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Roman Coin Not "Small Change"

Some of the ancient Roman coins a badger helped find in a Spanish cave. The coins were minted between 200 and 400 C.E. in different parts of the Roman Empire.

It’s always exciting when a hoard of coins is found, but it is even more exciting when a coin is discovered, even if it may be a single coin find, that is truly rare. That’s what recently happened in Hungary when a single Roman gold coin was unearthed, the coin being struck in the name of the short reigning Emperor Volusian.

Not only are coins of this emperor rare, but this is a gold coin, a denomination that is even less seldom encountered from this time.

Inflation in the Roman Empire was out of control throughout the third century. (Volusian ruled between 251 and 253.) The Roman government was issuing increasingly debased silver coins, yet the government refused to accept any coinage for taxation that wasn’t comprised of gold or silver. The silver denarius was debased and declining in mintages. A double denarius or antoninianus was introduced, then debased until its silver content was only about two percent. Since the purity of the gold aureus did not decline as dramatically the value of the aureus to the denarius expanded drastically.

By 301 a gold aureus was equal to 833.3 denarii despite a monetary reform in 274. This compares to 25 denarii being equal to a single aureus about 180, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. A typical skilled workman was paid a single denarius a day. The loss of even a single aureus was a catastrophe considering the coin’s purchasing power. Such a coin being lost in a province far from Rome would be even more devastating. Such a coin likely belonged to a person of wealth. How and why the coin was lost may never be known, but it is possible the loss was due to some violent act against the person carrying it.

University of Szeged (Hungary) archaeologist Máté Varga heads the excavation site in Somogy County in what had been the Roman province of Pannonia Superior at the time of the settlement. Today what had been Pannonia Superior is part of Hungary.

Varga said, “The exact location of the site is being kept secret for the time being, as the archaeological site is being investigated. Illegal metal detectors are a big problem in Hungary, so we cannot reveal the location for the time being.”

What is known is that the coin was discovered during early 2022 by a Rippl-Rónai Museum (Kaposvár, Hungary) museologist working at the site of the Roman settlement. Roman silver and bronze coins have also been discovered at the Somogy site; however this is the only gold coin that has been encountered. Other artifacts found include a bronze key, silver ring with inscriptions, and a glass brooch. A single bronze coin has been identified as having been struck during the reign of the Emperor Probus (276-282). Site archeologists believe the settlement dates from the third and fourth centuries.

Varga is quoted in the February 28 issue of Live Science as saying, “It is likely a stray that someone lost. It must have been a great loss for the former owner to lose this valuable coin.”

Vargas described the coin as a 5.6-gram gold composition issue on which a bearded portrait of Volusian appears wearing a radiate crown. Libertas is depicted on the reverse. Coins with this description are cataloged as S. 9721 or 9722, a gold binio or double aureus rather than aureus denomination in David R. Sear’s Roman Coins and Their Values. Each of these two coins, according to Sear, were minted at Rome during 251-252. Volusian served as Augustus during that time. Libertas stands left holding a pileus and scepter on S. 9721 and rests on a column with legs crossed and the scepter in transverse on S. 9722.

The Sear book, published in 2005, values either of these coins between $4,000 in Very Fine to $10,000 in Extremely Fine.

The Live Science article quotes coin cabinet numismatist and research assistant at the Schloss Friedenstein Gotha Foundation in Germany Marjanko Pilekić as describing the coin’s condition as “terrific” based on a photograph provided to Pilekić. Sear does not list a coin grade terrific.

Rippl-Rónai Museum Numismatic Collection Director Levente Ábrahám has released a statement indicating the coin will be part of the museum’s collection. The Rippl-Rónai Museum is located in Kaposvar, Hungary.