Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/Notices of New Publications: Coins of the Romans relating to Britain


Coins of the Romans relating to Britain, described and illustrated by John Yonge Akerman, F.S.A., &c. Second Edition. 8vo. London. 1844. John Russell Smith.

Among the many claims which the Roman coins and medals have upon the consideration of the historical antiquary, are those which arise from their direct reference to events connected with the history of countries which successively fell beneath the arms and arts of the then mistress of the world. Upon these imperishable monuments, which have outlived, in all the beauty and freshness of early youth, the sculptured trophy, the triumphal arch, the pompous and elaborate inscription, and the many costly and gorgeous works of art that were erected to commemorate the conqueror's achievements, may be read the meaning, though sententious legend, which, assisted by appropriate designs, tells its story plainly and effectively. In the progress of Roman provincial history, coins and medals occasionally bear allusion to friendly relationship between the subjected countries and imperial Rome, in the establishment of colonies, the raising of temples, and other public buildings, the formation or improvement of highways, as well as in the visits of the emperor himself as the redressor of grievances and the restorer of peace. The historical importance of these coins is usually accompanied by welldesigned and executed representations, in which the painter, the sculptor, and the poet, may each find something to admire and instruct, and from which the superintendents of modern mints, and governments themselves, might derive useful hints for the improvement of national coinages, by making them the medium of recording national events, and of conveying some sort of popular instruction. The coins of the Romans relating to Gaul and to Britain, are among the most interesting of the series, as they include many not struck by the imperial powers of Rome, but issued at times when rulers in these provinces assumed the purple, and, more or less effectually, maintained an independence which, obtained by means of military power more frequently than by the general will of the people, lasted only until the fortune of war led to the re-establishment of the foreign yoke, or that of some more successful usurper. From the immense quantities of coins struck, it would appear that in many instances these revolutions were much more extensive and general than the notices given by historians would of themselves lead us to imagine. These are often so brief, and so palpably partial, that it is impossible, without having recourse to the aid of inscriptions and coins, to form even an imperfect notion of the true state of the provinces at these important epochs in their history. The six years' sway of Postumus in Gaul is but incidentally alluded to by historians, but the vast quantities of his coins still extant, many of them executed by the best artists of the time, evince the success of his arms and the undisturbed tranquillity of the province under his rule.

Mr. Akerman's work is, as its title shews, confined to Roman coins relating to Britain. Of these the first are of Claudius, whose gold and silver coins exhibit the front of a triumphal arch, surmounted by an equestrian figure between two trophies, with de britannis, or, more rarely, the emperor in a quadriga, and the same inscription. In the reign of Hadrian, the Britons revolted, but the opportune arrival of the emperor himself seems to have smothered the insurrection, and left him but little to achieve after repelling the Caledonians, who had broken through the northern frontiers of the province. The visit of Hadrian is commemorated by a large brass coin, inscribed on the reverse, adventvs avg. britanniae. s.c. The emperor is represented clothed in the toga, and holding a patera over an altar, with the fire kindled, on the other side of which stands a female figure with a victim lying at her feet. In the second middle brass coins of Hadrian, the province of Britain is personified as a female seated on a rock, holding a javelin, her head slightly inclining on her right hand, by her side a large oval shield; beneath, the word britannia. The attitude exhibits a mixture of repose and of watchfulness, happily emblematical of the state of the province, free from dread of her enemies, yet provided with the means of repelling future invasion. These latter coins are frequently discovered throughout England. Nearly a dozen, differing in some slight degree from each other, were found in the bed of the Thames near London Bridge a few years since.

The coins of Antoninus Pius give us many interesting references to Britain. The reverse of one of great beauty is here given and described:—

Obverse:—antoninvs . avg . pivs . p. p. tr . p. cos . iii.

Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pater Patriæ, Tribunitia Potestate, Consul tertium. The bearded and laureated head of Pius.

Reverse:—imperator ii. (Imperator iterum): across the field of the coin, Britan. An elegant winged Victory standing on a globe, holding a garland in her right hand, and a palm-branch in her left.

This coin, Mr. Akerman remarks, "in all probability commemorates the victory gained by Lollius Urbicus over the revolted Brigantes, who made incursions upon their neighbours, then leagued with the Romans. Victory was an important deity among the Greeks and Romans, and she is accordingly figured on great numbers of their coins. Tacitus says that, besides other prodigies which preceded the revolt of the Britons under Boadicea, the image of Victory, set up at Camulodunum, fell down without any apparent cause, with its back to the enemy. Sylla built a temple to Victory at Rome; and we are told that Hiero, king of Sicily, made a present to the Romans of a statue of Victory in solid gold. She had a fine statue in the Capitol, of which the figure on the reverse of the coin here described, may have been a copy." The reverse of another, with the same inscription, exhibits a helmeted female figure seated on a rock, holding a javelin in her right hand, her left reposing on a large ornamented shield by her side, her right foot resting on a globe. The author remarks, "the reverse of this coin differs materially from those of all the others of this series. Instead of a female figure bare-headed, as on the coins of Hadrian, we have here doubtless a personification of Rome herself, her dominion being aptly enough portrayed by the globe beneath her right foot, while she grasps a javelin (a barbarian weapon) instead of a spear." Another specimen presents us with a female figure seated on a globe, surrounded with waves; in her right hand a standard, in her left a javelin; her elbow resting upon the edge of a large buckler by her side; a type illustrative of the oft-quoted line of Virgil

"Et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos[1],"

and similar descriptions by Claudian[2] and Horace[3]. The most common of the whole Britannia series are the second brass of Pius, reading on the reverse, round a female figure seated in a dejected position on a rock with shield and standard, britannia, cos. iiii.

The reign of Commodus, during which the Caledonians invaded and ravaged the north of Britain, afforded opportunities to that emperor for recording upon medals and coins the successes of his legions, whose victories also gave him a pretext for taking the name of Britannicus, although he never visited the province in person. There are three or four medallions of this emperor relating to Britain, a variety of which is given below. On the obverse his titles commence, and are continued on the reverse, on which is represented a Victory seated on a heap of arms, inscribing on a shield vict. brit. (Victoria Britannica): before her a trophy.

Archaeological Journal, Volume 1, 0200a.png

The coins of Severus, and his sons Caracalla and Geta, afford the author ample scope for a dissertation on the events connected with their visit to Britain and their military operations in it. The following coin is one of many varieties relating to this important period in the Romano-British history. It is of Geta, and in second brass: the reverse presents a Victory seated on shields, holding a palm-branch, and a shield resting on her knee; legend, victoriae brittannicae. It will be observed there is a change in the orthography of the word Britannia: for this alteration Mr. Akerman gives some pertinent reasons.

Archaeological Journal, Volume 1, 0200b.png

From the reign of Caracalla to that of Diocletian and Maximian, no Roman coins have been found bearing direct allusion to Britain. During the reign of these emperors, however, we find a new and extensive series of coins struck in Britain, and affording curious and valuable information relative to one of the most important epochs in the early history of this island. Carausius, the admiral of the Roman fleet stationed in the British channel to protect Gaul and Britain from the depredations of the Saxons, being accused or suspected of appropriating to his own uses the rich booty he had captured from the pirates of the north, and anticipating in consequence the worst from the emperors at Rome, landed in Britain with several legions previously under his command in Gaul, took complete and permanent possession of the province, and assumed the titles of Augustus and Imperator. From some remarkable coins to which the reader is referred, it would appear that the Britons, hoping perhaps that any change would be for the better, invited and awaited his coming. Defended by his fleet, Carausius defied with success the attempts of Diocletian and Maximian to recover the lost province, and a peace, to which it seems the Roman emperors unwillingly but unavoidably conceded, confirmed the adventurer in the undisturbed possession of Britain for upwards of six years. Numerous coins of Carausius refer to the establishment of this peace, and appear from the inscription pax . avggg. (Pax Augustorum) to imply the free concurrence therein of Diocletian and Maximian, especially as coins also of these emperors are extant with a similar legend. The careful numismatist, however, detects these coins from certain peculiarities to have been struck by Carausius himself, to give an appearance of being recognised in his assumed titles and power by the emperors at Rome. One of the rarest from the collection of the writer of these notes, is here given. It is in gold, and was found a few years since in the bed of the Thames.

Archaeological Journal, Volume 1, 0201.png

The ml in the exergue of the reverse is believed to stand for Moneta Londinensis. It may also be remarked that these coins with the three g's are not recorded to have been found in any other country except England, but the coins of Diocletian and Maximian with two g's, as pax avgg,—salvs avgg, &c. are exceedingly numerous, and are continually discovered wherever the Roman rule extended. Descriptions of isolated coins, from the extensive series of the coins of Carausius and his successor Allectus, would only afford a faint notion of the various points of view in which they interest the historian and the antiquary. Mr. Akerman's volume, which contains a notice of every known variety, with copious illustrations, and is published at a very moderate price, should be consulted, not merely for these particular coins, but also for facts most valuable to all who are interested in Romano-British history.

  1. Ecl. I. 67.
  2. De Mall. Theod. Cons. v. 51.
  3. Carm. lib. 1. Od. 35. v. 29.