October 13, 2017, by Helen Lovatt

The old pound coin goes out of circulation on Sunday – but what did the Romans do with old coinage?

A post by Notitngham PhD student Becky Batty, guest from Mint Imperials

[English pound coin, 2008 – one for the archives!]

If you’ve been in the UK over the past couple of months, you’re sure to have noticed the gradual disappearance of the ‘old’ pound. The new 12-sided pound coins have been slowly replacing the old round coin, which goes out of circulation this Sunday 16th – causing upheaval for lockers, trolleys, and really old drinks machines everywhere.

But what did the Romans do when they wanted to introduce new coins? New coins would be introduced into circulation at the start of a new emperor’s reign, alongside the old currency. At the start of the Roman empire, coins had a fairly high intrinsic value based on their material.

The introduction of new coins, with lower intrinsic values, surprisingly appeared to make no difference up to the reign of Septimius – so an older coin might have a higher silver content, but still be worth the same as a newer coin with less silver.[i]

After Septimius, silver coins went into rapid decline, and became subject to melting down or hoarding. So if you’ve still got a pile of old pound coins after Sunday, you can do as the Romans did and bury them in the ground to confuse future archaeologists.

On rare occasions, coins could be recalled and melted down en masse after a particularly hated emperor – Dio tells us Caligula’s bronze coins were melted down because they had his face on.[ii]

Like us, Roman currency often suffered from forgeries and devaluation, causing problems in the economy. However, due to the sheer size and distance of the Roman empire, a complete recall was impossible, and dealing with fakes difficult. We still have some fake coins made in ancient times!


The proliferation of forgeries led to people checking the content of the coins by hand to approve their worth. For example, in the coin below, we can see a small triangle just under Augustus’ chin. This is where someone has stamped to check that the whole coin was gold, rather than just gold plated. It’s almost like holding an old pound coin to check its weight, or like putting an old £20 note under a UV light.

[2 AU aureus of Augustus. Ob. has laureate head of emperor right, [CA]ESAR AVGVSVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE.]

With the introduction of the new currency in the UK, actions like these should be made obsolete – hopefully we won’t have to be burying currency any time soon!

[i] Estriot, Slyviane, ‘The Later Third Century’, in Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman coinage, ed. Metcalf, E (ed.), 2012, pp 539-560, p 540.

[ii] Cassius Dio, Roman History: 60.22

Posted in circulationClassicscoins