Two rare gold coins of the rebel Roman emperor Carausius have been discovered on a construction site in the Midlands. Gold coins of Carausius are extremely rare. Only 23 are known, and the last was found as long ago as 1975 in Hampshire.
Carausius was a Menapian (an ancient Belgian) who commanded the British Fleet (Classis Britannica) operating in the English Channel and the North Sea in the AD 280s. Carausius fell out with reigning emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Hostile sources have it that he was lining his own pocket with plunder recovered from Saxon sea-raiders. It seems more likely that he led a regional rebellion against central authority, since the mini-empire he established in Northern Gaul and Britain survived for a decade, and must therefore have enjoyed strong local support.
Minting coins was crucial to substantiating claims to legitimacy during a revolt. Carausius’s earliest gold issues were minted at Rouen, but he retained control of Northern Gaul for only a few years, so these are exceptionally rare. One of the two newly discovered coins is, however, from Rouen, making it only the tenth ever found, and the third of this particular type. It shows the emperor shaking hands with Concordia and the inscription ‘in harmony with the army’ – a sure sign that things at the time were less than harmonious!
The other coin was from the more prolific London mint, the 15th known, though of a unique type. It shows Carausius wearing a helmet decorated with an animal design. The reverse trumpets ‘Imperial Peace’. The themes of these coins – concord and peace – are typical of Carausian issues: the rebel emperor sought a negotiated settlement with his rivals, and appealed for popular support on the basis that he represented order and security.
Carausius was overthrown by his own finance minister, Allectus, in AD 293. But Allectus was defeated by Maximian three years later and the rebel empire dissolved. ‘Why these coins were buried we will never know,’ said Sam Moorhead, Roman coins expert at the British Museum. ‘A Roman soldier might expect to earn 12 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 two 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.’
Perhaps, then, the coins represent a small cache of private treasure, buried for safety in troubled times, and never recovered by its owner.
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