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  • Gareth Harney

The Didcot Hoard

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

The Didcot Hoard on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This incredible Roman hoard was found by metal detectorist Bill Darley in 1995, near the Oxfordshire town of Didcot. Whilst hoards of bronze and silver coinage are relatively common from Roman Britain, (with some notable examples found in just the last few years) this hoard instead consists of 126 gold coins or aurei. The aureus (from the latin for “golden”) was the standard gold denomination of the Roman Empire and was valued at 25 silver denarii. Though the aureus was the same size as the denarius, the increased density of gold gave it twice the weight, usually between 7-8 grams in the first century. The aureus is also known for its consistently outstanding purity level, near to 24-carat gold in excess of 99%, putting many more modern “gold” coins to shame.

The practical usage of the aureus in antiquity is still debated but its high value and small size meant that it was:

  1. A practical way for the rich to store long-term savings.

  2. Used in large scale payments in big business, taxes and government level transactions.

  3. Often used to pay wages of the Roman Army.

  4. Given as “gifts”, donatives from a new emperor.

The dating of the hoard is another singular aspect that makes it stand out amongst the hoards of Roman Britain. Most hoards were buried in times of economic and military crisis; in an age before modern banking, this was often the most reliable way to store personal wealth, yet in these dangerous days many owners never returned to retrieve their secreted treasure. Such hoards have given us an immense amount of historical knowledge and usually speak of the increasing instability of Britannia through the 4th and into the 5th centuries.

The Didcot Hoard on the other hand, dates from a comparatively much more stable period. Represented are the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian and his two sons Titus and Domitian, as well as the whole span of the “Good Emperors” (and some of their wives), Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius – figures who, though they fought wars in their own right, presided over two centuries of great internal peace.

As the latest coin in the hoard dates from 160 AD, the final year of the reign of Antoninus Pius, it has been proposed that perhaps the hoard represents a donative on the accession of the new emperor, Marcus Aurelius. It had become a tradition for new emperors to inaugurate and cement their new reign with generous gifts to high ranking officials, miltary officers and common soldiers.

The fact that the hoard was equivalent to 10.5 years salary for a Roman legionary of the time (300 denarii per year from the time of Domitian), emphasises the huge loss this hoard must have represented to the person/s involved. We can never know why exactly an individual buried this pot of gold in rural Oxfordshire two millennia ago but we can theorise:

Is this a donative from Marcus Aurelius to an official of Roman Britain, who buried it for safe keeping but died soon after? Is the hoard a result of theft or perhaps “skimming off the top” local corruption? Or are these simply just the savings of a rich local or a very prudent Roman soldier?

The amazing Didcot Hoard can be viewed at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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