“The coins archaeologists find,” writes Emma Watts-Plumpkin in the March 2004 edition of World Archaeology, “are those that have been lost or purposely hoarded away. The Pompeii collection is quite different from coins found elsewhere.” Pompeii has fascinated the world since it was uncovered in the late 1700s, and the coins found in the ruins are no exception.
The story of Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum, are known. In August of 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius exploded violently (as it had done before, wiping out a much earlier Roman settlement), burying both cities in ash, pumice, and lava. While many inhabitants escaped, those who waited too long were trapped in the cities. In many cases, the bodies were covered in fine ash, producing the famous molds which reveal extraordinary details of the victims.
Many inhabitants tried to take their valuables with them. Wealthy families and individuals have been found with jewelry, statues, bags of coins, and more. Even the underclasses and slaves took the coins they had, usually bronzes and coppers. A fused mass of coins was found at the edge of the ancient beach in Herculaneum; many residents fled there in hopes of boarding boats to escape, but were incinerated when the first of many pyroclastic flows (12 surges in total, by the time the eruption calmed) raced down the mountain. Over the course of hours, 75 feet of rock and ash covered the city, freezing it in time.
After the eruption, some residents did return to try to salvage what they could. Emperor Titus declared Pompeii an “emergency zone,” and even sent funds for rebuilding. But too much had been buried, and within a few decades, both towns were gone from local maps. Statius, a Roman poet, wrote “When this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and peoples lie beneath?” A few centuries later, new farms and vineyards had been planted in the fertile volcanic soil over the city.
In 2016, four skeletons were found in the ruins of a shop near Pompeii’s Herculaneum gate. While the site had been looted, several gold coins were recovered. It’s likely that other coins were initially present, and were taken by the looters who tunneled in.
Approximately 1500 coins have been recovered from an insula (a Roman city block) by a research team from the University of Bradford. The insula contained two large houses, as well as shops and even bars. The coins studied by the Bradford team are unusual in that they show coins in circulation up to the moment of catastrophe, not buried with the dead, hidden in a hoard, or otherwise intentionally collected. As such, most of them show extensive wear, as they were in circulation up until the very moment of disaster.
The Pompeii copper coins show a strong local economy, as the coins are mostly crude copies of Massalian (modern day Marseille) and Ebusian (modern day Ibiza) coins. Very few of the coins come from Rome itself, though a few early Imperial Quadrantes have been found, with more expected to appear as the mass of coins is separated. The pseudo-coins, as they are known, seem to have been locally made and circulated mostly around the Naples Bay area. No coin-minting equipment has yet been found in Pompeii or Herculaneum, but such a find may turn up in future excavations, or simply have been damaged beyond recognition. Watts-Plumpkin writes, “In all likelihood, these ‘pseudo’ coins were just for use in the local economy. The fact that so many have been found bears out the degree to which the people of Pompeii were involved in local trading. The large numbers of local coins also suggests that the Pompeiians may have been using a largely monetised economy rather than other forms of barter. That far fewer coins come from further afield, for example actually from Ibiza or Marseilles, suggests that the people of Pompeii were not engaged in very much monetised longer-distant trade.”
At last date, about 500 of the 1500 coins separated have been identified. The most common is the pseudo-Ebusus design, with a crude image of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes on both sides. These coins are 12-16mm across. Another 45 copper-alloy coins bear the image of Janus, the two-faced Roman god. The reverse of the coin shows the prow of a ship. Some of these coins bear the word “ROMA,” and were made during the Republic. Many of these are found halved, as cutting coins has been an efficient way to make change when softer metals are used.
About 55 of the coins are Massalian in style, though only a few actually come from Massalia itself. Most are the local copies, with a bust of Apollo on the obverse and a bull on the reverse. The best date for these coins is the first century BC; they were in circulation as long as the coin weighed enough to be legal tender.
As evidenced by its coins, gathered up as treasures in the hands of those fleeing the city or left behind in scattered masses, Pompeii was a busy town, much like any other. But its coins still tell the story of daily life in the obliterated city, and there is still so much more to learn.
[Featured image credit of The British Museum, used under fair use.]