Have you done your recycling…of coins?

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.
Coin Recycle
Illustration by Tina Guo, 2017.

When a bunch of scholars interested in Roman coin recycling met up in Mainz in May 2014, they had a pretty productive time, publishing as many as 14 papers on the topic. Why did monetary reforms result in coin hoarding and copying? How did the length of circulation affect official coins and copies? What were the practical aspects of coin production? These are some of the questions raised in the volume reviewed by Richard Reece in “The production and recycling of coins in the Late Empire.”

Not that you should feel bad about not having done your recycling last week, but it turns out that everyone in the late Roman empire recycled (at least when coins and metals are considered). As proof, a paper by Chameroy provides maps, tables and diagrams describing patterns of coin circulation in what is present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. But locally-made coins were also found in places as diverse as Gortyn (Crete), Capernaum (Israel), Tournai (Belgium), and many others.

Technological progress has made studying coin recycling easier (surprise!). Markus Peter, whose main concern is later 4th-century coins, brings the good news that the search for coins has been considerably more successful since the invention of metal detectors and their employment in excavations. As Reece comments, “The smaller issues of A.D. 383+ suddenly come to the fore in the later years when metal detectors were used, so altering the chronological balance in the late 4th c.”

But what distinguishes a copy from an official coin and why on earth were copies even made? In other words, did coin recycling have its “rules of the game”? As demonstrated by F. Carla’s paper on the legal aspects of coin copying in the Later Empire, it actually did. In discussing the hoard of coins discovered at Llivia in a Spanish enclave in SE France, P.-M. Guilhard, O. Olesti, J. Guardia, and O. Mercedal make an interesting deduction that “with weights of less than 0.5 gram and diameters of less than 12 mm, most of the coins are obviously copies.” The researchers further link the dates, inscriptions, and imagery of the coins to the Byzantine reconquest of the 6th c., hinting at a connection between coin deposits and times of historical change. Reinforcing this theme is yet another coin hoard from Aquileia (Italy) described in the paper by M. Asolati, who traces the find’s origin to the troubled times after the attack by Attila in the 450s, which is when the hoard is thought to have been deposited in the chaos of an enemy invasion.

Yet not all hoards are a sign of misery, argues D. Wigg-Wolff, whose paper discusses coinage in 4th-century Trier. Although Trier’s coins of the 350s have been described by some sources as a sign of decline and collapse (namely, due to the invasions of the 350s), he points out that the copies suggest “a need for coinage: an economy at least in operation, if not flourishing, needs coinage which the official mint is unable for the moment to supply.” As the volume concludes, J.-M. Carrié examines the definition of copies of coin, asking “whether they are forgeries for gain or the production of temporary stop-gaps when regular issues are scarce”–a question yet to be answered.

If coin recycling sounds Greek to you, then by the time you finish this book, you will be Aristotle! (to borrow a line from Elle magazine). To discover the volume’s general ideas (as well as its very long title in German), check out Richard Reece’s review by becoming a JRA subscriber: http://journalofromanarch.com/order.html


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