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Finding a Lost Emperor in a Clay Pot October 11, 2005
by Alexander Benenson
Images courtesy the Ashmolean Museum

Forget stone, a discovery of a Roman coin in Britain proves history is set in bronze and silver.

During the chaos and confusion of the third century A.D., amid widespread disease, famine, and barbarian invasions, a brazen upstart seizes control of a breakaway state within the Roman Empire. He proclaims himself emperor only to disappear days later, his life and story lost, save for only the briefest of remarks in two fragmentary and unreliable sources. Then, an amateur treasure hunter scanning the green fields of Oxfordshire with a metal detector chances upon a small clay pot filled with more than 5,000 ancient Roman coins. A British Museum archaeologist brushing away centuries of corrosion and carefully picking apart bronze and silver pieces, discovers one exceedingly strange coin. Among the thousands of unremarkable ones, this coin carries an unfamiliar bearded face, a perplexing name, Domitianus, and most strikingly, the three letters IMP, short for imperator, or emperor. [LARGER IMAGE]

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Suddenly, the hunt was on for another coin, this one found not buried in the ground, but buried in the archives of a small provincial museum in southern France. The French coin, dug up in 1900, was deemed worthless at the time, a modern counterfeit depicting what was surely a made up emperor. Amazingly, the portrait on the supposed fake matches the strange coin in the British Museum, as does the image on the reverse side. Small characteristic markings provide the final confirmation; both coins had been struck from the same die or stamp. The French coin is not a fake, and the bearded man, not an imposter, but a lost emperor.

It sounds like the plot to the latest bestseller, but it's not. The characters, including the lost emperor, are all real. The treasure hunter is Brian Malin, a local resident of Oxfordshire, who had found a similar sized hoard just miles away in 1989, and donated it to the nearby Ashmolean Museum. In the late 1980s, when England had no coherent strategy encouraging the reporting of such finds, and every year, thousands of coins were dug up and sold without being recorded, Malin's gift was extraordinary. Since then, Britain has instituted the Treasure Act, which lays down specific rules for the treatment and sale of ancient coins. It legally binds treasure hunters to report any find of more than two coins of gold or silver over 300 years old. If the find is deemed significant, British museums are given the chance to purchase the coins at fair market value.

Malin found the Domitianus coin in a second hoard, also from Chalgrove, which is ten miles southeast of Oxford, in 2003. Because the Domitianus coin was found fused together with thousands of other coins, all inside a Roman clay jar, its authenticity was unquestionable.

As the story reached the press, the coin became source of national pride. The British paper The Times printed a picture of the coin with the caption "Is this Britain's Lost Emperor?" Archaeologists and historians were quick to temper some of the sensationalism, noting that it was highly unlikely that Domitianus, who had probably been confined to a region in southwest Germany near the Danube, had ever even seen Britain, and that the coin had made its way to Oxfordshire via trade routes or troop movements. Even so, the discovery of the coin created a buzz throughout academic circles in Britain. Christopher Howgego, the curator of ancient coins at the Ashmolean, told reporters that, "the coin is one of the most interesting Roman objects ever found in Britain."

Malin first lent the coins to the British Museum for conservation and a short exhibit entitled Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past. Then, in 2005, the hoard, dubbed Chalgrove II, was bought by the Ashmolean Museum for around $75,000. The Domitianus coin accounting for nearly a quarter of the final price tag. The high market value of such rare coins can cause problems for historians trying to distinguish fakes from the real thing. "If a usurper's coin is considered to be a unique historical 'document', its cash-value rises accordingly, thus stimulating modern forgery--all the more reason why researchers must temper enthusiasm with caution," explains Lawrence Okamura, a historian and numismatist from the University of Missouri, who was a long time skeptic of the 1900 Domitianus coin because of the poor documentation concerning its discovery and subsequent journey to the small French museum.

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Even since the authenticity of the two coins has been established, the story of the rebel emperor remains frustratingly incomplete. Most of the little that we know about the lost emperor comes from two sources, The New Histories by the Greek Zosimus and the Historia Augustae, a compilation of biographical sketches of emperors penned by several unknown authors. They were both written a century after Domitianus' reign in A.D. 271, and combined, devote fewer than 30 words to the usurper. Zosimus, writing about the reign of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275), says only, "Epitimius, Urbanus, and Domitianus, were suspected of commiting treason [by Aurelian], and were immediately apprehended and punished." However, neither source says that Domitianus proclaimed himself emperor, a curious omission that also led historians to originally doubt the authenticity of the 1900 coin. Such fragmentary records of the western Roman frontier and its usurpers is often all that historians have to work with when trying to piece together the third-century. "Its' frustrating work," says Okamura, "You often wonder whether you're floundering in a closed inter-textual loop disconnected from real people and events."

However, through a composite of coins, artifacts, inscriptions, and texts historians and archaeologists have been able to sketch a rough narrative of period, known as the third-century crisis, from which the Chalgrove coins come. The chaos began after the humiliating defeat of the emperor Valerian at the hands of the Persians at the battle of Edessa in A.D. 259. He was captured, then stuffed, and put on display in the palace of the Persian ruler Sapor I. When Gallienus, Valerian's young and inexperienced son, took control of the empire he found its resources stretched thin by drought and disease, its forces vastly overextended and facing invasions in both the east and west. Postumus, a commander on the Danube, took advantage of the weakened Empire and declared himself emperor. Instead of trying to march on Rome, however, Postumus set up a breakaway state in the image of the Empire proper, and for nearly nine years ruled the so-called Gallic Empire, which included modern day Spain, France, and Britain. Then, in 269, a soldier named Laelianus tried to spark a military coup that set off a cascade of violence. The following years were fraught with factional fighting and desperate bids for power, with brutal assassinations happening on almost a monthly basis.

Domitianus, the man featured on the coin, seems to have grabbed power in the short interlude between the death of the emperor Victorinus in A.D. 271 and the accession of Tetricus later that year. Aurelius Victor, the fourth-century Roman history, tells us that Victorinus was killed by one of his own soldiers for having an affair with the man's wife. While it's likely that Domitianus killed Victorinus to gain control of the Gallic throne, it is unclear if he was actually the slighted soldier Aurelius writes about. In any case, we know that Domitianus' reign must have been extremely short, for the rule of his successor, Tetricus began only months later. In all probability, Domitianus had just enough time to take control of a mint, probably at Trier, in modern day Germany, and produce a small number of coins.

Domitianus was only one of a string of short-lived usurpers, who claimed imperial power before the breakaway state was reincorporated in A.D. 274. The rebel emperors differed from their Roman counterparts in a number of significant ways. None of the Gallic rulers had been confirmed by the Roman Senate, a formality that was still regarded as a necessary step to laying claim to the Empire. As a result, they had a precarious relationship with the official Roman emperor. At best, the Roman emperor ignored the Gallic usurper, content to have him fight off barbarians and manage unruly local tribes. At worst, the two emperors clashed head on in violent battles that pitched Roman against Roman. It is unlikely that Domitianus would have ever seen Rome, or even the Italian peninsula; the common Roman citizen probably knew as much about him as we do today, that is, almost nothing. The self-proclaimed "emperors" were not considered to be emperors at all by most of the citizens; in fact, the Romans had a separate name for men like Domitianus, tyrannus, meaning anyone who had come to power illegitimately. Though the word did not necessarily carry the pejorative meaning of its English cognate, tyrant, rulers like Domitianus were clearly viewed as inherently different from men like Claudius Gothicus and Aurelian, two of the emperors who ruled at Rome during the period.

The coin features Domitianus wearing a crown of radiant rays of light on the obverse, or heads side, with an inscription bearing a common imperial suffix: Imp(erator) C(aesar) Domitianus P(ius) Felix Aug(ustus), Emperor Caesar Domitianus, the dutiful and fortunate augustus. The bearded Domitianus bears a striking resemblance to his immediate predecessor, Victorinus, and the similarity between the two portraits suggests that the coin may not depict an actual likeness of Domitianus. The engraver who struck the coin may never have even seen the emperor, but rather fashioned the portrait in the typical style of the time copying coins already in circulation.

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On the reverse is a representation of the Roman goddess Concord, the goddess of harmony and meant to represent the solidarity of his military. The design was equal parts propaganda and wishful thinking. In every way, the coin imitates those of the legitimate Roman emperors of the time. The coin was a powerful form of rhetoric in the ancient world, perhaps the most powerful among a largely illiterate population. Minting a coin was as close as a usurper could get to legitimatizing his power.

The coin is an antoninianus or double denarius piece, a denomination which was introduced in A.D. 215 by the emperor Caracalla. As war and an economic recession spread throughout the empire in the second half of the third century the double denarius began to decline in quality. Nervous emperors responded by minting more coins and by continuing to debase the currency. By the time Domitianus minted his coins, the double denarius probably contained little more than two percent silver, just a thin wash over the base bronze. During these periods of inflation and violence, people worried about being robbed or murdered for what little money they had and were more likely to hoard, and bury their coins.

What turmoil led to the burial of the 5,000 coins at Chalgrove? There are a number of likely candidates. The latest coin in the hoard was minted in A.D. 279, suggesting that the hoard was probably buried in the decade or so after that date. The hoard could have been buried during Constantius Chlorus', invasion of Britain in A.D. 296, when he quashed the usurper Allectus and regained control of Britain for Rome.

The coins not only help to reconstruct the chronology of emperors, but also trace the economic, religious, and even architectural developments of the empire. We owe our knowledge of many Roman buildings, like Nero's ostentatious golden arch, to coins that have preserved their likenesses. The design of Rome's warships from the Punic Wars are known primarily through bronze coins of the Republican Era. Similarly, coins have corroborated previously unverifiable people, places, and events recorded in primary texts. And in exceptional cases, a single coin, like that of Domitianus, can create a whole new entry in our history books, prompting us to ask: what has yet to be found, and who else has been lost to us?

Alexander Benenson is an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY and an undergraduate at Yale University studying Roman History and Latin.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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