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Simone Boccardi

Hoarding the “good” denarius so as not to be overwhelmed by inflation or devaluation: treasures of silver coins in Rome at the end of the second century AD

Doctoral Programme in Ancient Heritage Studies (interathenaeum University of Trieste, University of Udine and Università Ca’ Foscari of Venice)

What do ancient coins tell us, especially hoards or treasures buried and never recovered? What is their documentary potential to reconstruct and better understand the economy and the role of coins, in this case in the Roman Empire? One of the Reference institutions on the national and international scene for this type of research is the Coin Cabinet of the National Roman Museum with which the University of Trieste - Department of Humanities has started a research collaboration. In particular, since its establishment at the end of the nineteenth century at the urging of the copious finds of coins carried out during the construction activity that was gradually shaping the face of the new capital of the Kingdom - first and foremost the material recovered from the Tiber, during the reconstruction of its embankments - the Coin Cabinethad its collections increased, progressively and incessantly, not only with finds from excavations (sporadic or as hoards) but also with private collections donate (e.g. the collection of Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia) or acquired (e.g. the collection of the Milanese Francesco Gnecchi) to form the current consistency of over half a million pieces. In summary: an enormous amount of monetary finds, a real treasure largely unexplored and a mine for scholars of the ancient world, looking for concrete data to better define the economic dynamics on a quantitative basis, especially for the history of Rome.

In this context, the greatest research potentials are identified in the "treasures" or "coin hoards" of the Roman imperial era, essential tools for investigating different aspects of Roman society, both economic and historical, reflected in the type and quantity of hoarded coins. By way of explanation: a choice made following criteria of weight and quality of metal can identify a hoarder who is careful and accustomed to the use of coins, just as the accumulation of a certain denomination than another can be comparable to a hoarding of "good" money to defend their interests during an economic crisis that saw a progressive devaluation of money, or identify an emergency accumulation, a reflection of the political-military instability that undermined the security of the Empire and its citizens. This type of research includes the PhD project illustrated here, which aims to document, analyse and study the contents of some important Roman-Imperial hoards from the III century AD of silver coins preserved in the Coin Cabinet of the National Roman Museum, for a total of approx. 6,400 coins. The objectives of the survey are the analysis of numismatic evidence hidden in a given juncture to deduce historical, political and economic information to restore it to our knowledge after a long storage in the ground. The first part of this research concerned the study of a storage room of coins purchased by the Italian state in 1923 and coming, according to the documentation of the time, from Syria - although it is most likely a Lebanese discovery. The hoard is composed of 261 denarii, a Roman silver coin of approx. 3 grams, and has a chronological range between the issues of the Neronian era (c. 67-68 AD) (fig. 1) and those of Caracalla (198-217 AD). With what result? This is quite interesting because this accumulation of silver coin demonstrates the stability of the denarius from Nero's reform at least until the end of the 2nd century, so for a century and a half. What if this solidity of the monetary system were one of the reasons for the economic development of the Roman Empire between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD?

Figure 1: Denarius of Nero (54-68 AD) minted in Rome in c. 67-68 AD (obverse)

Here is what the analysis of emissions present in the hoard tells us (quantitative summary fig. 2). First of all, its structure appears similar to that of other contemporary accumulations, which are characterized by the absence of Roman republican and first empire coins. These coins had disappeared from the bulk of circulation because after the monetary reform planned by Nero in 64 AD the weight and the fine of the silver currency (the denarius) decreased, causing an increase in the value of the previous similar coins (which have become better for weight and intrinsic value); in particular, happened what was enunciated by the so-called Gresham's law according to which "bad" (or convenient) coin drives out "good" (or precious) coin. Who did it belong to and when was this "savings" hidden from the amount slightly higher than the annual salary of a soldier, set by Augustus at 225 denarii per year? We can hypothesize that it belonged to a soldier who had served in some legion in the East, probably a veteran of the military campaigns of Septimius Severus and that the period of concealment shortly precedes the outbreak of the Parthian war fought by Caracalla between 215 and 217 AD.

This is the first step of the PhD research which, through the analysis of the hoards preserved in the Coin Cabinet of the Roman National Museum from the urban area of Rome, aims to bring out economic information in particular concerning the diffusion and volume of production of single monetary issues, the change in the use of coins in the city compared to the peripheral settlements, the reconstruction on a quantitative basis of inflationary processes or devaluations caused by the increase in the demand for coins to face military expenses or management of the administrative apparatus of the Empire. Research themes that are rarely used for antiquity, perhaps useful for understanding the current complexities of our monetary system.

Figure 2: "from Syria” Hoard, coin summary

Authors and affiliations

Simone Boccardi1,
1Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici – Università di Trieste, Via del Lazzaretto Vecchio 8, 34123 Trieste (TS)


Simone Boccardi, email:


S. Boccardi
Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano. Ripostigli. Il ripostiglio “dalla Siria” (1923)
(Bollettino di Numismatica. Materiali 47), Roma 2019 12

Informazioni aggiornate al: 14.9.2020 alle ore 13:19