By Tom Welch - Volunteer Guide

Since 1970,  the Vindolanda site has given up some fabulous finds, in particular the famous wooden writing tablets, large amounts of leather shoes, tools, jewellery and many other artefacts together with approximately 2600 Roman coins, some dating back to the Roman republic.

Currency for most of the Roman Empire, including the republican period, consisted of gold, silver, bronze, orichalcum and copper coinage.  During this period, currency saw many changes in form, denomination and composition. One of the prominent changes over time was the debasement and replacement of coins over the centuries.

Due to the geographical extent of the empire, Roman currency was widespread, and it was extensively used even up to the middle ages, serving as model for many systems of trade and goods’ exchange. The influence of Roman coinage extends to today. The word ’mint’, for example, is linked to the manufacture of silver coins in Rome in 269 BCE, near to the temple of Juno Moneta, the goddess who became the personification of money.

The Romans were heavily influenced by ideas from the Greek civilisation. One example of this is the adoption of Greek gods and Greek images on coins. The first Roman coin bearing the image of a person was that of Julius Caesar and, despite Caesar not being an ‘emperor’ in the proper sense of the term, his tradition continued throughout the Empire. Coins bearing the image of the Emperor, signified not only his power but also the importance the state gave to the ruler, making him appear almost god-like. This was both publicity for the Emperor and Rome itself, a unifying display of the dominance of the Roman ways as well as an opportunity for the Emperor to demand loyalty. The reverse of most Roman coins illustrated the manner in which the Emperor was closely associated with the gods and Roman victories in battle. On many coins, Emperors were clothed in armour with garlands on their heads. Some of the Emperors who ruled for a short period, made sure that their image appeared on the coins soon after their rise in status.  Even today our British coins illustrate the monarch with a crown and on some earlier coins, Britannia displaying a similar dominance and power.

Writing in the mid second century BCE, Polybius (1) estimated soldiers’ pay being around two obols (2) a day which during the year would equate to 120 denarii and for a cavalryman’s pay at 180 denarii. Obviously, the value of the money and its purchasing power was dependent of the economic circumstances of the time. When Caesar came to power, he doubled the pay and the annual rate became 225 denarii and it remained at this rate until the time of Domitian. Polybius tells us that substantial stoppages were deducted for food, clothing and replacement of alms. The net amount would have to be satisfactory or mutiny would have broken out, as in some cases it did. The next improvement in pay was made by Domitian, who increased the pay by one-third by adding a fourth stipendium.  Soldiers’ pay was made in three instalments of 75 denarii in January, May and September. Domitian changed the intervals to three monthly and thus increased pay to 300 denarii. Under Severus he raised pay once more to an estimated 450 denarii. Caracalla gave a substantial increase of 50% probably to 675 denarii. Dependent on what rank and position legionary and auxiliary soldiers held was relative to the pay scale, for example, duplicarius alae (3) and sesquiplicarius alae (4) received two and a half the basic rate. A Roman papyrus recovered dated around AD 192 provides evidence for payment to auxiliary troops at 100 denarii, which is one-third of legionary pay. Centurion’s pay at the lowest level was in the region of 3,750 denarii a year with the primus pilus (5) earning as much as 15000 denarii, a pay which secured his services and marked his responsibility to the Emperor of the day. Emperors depended, amongst other factors, upon military loyalties, hence the pay rises when they came to power.

On joining the Roman army in the 2nd century, recruits received the viaticum and took the oath of allegiance, which was repeated each year in service.  The viaticum was 75 denarii or three gold pieces and the same amount was paid to auxiliary troops also, at least to the time of Septimius Severus. There is evidence that once paid, the recruit handed over the money in the form of receipts to the signifier (6) who in fact acted as the banker of each century.

The AD 213 fort constructed at Vindolanda by the Forth Cohort of Gauls, contains within the Headquarters (principia) a strongroom and a secure pay office whereby soldiers would have assembled to receive their pay. This was indeed a bank doubling up as a pay office. One could consider that this section of the building to be too elaborate, only to be used four times a year, therefore it is thought that it was used regularly by the soldiers to withdraw funds in between pay days.  During excavations, a number of dice and board games have been found in all layers of the site’s occupation, which indicates that a lot of gambling was taking place. There is also evidence at Chesters Fort that troopers escorted pay wagons from Eboracum (York). The first Roman bridge over the North Tyne was replaced around AD 160 to afford access across the river for heavy oxen drawn two wheeled wagons containing coinage and supplies.  At the same time a strongroom was constructed in the Headquarters building at Chesters’. The coinage was drawn into the strongroom, deep rut marks, particularly on the left, can be found on the threshold of the double entrance doors to the building. It is possible that this was designed as a bank, containing coinage for more than just the fort at Chesters? And who better to escort the coins from Eboracum than cavalry troopers? It is interesting to note that Vindolanda was not isolated in the landscape, but part of a wider community with which it shared practices such as the handling and storing of money.

Under Roman rule, Britain saw the first established towns, which became centres of economic development as well as the large country villas and farms found in the South. The latter produced the cereals and meat products which would partially contribute to sustain a substantial military presence, particularly on the Northern Frontier. The north, due to its remote geographical position and wild terrain, may not have been able to produce food sufficient to support the thousands of troops stationed there and therefore much of the foodstuffs were transported in, sometimes from as far away as the continent.

In many ways, the economic activity conducted at forts on Hadrian’s Wall mirrored that taking place in small Roman towns. An altar from the Vindolanda site records the curia Textoverdi, ‘the assembly of the Textoverdi’, which indicates that the vicus community was organised in such a way that copied some of the larger urban communities found further South, both on an economic and a socio-political level.  The writing also contribute to illustrating the varied economic activity conducted at Vindolanda. Transaction taking place at the site involved not only the military, but also many merchants trading with the army and even indeed individual suppliers. The most interesting tablet (596) on this subject is a list of purchases that includes the prices and the unit cost of the goods in precise detail. The goods listed from a saddle 12 denarii, two reins 3 ½ denarii each, a number of bags and bowls at various cost, 6 cloaks 11 ½ denarii each and several bolts of cloth of different colours.

 This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.

You can purchase our book - Coins of Roman Emperors found at Vindolanda or you can read another blog on coins from Vindolanda


(1) Polybius- Greek historian 200-118 BCE ‘The Histories’

(2) Four obols- represented 1denarii

(3) Duplicarius alae- cavalry soldier receiving double pay, alae- Cavalry unit of auxiliary troops

(4) Sesquiplicarius alae-third in command to the Decurion 

(5) Primus pilus- Senior centurion (first spear) of the legion

(6) Signifer-Standard-bearer also could be the legionaries banker and was paid twice the basic wage


1 Vindolanda (Extraordinary records of daily life on the Northern Frontier) Robin Birley 2015 2nd Ed.

2 Coronium Museum Guide Book 2015

3 Vindolanda’s Treasures. Robin Birley 2008

4 Tabulae Vindolandenses 111 A.K. Bowman, J.D. Thomas, Writing Tablets

5 The Roman Soldier G.R. Watson Thames and Hudson 1982

6 Later Roman Britain. Stephen Johnson 1980

7 Roman Britain. Guy De La Bedoyere

8 Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier. Alan K. Bowman 1994

9 Wikipedia reference Roman Coinage

10 English Heritage. Chesters Roman Fort Guide

11 The Complete Roman Army Adrian Goldsworthy. 2003 Thames and Hudson

12 A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins. 2003 Melville Jones

13 The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins. 2003