Coin Relief – Issue Nineteen

Welcome to the latest issue of Coin Relief. This time Dr. Andrew Brown delves into the world of the Barbarous radiate. These are contemporary imitations of Roman coins, so-called due to their often crude style and the radiate crown worn by the emperor.

Barbarous radiates, c.AD 275-285

Contemporary copies of Roman coins were produced relatively extensively throughout the Roman period. There are various reasons why an individual might want to produce a copy (and indeed several ways in which this could be done!), the most obvious being a deliberate forgery for personal gain – if you’re able to produce and pass off a copied silver coin using a fraction of the silver an official coin should contain, for example, then
there is the potential for huge profit. Of course, within an empire where the production of coinage was often quite tightly controlled, the punishment if caught for producing forgeries
could be extreme. This may include anything up to banishment, crucifixion, death, or in the case of forging or adulterating gold coins, we hear that “free men should be thrown to the beasts” (“si quidem liberi sunt, ad bestia dari”) – a form of execution where the guilty were publicly killed by wild animals (e.g. lions) in the amphitheatres!

There are also episodes of counterfeiting that appear to have been the result of other economic pressures though. Some of these copies may well have been more or less ‘official’ or at least accepted as currency in circulation (albeit perhaps with lesser value than their official counterparts). This was particularly at times when shortages in coin supply meant, in a British setting at least, there was a need for additional coinage to top up the currency pool. From the Republican and early Imperial periods irregular and plated copies of silver denarii appear frequently, and especially so by the Severan period where they are prolific as PAS finds in Britain although contrastingly scarce in hoarded assemblages. In the 1st century, unofficial or semi-official bronze asses and dupondii of Claudius I appear in some quantity in Britain.

Contemporary copy of an as of Claudius I, c.AD 41-54. Record ID LON-F80D08 (Copyright: Museum of London, License: CC-BY-SA).

It is in the 3rd century that we see a spike in contemporary copies, specifically in the production of large quantities of irregular radiates that copy official prototypes issued by the
Roman mints. These so-called ‘barbarous radiates’ appear in Britain and Gaul and typically copy coins of the central emperors from Gallienus (sole reign, c.AD 260-268) to Quintillus and the Gallic usurpers from Postumus to Tetricus II, with some later examples (e.g. for Aurelian (AD 270-275) and Probus (AD 276-282)). They vary in both size and style/execution, some measuring only a few millimetres in diameter and far removed from their original prototypes. Others are better executed but can be distinguished from official coins based on their size or, for example, errors in obverse and reverse legends or types.

Radiates of Tetricus II from official issue (left: HAMP-547B06, copyright: Winchester Museum Service, License: CC-BY-SA) to contemporary copies – barbarous radiates (WILT-C88489, copyright: Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum; SUSS-63EB6E, copyright: all rights reserved. Both license CC-BY-SA).

But why copy radiates?

We have already seen in previous editions how by the AD 260s-270s the radiate introduced by Caracalla in AD 215 had experienced huge debasement to the point that under the Gallic usurpers and with Claudius II it was essentially a bronze coin with just a few percent silver content. In the last edition we looked at how Aurelian sought to resolve some of the problems with the coinage by introducing a reformed radiate, the aurelianus, with an improved 5% silver. This was produced by all of the mints and entered general circulation in AD 274-275. However, despite attempts to recall the old debased radiates (now
also largely devalued by Aurelian’s reforms) from circulation, in the western provinces and particularly in Gaul and Britain the reformed radiates did not experience widespread usage. Indeed, the coins struck at Lyon lack the typical XX or XXI that would signify their reformed status, perhaps indicative that the authorities here gave up or did not try to push the new
denomination into the currency pool. 

There appear to be two issue at play here. Up until Tetricus’ surrender to Aurelian in AD 274 the Gallic empire produced large numbers of debased radiates and in the western provinces these were used in huge quantity in general circulation. This, of course, stopped with Aurelian and the closure of the Gallic mints. At the same time, the poor penetration and comparatively higher value of the new aurelianus meant that it wasn’t in widespread use in
the west. The reaction to this was the production in large number of contemporary copies to fill the gap in the coin supply and the need for small change between Aurelian’s reforms in c.AD 275 and the accession of Carausius in AD 286. George Boon’s Counterfeit Coins in Roman Britain (1988) is important here both for the background to contemporary copies generally and the barbarous radiate phenomenon specifically. He demonstrates (pp. 129-132) how die links over long distances or between coins in different hoarded assemblages, the reuse of aureliani, and raw material (e.g. copper-alloy bars to be chopped up as coin blanks) for the production of radiate copies highlight how widespread the phenomenon was, perhaps with numerous local ‘mints’ producing vast quantities of these often tiny coins that could have travelled extensively. It is arguable as to whether these represent full value coinage like earlier pre-reform issues or more plausibly a token coinage to meet the shortfall of currency in circulation.

Barbarous radiates on the PAS

The proliferation of barbarous radiates is evident both in site finds and hoarded assemblages found in Britain. Hoards ending with or containing barbarous radiates are not uncommon – many of the largest hoards we see in Britain have examples – there were 2,262 in Normanby, 2,149 in Cunetio (of which 1,259 are copies of Postumus), and several hundred in Frome. Roger Bland notes 53 hoards terminating with barbarous radiates, c.AD 275-286, and the PAS now records over 90 hoards that contain barbarous radiates. Bland also points to John Davies’ doctoral research that identified two broad hoard groups: Class A hoards with barbarous radiates of similar size to their prototypes and a distribution in the south and east of Britain; Class B hoards that are almost exclusively small module copies, generally with no
regular coinage, and with a western and northern distribution. Bland’s examples fall within this latter group and he notes considerable clusters in the south west (Cornwall, Somerset,
Gloucestershire, and south Wales) and Sussex. 

Left: Hoards containing barbarous radiates recorded on the PAS. Right: Barbarous radiates on the PAS (blue dots) and hoards containing barbarous radiates (red triangles).

On the PAS itself, a search using the terms ‘barbarous’ and ‘radiate’ produced almost 16,000 coins, of which c.11,000 are recorded as ‘barbarous radiates’, over 1,000 are ‘Divus Claudius (barbarous radiate)’ (see below), the remainder contemporary copies of specific rulers or of unclear type. All of these fall in to Reece Period 14 and are dated broadly to c.AD 275-285 – the ten-year gap between Aurelian’s reforms and the appearance of Diocletian, Maximian, and ultimately Carausius. The greatest numbers appear to be in a band from Wiltshire through to East Anglia and then north into Yorkshire. However, if we look at the concentrations of these coins in a heatmap it is clear that the largest concentrations are to be found in east Anglia. 

Heatmap showing the concentrations of barbarous radiates recorded through the PAS. Hoards containing barbarous radiates indicated by red triangles.

Interestingly, if we look at the percentages of radiates as they are currently recorded on the PAS, this is also confirmed to some degree. By filtering the PAS data for all radiates and comparing that to the total numbers of coins recorded with a search of ‘barbarous AND radiate’, we get the following figures for the top 10 counties with barbarous radiates.

Percentages of barbarous radiates in the 10 counties with the largest numbers of barbarous radiates recorded (highest percentages in pink).

Clearly, Essex has the largest percentage (48% of all radiates), followed by Cambridgeshire (42%), Hertfordshire and Suffolk (both 35%). The remaining six counties all average between 20-30% irregular copies – it is worth noting that this is still much higher than the 3.8% or 4.7% of irregular copies in the Cunetio and Normanby hoards respectively. These coins were clearly therefore in circulation in some quantity, but not always hoarded to the same degree as regular types. I should add here that this is a very quick, cursory glimpse at these relative volumes and, with extensive work on the PAS material to drop all of these coins in their correct places, it is likely that this picture may
change slightly. Even so, it is striking how the percentages correlate with the distribution and heat map. One thing to remember when looking at barbarous radiates is that it is very unusual to get two that are the same, although, as we shall see below, there are examples of die-linked groups. This means there is no standard reference work for identifying them. Many hoard
catalogues and publications have numerous examples of different types of barbarous radiates and there are some prototypes (e.g. for Victorinus, Tetricus I, and Tetricus II) that are
regularly copied, but there isn’t any hard and fast typology. Instead, when recording through the PAS they are recorded as ‘barbarous radiates’ with their wide AD 275-285 date range but,
where possible, with their prototype identified. This in itself isn’t always possible with particularly small, poor, or weird (and wonderful!) copies, or with those that combined obverse and reverse types of different rulers or coin issues! The Normanby catalogue is useful in publishing many irregular types as well as those that mix reigns or issues.

Production

Left: Coin mould for the production of forged denarii of Severus Alexander, AD 222-235 (LON-BEB3F5, copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, license: CC-BY). Middle: Obverse coin die for the production of denarii of Marcus Aurelius as caesar (LVPL-AA6A55, copyright: National Museums Liverpool, license: CC-BY-SA). Right: Lead coin mould, probably for a cliche copy, of either a radiate or aureus of Tacitus, AD 275-276 (LVPL-0A5332, copyright: National Museum Liverpool, license: CC-BY-SA).

There is some evidence on the PAS for the unofficial production of late Roman bronze coinage, some of which likely relates to 3rd century barbarous radiates. For earlier periods there are examples of both coin moulds and coin dies for the manufacture of counterfeit silver denarii. Although there is no clear example of a radiate die, there is a single lead mould with an obverse type for Tacitus. It is likely that this was used for the manufacture of cliché copies where a base metal core is covered by thin sheets of precious metal (gold or silver) that are hammered in the mould to produce the coin type. The PAS example is either for a radiate or an aureus, but it’s unclear which. Other groups of material are recorded on the database too that likely represent the raw
materials used in coin production. It is worth looking out for these or similar objects when recording material through the PAS in case they might provide evidence for counterfeit production in local workshops (or possibly even local ‘mints’!). 

Three iron coin dies from Buckinghamshire were recorded along with multiple coin blanks and copper-alloy pellets that appear to have been cut from rods to produce blanks. They were found in the same area as the Fenny Stratford hoard, a forger’s hoard discovered just south of Milton Keynes during roadworks in 1990 comprising three ceramic vessels containing blanks, pellets, and two iron dies, likely for late-3rd or 4th century counterfeits. It is
likely that the PAS examples represent a similar assemblage.
Although the objects from Buckinghamshire aren’t definitively for the production of barbarous radiates, they do present the kind of material we might expect to see in local manufacture of contemporary copies. Indeed, a second similar group has also been recorded from near Bentley, South Yorkshire, that includes 121 coins or blanks and a possible fragment from a cut copper-alloy rod, two of the coins identifiable as barbarous radiates
copying coins of Victorinus or Tetricus I. Other examples of groups of blanks are known from various locations and although they can’t categorically be attributed to the production of barbarous radiates it is only through recording them and their
associated material that we can understand more about the processes of local coin production during the Roman period.

Barbarous radiates: copies of central empire rulers

A selection of barbarous radiates copying coinage of the central emperors.

Barbarous radiates copying the central emperors begin essentially with coin types from the sole reign of Gallienus (AD 260-268) and become increasingly common for Claudius II, before tailing off again with the likes of Aurelian and Probus. Examples of Gallienus do appear on the PAS, particularly for issues from his later series at Rome (notably his ‘zoo series’) but these are typically less common than those of Claudius II in particular – there were numerous Gallienus examples in the Frome hoard. These can be a little harder to spot sometimes and it will be features such as mis-spelt legends or slightly odd looking obverse and reverse types that will be the giveaway. As a general rule, if you’re not certain it’s definitely a copy when recording, leave it under Gallienus! These can sometimes also be confused with coins of Allectus (both of which have obverse legends that start
similarly: IMP GALLIENVS… or IMP C ALLECTVS…, the G and C often appearing very similar) or Carausius, so some care is needed when recording them.

Coins of Claudius are common, Quintillus less so, although oddly sometimes difficult to tell apart from official coins. As the quality of the products from the mint of Rome decreases into Claudius’ reign it is sometimes difficult to tell apart barbarous copies from the Friday afternoon issues struck by mint workers deliberately producing adulterated, poor quality coins! This can be something of a headache to untangle!

Coins of the central emperors from Aurelian onward are rare, in large part because the prototypes do not circulate widely after Aurelian’s reforms so they are not as accessible to copy. There are some examples on the PAS but not in any great number. They tend to be quite clearly different from the official coins, not least in their lack of silver content, often with blundered or irregular legends as well as bust types that are clearly removed from the
official issues.

Barbarous radiates: Divus Claudius

By far the most commonly seen contemporary copies of the central emperors are the posthumous issues of Divus Claudius II. Indeed, it is likely that the majority of these that we see are irregular. The official coins were struck under Quintillus, probably also early in Aurelian’s reign, and are not always of great quality themselves given that they were issued prior to Aurelian’s reforms. The copies are generally worse still and the two main reverse types – the altar and the eagle – range from being identifiable to highly stylised and often on quite small module coins. Do look out for examples that mix Claudius’ lifetime and posthumous issues, as well as those of Quintillus and Aurelian.

Left: Radiate of Divus Claudius II c.AD 270 (LEIC-3F5FB3, Leicestershire County Council, license: CC-BY). Middle and right: Contemporary copies of the altar type (CORN-C28546, Royal Institute of Cornwall, BH-650B09, Portable Antiquities Scheme, both license CC-BY).

The contemporary copies – barbarous radiates – of Claudius’ posthumous issues make up at least 1,000 coins recorded through the PAS (and I think likely much more), so they are a significant percentage of the total and one of the more common types you are likely to see. If we compare how they are distributed nationally the picture is quite different to that of the barbarous radiates generally.

Whereas places like Wiltshire, East Anglia, and Yorkshire remain a focus, the concentration as highlighted in the heat map has shifted very definitely to the Wiltshire/Hampshire area albeit still with a large proportion in the east too. Whether this reflects elements of recovery and recording remains to be untangled, but on current evidence it seems that the Divus Claudius copies are more likely to be found and recorded through the PAS in the south west than anywhere else.

Distribution of Divus Claudius copies on the PAS, with hoards (in red triangles, left) and heatmap (right).

Barbarous radiates: The Gallic Empire

Copies of the Gallic emperors from Postumus to Tetricus II are prolific and make up the majority of the barbarous radiates recorded through the PAS. It is sometimes difficult to separate poor quality official coins from good contemporary copies, although the latter are often slightly stylised or have errors in the dies or legends that would point to them being copies. In all cases, poor quality and small flans, as well as coins that are struck with unusual die axes between the obverse and reverse dies, can be indications that the coin is a copy rather than a product of one of the official mints. Of course, given the Gallic rulers are usurpers where the line between official and unofficial mint lies is another matter entirely!

Left: Radiate of Postumus c.AD 260-269 (HAMP-CBFF28, Winchester Museum Service, license CC-BY-SA). Middle and right: Contemporary copies of radiates of Postumus (HAMP-A2C283, Winchester Museum Service, and LEIC-AB01B6, Leicestershire County Council, both license CC-BY).

Although large numbers of Postumus copies were noted in Cunetio, there are fewer of these types on the PAS than for his successors. His early coinage in particular is better quality and
with higher silver content than the end of his reign, so we also get some base or plated copies for Postumus in this period.

Copies of Laelian and Marius are generally rare as PAS finds, especially so for Laelian, for which there appears to be only one example and the first of its kind noted by Sam Moorhead or Roger Bland when it was reported in 2010. Given his very short reign and the very few coins of Laelian we record in Britain, we might not expect copies of his type to circulate in any volume, if at all.

There are several hundred contemporary copies for each of Victorinus, Tetricus I and Tetricus II recorded through the PAS. For the two senior emperors, it is often difficult to tell whether the coin is intended to be Victorinus or Tetricus I, particularly when legends are garbled, missing, or reverse types are mixed. Tetricus II is more straightforward in that he lacks a beard!

Some Gallic oddities!

Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to tell whether a barbarous radiate is for a specific Gallic ruler or indeed what the reverse type is supposed to be. They can be dated to AD 275-285 and identified as probably ‘Gallic’, but that’s often as far as we can get – here are a few ‘unique’ examples!

Barbarous radiates where the ruler and reverse type are difficult to determine: HAMP-053367BERK-897AE5SUSS-7BA3B3, and PUBLIC-95F6AD (Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, West Berkshire, Sussex Archaeology Society, All Rights Reserved, License: All CC-BY).

Barbarous radiate groups

Although the majority of barbarous radiates we see tend to be quite individual, the sheer volume of material and the evidence for their manufacture makes the appearance of groups of coins from the same dies a real possibility. There are several such groups recorded through the PAS currently, adding to our understanding of these localised copies, and it is worth noting if you do come across more as it will help to fill out the picture nationally for these small workshops.

One day someone will write the typology for barbarous radiates. But, in the meantime, keep recording them, keep photographing them, and remember that these are products from a specific place in time – they’re not always as bad or uninteresting as they first might seem!

References and further reading:
A. Brown 50 Finds of Roman Coinage from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Forthcoming, 2021): p.68

S. Estiot, http://www.ric.mom.fr/en/info/sysmon

G.C. Boon ‘Counterfeit Coins in Roman Britain in J. Casey and R. Reece (eds.) Coins and the Archaeologist (Seaby: London, 1988): Chapter 7

R. Bland Coin Hoards and Hoarding in Roman Britain AD 43-c.498 (Spink, 2018): pp. 80-81, map 18