The silver denarius was the workhorse of the Roman numismatic system. The most common denomination minted for many successive centuries and the perfect value coin with which to pay salaries and manage everyday transactions. New arrivals to the “Hobby of Kings”: Roman coin collecting, are often surprised how easy it is to acquire a silver denarius of a well known emperor for their collections.
As a general rule, emperors who ruled for many years had longer to mint their coins, which will therefore survive in greater numbers than an emperor who ruled for months or even weeks. On occasion, an emperor was unlucky enough to have their memory damned – “damnatio memoriae” – and concerted efforts were made by the state to collect and melt down their coins (e.g. Caligula) so rarity of these rulers is understandable.
Yet the coinage of one famous emperor presents a unique conundrum to modern numismatists; a mystery I was reminded of upon seeing a particular numismatic beauty that has recently come up for auction:
Another thing new coin collectors quickly learn is that unless they have recently won the lottery or are happy to part with a kidney, they should lower their expectations of ever getting a genuine silver coin of the fourth emperor and conqueror of Britannia: Claudius.
To put it simply and to use a phrase from my father, silver denarii of Claudius are “as rare as hen’s teeth”. Many well established collectors have seen only a handful in shows and auctions over the years and those who dare to attempt the Holy Grail of Roman coin collecting – “The 12 Caesars” – will be accustomed to the frustrating gap between Caligula and Nero.
Why is it far easier to find a denarius of emperors that ruled for mere months such as Galba, Otho and Vitellius, (successive emperors in 69 CE), than it is to find a denarius of Claudius who ruled for 13 years?
Various theories have been put forward to try and explain the tiny amount of Claudian denarii that survived through the ages but none seem to provide a clear answer.
- Nero’s debasements and “Gresham’s Law” – Claudius’ successor Nero lowered the silver content and therefore the value of the denarius; 1/84 of a pound, or 3.90 grams, was reduced to 1/96 of a pound or 3.41 grams. “Gresham’s Law” that “bad money will drive out the good” could have come into play during Nero’s reign, with those in-the-know hoarding or melting the “good” higher silver content denarii of Claudius and circulating the “bad” lower value coins of Nero. Yet, this fails to answer why earlier high-value denarii of Tiberius, Augustus and even the Republic stayed in circulation often for centuries and survive today in healthy numbers.
- Moving the Mints – Claudius appears to have minted much of his gold and silver coinage not in Rome but in Lugdunum (Lyon), his city of birth. Did Lugdunum struggle to mint coins at the same rate? Nero brought the minting of these coins back to Rome so perhaps there were problems with the Lugdunum mint? Claudius seems to have had a particular problem with official mints counterfeiting coinage during his reign, minting very convincing “fouree” denarii with cheap copper cores. These fake denarii are actually easier to find today than the genuine ones!
- Less denarii minted – Perhaps Claudius simply minted far less denarii than his predecessors? Did he hold more trust in the stable value of bronze or just judge that there was enough gold and silver already in circulation when he came to power? On the other hand, Provincial eastern mints such as Ephesus seem to have continued minting in steady numbers in all metals.
- Nero’s ego – Though his reign was a surprising success and Claudius’ reputation has survived largely unblemished over the millennia, perhaps his successor Nero jealously indulged in an unofficial damnatio memoriae against his grand-uncle. Nero may have melted down the most recently minted and easily collectible silver coins to create his own but there is no evidence for this and again, why just focus on denarii?
It’s a puzzle that will continue to confound numismatists until an all encompassing answer is found, which seems unlikely. In the meantime, I have for sale: 1 kidney in good working order if anyone is interested?