Our story begins with a day at the beach in the year 55 BCE. The general Julius Caesar has just landed on the island of Britain, the first prominent Roman to do so. He has set into action a series of invasions, colonization, conflicts, and growth that would come to characterize the history of Roman Britain.
The story of that history would be handed down most notably through its art and literature, but would also be captured perhaps most interestingly by the spare change in the pockets of the people.
Roman Currency: More Than Just Money
The Romans adopted the use of coins from the Greeks, but made the idea of currency into something all their own. In the later years of the republic, coins would come to depict names, places, faces, and all manner of propaganda. They could be distributed and incorporated into everyday life in a way unparalleled by any other material medium.
More importantly, this trademark of Roman culture went with the Romans wherever they went. When Julius Caesar stood on the beach that day, he had not only made physical contact, he had had brought together two cultures that would fuse into something new, forever memorable. That fusion was recorded in the indelible inscriptions and portraits found in coin hordes across ancient Britain.
Invasion and Contact: Caeser Meets Commius
Now to be fair, Caesar didn’t get to sun himself on the beach very long. He was quickly met with a slew of Celtic chariots that drove the Romans back across the channel. Defeat didn’t sit well, and approximately a year later he launched a second invasion. The effort was well supported this time, namely by minority tribes in Britain who viewed an allegiance with Rome as a means of upsetting the powers that be.
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Caesar had been using various contacts to communicate with Kings he deemed ‘potentially friendly to Rome’. The most notable among these contacts was named Commius, his work allowed the Romans on their second attempt to land, fight, and make their way inland to establish permanent communication with the ‘friendly kings’.
Ancient Coins Fusing Two Cultures
When Vercingetorix revolted a few years down the line, Commius switched sides and fled from the Roman border into Britain. Once there, he set up camp and began trying to establish himself as a legitimate leader. His tool of choice: coins. Using the techniques he learned from the Romans, Commius began minting coins featuring the Latinized version of his name, his portrait, and a variety of traditional Celtic symbols like the wheel and horse. The end result was a fusion of the two cultures and a physical record of the beginning of Roman influence on the island.
Commius’ coins caught on quickly. Within half a century, inscribed currency had become the most popular form of political propaganda on the island. The archaeological record shows an explosion in diversity, as more and more aspiring kings turn to coins as a means of legitimizing their rule.
Cunebelinus: First British King on a Coin
The most successful at using coins in this fashion is, not surprisingly, Cunebelinus, the most well documented early British king. He minted coins with such fervor, and in such great quantity, that the geographic boundaries of his kingdom can be easily marked out today by the range in which they are found archaeologically. Moreover, the coins themselves tell us something very important about Cunebelinus and his people.
The coins are exceptionally Roman in their design, with fully classicized portraiture and even images of the goddess ‘Victory.’ The Cunebelinus coins are also a reflection of a people who are, themselves, exceptionally Roman. Cunebelinus adopts so much from his southern neighbors that his capital city of Camulodonum (modern day Colchester) is often considered the first true outpost of Roman culture in Britain. The historian Strabo records much of the relationship between Rome and Cunebelinus, but in the archaeological record left behind, we are given a tangible and very human marker of a cultural revolution that happened two millennia ago.
When Cunebelinus dies, his sons go on to reject Rome and its influence; the events that follow will make or break a new emperor and decide the fate of Roman Britain. Blood will be shed, history will be made, and coins will be minted.
Potter, T. W. Roman Britain. (1997). Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. Print.
Russell, Miles, and Stuart Laycock. UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia. (2010). Stroud: History.
E. Togo Salmon Papers II. Roman coins and public life under the empire. Editors: Paul, G. M. Lerardi, M.