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A Talking Coin: A Fable of Ancient Rome


By Geoffrey Cope….

History told through a collection and a coin

An old man (a retired centurion) lives on a farm north of Rome in Italy. A farm where, almost two thousand years later, the family coin collection would be found.

The year is 170 CE.

The land was granted by Rome to a far distant ancestor–who had also been a soldier–in the days of Augustus Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor in 27 BCE. He had started the collection with one bronze coin, and over time it had been passed down to the oldest son, generation after generation, each one adding to the collection.

When the old man retired, he returned to Italy (unlike most of his comrades, who did not) and took for his wife a much younger woman–the daughter of a respected local tanner. The old centurion is surrounded by family. He lives a simple life; they farm, and he still has money from his soldiering days, including a pension. They have a couple of slaves – a housemaid and a field hand.

The retired soldier settled in the old Roman town of Volsinii (one day to be called Bolsena), not far from the lake and just 150km north of Rome. Scenic, if not the best land for farming.

One night he sits by the fire with his oldest boy sitting on the floor by his knee. The old centurion tells stories about his soldiering days… about his service in Gaul and in far Britain. He was serving there when the Emperor Hadrian visited. The boy’s father tells of how Hadrian addressed the armies of Britain in the north, where there was being built a great wall. The boy stares into the fire as his father describes the scene: the standards, the red cloaks of the officers billowing in the wind, the klaxons and the cheering, and the wall stretching away into the distance.

After a while the centurion falls silent, looking into the fire. Then…

“My son, I am old and tired. It’s time to show you something. Put on your cloak and come with me.”

Everyone in the house is asleep. The pair walk outside into the moonlit night, across the yard to where the old soldier collects a mattock and on out into the field.

“See that Cypress tree on the hill and this one behind us by the gate?”, he asks. “Imagine a line between them. We will walk that line now and I’m going to show you the treasure of our house.”

The boy is excited and a little frightened. He holds his father’s hand as they walk across the field towards the distant tree. His father looks first right, then left. The boy does the same.

Then the old man stops.

“Now son, you see the arch of the aqueduct – the fourth one from the southern end? Look through the arch, there against the sky you can see the peak of a hill. In this place only is the peak exactly in the middle of the arch. That is where the keystone is. Now we dig.”

They kneel on the brown earth and the father cuts the soil away with the mattock. They dig down to a foot in depth (30 cm), then the old man digs more carefully with his hands. The boy helps him.

The lid of a pot is revealed – circular, about eight inches in diameter. It must be prized off.

“I last opened this pot seven years ago – a year before you were born.”

The boy is a little awed. “What’s in the pot father? Can I see?”

“This, my son, is the treasure of our house. Begun by your great, great, great….. grandfather…. there are many hundreds of coins, too many to count. The pot is too heavy to lift and was buried here before I was born. I have added to the treasure.”

He reaches in and pulls out a handful of coins, which he lets fall back into the pot like a waterfall.

“Look, here, wrapped in cloth….. this is a special coin. I received it in far Britannia, where I served. It was given to those centurions who upheld the honour of great Rome. We’ll take it home for a good look in the morning.”

Roman bronze coin of Hadrian, before cleaning
Left: How the coin looked unwashed and untouched for 1700 years; Right: As it appears today (2015).

They replace the lid and cover the pot. As they walk back to the small villa, they are quiet, both lost in thought.

They sit again by the fire and the father shows the coin to the son. “See here, this figure – it is the great Emperor Hadrian. He speaks to these battle commanders and here behind them are the massed armies of Britain.”

The boy looks at the coin, eyes wide and mouth open.

“Father – it’s the story, the story you told me, with the cheering and the red cloaks flapping”.

His father replies. “Yes son, it was a great day. The greatest of my life.”

That night, the boy dreams. Of the wall, the great emperor, the massed armies and the cheering…

The next day…

“Now son, when the sun has gone down and the moon is up, we’ll go again to the pot in the field. Remember well how to find it – the Cyprus trees, and the peak of the hill under the aqueduct arch? We will replace this fine coin. I’ve put many coins there in my lifetime, more than 100. Our ancestors put uncounted more. You will do the same, and your son after you and his son after him, until the time of our family’s greatest need.”

The scene shifts to nearly three centuries later.

The old centurion and his son, and his son in turn, are buried in the family cemetery. The Huns have crossed the Danube, marauded through Pannonia and ridden their horses down the Via Triana. They are close to the old centurion’s village – still home to his descendants, one of whom is a centurion himself and the mirror image of his ancestor.

The young centurion is away fighting for Rome in far Tunisia. We see the Huns riding their horses, the family village and finally the villa itself in flames. The slaves flee and refugees crowd the road.

The next scene is one of smoking ruins, scattered bodies, and moonlight. Of Cyprus trees, an aqueduct, and the peak of a hill beneath it.

Roman bronze coin of Hadrian, restored 2015 - obv
Portrait of Hadrian Augustus (ruled 117-138) on obverse.

The young centurion never returns. He dies in battle and the very last scene is his funeral in far off North Africa.


A Note on the Coin

The importance of this Bronze coin was demonstrated when Richard Adby, Joe Cribb Keeper of Coins at the British Museum, requested to have it on the display until the end of 2010, the coin being one of Britain’s–and the world’s–rarest coins. It was acquired in 1980 when the inimitable Dr.Leo Mildenberg stated that this was the rarest Roman Bronze he had ever had.

-Geoffrey Cope, www.petitioncrown.com

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