Even here at the edge of the far-flung province of Britannia, a thousand miles away from the Eternal City, the Romans are everywhere. The steam still rises from their thermal pools in the city of Bath, the barracks of their legions are still stamped into the landscape at Caerleon, the country villas of their rich are still sprawled across the most scenic and remote Cotswold hillsides - if you know where to look, the sandal prints are still clear enough to fire any young imagination. In the southwest of England we are spoilt for captivating history with our enigmatic stone circles and crumbling medieval castles but it was the Romans that came to hold a unique fascination for me. Despite an Irish ancestry of my own, the unrelenting determination, audacity and creativity of the Romans means they still win out against the Celts as they mostly did two thousand years ago, indeed my father jokes that maybe Dublin might have been better as “Dublinium”. The ruins they left behind on this small island at the edge of their world may seem humble compared to those at the heart of the empire but as with every land they marched across, their influence was profound and neverending.
In my teenage years, the movie “Gladiator” brought the sound and fury of the ancient world to a whole new generation in an unapologetically thrilling way. Soon after I read “Rubicon” by the historian Tom Holland, a masterpiece of narrative history, and from that point on I was hooked. Here was a world inhabited by the most colourful and entertaining characters, who often held the power of gods while falling victim to the most human weaknesses. A world of equal parts triumph and tragedy from which endless lessons could be learned – and the best part was that it really happened. The first chance I got, I booked a trip to Rome to discover this world for myself and haven’t stopped discovering since.
A love for ancient history and archaeology combines perfectly with a love for travel and it is perhaps no coincidence that so many ancient ruins just happen to be in the most beautiful and scenic locations imaginable. There are few experiences as humbling as walking the paved roads of a deserted ancient city that once echoed with the hustle and bustle of real people living their daily lives, with hopes and fears not so different from our own. Clambering over the fallen columns and broken fragments of once-magnificent structures, I find it is not so difficult to hear the voices of those people, who surely looked around at their empire and thought it could never end. The remains of the classical world would take even the most enthusiastic traveller many lifetimes to fully discover - so far I have been lucky enough to visit many Roman sites all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Exploring lesser-visited sites in countries like Libya and Albania was particularly memorable as was walking the full 84-mile-length of Hadrian’s Wall.
Like many coin collectors, I was first introduced to the hobby through my father - his ancient coin collection housed in a homemade coin cabinet that he fashioned from an old mahogany wardrobe. Coins were just one of his many hobbies but I saw at a young age how their study fitted seamlessly into a wider intellectual tapestry of history, literature, languages and astronomy – all interests he still pursues to this day. He also gave me my first Roman coin: a silver denarius of Trajan with a worn but typically stern looking portrait of the greatest of emperors. As a child I struggled to understand the true antiquity of this small silver coin but I did wonder about the man whose portrait was forever stamped into its surface. What would it have been like to meet him? How did he come to be master of the world? Holding an ancient coin in your hand, the mind inevitably wonders at the countless others who have also looked down at it, both in distant millennia and in recent centuries. Maybe the coin once lay in the palm of a hardened Roman soldier, a brutalised gladiator, an enterprising merchant – perhaps later, a king of England or president of the United States? (both surprisingly possible). What did it mean to each of them? Holding an ancient coin opens an uncanny portal that connects you to each of its custodians, both past and future.
My own collecting began by focusing on the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), the “optimus princeps” (greatest of rulers) who conquered Dacia and famously advanced the empire to its largest territorial extent. Under Trajan’s rule we see Rome reach her zenith of expansion, power and efficiency. The peace and stability enjoyed by those in Rome’s sway led to a flourishing of the arts, literature and architecture, with some of the empire’s most impressive buildings constructed in these decades. Many of them are commemorated on Trajan’s wonderfully varied coinage, which also celebrated his military conquests, welfare programs and engineering marvels such as new roads and aqueducts. Trajan is one of the few emperors that not only minted ambitious and historic coin types but did so through a lengthy multidecade reign, meaning they were struck in huge numbers and are relatively common and affordable today. Other rulers that share this attractive combination are Vespasian, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine the Great - all giants of history, popular with new collectors and for good reason.
As my knowledge expanded, I came to further appreciate the achievements of the other “Good Emperors” - Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – some of their coins inevitably finding their way into my collection. Over the years my collecting habits and goals have continued to evolve – nowadays if a particularly historic and attractive Roman coin from any era calls out to me, I will be delighted to acquire it. One day I hope the collection might represent a carefully curated journey through the rise and fall of Rome, with that holy grail of collectors: the famous Twelve Caesars all present in silver along the way. Whereas some collectors set out to own as many coins as possible, I find I have become more more selective as my tastes have developed. I buy coins rarely and sometimes only after months of research and consideration. Coin collectors soon develop their own idiosyncratic “eye” for coins, often without even realising themselves and I tend to enjoy toned and well-centred denarii with their wonderful Latin legends intact. Increasingly, a secure provenance also serves to add a huge amount of appeal to a coin, their modern histories often rivalling the ancient for pure fascination. Online coin databases have made it much easier to discover lost provenances, sometimes going back centuries, and it is quite possible for even a novice collector to acquire a piece from a famed collection. The internet has, of course, revolutionised the world of collecting, placing a dauntingly vast library of numismatic information at the hands of the collector and turning almost every auction into an online event, open to the entire world.
Here at home in Britannia, I can often be found exploring my favourite Roman sites with my wife and our dog, Augustus (Gus) - a Shetland Sheepdog who embodies the tenaciousness of his ancient namesake quite well. The British Museum is of course hallowed ground to me and I also try to visit as many regional museums and ancient-themed exhibitions in the UK and Europe as possible. As well as Roman coinage, I am particularly interested in Roman imperial portraiture, epigraphy and grave memorials. The internet has brought amazing opportunities to connect with and learn from like-minded lovers of history all over the world and stay up to date on new discoveries as they happen, which is very often! It seems the wonder of the ancient world is constantly revealing itself and coming into ever-clearer focus, even as we move further away from it. Every day I learn new things about Rome and the ancients, yet still feel I have only scratched the surface. Sharing is a key part of learning, and in that spirit I share my small but much-loved collection with you now in the hope it might offer some joy and knowledge to others.