA FELIX pieces from the mint of Rome (AD 404-8), one from near Bowood, Wiltshire, and another from near Guildford, Surrey. Another piece was reported to have been found at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, but there is some question as to whether this example actually represents an ancient loss (RIC X, 1271-83; King 1977/8, 185, no. 448; Kent 1954, 119, n8; Robertson 2000, 363, no. 1494; Collins 2008, 359). Five further coins from unclear eastern Mediterranean mints are recorded from Britain: a VIRTVS EXERCITI piece of Arcadius (AD 395-401) and a Theodosius II CONCORDIA AVGGG cross type (AD 404-6) both from the Isle of Wight; as well as three GLORIA ROMANORVM (three emperor) pieces of the House of Theodosius (struck AD 406-8) from Didcot (Oxon), Great Chesterford (Essex) and just north of Hadrian’s Wall, from a small hoard at Great Whittington (Northumberland).
After AD 411, only nine nummi with British findspots are known. One is a GLORIA ROMANORVM piece of Theodosius II, probably from Thessalonica (struck AD 408-23) said to be from Clywd (Abdy and Williams 2006, 31, no. 56, type as RIC X, 395ff). There are three nummi of the VICTORIA AVGG type struck for Honorius in Rome (c.AD 421-3) one certainly from Verulamium and two possibly from Richborough (Abdy and Williams 2006, 30, nos 48-50, RIC X, 1357). Finally, there are five nummi of Valentinian III, dating to c.AD 425-35: one VICTORIA AVGG two Victories type from near St Albans, Hertfordshire (Abdy and Williams 2006, 31, 57, RIC X, 2131-2), one VOT PVB camp-gate piece from Wroxeter, Salop (Abdy and Williams 2006, 31, 58; RIC X, 2135), and three VICTORIA AVGGG Victory advancing coins from Dunstable, Bedfordshire, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, and Richborough, Kent (Abdy and Williams 2006, 31-2, nos 59-61, RIC X, 2138-9).
Few sites have large assemblages of Theodosian nummi, although several coin assemblages from southern and south-western Britain include significant numbers of Theodosian pieces. These include various sites across London (Gerrard 2011a; 2011b), Silchester, in Hampshire (Reece 1991 45), Wanborough and Nettleton in Wiltshire (Reece 1991, 64-5 and 131) and Cirencester and Uley in Gloucestershire (Reece 1991, 39-4 and 140). Beyond the south, however, there are only a handful of sites with significant numbers of late coins. These include Water Newton in Cambridgeshire, Ashton in Northamptonshire and Sapperton in Lincolnshire (Reece 1991, 44, 80-1, 76), as well as three sites on Hadrian’s Wall; Vindolanda, Corbridge and South Shields (Collins 2013).
Against a backdrop of minimal bronze supply and limited use, the large quantities of late Roman nummi of the House of Theodosius (AD 388-402) recovered during excavations at Richborough in Kent and Caerwent in Wales are significant. A total of 27,000 nummi and 6,000 nummi respectively were found at these sites (Reece 1991, 119; Robertson 2000, 379-82, nos 1543-1555A; Guest and Wells 2007, 24-43, nos 18-63) as well as several hoards, some containing thousands of coins (Robertson 2000, 379-382, 1543-1551A, 401-2, 1611-15). While interpretation of this material is difficult, these sites with their close military links must have fulfilled a special function in the early 5th century AD, where large quantities of bronze coinage were either needed or could be discarded en masse.
The Distribution of Late Roman Coinage in Britain
The distribution pattern of coinage issued in the early 5th century and found in Britain is restricted. Gold coins of the late 4th century AD are found as far afield as Corbridge in Northumberland and Holyhead in Anglesey (Bland and Loriot 2010, 42-3, figs 33-34) whereas 5th-century pierces are largely confined to the south-east, with concentrations from Kent to East Anglia, and in the south from West Sussex and the Isle of Wight to Dorset (Figures 1 and 2) The majority of late Roman gold coins come from military or urban contexts (Bland and Loriot 2010, 54, table 12).
Figure 1: Roman coin hoards from Britain with a terminus post quem of AD 402 or later. Note that the Traprain Hoard (East Lothian, Scotland) and Coleraine hoard (Northern Ireland) are off the map (Click Image to Enlarge)
Figure 2: Single finds of Roman coins in Britain, struck after AD 402 (Click Image to Enlarge)
The majority of Theodosian siliquae and clipped siliquae are also found in southern Britain (Figure 3) in the ‘lowland’ zone to the south and east of the Fosse Way with an extension into East and parts of North Yorkshire. Finds in Devon and Cornwall, Wales, the west Midlands and the north-west and north-east are rare. Interestingly, hoards and stray finds of siliquae are common in rural areas, with very few specimens being found as site-finds on military or urban excavations; Richborough, and possibly Cirencester, are the notable exceptions (Reece 1972, table 1a).
Figure 3: Silver siliquae of the period AD 388-402 (Reece Period 21) found in Britain (It is not recorded if the Welsh siliquae were clipped or not.) (Click Image to Enlarge)
Indeed, the distribution of nummi is in marked contrast to the distribution of siliquae. Although on excavations, stray finds of bronze nummi far outweigh the number of silver siliquae (316:1 at Richborough; Table 2), the rural dataset provided by the PAS shows a much larger proportion of siliquae to nummi. This suggests that siliquae were more common in the countryside than on urban sites. This may be because detectorists do not report these small and often virtually illegible coins, but the authors’ experience of dealing with large, complete, rural assemblages does seem to suggest that the finding is valid. It is possible that silver coinage circulated in rural areas because of its intrinsic value, whereas bronze nummi only played a role in the economic spheres of urban and/or military life.
One can also question whether the finds of nummi (whether as hoards or site finds) at certain urban centres, for example Dorchester-on-Thames and Canterbury, are intimately linked with a military presence (Moorhead, Anderson and Walton in press; Wacher 1995, 203-5; Burnham and Wacher 1990, 121-2). In this regard, it is interesting to note that a large number of major assemblages and hoards of Theodosian bronze coins are found in coastal or estuarine regions. Does this suggest strong links still existed between the Continent and major centres in Britain that were easily accessible from the sea? Interestingly, in the Netherlands and Belgium, after a lacuna of coin-loss in the mid-4th century, there is a sudden, albeit short-lived, spate of hoarding of Theodosian bronze coins in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Perhaps the Roman authorities were trying to maintain maritime links between centres in southern Britain and the Rhineland (Moorhead, Anderson and Walton in press; Stroobants 2013).
|Non-Richborough sites||Reece 1973||1,949||103||189:1|
|Caerwent||Guest and Wells 2007||3463||1||3463:1|
|Wales, non-Caerwent||Guest and Wells 2007||63||6||10.5:1|
|PAS England||http://www.finds.org.uk queried 12.12.2012||1,004||271||3.7:1|
Table 2: Relative proportions of nummi and siliquae from site assemblages and recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (see Bland et al. 2013, 131, tables 6a-d)
Figure 4: Single-finds of Theodosian nummi, AD 388-402 (Reece Period 21) and bronze hoards with a terminus post quem of AD 402 (Click Image to Enlarge)
Figures 5a-c (left to right): Maps showing assemblages with above-average coin-loss for the late 3rd and early 4th centuries (Fig, 5a), mid-4th century (Figure 5b) and late-4th century (Figure 5c). The assemblages were divided into three sub-groups based on their chronology using DMax Cluster Analysis. For more detailed discussion of average values, see Walton 2012, 103 passim.
Coin Use in Britain in the Early 5th Century
Coin use c. 407-430
The contents of late Roman precious metal hoards suggest that coinage did circulate in Britain during and probably after the reign of Constantine III (AD 407-11). There are coins struck for him and for Arcadius and Honorius in the Hoxne hoard, dating to AD 407-8, which have been clipped suggesting that they had been in circulation for some time before deposition (Guest 2005, nos 748-53). Clipped coins of Constantine III are also found in the Coleraine hoard (see above) and the Haynes hoard (Robertson 2000, 1621; Inscker and Orna-Ornstein 2009, 385, nos 97-8). What is significant is that the Constantine III issues found in Britain are nearly all from his early issues of AD 407-8. This suggests that later coins of Constantine III did not arrive in Britain in significant numbers, possibly due to the rebellion against Roman authority recorded in AD 409 by Zosimus (1982 6, 5-6). The notable examples of later issues of Constantine III come from Richborough and the Patching hoard (West Sussex), which was deposited many decades later c.AD 470, when one can argue that Roman coin use in Britain had long since ceased (Reece 1968, 200; Orna-Ornstein 2009, 392, no. 43) (Figures 1-2).
If silver coinage continued to be in circulation after the reign of Constantine III, albeit in dwindling numbers and alongside hack-silver and ingots, bronze coinage seems to have ceased to circulate widely in great numbers earlier (see above). As we have already noted, Theodosian bronze coins , in hoards and as stray finds, tend to be found in greatest numbers at military and urban sites and at nodal points on the road network. Although most Theodosian bronze coins are struck before c.AD 395 (see above), the few 5th-century pieces found suggest that there was possibly still some supply of bronze coinage in the province until c.AD 430 (These nummi probably arrived with individuals in a similar manner to earlier quadrantes in the 1st and 2nd centuries (McIntosh and Moorhead 2012)). The early 5th century VRBS ROMA FELIX, GLORIA ROMANORVM and CONCORDIA AVGGG pieces (see above) quite probably arrived in the years AD 407-11. However, the three Honorius pieces (dating to c.AD 410-23; see above) and five Valentinian III pieces (dating to c.AD 425-35; see above) must have arrived significantly after the traditional date for the collapse of the Diocese.
Coin use post c.AD 440
After the AD 430s, some gold imperial issues did arrive in Britain. Alongside these official pieces are several barbarian and pseudo-imperial pieces, copies of official coins made by various barbarian tribes on the Continent, notably the Visigoths and Franks (Abdy and Williams 2006, 114-51). Bland and Loriot list a significant number of pieces from the second half of the 5th century into the 8th century (Bland and Loriot 2010, 84-85, table 32). Many of these gold coins were re-purposed as jewellery and a number come from graves (Abdy and Williams 2006, 23-29, nos 6-47; Abdy 2009b; 2009c). That the term solidus was still current in Britain in the 5th century is shown by its use in a letter written by St Patrick (Patrick, Epistola 14: ‘mittunt viros sanctos idoneos ad Francos et ceteras gentes cum tot milia solidorum ad redimendos captivos baptizatos’/’they send suitable holy men to the Franks and other peoples with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptised captives.’, Hood 1978, 37 and 57).
There are two hoards that date to the later 5th century. One, the Oxborough hoard from Suffolk, can be dated to around AD 475 or later and comprises three coin pendants, one with a silver denarius of Severus Alexander (AD 222-35) and two with late Roman solidi of Severus III (c.AD 461) and Julius Nepos (c.AD 474-5) (Abdy 2009b; 2009c). The Patching hoard, found in West Sussex, consists of 13 imperial and 10 Visigothic solidi, 3 miliarenses, 23 imperial and 3 Visigothic siliquae and one Roman Republican denarius. In addition, the hoard contained 54 pieces of scrap silver and two gold rings (White 1998; White et al. 1999; Orna-Ornstein 2009; Abdy and Williams 2006; Abdy 2009c). It has been argued that the Patching Hoard marks the ultimate transition from Roman Britain, where coins were specific to financial transactions, to that of a bullion-using society (Abdy and Williams 2006).
There were no bronze coins in the Patching hoard and indeed barely any base-metal coins arrive in Britain after the nummi of Valentinian III mentioned above (Byzantine bronze coins do start to arrive after the monetary reforms of Anastasius in AD 498. See Moorhead 2009). A single later 5th-century bronze piece of Odovacar, struck in Rome c.AD 489-91, was found in a Saxon grave at Barfreston in Kent in the 19th century (Abdy and Williams 2006, 40, no. 122; Moorhead 2009, 269, no. 3). This absence of bronze coins does strengthen the idea that the tri-metallic currency system was no longer used. It should be noted that finds of late Roman bronze coins at Wroxeter and other post-Roman British sites have been used to argue for the continued use of coinage in the early Anglo-Saxon period, although the archaeological contexts can be disputed and the presence of coins in the archaeological record does not necessarily imply their use in anything approaching a monetary economy (Dark 1994, 200-6; 2000, 143-4; Reece 2002, 63-6; Williams 2010, 56). Finally, although finds of later copper Byzantine coins in Britain show that base metal coins did arrive on these shores in the 6th and 7th centuries, there is no reason to believe that these coins served an economic function in Early Medieval Britain (Moorhead 2009; Morrison 2014). Indeed, the evidence suggests that coin use, in whatever form it took in Roman Britain, had dwindled by the early 5th century, although vestiges of it might have survived until as late as c.AD 430.
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The authors would like to thank Richard Abdy and Roger Bland for their comments on this article, and to David Thorold for permission to include information about the recently discovered hoard of 159 gold solidi from near St Albans.