Roman Republican Coins in the British Museum

E Ghey, I Leins (eds) - descriptions and chronology after MH Crawford

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History of the British Museum collection

The British Museum’s collection of Coins and Medals was formed by several significant early donations; among those containing Roman Republican coins were the collections of Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode (bequeathed in 1799) and that of King George III (presented to the nation by King George IV in 1823). Other important early acquisitions include the collection of Charles Townley, purchased in 1814, the collection of Richard Payne Knight, bequeathed in 1824 and 876 coins from the collection of the Revd Dr George Frederick Nott, purchased at auction at Sotheby’s in 1842.

A turning point in the history of the collection was the involvement of Count John Francis William de Salis.

A collector and keen numismatist, he offered his own collection to the Museum on the condition that he might use the Museum’s collections to continue his work on the classification of Roman coins. He reorganised the Roman Republican coin collection from its previous alphabetical arrangement by family name into a chronological and geographical order. This work formed the basis of Grueber’s 1910 catalogue. De Salis also acquired new coins on behalf of the Museum, exchanging his own duplicates for this purpose. Another important influence on the study of Roman Republican coinage in this period was the Duc de Blacas, whose collection was purchased in 1866, and included some 1,000 Republican coins.

The preparation of Grueber’s 1910 catalogue provided an impetus for a further period of acquisition. Grueber (Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals from 1906 to 1912) purchased coins specifically to fill in gaps in the series and for inclusion in the Catalogue. This included over 900 coins purchased from the dealer W.S. Lincoln & Son from 1901 to 1907. Unfortunately there is no information relating to the prior provenance of any of these coins. It is also unfortunate that when the 1910 catalogue was prepared, some tickets bearing registration numbers were not retained, with the consequent loss of acquisition information. However, coins acquired from important collections were recorded as such in the catalogue.

Recent acquisitions

A small but significant part of the collection consists of hoards found in the UK and acquired through the law of Treasure Trove, and later through the Treasure Act. Roman Republican denarii are commonly found as casual losses on Romano-British sites and in British hoards up to the early 2nd century AD [1]. A hoard from Norton Subcourse (Norfolk), consisting of 113 coins up to the reign of Claudius, was acquired in its entirety by the British Museum. Coins were also acquired from the Howe (Norfolk) hoard, which consisted of 12 Roman Imperial aurei and 102 Republican and Imperial denarii. The collection also includes 25 coins from the hoard found at Chippenham (Cambridgeshire). The 35 Republican denarii from the Eriswell (Suffolk) hoard were found with 255 Iron Age Icenian coins and 37 Imperial denarii up to AD 55.

Coins from Wanborough (Surrey) were associated with a temple site and appear to have been part of a large assemblage of Iron Age and Roman coins; the exact circumstances of deposition are unclear due to disturbance from looting of the site. A comparison may be made with the hoard from Waltham St Lawrence (Berkshire), which was found near the Weycock Hill temple and contained both Iron Age and Roman coins. Continental hoards represented in the collection include those from Córdoba (Spain) and Naples (Italy). Very few of the older acquisitions have known provenance, but the coins commonly have the appearance of those from antiquarian collections rather than British site finds.

In 2002, the bequest of the American collector and numismatist, Charles A. Hersh, added over 5,000 coins to the Roman Republican collection. These were principally denarii, including unusual overstrikes and barbarous coins. The Hersh bequest consisted of around 7,000 coins in total and also included early Macedonian silver and bronze coins and coins of Alexander the Great and his successors. Hersh’s relationship with the British Museum was formed during three years spent on a fellowship in the Department of Coins and Medals in the 1950s. His collection was built up over six decades, whilst he pursued a successful career in banking [2]. Hersh specifically collected types not in the British Museum with the intention of leaving his collection to the Museum, making it a particularly important bequest.

  • ^ [1] - The old, worn coinage was recalled by Trajan in c. AD 107, presumably for melting down and re-use (Dio Cassius 68.15, 3). However some Republican silver coins continued in circulation beyond this date; particularly the ‘legionary denarii’ of Mark Antony which were of lower silver content.
  • ^ [2] - ‘Charles Hersh’ in Burnett et al, eds. 1998, pp. ix–x; Dowler and Leins 2008.
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