Ancient Roman coins part of treasured local collection
ANCIENT artefacts usually conjure up terms like priceless and rare, thoughts of them homed in museums under temperature controlled glass amidst extremely tight security.
But not Roman coins, or some of them at least. Here you can find thousand-year-old examples in a zip lock bag in the Clarence Valley, and while they are not quite a dime a dozen, if you want one it'll set you back just $5.
Seems quite odd when you are looking at something that could have possibility passed through the fingers of Julius Caesar or his successors maybe.
But that's the appeal of these ancient coins that has seen numismatist Matthew Shillam operate an online enterprise "microbusiness" specialising in them.
Romanorvm deal across 1000 years of coinage from a 2000-year period - the latter era of the Roman Empire (first, second and third centuries) - and the reason Matthew chose to deal in the more 'modern' ancient period of 500-600BC up to fall of the Empire, was for practical reasons.
"They are much more affordable, less valuable coins. There's less concern because you aren't dealing with extremely valuable examples and the issues that come with that, like counterfeiting, although Roman coins are more difficult to fake than they look," Matthew said.
He said some of the rarer ones he sources fetch reasonable sums of $1000 upwards but the majority were smaller sums.
"The silver coin I started my own collection with featuring Emperor Vespasian cost $35."
Matthew said he loves dealing with Roman coins but doesn't extend the obsession to his own collection, which is quite frugal at around 30 pieces - "nothing too expensive in there. I get enough of a fix touching them and passing them on to the client."
Romanorvm services about 50 clients from all over Australia "we have a lot from Western Australia" and said there were endless varieties out there to collect while pointing to a poster featuring the hundreds of Roman Emperors who ruled during the Empire.
"Some emperors only lasted a couple of months and striking a new coin was one of the first things they did. They also released coins to honour their wives and children. It got word out there because there were no press releases or media back then.
"Coins were a form of propaganda informing the masses how they were building roads, donating to orphanages or who had a son coming."
Matthew said while the coins didn't actually have a currency value stamped on them (they were valued by their weight and material), they all had stories to tell.
"You can tell the Greek emperors as opposed to Roman. The Greeks were much vainer. Their images were what you would call photoshopped today. The Roman emperors portrayed themselves literally warts and all," he said showing me a profile of a huge man with a double chin.
Matthew said you can not only tell which era the coins came from because of the emperor featured, but also the mint and workshop where they were struck. "Sometimes even the slave who made it."
He said the coins were made using two dies (casts) in reverse, reheated with appropriate amount of metal added and struck by the hand of a slave so you get very random results. "No two coins are the same," he says as he pulls out an example with cracks and rough edges
Romanorvm sources its Roman coins from international auctions in Germany and Switzerland, with the "odd few from England."
"Obviously you won't find any in Australia, but most of the hordes discovered (more than 1000 coins) are found by fossickers armed with metal detectors or during archaeological digs."
He said any very rare (priceless) coins go into museum collections and the rest are sold by international auction houses, which is where Matthew sources most of his. "Sometimes we have to guess what clients are after and buy speculatively and just fluke it. It might take a month to find something for them or 10 years depending on their collections."
He said coin collectors could be eccentric "like all collectors" and he often gets phone calls from people, usually men, wanting to start a collection from scratch.
"They call and say they want one of every emperor in gold so I tell them it will take 10 years to source that many and will cost about $100,000. I usually don't hear back from them."
Matthew also gets a chuckle when someone calls saying they have an 'ancient' coin he might be interested in.
"Usually it means they have an Australian penny from 1935. I guess Australians think that's very old."
Matthew said he hasn't always been a huge fan of Roman coins but steadily became interested during his studies in Canberra.
"My parents had a coin collection including some Roman coins. It was pretty cool but I didn't think much of it at the time (1970s). When I went to Canberra to study you could say I became interested, perhaps obsessed, with Roman history."
Matthew began working with Dr Hugh Preston who established Romanorvm in the mid-1990s as a mailing list business, employing Matthew in 2001 to help establish and maintain the database when it went online. "I sucked all the information I could out of him and when the opportunity to purchase the business from him arose I bought it."
That was about 10 years ago now and after returning to his home town (Matthew went to Grafton High) area in 2007 with his wife Katrina, armed with his Bachelor of Arts in Librarianship and Masters in Classics (Honours), he ran his online business full time while continuing to study his favourite topic. "I'm currently doing a PHD in Ancient History. Greek and Roman history is of great interest to me," his room full of reference books echoing this.
And while Matthew knows every Roman emperor like they are long lost friends, he realises most of them are unknown to the general population.
"Even if they don't know much about Roman emperors people have usually heard about Caesar and Claudius, Hadrian, because of the wall, Nero and, more recently, the bad guy from the Gladiator movie (Commodus)."