When my father passed away I was left with quite a few duties to settle his estate. Far down on that list was going through some boxes of personal memorabilia, but finally having completed most of the taxes and settling of accounts, I got to work on some keepsake boxes.
In the mix was his coin collection. Although I guess it was primarily my Grandfather’s, and he had passed it down to my Father as the majority of the print was in my Grandfather’s handwriting. I knew of the coins' existence as Dad occasionally mentioned them, but he wasn’t an active “Numismatist” or coin collector as I’ve learned they are called. I also learned that both men’s definition of collecting was to take a coin, write the year and denomination on a little envelope, put the coin inside the little envelope, and then throw it into a bigger sack. And that was where their cataloging and organization stopped.
Over the course of the next few evenings, I sat at the kitchen table putting coins in piles of the country of origin, year made, and then denomination. It didn’t take long to get a rhythm going; quarter, peso, franc, shilling, and penny – oh, soo many pennies! Occasionally a coin would be too worn to recognize with tired eyes, but a magnifying glass cleared things up and made me feel like an old-school detective. Fortunately, HCPL has a trove of books on coin collecting and I especially got a lot out of, Warman's U.S. Coin Collecting. And, as luck would have it I discovered a mystery at the bottom of the last bag.
It was a small coin, about the size of a dime, and it looked like it had been crudely made. (SEE PHOTOS) I could make out a man’s face and he was wearing some sort of headband, but I couldn’t recognize the lettering. After a few hours of wondering what to do or who to ask, I had the idea to try an image search online. I was able to get a pretty good photo with my phone and the search displayed quite a few options, but nothing seemed to match perfectly. It wasn’t until I conducted a search with a picture of the back of the coin that I found an unmistakable match.
The coin I was holding was listed as an “AE Follis Constantine I - SARMATIA DEVICTA,” and it was made at the Lugdunum Mint in modern-day Lyon, France between 323 – 324 AD. I was holding in my hands something that was just two years shy of its 1,700 birthday!
I immediately had a dozen questions, the first of which was, “Will I be a different person now that I’m a millionaire and would it be rude not to finish out the work week?”
Well, anything is only really worth what you can get someone to pay for it, (my father taught me that) and after some research, I feel confident that if I sold the coin I just might be able to take my girlfriend out to a nice restaurant for dinner…but not that nice.
I still had so many questions, like “Who was Constantine I?” and “How is it that I am looking at his face 1,700 years after he died?” With a little research, I think I might have the answer to that. The Romans were around for a long time, hundreds of years, and they made a lot of coins. For comparison, The United States has only been making coins since 1793 and there are currently 130 Billion US pennies in circulation. How hard is it to imagine that in 1,700 years someone might ask the question, “So who was this Abraham Lincoln guy?”
But who was Constantine? HCPL has a great database that I refer to a lot called Gale in Context: Biography. In Gale I learned that "He is frequently called "the Great" because of his successes as a general, administrator, and legislator and because of his support of the Christian Church and efforts to maintain Christian unity." I would absolutely recommend reading the fascinating, complete article about him in Gale.
What I would really love to know is what this coin’s journey looked like to get into my hands. How did it make it from the ancient Roman Empire to Texas? How did my Grandfather come to possess it? And Did he even know what he had? The internet has made armchair sleuthing a lot easier. I was able to find out in hours what he might never have been able to discover so I suppose it’s possible he never even knew the coin’s origin.
Does all this make me a Numismatist now? I don’t know about that, but I do love stories and mysteries and this certainly has been a great one, courtesy of Dad. I think he would’ve gotten a kick out of all this and maybe he too would have wondered about his father and where he got an ancient Roman coin. I know I did.
Please also enjoy these great books on coin collecting and the Roman Empire.
Coin Collecting by Neil S. Berman
Coins and Other Currency by Tamra Orr
Constantine by Paul Stephenson
Ten Caesars by Barry S. Strauss