Rome and the Coinages of the Mediterranean: 200 BC to AD 64

Silver coins were the basis of early currency in the Mediterranean and can tell us much about how these early monetary economies worked. From the amounts of silver bullion in each coin to the origins of the metals used in the alloys, scientific analysis if often the only way that important information can be gathered about this fundamental instrument of commerce.

The spread of Roman coinage throughout the Mediterranean marked an important transition in monetary history, from a world of multiple currencies produced by competing powers to one dominated by the authority of Rome. The very different cultural and economic environments would have led to very different responses to economic stresses, with important long-term consequences. Huge quantities of metals were transported and minted into coinages to finance state ventures or were surrendered as booty or indemnities.  Coinage is a unique record of the past that can only be fully accessed through the application of scientific methods to unlock the information within. Until recently the potential of using metallurgical studies to explore these processes was little understood. Thanks to recent programmes of analysis (Butcher and Ponting, 2014) the importance of determining the composition of mainstream Mediterranean coinages under the Roman Empire in the later first and second centuries AD is now fully appreciated; however, the fundamental transitional phase from the second century BC to first century AD has not been studied in detail. Consequently, there is very little accurate information about the composition of most of the coinages of the period, and certainly no overall treatment of the coinages from the perspective of metal supply and coin quality.


This project is the fourth in a series of collaborations between Archaeometallurgist Matthew Ponting (Liverpool) and Numismatist Kevin Butcher (Warwick) funded by The Leverhulme Trust in 2002-3 (Grant Ref. RF&G/6/2002/0336) and the AHRC in 2006-2009 and 2014-2018 (Grant Refs:  119434 and AH/L013037/1).  The projects combine scientific and statistical analysis, numismatic method and comparative approaches to monetary history, to study, Roman silver coinage.  The analytical techniques used were principally inductively-coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES), thermal ionisation mass spectrometry (TIMS) and scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS).  The new project will re-visit Julio-Claudian silver coinage on a grander scale than originally attempted in 2002 plus all the major coinages of the Mediterranean between 200 BC and the first major reform of the Roman denarius in c. AD 64.  Nearly 3000 silver coins will be sampled by drilling by Dr Matthew Ponting and these will be analysed in the Elizabeth Slater Archaeological Science Laboratories at The University of Liverpool.  The same battery of techniques used for the earlier projects will be employed with ICP-AES being replaced by the new method of microwave-plasma atomic emission spectrometry (MP-AES).  In addition, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) will also be used to expand the range of trace elements measured.  New Project team members based at The Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility), Harwell and headed by Dr Adrian Hillier will also be exploring the potential of muonic x-ray emission spectrography (µXES) for completely non-invasive major-element analysis of coins that are impossible to sample by drilling.

Project team:

Kevin Butcher (Warwick, UK)

Matthew Ponting (Liverpool, UK)

Adrian Hillier (Rutherford Appleton Laboratories, UKRI)

Find out more about the Elizabeth Slater laboratories:


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