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ISAW Papers 13 (2018)

An Overview of the Numismatic Evidence from Imperial Roman Africa

Daniel Hoyer

Abstract: This article describes a database of 50,970 coins from the Roman Empire minted in the 'high' imperial period (23 BCE-275 CE). It includes mainly coins found in the regions that were part of imperial Rome's African provinces, with some material from Western Europe for comparative purposes. This database represents data culled from numerous sources and previous publications, representing one of the largest single collections of numismatic material from Roman Africa during this period currently available; though it is by no means exhaustive, and further research is needed to supplement the present project. I present here an overview and some notes on the quantification of this material, highlighting the most prominent and interesting patterns. This quantification suggests certain interpretations concerning key topics in the monetary history of the western Empire, which I point to briefly. Further, the complete dataset is provided for download as both a csv file and a more structured data file (JSON file) to facilitate future research on Roman Africa's numismatic record as well as related information. My intention is, thus, both to advance the study of Africa's numismatic heritage in general as well as to contribute to the available corpus of accessible, digital information concerning the ancient world.

Library of Congress Subjects: Numismatics, Roman; Economic History--to 500.


This article presents a summary, overview, and quantification of a large sample of numismatic material from Roman Africa — modern day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya — during the high imperial period. This includes any type of coin found in the region, whether in a hoard, through an archaeological excavation, or as a stray find, minted anywhere in the Roman world (though the vast majority were minted at Rome) between the years 23 BCE and 275 CE. Africa is one of the richest regions of the Roman Empire in terms of its archaeological heritage, including of course coinage. My purpose in writing this article and offering the database in digital format are twofold: firstly, no systematic summary or overview of the coinage from Roman African currently exists, despite the region being one of the largest and most prosperous areas of the Empire and having been subject to many years of study by some of the world's leading numismatists. The overview, elucidation, and interpretation of the material offered here is meant to contribute to the study of Roman numismatics generally as well Roman economic history and the history of North Africa. My second goal is to supply a digital record of the complete database on which this overview is based in a structured, accessible, stable, and reusable way.

A crucial part of making this material useful for other scholars is providing ready access to the data. An open digital publication ISAW Papers, provides the most suitable venue for such an effort. Admittedly, offering the complete dataset for public consumption in this way is perhaps a bit unusual for a scholarly article dealing with ancient material evidence. Scholars in Classics and the Humanities generally, however, are coming more and more to appreciate the opportunities afforded by digital technologies for enhancing and aiding academic research. In particular, digital datasets and a linked data approach are being increasingly utilized not merely as a means of presenting an argument, but as an indispensible tool in the gathering, organization, and interpretation of evidence.1 In order to reap the full rewards of this 'digital revolution', though, it is essential for scholars to share their data in an open, accessible, and structured way. The database appended to this article will, I hope, contribute in a small way to this overall project.

In the next section, I explain how the database was constructed and what is, and is not, included. I then provide a brief, general discussion of previous scholarship on coinage from Roman Africa, outlining some of the problems one encounters trying to gather together evidence from scattered sources. I next provide a quantitative analysis of the numismatic material. This allows me to point out the most salient patterns and peculiarities displayed by the material, concentrating on the material from Africa itself, but bringing in evidence from other regions by way of providing context to explain the African data. Then, I offer some interpretations about these patterns. I explore how this material can elucidate the Roman monetary system and the production, distribution, and use of both small and large denomination coins. Essentially, I argue that Roman Africa featured a robust monetized economy reflected in the numismatic record from the region. More importantly, I suggest further that the broader economic, political, and military history of the region suggests that coinage was coming into the area primarily for the use of the region’s inhabitants, as opposed to being principally the result of spending by the state.2 Finally, I conclude by summarizing the key points brought up in the earlier sections before ending the article pointing out the benefits and, indeed, importance of providing access to the complete dataset in a digital publication such as ISAW Papers.

Constructing the Database of African Coins

In all, the database consists of 50,970 coins plus associated information, including each coin's denomination, its metal, find-spot, mint date, weight (where that information was available), and find context (namely, whether it came from a secure hoard or as a stray find, as from an archaeological excavation). It also includes the name of the Roman province corresponding to the modern-day find spot for coins found in North Africa (though, for simplicity's sake, not for coins found in Europe). These coins were all minted by Roman authorities, mainly the legitimate rulers of the Roman state but including also coins minted by rival claimants to legitimate power such as the rulers of the so-called Gallic Empire. I have not included coins which have been positively identified as ancient imitations, although this is an interesting topic which deserves some treatment.3 The majority of the coins come from the territory of Roman Africa (35,559), but I include also a smaller number of coins from Europe: the Gallic provinces (13,587), and small numbers from Spain (1,207) and Britain (617).4 The non-African material is included for comparison and to provide some context for discussion of the patterns revealed by simple analyses of the African evidence. In compiling this database, I chose to focus on coins minted before 275 CE, the date of Aurelian’s defeat of the last rulers of the breakaway Gallic Empire. Aurelian’s victory was followed by a reunification of the territory in the northwestern Empire as well as the beginnings of a radical overhaul of Rome’s monetary policy, culminating in Diocletian’s reign at the beginning of the fourth century. Certainly the events of the fourth and fifth centuries CE are very interesting in their own right and many of the developments of Late Antiquity have their origins in the events of the third century. It is, though, beyond the scope of this work to investigate this later period.

The African material in the database is the result of a detailed survey of the available records (I list sources of this information in the Appendix). This work was conducted primarily at the American Numismatic Society, supplemented with a stint at the Cabinet des Médailles in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris; two of the largest collections of numismatic resources in the world. My primary goal was to survey the numismatic record from Roman Africa in support of broader arguments about the Roman economy. The resulting database has supported analyses presented in several publications.5 I offer the full database here in order to facilitate continued investigation into Roman Africa's rich numismatic record, saving scholars from having to reduplicate such labor-intensive effort in the future. My hope is that the database will continue to grow, as scholars with access to records I was not able to find supplement the database, or as new discoveries are made and added to the list; the more that we present the fruits of our labour to the scholarly community through open, digital publication of data, the more we all benefit from the collective effort.

In building the database, I relied on the excellent tradition of numismatic research concerning Roman Africa. Although no single collection of coins found in the region has previously been attempted, there has been a great deal of work in the past on particular finds or on sites that have produced coins. Many impressive numismatic studies have been produced in recent decades by local Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan scholars as well as by European numismatists. The majority of Roman coins that have been uncovered in North Africa, however, were discovered and published in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, largely by French scholars working in what was at the time French colonial territory in Tunisia and Algeria. Unfortunately, the publication of this material is not as complete or detailed as desired, or as informative as would be demanded of a modern scholar. This issue, in fact, plagues work on the ancient world generally. The importance of this is that many of the Roman coins discovered in Africa before about the 1970s are recorded without a full, detailed catalogue and feature only cursory information about denomination, type, find-spot, mint location, and minting date.

Another, related issue is that many of the coins discovered in the region before the middle of the twentieth century have dispersed, sometimes with no clear record of where the coins actually ended up, or at least have become unavailable for scholarly study for a variety of reasons. Much ancient material, including Roman-era coinage, was allowed to leave the region, some of which ended up in museum holdings, but which mostly ended up in the hands of private owners. The result of all this is the frustrating situation that many finds of Roman-era coinage are known as they are mentioned in various archaeological reports from the region, but they are described in only vague terms often without detail even on the exact number of coins which were found, making it very difficult to perform any usable analysis on the material.

As it stands, the database offered here represents the most comprehensive single collection of numismatic data concerning coins found in Roman Africa published to date. It is, however, by no means an exhaustive or completely comprehensive set of Africa's numismatic record. There are certainly gaps, as I was not able to access all published material, due to records being lost, or simply a lack of the resources needed to track down rare material in far-flung collections. This is particularly problematic with coins found in excavations, as certain excavation reports I have simply not been able to track down, while other excavation reports (particularly those conducted prior to the 1970s) do not provide sufficient details on the coins found. The database I provide here, therefore, should be considered provisional and always a work-in-progress; I will consider this project a success only if work continues on this important topic and the database is supplemented in the future.

The only resource that provides detailed information about individual coins are lists of specific hoards or archaeological reports cataloging the numismatic finds. These resources are invaluable to any attempt at reaching generalizations or interregional analysis, yet it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to track down all of the information scattered across so many different publications held in libraries across the globe and written in several different languages. This is why I am eager to provide the complete database that I was able to assemble over the course of years of research; my primary intention is to free up future scholars from having to repeat these efforts, allowing them instead to concentrate on combining this material with other evidence and analyzing the data to reach novel conclusions.

Further, I am only concerned here with Roman coins produced between 23 BCE and 275 CE. There was a rich numismatic tradition in the region during the Punic period as well as with the Numidian kingdoms before the reorganization of the region into Roman provinces under Augustus as well as into the later antique period after Diocletian's reforms; each of these developments deserves its own study, so I do not treat that material here.6 Within these limits, this article and the appended database represents an attempt to present in straightforward and systematic fashion a synthetic overview of available numismatic evidence through quantitative survey and to provide complete, open access to the data.

Such synthetic analysis is, unfortunately, somewhat rare in ancient numismatic scholarship, not including general typological surveys such as the Roman Provincial Coinage volumes.7 There are several very informative and learned general studies of Roman numismatics, but these do not provide comprehensive detail about the material being analyzed.8 Pierre Salama, one of the most prolific scholars working on the numismatic history of North Africa, has in recent years attempted to provide something like an overview of Roman coin-finds from the region.9 These articles provide a list of all known finds of Roman coinage in the region, concentrating on the hoard finds. These are invaluable and much needed works, although Salama is not interested in providing a detailed synthesis of the information provided by the numismatic material. Similarly, Georges Depeyrot in 2011 posted online an unpublished article10 containing the provisional findings of a project on the monetary history of North Africa begun in 2010 which, in his words, “était de faire connaître et d'étudier les découvertes monétaires dans cette region [was meant to make a report and study of the coin finds from that region].” The impetus for the project was, clearly, his observation that no systematic treatment of the African material had been completed and his hope that future researchers will pick up where he left off and see the project to completion. The work presented here takes up this challenge.

Previous scholarship on the numismatics record of Roman Africa

Roman Africa is a large and diverse region. At its core was the province of Africa Proconsularis , centered on modern-day Tunisia (and the ancient capital of Carthage, roughly modern Tunis) and including parts of what today is Algeria and Libya. The region enjoyed a relatively high degree of productivity and stability, even during the later half of the third century CE when the rest of the western Empire was experiencing a wave of crises (I explain this more below).11 Proconsularis in particular is considered one of the wealthiest regions of the Empire, and was certainly one of the most highly urbanized and economically productive. Though the other provinces—Numidia, Mauretania Caesariensis, Mauretania Tingitana—were also fairly productive.

The conditions and causes of economic expansion in the early years of the Empire have been dealt with at length in previous works,12 and I will not rehash these arguments here. Suffice it to note that Africa, and especially parts of Proconsularis and Numidia, featured extremely productive agricultural land. Integration into the imperial economy allowed wealthy landowners in the region to take advantage of markets for agricultural produce in Rome, as well as other parts of Italy, Carthage, and elsewhere. Favorable institutions allowed these wealthy Romans to accumulate large tracts of land, taking advantage of scale factors in expanding production of agricultural produce and manufactures, and provided less well-off property owners and tenant farmers the opportunities to contribute to the regional economy as well. Through the first two centuries CE, Africa experienced an economic boom. This boom was built largely on the production and distribution of wheat and olive oil, two of the Roman world's most important and sought-after consumer goods. Countless studies have exposed the archaeological remains of this productivity: showing ceramic material involved in hauling oil,13 uncovering the processing facilities used to press the olives as well as thrash wheat and produce other goods (fish-sauce, clothing dyes, and other items),14 and revealing improvements made to the region's port facilities to aid in the transport and distribution of these goods.15 All of this productive capacity grew on the back of investments made into the region's infrastructure, providing the impetus for a great deal of urban growth Proconsularis and Numidia especially.  

Unfortunately, despite the great tradition of scholarship into the African economy and specifically on the region's material remains, little attention has been paid to the numismatic record. Yet, I would argue that coins hold great promise in elucidating how the African economy functioned, much the same as studies of the region's ceramic material have revealed so much about the importance of olive oil in the region's economic boom. Exactly what types of coins were circulating in the region at different times? How many coins were there, and what does that tell us about the regions' economic functioning? How were these coins being used? Do the numismatics accord with the indications from other material, such as ceramics, epigraphic evidence, or even the literary record? Are there significant differences between the different African provinces in terms of coin use and availability? How does the African experience compare with other parts of the western Empire? Does the numismatic evidence help to explain larger economic dynamics in the western Empire over the course of the imperial period?

All of these questions are critical to advance our understanding of the region and of the Roman economy generally. Answering them requires bringing together and cataloguing that as many of the imperial Roman coins found in Africa as possible, so that future scholars working on a variety of inter-related issues can assess patterns and reach reasonable conclusions based on the empirical record. This article, and the accompanying database, is an attempt at starting such a dialogue.

The Data: Quantitative Overview

For each coin included in the database, I recorded information concerning the find-spot where the coin was discovered including the corresponding Roman province (for the African material only), the context of the find (hoard or site find), the denomination of the coin, the weight, date and place it was minted, and an estimate of how long the coin spent in circulation when it came from a hoard.16 Not every coin was able to provide data for all categories, but all of the information that I was able to capture is provided in the database appended to this article. Moreover, there is sufficient data here to support quantitative analysis and some interesting insights about the monetary history of North Africa in the first three centuries CE. In this section, I provide a fairly detailed overview of the data, highlighting the most significant patterns that emerge from a quantification of the full body of numismatic material from the region. I focus on four categories for this quantitative analysis: denominational, regional, chronological, and contextual patterns.

Map 1. Map showing location of find-spots of the African coins in this database. (World Shaded Relief Map by ESRI)

a) Denominational Patterns

I was able to capture information on 33,514 coins minted in the high imperial period which were discovered somewhere in North Africa; 32,357 from various hoards and 1,157 from archaeological stray or site finds (including the 'main' imperial denominations and exclude clear imitations). A breakdown of the number of coins by denomination and type of find is presented in Table 1. As can be seen, the majority (20,037; 60%) of the coins found are antoniniani, an important and interesting feature that I discuss in detail below. Bronze sestertii make up the next-largest denomination group (8,214; 25%), followed by the silver denarius (4,738; 14%) and then lower denomination bronze fractional coinage, including the as, dupondius, quadrans, and small unidentified bronze coins recovered from excavations at about 1.45%, along with a handful (39; <1%) of the highest value currency of the era, the gold aureus.

Table 1. Number of coins found in Africa, by denomination and find context.
Denomination Hoard Site Find Total % of Total
antoninianus 19665 372 20037 60
as 4 215 219 1
aureus 38 1 39 <1
denarius 4603 135 4738 14
dupondius 1 69 70 <1
dupondius/as 1 ø 1 <1
quadrans 1 10 10 <1
sestertius 8045 169 8214 25
unidentifiable bronze ø 186 186 <1
Total 32357 1157 33514  

The antoninianus was a substantially overvalued billon coinage first introduced by Caracalla, then briefly abandoned before being reintroduced probably in 235 CE.17 The coinage seems to have been tariffed at 2 denarii,18 although the coin’s intrinsic, metallic value was significantly less, since it contained initially only about 1.5 times the amount of silver as was in the denarius. After its reintroduction, the antoninianus quickly became the most frequently appearing coinage in finds from the mid- and late-third century throughout the western Empire. I will come back to this point in the interpretation section, but for now it is useful to separate the antoniniani found in Africa from the other coins. For, the 230s CE represent a transitional time between the stable, tri-metallic monetary system (namely, coins minted in gold, silver, and bronze) in effect for most of the imperial period and the reformed coinage of the late third century CE.

Not including antoniniani, there are 13,477 imperial coins known from North Africa from the period under consideration here. This can be elucidated further: if only coins minted before 235 CE are included, this leaves 7,985 coins (Table 2). All but 15 of these coins come from the mint at Rome.19 235 CE is chosen as this is the likely date that antoniniani were reintroduced and certainly when they begin to appear in great numbers. The extremely high numbers of antoniniani which were minted between roughly 235 and 275 CE altered the landscape of imperial coinage, although other denominations were still being minted until Aurelian’s and Diocletian’s reforms. It is also worth pointing out here that less than 8,000 coins found in hoards or as site finds is not a very large quantity from a study area that includes the entire region of North Africa, comprising four Roman provinces, and covers a period of 249 years, 23 BCE to 235 CE. It is notable that roughly the same number of coins from Gaul during this same period are included in the database, although as I discuss here I did not make as exhaustive a survey of the Gallic material as with the African, meaning that it is likely that Gaul actually has left significantly more coins than this in the archaeological record.

Table 2. Number of coins found in Africa minted before 235 CE, by denomination and find context.
Denomination Hoard Site Find Total % of Total
antoninianus 12 10 22 <1
as 4 208 212 3
aureus 38 1 39 <1
denarius 3428 134 3562 45
dupondius 1 69 70 <1
dupondius/as 1 ø 1 <1
quadrans ø 10 10 <1
sestertius 3753 134 3887 49
unidentifiable bronze ø 182 182 2
Total 7237 748 7985  

Somewhat ironically, North Africa's stability and prosperity during the imperial period may actually be one of the primary reasons that it has left relatively few coins compared to other regions. This is because coins are available to be studied by modern scholars when the coin is lost or buried in antiquity and never recovered. Coins certainly do represent a snap-shot of the monetary economy of the area in which they are recovered, but it is a somewhat skewed picture. Coins left unrecovered—in the ground, waiting to be found and studied—tend to either be of very low quality/value (essentially 'discarded' or lost), or hoards of coins buried together and, for a variety of reasons, never dug up again. The chief reason that ancient hoards went un-collected is that the people who buried it moved away or died before they had a chance to recover the material, spend it, move it, or melt it down for its metal; and the most common cause of this in antiquity was warfare. In other words, the number of coins found in a given region, especially those found in hoards, can be a strong positive proxy for the level of military and political turmoil in that region.20

This is not to say that hoarding itself was driven solely by warfare, that people would bury coins out of fear of invading troops. Rather, warfare resulted in the death or dislocation of large numbers of people—people who had buried coins and, thus, were not able to recover them. Ancient warfare is a key element in the modern-day recovery of coins from antiquity, because in other cases stored coins tended to be recovered or found by someone else, re-used, worn-down, and, eventually, melted down to recuperate the metal the coin contained—meaning, critically, that the coins are not available to be found and studied in modern times. This is a particularly salient point when considering the numismatic record from North Africa, for the region remained remarkably stable in terms of military conflict, political instability, disease, and other markers of turmoil compared to northwestern Europe throughout the imperial period and even into the chaotic third century CE.21 The relative paucity of numismatic material from Africa during this period, then, may be in part a product of this relative freedom from warfare, rather than an indication of a poorly-functioning monetary economy. Moreover, the relative economic stability enjoyed by the region would have contributed to this pattern for similar reasons, for a stable monetary economy means that coins retain their value for longer periods, so that they are less 'expendable' and so do not become stray finds and so hoards containing those coins remain 'worth recovering'. I treat the important topic of recoverability in more detail below.

Concerning the evidence that we do have, as is immediately apparent from Table 2, of coins minted before 235 CE, the denarius and sestertius are by far the most frequently occurring in the evidence, representing 45% and 49% of the total, respectively. It is expected that these would be the two most frequently found denominations, as these were two of the staples of the imperial monetary system. What is curious is that they were found in nearly the same quantity: 3,562 denarii (3,428 from hoards; 134 from site finds) and 3,887 sestertii (3,753 from hoards; 134 from site finds). Traditionally, it has been often assumed that the highest value coins available are hoarded together, whereas site finds tend to be the lowest value coins. It is notable, therefore, that there are not significantly more high-value silver denarii hoarded than lower-value bronze sestertii,22 nor substantially more sestertii than denarii recovered as site finds. More expected is that asses and dupondii were mostly found as site finds, and only a handful of these very low value bronze coins were found in hoards, while aurei exhibit the opposite pattern.

Table 3a. Number of coins found in Africa minted after 235 CE, by denomination and find context
Denomination Hoard Site Find Total % of Total
antoninianus 19653 362 20015 78
as ø 8 8 <1
denarius 1175 1 1176 5
sestertius 4292 35 4327 17
unidentifiable bronze ø 4 4 <1
Total 25120 410 25530  
Table 3b. Number of coins found in Africa minted after 235 CE, by denomination and find context, antoniniani not included.
Denomination Hoard Site Find Total % of Total
as ø 8 8 <1
denarius 1175 1 1176 21
sestertius 4292 35 4327 78
unidentifiable bronze ø 4 4 <1
Total 5467 48 5515  

The fact that denarii and sestertii minted before 235 CE appear in Africa in roughly equal numbers, then, is a significant finding and deserves some more attention (Table 3). Interestingly, when only the coins minted after 235 CE are considered (Table 3a), there are 4,327 sestertii, the most represented coin in this period after antoniniani. When the antononinianus is not included (Table 3b), this represents a surprising 78% of the 5,515 total. Denarii, in turn, account for only 1,176 (4%) of all African coins minted between 236-275 CE (Table 3a), 21% without antoniniani (Table 3b).

Taking a larger snapshot and looking at the entire period 23 BCE to 275 CE (Table 4), 13,478 coins are known from Africa, not including antoniniani. Of these, 8,214 or 61% are sestertii (8,045 hoards; 169 site finds), 4,738 or 35% are denarii (4,603 from hoards; 135 site finds), 39 are aurei, and the rest are fractional bronzes. This demonstrates that sestertii from all periods represent a greater percentage of the non-antoninianus total than sestertii minted pre-235, specifically 61% as opposed to 49%. The proportion of denarii, of course, decreases in turn. Still, it is quite significant that both denarii and sestertii of the imperial period have been found in fairly large numbers, although very few hoards contain both bronze and silver coins in any significant quantity. Also, nearly 1.75 times the number of sestertii as denarii have been found in the region overall, including the hoard evidence.

Table 4. Number of coins found in Africa, by denomination and find context, antoniniani not included.
Denomination Hoard Site Find Total % of Total
as 4 216 220 2
aureus 38 1 39 <1
denarius 4603 135 4738 35
dupondius 1 69 70 <1
dupondius/as 1 ø 1 <1
quadrans ø 10 10 <1
sestertius 8045 169 8214 61
unidentifiable bronze ø 186 186 <1
Total 12692 786 13478  

Understanding the proportional representation of the different denominations is revealing, for the African evidence does not mirror the numismatic record from other parts of the Empire. This is especially striking in the case of the Gallic provinces, encompassing roughly the modern countries of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and parts of western Germany. Roman Gaul was a large (although significantly smaller) and economically important region as was Roman Africa and has been home to some of the best numismatic research in the last several decades. Much, therefore, is known about the monetary history of the region in the imperial period. The consensus among scholars is that, during the second half of the third century CE, the tri-metallic monetary system of the high imperial period essentially collapsed into a bimetallic system – the gold aureus and the billon antoninianus.23 In short, antoniniani dominate Gallic coin finds, while the vast majority of the non-antoniniani coins are bronze coins minted in the Antonine period, not later.24

More importantly for the issue of denominational patterns, when discussing the rise of antoniniani in the western Empire during the third century, Estiot records that roughly 300,000 antoniniani have been found in the western half of the Empire in hoards, while an additional 30,000 have been identified in excavations; the vast majority of which were found in France, Belgium, or Britain.25 Presumably these figures include some of the African material, although  Estiot did not attempt an exhaustive survey of African coins, but was rather mainly concerned with the evidence from northern Europe. Even if all of the African antoniniani were known to Estiot, I am able to reconstruct from the available evidence only 20,037 antoniniani recovered from Africa (Table 1), a mere 6% of the total number identified by Estiot. It is important to stress again that more coins have been found in Gaul and in Britain than in Africa overall, although, crucially, this is heavily weighted with antoniniani. Indeed, in an important study of third century coinage found in Gaul and Britain, Depeyrot and Hollard studied over 350,000 Roman coins minted between 238 and 276 CE found in 65 separate hoards, which in itself dwarfs the total number of coins I was able to identify from Africa for the entire high imperial period.26 Of these 350,000 mid-third century coins, the authors identify only 229 denarii, about 0.06% of the total, and no sestertii.27

Interestingly, my own albeit partial survey of the Gallic numismatic material likewise includes fewer denarii and sestertii from that region than from Africa. This search revealed 6,694 sestertii, less than the 8,214 known from Africa. I also found 3,360 denarii in Gallic hoards,28 compared with 4,738 from Africa. When the roughly 300,000 antoniniani identified from northern Europe by Estiot are considered, the number of denarii and sestertii from Gallic hoards represent on the order of 1-2% of the total number of pre-Aurelian coins known from the region, considerably less than the ratio from Africa.29 A similar picture emerges with the coins from Roman Britain. Indeed, a single hoard from Cunetio in southeastern Britain, one of the largest single collections of Roman coins ever found, offers a fairly representative picture of the circulation history of the region and encompasses in itself more than the total number of coins I have been able to identify from all of Africa. The Cunetio hoard features 54,951 coins dating from the late first century CE to the reign of Aurelian, of which only 630 are denarii (about 1.5% of the total) and only one sestertius.30

This all implies strongly that antoniniani did not circulate to nearly the same extent in Africa during the mid-third century as they did in northern Europe. There are fewer denarii and sestertii known from the Gallic provinces and Britain than I have been able to gather from Africa. What this means in terms of the type of coins circulating in different parts of the Empire, then, is that the coin populations of Roman Africa seem to have been considerably more stable than in northern Europe at least up to the mid-third century;31 although in both regions the preponderance of antoniniani minting certainly had a significant effect on circulation patterns after 235 CE, sestertii and denarii remained in circulation after this date in greater numbers in Africa than elsewhere.

b) Chronological Patterns

Perhaps the most important patterns, and the aspect which most sets Africa’s monetary history apart from that of other areas of the western Empire, are the chronological ones. I mentioned above that Africa displays a more steady, stable numismatic record over the course of the high imperial period than can be seen in northern Europe. This is borne out by a close look at the chronological patterns. Figures 1 and 2 present histograms of the number of coins found in Africa, both hoards and site finds, by decade in which the coins were minted.32 These illustrations clearly reveal that there is a fairly steady representation of coins throughout the high imperial period.

Figure 1. Number of African coins by mint date (n= 33,514)

Figure 1 includes antoniniani, which represent the majority of overall coin finds, as noted above. Since this coinage was not minted before 215 CE, this skews the results towards the right half of the graph. Still, it is notable that there is an uneven distribution throughout the period when antoniniani were being minted in great numbers, after about 235 CE. Coins from the 260s and 270s are by far the most numerous of any category, representing 21% and 37% of the total, respectively. This further demonstrates that, while antoniniani came to dominate the circulation pattern of Africa as it did in the rest of the western Empire, this dominance did not occur until the 250s at earliest, well into the period when antoniniani were being minted. The relatively stable circulation pattern enjoyed by Africa is illustrated more plainly in Figure 2, which is a breakdown of coins by decade in which they were minted not including antoniniani. This Figure shows that nearly all decades of the high imperial period are well represented.

Figure 2. Number of African coins by mint date, not including antoniniani (n=13,477)

More significant is that the early 200s, covering the Severan period, are well-represented in the number of coin finds, shown clearly in Figure 2. This is important because, as mentioned, it is a very different pattern from that recorded in Gaul and Britain. Owing likely to a variety of factors including military, political, and economic turmoil along with dwindling metal supplies, the coinage circulating in northwestern Europe was essentially not restocked after the Antonine period, a gap that was eventually filled with antoniniani.33 As Estiot remarks, there is essentially a hiatus in the numismatic evidence from 193 to about 260 CE between the last nadir of minting good quality imperial silver and bronze coins in the late Antonine period and the appearance in huge numbers of antoniniani.34 Her remark, however, is based almost exclusively on evidence from northwestern Europe, on finds from Roman Gaul, Germany, and Britain; in the rest of the western Empire, namely Italy, Spain, and, of course, Africa, this gap is far less severe.35

Figure 3a. Number of coins found in Africa Proconsularis by mint date (n=18,107)
Figure 3b. Number of coins found in Numidia by mint date (n=7,742)