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The Forum Fire Hoard

By Tom Buijtendorp

Recently, Forum Ancient Coins sold 92 silver coins of a hoard buried around 225 CE, allegedly at the west cost of the Black Sea. The hoard is interesting because Roman silver hoards from the early 3rd century are not very common. It was a relatively calm period, also along the cost of the Black Sea, with little necessity to burial hoards for unfriendly people and little violence killing owners before they could retrieve their hoard. At the same time, it was a period of important transformation of the Roman monetary system. The few hoards available can increase our knowledge of this development stage, as analyses of the Forum Fire Hoard shows.

The Hoard Context

Fig 1. Denarius of Hadrian (117 – 138 CE) of the Forum Fire Hoard with a wavy fire damaged, bent flan. Minted 134-138 CE in Rome. Obverse HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, bare head right; reverse MONETA AVG, Moneta standing left holding scales and cornucopia; Weight 3.378 gram, maximum diameter 16.7 mm. Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS15011.

Forum Ancient Coins nicknamed the hoard "The Fire Hoard" because it was apparently impacted by a fire. The coins were found a long time ago in an amalgamation: melted coins and black silver oxide on the outside formed a solid black ball. Inside the coins were still in nice condition, however, most are wavy and somewhat brittle due to the heat of the fire. It remained an uncleaned lump unitil it was cleaned about 2005, supposedly in Germany. About 3/4 of the coins show clear traces of the fire, in many cases with a bent flan (fig 1). As more hoards are the result of a fire, for this hoard the pre-fix 'Forum' makes it more specific: the Forum Fire Hoard.

Probably some coins were lost in the fire. In case the coins were randomly distributed, this may not affect the hoard pattern seriously. It is however possible that the coins were (partly) accumulated in the container step by step. As a result, the undisturbed coins in the middle of the ‘ball’ may stem from a certain period. Actually, coins minted between 153 and 196 CE seem on average to be less disturbed by the fire then the coins minted before or after: 6 of the 10 coins dated in this period are not affected by the fire. On the contrary, of the 40 coins minted before 153 CE, only 4 (10%) are not affected. And of the 42 coins minted afterwards, 15 (36%) are not affected. This may imply that especially coins minted before 153 CE may be somewhat underrepresented. No more details or photos of the coin lump are available.

Still, the hoard pattern shows a credible distribution along emperors. The 92 catalogued coins probably give a reasonable reliable picture of the content of the original hoard. Unfortunately, the find spot of the hoard is unknown. In some cases, the distribution of mint places offers some indication as for example was the case with the Antioch Hoard of Gallienus, described elsewhere on NumisWiki. In this hoard, however, all coins are minted in Rome. The cause of the fire is not known either. Most likely the fire dates from the Roman period and caused the owner not to recollect the treasure. Normally, such hoards get covered by earth and or debris out of reach of more recent developments. This makes a post Roman fire less likely, however his remains a possibility.

The catalogued coins, 89 denarii and 3 antoniniani, represent a value of 95 denarii. To put this amount in perspective: the pay of a legionary was increased to 675 denarii by Caracalla. So the value of the 92 catalogued coins equals about 2 months pay.

The Burial Date

Fig 2. The youngest hoard coin, a denarius of Alexander Severus (218-235 CE) minted in 222 CE in Rome. Obverse IMP C M AVR SEV ALEXAND AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, from behind; reverse P M TR P COS P P, Jupiter standing left, thunderbolt in right, long scepter vertical in left; frosty. Weight 2.310 gram, maximum diameter 19.1 mm. Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS15403.

The youngest coin is a denarius of Severus Alexander minted in 222 CE, shortly after he became emperor (fig 2). As coins of this emperor are very common and supply of freshly minted denarii was very regular at that time, the single coin present in this hoard indicates that the accumulation of the hoard stopped briefly after 222 CE. As said, 42 hoard coins date between 200 and 222 CE, an average of about 2 coins per year. Half of these coins have been minted in 211 – 222 CE, again about 2 coins per year. However, recently minted coins from Rome needed some time to spread, the reason why Roman coin hoards normally contain relatively less recently minted coins. In the case of the Forum Fire Hoard, for the last 5 years (217-222 CE) only five coins are present or an average of about 1 coin per year. So when buried for example in 225 CE, about 3 more coins of Severus Alexander would be expected. But given the small numbers, this is not very telling. Later Severan hoards show that antoniniani and earlier denarii quickly left circulation during the reign of Severus Alexander (222-235 CE). The reign of Severus Alexander was quite peaceful until about 230 CE, meaning there are no general upheavals that could explain and date the burial.

An interesting comparison offers the Roman Shapwick Hoard buried around 224 CE and now in the Somerset County Museum. The hoard was excavated in 1998 in the room of a Roman villa in Shapwick in Somerset in the UK. It is the largest denarii hoard from the UK, containing 9,262 silver coins, about hundred times the number catalogued for the Forum Fire Hoard. This 1:100 ratio makes comparison easy. The 120 denarii of Severus Alexander in the Shapwick Hoard equal pro rata 1.2 denarii (1/100th) for the size of the Forum Fire Hoard, about 1% of the total hoard volume. In the Shapwick Hoard the last coin of Severus Alexander dated 124 CE. A burial/fire a few years after the start of the new reign of Severus Alexander is quite possible for the Forum Fire Hoard as well. In order to emphasize the uncertainties involved, a rounded burial date ca. 225 CE best fits the data.

The Hoard Pattern

Fig 3 Rare denarius of Nero minted in 67-68 in Rome. Obverse IMP NERO CAESAR AVG P P, laureate head right; reverse SA-LVS, Salus enthroned left holding patera. Weight 3.189 gram, maximum diameter 18.9 mm. Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS14819.

Assuming a burial date around 225 CE, the average age of the hoard coins is 64,5 years, or 61,5 years in case the hoard was buried right after the last coin was minted in 222 CE. This is quite high average. Clearly this is not a recently collected savings hoard based on recently minted coins. It more looks the other way around as if older coins have been selected for hoarding. This could make sense because the denarius faced in this period an accelerated debasement, making older denarii with their higher weight and higher silver content more attractive. The best denarii of the early Empire had already disappeared in hoards at the beginning of the second century CE at the latest. Besides a few exceptions, denarii of Nero minted after his reform of 64 CE were the oldest circulating silver coins in the early 3rd century. The only sizeable exceptions were denarii of Mark Antony minted in 32/31 BC, known for their much lower silver content. In the Shapwick Hoard, close to 3 % of the hoard coins are such worn denarii of Mark Antony. Pro rata a few pieces could have been present in the Forum Fire Hoard, but are not. The next oldest coins in the Shapwick Hoard are worn denarii of Nero, as was the case with another large denarii hoard buried around 225 CE. This hoard was unearthed in 1979 near Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and contained about 10,000 denarii minted between 69 CE (Nero) and 225 CE (Severus Alexander). Unfortunately this hoard was dispersed in trade before being catalogued, so details are unclear. In the Forum Fire Hoard, two worn denarii of Nero are the oldest coins, one minted in 64-68 CE and the other in 67-68 CE (fig 3). Another example, a little later buried around 230 CE in Falkirk Tartan in Scotland, among 1,925 denarii also started with denarii of Nero, except for a few denarii of Mark Antony.

Fig 4 An about Extremely Fine denarius of Caracalla minted in 213-217 CE in Rome, weighting only 2.002 gram. Obverse ANTONINVS PIVS AVG GERM, laureate head right; reverse INDVLGENTIAE AVG, Indulgentia seated left, patera in right and scepter in left. Weight 2.002 gram, maximum diameter 18.6 mm. Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS14957.

During the reform of 64 CE Nero reduced the silver content of the denarius from above 90% to about 80%. He also reduced the average weight form about 3.8 gram to about 3.4 gram. The weight of the denarius decreased a little more towards the end of the 2nd century. Especially the monetary reform of Septimius Severus in 194/195 CE started a process of accelerated debasement. The weight was temporarily reduced in the period 194-196 CE, reflected in a smaller size of the flans. The average maximum diameter of the 89 denarii in the hoard (besides the 3 antoniniani) is 18.64 mm. The maximum diameter for the two denarii of Septimius Severus minted between 194-196 CE is 7 to 11% less: 17.3 and 16.5 mm. The diameter was increased again after 196 CE. However the flans became thinner and the silver content was further reduced from still close to 80% in the early days of Septimius Severus to about 56,5% in his last years, meaning that the weight of the amount of silver in a denarius decreased about 1/4th. And Caracalla reduces the silver content further to 51.5 %, Elagabalus to 46.5% and Severus Alexander in his first years to 43%. For example, an about Extremely Fine hoard coin of Caracalla not damaged by the fire, weighted only 2.002 gram (fig 4). The silver content of this coin was only about 1 gram. The two very worn denarii of Nero on the contrary still weighted 3.120 and 3.189 gram (fig 3 and 10). With 80% silver, they contained about 2.5 gram silver.

Fig 5 The three antoniniani of the hoard, of different type minted by Caracalla (211-217 CE) in Rome. Upper left RIC IV 264b, 3.126 gram, max diameter 22.9 mm (215 CE); Lower left RIC IV 285, 3.633 gram, maximum diameter 24,00 mm (217 CE); right with broken flan RIC IV 311d, weight 3.269 gram, maximum diameter 23.8 mm (215-217 CE). Forum Ancient Coins nrs. RS14818, RS15010 and RS 23826.

Caracalla tried another trick in 215 CE. He introduced the antoninianus represented by 3 coins in the hoard (fig 5). He was portrayed with a radiated crown. This indicated a double value of the denarius because in bronze the radiated dupondius was twice the value of the laureated copper as. One flan of an antoninianus is broken. The average weight of the other two examples, in Very Fine state (minted in 215 and 217 CE respectively) is 3.38 gram. The average weight of the 14 denarii of Caracalla in the hoard, most of them also Very Fine, is 2.16 gram. So the average weight of the antoniniani is only 1.56 times the average weight of the contemporary hoard denarii and not 2.0 times. This fits the general observation that the ‘double-denarius’ only offered the silver equivalent of about 1.5 denarii, a profitable venture for the Roman government.

The average maximum diameter of the 3 antoniniani was 23.56 mm compared to 18.96 mm as average for the 14 denarii of Caracalla. Still, the new coin was at first stage not a success and production stopped in 219 CE, only to be reintroduced in 238 CE. Of the 13 hoard coins minted between 214 and 219 CE, 3 were antoniniani and 10 denarii. So for this period the share of the antoniniani was 23% of the number of silver coins and 38% of the nominal value. It indicates the antoniniani were not rejected by the owner of the hoard. And the presence of an example with broken flan may indicate the owner was not selecting the best coins, at least not in the last ten years or so. In the same direction points the large differentiation between the coin weights. The weight of the denarii minted between 211 and 222 CE for example, varies between 1.993 and 2.514 grams.

The average weight of the coins is low. The average for the 14 hoard denarii of Caracalla, most in Very Fine condition, for example is 2.161 gram. A sample of 14 Very Fine unprovenanced examples offered by Forum Ancient Coins, gives an 43% higher average weight of 3.1 gram. Based on the maximum diameter, the average surface of these unprovenanced coins is only 3% higher: 2,90 cm2 (max diameter 19.22 mm) compared to 2,82 cm2 (max diameter 18.96 mm) for the hoard coins. Joe Sermarini, who catalogued the coins, remarks that the Forum Fire Hoard coins are not thinner than usual. They are less dense, more porous. The combination of fire and years in the ground likely leached out some of the copper content of the coins, as Sermarini suggests. A calculation based on the coin list of the Shapwick Hoard, offers for 333 denarii an average weight of 3.18 gram for Caracalla as emperor, and only 22 (7%) coins have a weight below 3 gram. The weight of the denarii of Caracalla in the Forum Fire Hoard is about 1/2 less. Another hoard from the UK, unfortunately incomplete, also contained light denarii. This Prestwood A Hoard was discovered in 1999 with 110 denarii and 1 antoninianus registered of a probably larger hoard, the last coin minted in 220 CE. The hoard is kept in the Buckinghamshire county Museum and contains 3 complete denarii of Caracalla, all lighter than 3 gram: 2.29, 2.63 en 2.82 gram.

Fig. 6 Denarius of Caracalla (211-217 CE) minted around 215 CE. Obverse ANTONINVS PIVS AVG GERM, laureate head right; reverse P M TR P XVIII COS IIII P P, Apollo standing left, branch in right, left resting on lyre set on altar. Weight 2.294 gram, maximum diameter 18.3 mm, die axis 0o. Forum Ancient Coin nr. BB14967.

Fig 7 Extremely Fine denarius Macrinus of Macrinus minted January 218 CE in Rome. Obverse IMP C M OPEL SEV MACRINVS AVG, laureate cuirassed bust right; reverse PONTIF MAX TR P II COS II P P, Felicitas standing left holding long caduceus and cornucopia; Weight 2.249 gram, maximum diameter 19.4 mm; excellent centering and sharp detail; but bent, frosty, and brittle flan due to exposure to an ancient fire. Forum Ancient Coin nr. RS14998.

Interestingly, the fire revealed that one of the denarii of Caracalla, minted around 215 CE, may be plated (fig 6). As Sermarini remarks, if plated (a fouree), it probably is not an official coin. As the style looks official, Sermarini suggest it just could be a regular silver coin with an external coppery area that corroded and formed a pit, giving the appearance that it may be plated. An unofficial plated counterfeit is a likely alternative. Macrinus (217 – 218) during his brief reign tried to revive old values and improved the weight and silver content of the denarius briefly. The only example of the hoard seems to reflect this ambition (fig 7).

Circulation Hoard

The Forum Fire Hoard may offer a rare snapshot of the silver coin circulation around 225 CE, an important period in the development of the Roman monetary system. The larger Shapwick Hoard in this respect seems to be a special case given the high share of denarii minted during the reign of Septimius Severus: 62% versus only 25% in the Forum Fire Hoard. It is assumed an above average number of denarii of Septimius Severus circulated in the UK as result of his long personal stay in the UK. He arrived in 208 with an army of over 40,000 men and stayed until his death in February 211 CE. According to Cassius Dio Septimius Severus carried with him “an immense amount of money” (Dio 77,11). This makes the Forum Fire Hoard even more important.

The question is to what extent the Forum Fire Hoard really offers a better snapshot of the silver circulation outside the UK around 225 CE. This depends on whether it is a real circulation hoard or the outcome of a selection process. This is difficult to judge, however there are some indications. As mentioned above, it seems that at least the owner did not pick best pieces only. Containing very light, worn and even a broken coin points towards coins attracted directly form circulation. The average weight of the 89 denarii is 2.557 gram, the lightest 1.738 gram, the heaviest 3.576 gram. Interesting is the average high age of the coins what may indicate a selection of old denarii with higher silver content and weight. However, this also (to a certain extent) may reflect the general aging of the circulating coin volume. For bronze coinage, for example, it is clear that highly worn old 2 century coins played an important role in the early 3rd century coin circulation.

The wear pattern, not counting the fire damage, fits the pattern known form circulation hoards. In step by step accumulated savings hoards, in many cases the best pieces were kept for hoarding and as a result the coins minted during the collection period on average show little wear, both the recent and older coins. A snapshot of the normal coin circulation, on the contrary, would on average show a higher wear the older the coins are. This is the pattern in the Forum Fire Hoard. Overall, 14% of the hoard coins are graded in the condition Fair, 34% in the condition Fine, 50% in the condition Very Fine and 2% in the condition about Extremely Fine. The about Extremely Fine coins are minted in the last decade 213-222 CE. Of the 44 coins minted in 193-222 CE, 84% is in the condition Very Fine. On the other hand, of the 24 older coins minted between 64 and 117 CE, the highest grade is Fine except for one Very Fine coin. Of these coins, 1/3th is graded Fair.

Fig 8. Comparison of two similar hoard coins of Faustina (147-161 CE) with different grade (Fair versus about Very Fine) and weight (3.110 versus 3.355 gram). Obverse DIVA FAVSTINA, draped bust right; reverse AVGVSTA, Ceres standing half left, holding long torch in right and raising drapery with left; both damaged by fire. Forum Ancient Coins nr. 15145 (top) and 14971 (bottom).

Fig 9 Three denarii of Caracalla (211-217 CE) of the same type RIC IV 238a, minted in 214 CE in Rome, all three of different dies. Obverse ANTONINVS PIVS AVG GERM, laureate head right; reverse P M TR P XVII COS IIII P P, Apollo seated left, branch in right and resting left elbow on lyre set on tripod. Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS14964 RS 15417 and RS 15407. 

It is tempting to translate this pattern of average higher wear for older hoard coins into weight loss. This is complicated however by different aimed weights for freshly minted coins. This weighted decreased over time, as a result (over)compensating the wear effect. As said, for example, the two very worn denarii of Nero minted between 64 and 68 CE still weight about 3.2 gram compared to 2.249 gram for the about Extremely Fine denarius of Macrinus minted in 218 CE (fig 3 and 7). And single hoard coins had each their different own circulation history. This is illustrated by identical hoard coins of the same type minted in the same year. An example are the two denarii of Faustina (147-161 CE), RIC III 362 minted in Rome. The one is graded Fair with a weight of 3.110 gram, the other about Very Fine with a 8% higher weight of 3.355 gram (fig 8). Other examples of such differences are amongst others two denarii of Commodus, RIC III 139, minted in Rome in 186 CE, of 1.393 gram (Fair) and 3.194 gram (good Very Fine) and two of Geta Caesar, RIC IV 18, minted in Rome in 200-202 CE, of 2.181 and 2.712 gram (both Very Fine). Obviously, the weight and wear difference tends to get smaller for more recently minted coins. Three similar denarii of Caracalla minted in 214 CE are all three about Very Fine and in a close weight range of 2.159 – 2.223 gram (fig 9). It means weight analyses require larger volumes and still then are restricted to overall patterns. A nice example is the Triton X Hoard of denarii of just two different types of Augustus and Tiberius described in another NumisWiki article.


Fig 10. A selection of the best 1st century hoard coins, most still quite worn. The numbers in circles indicate the number of of coins from the hoard minted during the reign of the corresponding emperor.


Fig 11. A selection of the best 2st century hoard coins of Trajan up to Commodus. The numbers in circles indicate the number of of coins from the hoard minted during the reign of the corresponding emperor.


Fig 12. A selection of the best Severan hoard coins of Septimius Severus up to Alexander Severus. The numbers in circles indicate the number of of coins from the hoard minted during the reign of the corresponding emperor.

The Forum Fire Hoard offers an interesting overview of the coinage of denarii form 64 to 222 CE, al important emperors being present (fig 10-12). Al coins are according to the cataloguers minted in Rome and most have a neatly die-axis of 180 or 0 degrees. The only exceptions are 45 degrees for a denarius of Vespasian minted in 73 CE (RIC 65), 225 degrees for a denarius of Trajan minted in 112-117 CE (RIC II 245) and 225 degrees for a denarius of Caracalla Caesar minted in 205 CE (RIC IV 116a). The 180 degree axis dominates the denarii minted between 64 and 141 CE. After there is more a mix of 0 and 180 degrees, with apparently a strong preference for the 0 degree axis during the reign of Caracalla. This is also reflected in the 3 antoniniani minted during his reign, two of them 0 degrees and one 180 degrees.

In conclusion, the Forum Fire Hoard offers some interesting information regarding the silver coinage around 225 CE and specifically the coin circulation along the shore of the Black Sea. At that time, the denarius was still the most important silver coin, while the circulation still included old worn coins, the oldest imperial coins being minted between 64 and 68 CE and around 225 CE already a little more than one and half century old. They were hoarded more and more and as a result during the later years of Severus Alexander most of them left the coin circulation. As the period until 230 CE was relatively calm, most owners could retrieve their hoard. Only special circumstances like a fire could prevent this and makes hoards of this time relatively rare. For this reason the Forum Fire Hoard is scientifically important.

Click here to see more Forum Fire Hoard coins.