ROMAN BRASS SESTERTIUS
Britain’s rarest coin and a World rarity
The brass coin stuck to commemerate Hadrian’s visit to
Britain in AD 134. A magnificent specimen depicting Hadrian addressing
his legion in Britain
Currently on Exhibition at the British Museum
case 14 of gallery 49 (Roman Britain)
In the autumn of 1979, now some 30 years ago, I visited Dr. Leo Mildenburg at Bank Leu in Zurich. As a young novice in Roman coinage when I sat with the Dr. he made a statement that left me confused and was difficult to understand. “Geoffrey,“ he said “in the coming auction there is a sestertius of Hadrian. A coin of the highest quality and the rarest brass I have ever had in my hands. Geoffrey you will buy this coin. You will buy it at any price, and it might cost you any amount.” A clear statement, not a request, Leo Mildenburg was a quiet man: I had heard how skilled he was in Numismatics but did not know him well.
Dr.Mildenburg said this in his customary low voice, but the urgency of his comment was loud in its effect on my thinking. It was also troubling. I remember telling him that I did not have the money to pay for this marvellous looking coin and my knowledge was also insufficient. His reply was I should first buy it and then pay him in the future. “Geoffrey, this is the most important British coin ever struck; it will in the future be one of the world’s most important coins.”
Leo Mildenburg (1913- 2001)*
I had at this period no other person to take advice from and had difficulty comprehending such a statement, for nobody had ever told me to buy a coin at any price. Was I one of several people told the same thing? I thought about the Doctor’s passion for the coin and after consideration was determined I should follow his advice. I purchased the coin for five times the auctioneer’s estimate and to this day I do not know the source of the coin, or the under bidders, but I took it on faith that Leo Mildenburg was correct in everything he told me.
I was later able to justify the price I paid when I realized I had bid on a work of art, not just a coin. To this day I remember those who were in the room. I sat in the back at the left and I can still hear the ‘terrible’ applause that broke out when I bought the coin. From time to time I am reminded of that day 30 years ago: I nearly shrank beneath the table out of embarrassment over the price I had paid, and then I began to leave the room, with my hands shaking and in complete shock. What had I done? I did not at that time appreciate what I had acquired. As I was going through the door head down I glanced at the room one more time: Leo Mildenburg caught my eye from the low table where he sat next to the rostrum and beckoned me over, took my hand and said quietly, “Geoffrey, you are leaving without your coin”. “Doctor”, I said sadly, “but I cannot pay you!” From his warm soft hands he placed the coin in mine and, with his wonderful smile and sparking eyes, he said “Treasure it. Do not part with the coin, you will pay me in the future.” Leo Mildenburg was, in my eyes, one of the greatest numismatists and I miss him very much. This is a story of a man who after one meeting placed trust in me. And the story does not end there; the Doctor had the amazing faith that I would one day have a real collection, and I later thanked him in the only way I could by giving him an ancient Lion, in honour of his name, Leo. The years that have passed have proven him right and also proven the faith I had in him.
The coin lay in the original packet for many years before I came to study it. The embarrassment of acquiring such a piece at such a price was satisfied by its quality: it is now on loan to the British Museum.
Roman art was important for the world, and the emperors of Rome knew the value of having their finest artists design and engrave the dies for the coinage that would broadcast their political and military messages. These messages would touch every hand that used Roman money. For future generations, Roman numismatic art would display their triumphs and tragedies, and would date them for the world to admire and contemplate.
In the twilight of Celtic history, an army crossed most of the known world, with the aim of dominating the fierce mixture of peoples who inhabited Britain, a solitary island that was as distant from Rome as any place could be. The legions had been there before, in fact many times, and had settled in to its southern parts. This time, the intention was to create a barrier to help keep out the northern tribes, who were so truculent that they defied even Rome’s best soldiers. But this immense wall would be more than a barrier; it would become a symbol as well.
The brass Sestertius which is the feature of this article was struck in AD 134 and commemorates the building and defence of that ancient barrier which history calls Hadrian’s Wall. There exists no greater metallic portrait of Hadrian, as he is shown on the obverse of this Sestertius, a true likeness of the emperor , consolidator, builder and he was a aesthete. The reverse depicts Hadrian standing on a low plinth addressing his legion on English soil, the Roman Army of Britain. This sole marvellous numismatic memento has survived the centuries intact, unlike the wall itself, which now is a fragmented ruin along the southern boundary of Scotland. Go to this fragment today, stand among the crumbled stones, in a still wild countryside, and imagine this hero of Rome, so far from home territory, claiming Britain for Rome and inspiring his soldiers by his very presence!
Hadrian, although on a low plinth, is engraved larger than the standard bearer and men of his legion. Careful examination shows the emperor holding the imperial baton in his left hand. The details of his shoes, his Roman clothing, and the muscles in his legs are all clear. The legionnaires display their standards, their armour and dress: nothing was left to the imagination in showing the glory of Rome. And under the exergual line is written the singular declaration EXERC BRITTANICUS [“THE <Roman> army of Britain”], thus, making this artistic coin the single most important piece in all of English numismatics, indeed its very cornerstone.
Here is a large brass that was made in the quality of a medallion to display the importance of the instruction to build and defend what has become known as Hadrian’s Wall, which once stretched the width of England in the North. The stone wall was built AD 122-30 by order of the Emperor Hadrian. When completed it ran 73 miles from Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Soloway Firth in the West of England. In memory and to some extent in fact, it separates Scotland from England. And it remains in Roman history as a symbol of the farthest extent of the Roman Empire. Rome came to a halt at Hadrian’s Wall.
Edited: Dr. Alan Walker
*This story is dedicated to the memory of Leo Mildenbeg (1913-2001), the passionate at collector and eminent numismatist. Born in Kassel, he was driven out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933 and deported by the Russians from Tartu (Estonia) to Kazakhstan in 1941, from where he was released in 1947 to start his new life in Zurich. As the foremost authority on the Bar Kokhba coins.
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