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Treasure Hunter Finds Rare Carausius Coins

A treasure-hunter could be in line for a small fortune after unearthing two rare coins that shed light on a little-known rebel Roman emperor.

Derrick Fretwell’s finds, which date back to AD286 and the reign of Carausius, have been hailed “priceless” by experts at the British Museum. Mr Fretwell, 57, was digging in a field near Ashbourne, Derbys, when he uncovered the coins, which are at least 90 per cent gold.

The machinery sales manager said yesterday: “I’ll be intrigued to find out what they are worth, although to me their worth is their rarity value.”

The discovery of these two gold coins sheds light on a little known ‘British’ Emperor.

Gold coins of Carausius are extremely rare, until now only 23 being in existence. The last example found was in 1975 in Hampshire and it is quite possible that we will have to wait for over 30 years before another one sees the light of day.

Carausius was a Menapian (from modern Belgium). In the AD 280s he was the commander of the Roman Fleet (“Classis Britannica”) that patrolled the English Channel and North Sea. The fleet was commanded from Boulogne and one of its major functions was to defend Britain and Gaul (France) from Saxon raiders. Carausius fell foul of the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian, supposedly because he allowed the Saxons to RAID and only intercepted them afterwards, keeping the stolen loot for himself! Rather than hand himself over, Carausius declared himself emperor of Northern Gaul and Britain and set up his own mini-empire.

In a speech given in honour of Constantius I, the emperor who finally retook Britain, the following was said about Carausius:

In this outrageous act of brigandage the escaping pirate [Carausius] first of all seized the fleet which had previously been protecting Gaul, and added a large number of ships which he built to the Roman pattern. He took over a legion, intercepted some detachments of provincial troops, press-ganged Gallic tradesmen into service, lured over with spoils from the provinces themselves numerous foreign forces, and trained them all under the direction of the ringleaders of this conspiracy for naval duties…

The first gold coin comes from Carausius’ mint at Rouen. Carausius only managed to maintain control of Northern Gaul for a few years and coins from Rouen are very rare. This is only the tenth gold coin recorded for the mint, but is from the same striking as three other known specimens. It shows the emperor shaking hands with Concordia with the inscription “in harmony with the army”.

The second coin comes from the mint of London which struck many coins throughout Carausius’ reign. However, this is only the fifteenth gold coin recorded from London and it is a unique type. It shows Carausius wearing a helmet decorated with an animal design. The reverse trumpets ‘Imperial Peace’.

Carausius successfully defended Britain against the central empire, and even struck coins in the names of Diocletian and Maximianus to curry favour with them; however, he did not survive a coup d’état by his finance minister, Allectus, who was to rule Britain from 293 to 296. The Roman emperor Constantius I finally retook Britain in 296, killing Allectus and bringing an end to Carausius’ breakaway realm.

Why these coins were buried we will never know. A Roman soldier might expect to earn twelve gold coins a year before deductions were made for his expenses. The wheat he needed to make bread for a year would have cost almost 2 gold coins. For one gold coin, someone could have bought almost 100 bottles of wine or about 50 litres of olive oil. However, ten gold coins would have been needed to buy a pound of white silk.

Both the coins were struck in the reign of Carausius (AD 286-93), one at the mint of London, the other the mint of Rouen. Gold coins of Carausius are extremely rare, these two specimens increasing the corpus of Huvelin from 23 to 25 – 15 for London and 10 for Rouen.

Gold Aureus (20mm; 4.65g; Die Axis 12)
London
Obv. VIRTVS CAR – AVSI; Ornately cuirassed and helmeted bust left (the helmet with an animal running left, possibly a ‘big’ cat).
Rev. PAX – AVG; Pax standing left, holding branch in r. hand and vertical sceptre in l.
Mintmark: -//-

This coin is unpublished. It is the third London aureus of Carausius to bear a helmeted bust. The earliest known example, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, has the obverse legend VIRTVS CA-RAVSI and shows Carausius helmeted to the left, but holding a shield and spear (Huvelin no. 10). The Midlands coin is much closer to the second example which was acquired by B. A. Seaby in 1978, and was possibly found near Lille in France (Seaby Coin and Medal Bulletin No. 713, February 1978, pp. 36-7). This coin has an identical obverse legend (VIRTVS CAR-AVSI) and helmeted bust is also left facing, but is draped and cuirassed (Huvelin no. 11). Furthermore, there is only has a linear design on the helmet, there being no animal. In style the two pieces are similar, possibly both sunk by the same die engraver, but the Midlands example has a better modelled bust. Although Pax appears on the reverses of a number of Carausian gold coins (RIC V, nos. 3-5; Huvelin nos. 12-15), this is the first example with the legend PAX AVG and no mintmark or other exergue inscription. Given the common occurrence of this Pax type on bronze coins of Carausius, it might not be an unexpected type.

Gold Aureus (19/21mm; 4.70g; Die Axis 6)
Rouen
Obv. IMP CARAVSIVS AVG; laureate, draped and cuirassed r.
Rev. CONCORDIA – MILIT – VM(in exergue); Emperor standing r., clasping the hand of Concordia
Reference: RIC 624; Huvelin 3-5

This coin has the same obverse and reverse dies as Huvelin nos. 3-5. Huvelin no. 3 is in the British Museum (4.54g) and is more worn. Huvelin no. 4 was originally described by William Stukeley in 1759 and is now in Berlin. Huvelin no. 5 was sold in the Evans Sale of 1934 (lot 1836) and its whereabouts is unknown. These coins also share the same obverse dies with Huvelin nos. 1-2 and the same reverse dies as Huvelin nos. 6-7.

References:

Huvelin H. Huvelin, Classement et chronologie du monnayage d’or de Carausius, Revue Numismatique VI Series, Vol. XXVII (1985), pp. 107-119.

RIC P. Webb, The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. V, Part 2 (Spink, 1933)

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