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Rare Roman Coins Acquired for British Museum and Derby with Art Fund Help

Two very rare gold coins of the little known Roman emperor Carausius (AD 286-93), found in the North Midlands in 2007, have been acquired by the British Museum and Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Both feature an image of the emperor Carausius, who lead a breakaway ‘mini-empire’ of Britain and Gaul in the late third century.

Roman Coin

The first coin is a unique piece struck in London which has been acquired by the British Museum thanks to the generosity of funders including £43,500 from independent charity The Art Fund, the British Museum Friends and the Bottoms Bequest. The second coin was struck early in Carausius’ reign at Rouen and has been acquired by Derby Museum and Art Gallery, once again with grants from The Art Fund (£30,000) as well as the Victoria and Albert Fund, the Headley Trust, the Friends of Derby Museum and Art Gallery and Enlightenment – Collecting Cultures. The British Museum coin is on display in the Roman Britain gallery (Room 49, Case 14); the Derby coin will go on display in the near future.

The coins were found in spoil created by construction work by Derrick Fretwell. They were reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and declared Treasure in 2008. Gold coins of Carausius are extremely rare, until now only twenty-three have been found. The last example found was in 1975 in Hampshire and it is quite possible that we will have to wait for over thirty years before another one sees the light of day.

Carausius was a Menapian (from modern Belgium). In the AD 280s he was a leading general in the Roman army, possibly with authority over the Roman Fleet (“Classis Britannica”) that patrolled the English Channel and North Sea. The fleet was commanded from Boulogne. One of its major functions was to defend Britain and Gaul (France) from Saxon raiders; it also probably escorted barges that took British grain to the Roman army on the Rhine. Carausius fell foul of the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian, supposedly because he allowed the Saxons to raid and only intercepted them afterwards, keeping the stolen loot for himself! Rather than hand himself over, Carausius declared himself emperor of Northern Gaul and Britain and set up his own mini-empire.

The earlier of the two coins comes from Carausius’ mint at Rouen. Carausius only managed to maintain control of Northern Gaul for a few years and coins from Rouen are very rare. This is only the tenth gold coin recorded for the mint. It shows the emperor shaking hands with Concordia with the inscription “in harmony with the army”. This coin was probably struck to pay Carausius’ followers a ‘bounty’ on his accession, a practise carried out by all emperors. The second coin comes from the mint of London which struck many coins throughout Carausius’ reign, though this is a unique type. It shows Carausius wearing a helmet decorated with an animal design with an inscription that praises the emperor’s courage (virtus). The reverse trumpets ‘Imperial Peace’, something that Carausius tried to achieve by gaining the approval of the central emperors on the Continent – he even struck coins in the names of Diocletian and Maximianus to curry favour with them. Carausius successfully defended Britain against the central empire; however, he did not survive a coup d’état by his chancellor Allectus, who was to rule Britain from 293 to 296. The Roman emperor Constantius I finally retook Britain in 296, killing Allectus and bringing an end to Carausius’ breakaway realm.

We cannot be sure why these coins were buried, but whatever the reason the finder failed to recover them. A Roman soldier might expect to earn twelve gold coins a year before deductions were made for his expenses. The wheat he needed to make bread for a year would have cost almost 2 gold coins. For one gold coin, someone could have bought almost 100 bottles of wine or about 50 litres of olive oil. However, ten gold coins would have been needed to buy a pound of white silk.