In 2006 two metal-detectorists found a hoard of Roman coins near Milton Keynes. Archaeologists were notified and the site was excavated, and it was thought that the coins were probably buried in a pot in a rubbish heap. The coins were not particularly valuable, they were all bronze, but there were 1456 of them. They were reported as treasure the are no in Buckinghamshire County Museum.

What is fascinating about these coins is the story they tell. The coins date to the 4th century AD, mostly around AD 350. There are a couple of coins of Constantine the Great (the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire) but many more from the reign of his sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans (Roman emperor’s baby name books weren’t very imaginative).

A century before this the emperor Diocletian reorganised the empire into two zones, the Western and the Eastern Empires. There was an over-emperor or Augustus who generally controlled the Eastern Empire and a junior emperor or Caesar who controlled the Western Empire. When Constantine the Great died, his three sons split the territories between them. They bickered, though, as you’d expect, and it eventually came to blows. In a battle between Constantine II and Constans, the former was killed.

Things stabilised for a while, but then Constans is said to have got very cruel and preferred the company of his barbarian bodyguards that his generals. One of these, a man called Magnentius (who is said to have had a Frankish mother and a British father) decided to make himself Augustus and Caesar and sent someone to dispatch Constans.

Eventually, Magnentius and the one surviving son of Constantine the Great, Constantius, fought. Their armies met in Dalmatia and in Frankia and eventually Magnentius was defeated and he killed himself. Constantius is supposed to have sent a servant called Paulus to Britain to punish anyone who supported Magnentius, and he got the nickname Paulus Catena or Paul the Chain for dragging people through the streets in chains.

The coins in the pot found by the metal-detectorists near Milton Keynes in 2006 were mainly coins of Constantius, Constans and Magnentius. Perhaps the owners of these coins buried them in a panic generated by Paulus Catena’s antics.

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Me at home in my late Roman outfit

Brett Thorn at the Buckinghamshire County Museum asked me to write some teacher’s material to go with the coins as part of a tour of part of the hoard to schools in Milton Keynes. I was also to devise a session where I would go in to the school in costume and let kids handle some coins from the hoard.

 

I did my first one yesterday, and it went really well. We told the very complicated story of the rebellion and burial of the coins in the hall, along with cardboard swords, laurel wreaths, purple robes and paper chains. I involved every single child from two classes in telling the story, which helped bring it to life. Later the kids remembers which friends had been Magnentius, Constans and the others.

The kids loved handling the coins, and already knew that they had to wear gloves to protect the coins from the acidic oils on their hands. I worked with a small group at a time to handle the coins, and took some Roman games to try out for the rest of the class to play while they waited.

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