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This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.



Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Debasement and deception: The 3rd Century crisis and the Beau Street Hoard.


The Roman Empire has always been famous for the monuments of Rome and a prosperous Empire, spanning most of modern Europe and the Mediterranean. So it is surprising to know that, in the 3rd Century AD, a very serious financial crisis took place, caused by prolonged civil wars and invasions. The Beau Street Hoard contains coins from a long date range (32 BC - 275 AD) and so it tells the story of this crisis.

At the start of the Roman Empire the metal used to make coins was of very high quality. The silver coins issued by early Emperors (such as Augustus and Tiberius) contain around 98-100% silver. As time wore on however, the cost of maintaining a huge Empire put financial strain on the Emperors. Base metals, such as iron and copper, were added to the silver to make it less pure and cheaper to produce. This process is called debasement. By the start of the 3rd Century AD, only around 40% silver was being used to produce the main denomination of the period, known as the
radiate. 

Things only got worse as the 3rd Century progressed. The Romans faced threats from both the Northern and Eastern Frontiers. The Northern frontier provinces, Gaul and Britain, even formed a breakaway Empire. Severe financial strain, caused by the cost of wars on the frontiers, meant that the silver content of the radiate was reduced to less than 10%. Images of coins from the Beau Street Hoard show a timeline of debasement in the Roman Empire.

Timeline of debasement – left to right
50s A.D. Nero denarius90% silver
190s-200s A.D. Septimius Severus denarius65% silver
250s A.D. Trajan Decius radiate40% silver
260s A.D. Gallienus radiate20% silver
270s A.D. Tetricus I radiate: 1-2% silver


As well as debased coins, unofficial copies of the radiate are frequently found in Britain. These coins are known as barbarous radiates. The production of copies had always been a problem in the Roman Empire, but by the mid-3rd Century AD it had become endemic. Presumably, when official supplies ran low, coins were produced locally to meet demand.

There are examples of barbarous radiates from the Beau Street hoard and images taken by the Roman Baths U3A volunteers show just how different these copies were. As well as being smaller and thinner, barbarous radiates also have very poor quality images and inscriptions. It’s a wonder anyone was fooled at all!

An official coin of the Emperor Claudius II and an unofficial copy (right) from the Beau St Hoard. This particular coin was issued after the death of Claudius in 270 AD and the reverse shows an altar.


An official coin of the Emperor Quintillus (270 AD) and an unofficial copy (right) from the Beau St Hoard. The reverse of the coins shows Pax (Peace) holding a branch and caduceus.


Emma, Future Curator

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