Coins, Copies and Counterfeits

Julian Bowsher
28.03.2017

As the new 12-sided £1 coin, said to be the“most secure coin in the world” comes into circulation, our resident Roman and post-medieval numismatist (coin specialist), Julian Bowsher, takes a look at  early counterfeit coins.

Ever since their appearance in the 6th century BC, coins have been copied. The Greeks and Romans passed laws against counterfeiting and made it a capital offence. Our excavations in London turn up hundreds of coins every year and there are more Roman counterfeits than for any other period. Usually we’re able to recognise them by their crude manufacture and low weight. One of the Roman measures to thwart the forgery of silver coins was to produce them with serrated edges – making a silver plating over a copper core more difficult. This serrated coin, dating to 81 BC, was unearthed in London and is the only genuine coin in this post...

Serrated denarius

Serrated denarius of 81 BC showing the veiled head of Hispania’ (c) MOLA
Serrated denarius of 81 BC showing the veiled head of Hispania’ (c) MOLA

Despite their great empire, the Romans were markedly indifferent to the demand for small change in the provinces, and so copies usually appeared in periods of uncertainty or when there was a lack of supply. There was also a spate of counterfeit silver from the later 1st century BC as payment was desperately sought for fresh troops in teh Civil Wars. Mark Antony’s silvers were notorious for their low silver content and there are many that are downright forgeries like this one – silver plate on a copper core.

A counterfeit denarius of Mark Antony

A counterfeit denarius of Mark Antony 32-1 BC showing a legionary eagle with clear traces of the copper core (c) MOLA
A counterfeit denarius of Mark Antony 32-1 BC showing a legionary eagle with clear traces of the copper core (c) MOLA

A hoard of coins found in the City in 1845 comprised 88 silver plated copies ranging from 90 BC to the AD 50s. One particular copy – of a coin of the Emperor Tiberius – has been subject to drastic examination wherein the surface has been slashed to reveal the copper core and it appears that the disgusted Londoner finally cut it in half (rather like pirates biting their ‘pieces of eight’!).

A silver plated copy of a coin of the emperor Tiberius

A silver plated copy of a coin of the emperor Tiberius AD 14-37. It has been slashed across which has revealed the copper core – then cut in half (c) MOLA
A silver plated copy of a coin of the emperor Tiberius AD 14-37. It has been slashed across which has revealed the copper core – then cut in half (c) MOLA

Copper coins were also copied, particularly those of Claudius, who led the invasion of Britain in AD 43. The problem here was the virtual absence of real coins from Rome – and the recurring need for small change. These copies are very crude and appear to illustrate widespread illiteracy.

A crude copy of a coin of the emperor Claudius

A crude copy of a coin of the emperor Claudius c AD 50s, with garbled lettering (C) MOLA
A crude copy of a coin of the emperor Claudius c AD 50s, with garbled lettering (C) MOLA

The rest of the 1st century and much of the 2nd century AD actually saw very few copies, thought to indicate a prosperous economy with good supplies of coin. By the beginning of the 3rd century there was another shortage, particularly of silver which  was becoming almost as common as copper due to inflation, resulting in another spate of counterfeit silver coins. Excavations have found many plated copies of the emperor Severus Alexander 

Severus Alexander

A silver plated copy of a coin of the emperor Severus Alexander,  plated (c) MOLA
A silver plated copy of a coin of the emperor Severus Alexander, plated (c) MOLA

There were also copies made from casts – hundreds of moulds dating to the first half of the 3rd century AD were found in an excavation in the 1980s which must have been a forger’s workshop. By the 260s AD there was a crisis in the Roman economy and the silver content in coins dropped dramatically. A few years later millions of crude counterfeit coppers known by numismatists as Barbarous Radiates appeared, named after their crudity and the radiate crown worn by emperors at the time. This one is a copy of a coin of the emperor Victorinus.

Barbarous Radiate of Victorinus

A crude ‘Barbarous Radiate’ copy of a coin of the Emperor Victorinus, AD 275-85. (c) MOLA
A crude ‘Barbarous Radiate’ copy of a coin of the Emperor Victorinus, AD 275-85 (c) MOLA
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