BRONZE COINS from the 3rd and 4th centuries, found at the site of a dried-up stream near Bromley in South London, merited a small item in The Times this week because the chap who found them, an archaeologist with Thames Water, said they suggested that the Ancient Romans threw coins into the water for luck.
Yes, my first thought, like yours, was: “Fat lot of blooming good it did them, seeing as by AD430 the Roman administration in Britain had collapsed and we were back in the Iron Age.”
And, yes, my second thought, like yours, was: “How is it evidence that they threw coins in the water for luck? If anything, it is evidence that it was as dangerous to go out with cash in your pocket in South London in the 4th century as it is today, and these coins were the by-product of a clumsy mugging.”
And then my third thought was of some poor Roman pitching up at the Forum in his chariot thinking he had change for the meter but realising all he had was a hole in his toga pocket.
And then my fourth thought, obviously, was: “Hang on, an archaeologist with Thames Water? An archae-bleeding-ologist? What is Thames Water doing having archaeologists? No wonder my £350 annual bill gets me little more than a hosepipe ban all summer and water pressure in the upstairs bathroom like an old man’s fifth widdle of the morning.”
But then I paused, and took a breath, and thought more deeply about the implications of the find. And I decided that I was rather disappointed.
I had thought that Roman Britons were locked in a theological struggle to reconcile old polytheistic traditions with the Christianity that was sweeping the empire. I thought that when seeking after supernal consolation our Latinophone forefathers were torn, at this point in history, between prostrating themselves before their lares and penates and accepting the literal transubstantiation of the Host. I had no idea that the best they could do in times of great stress or hardship was to lob their spare shrapnel in the river.
(In using the term Roman Britons, by the way, I am aware of the terminological sensitivities of mixed-culture communities in this country, and mean also to include those who consider themselves British Romans, or, indeed, Brito-Romans or Romano-Britons, and also Britons of a Roman Persuasion.) The thing is that only very, very dim people chuck money in water. Which is why it happens mostly around fountains and ponds at theme parks, out-of-town shopping centres and Trafalgar Square. Rather than, say, in the urinals at the British Library, or in the River Cherwell (except in the long vac when Oxford is turned over to American students for the summer).
In fact, only very dim people are superstitious at all. It’s why footballers make a big deal out of which boot they put on first, whereas theoretical physicists looking for ever more symmetrical ways of describing the natural world in the form of a mathematical model, generally speaking, do not. It’s why the Daily Mail employs an astrologer, and The Times doesn’t.
So what this find actually proves, when you bring it down to basics, is that, for all their roads and their plumbing and their jurisprudence and their epic poetry, the Romans were actually extremely dim.
Or, more likely, the Romans arrived in Britain fairly bright, but after three or four hundred years of living in close proximity to the British, they gradually became dim.
They arrived on these shores saying things like Veni, vidi, vici and In hoc signo vinces and Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes but after a century or two in Bromley could manage nothing better than: “Werl, you ask me, it’s VI of one and half a XII of the other.”
They no doubt imported the principals of the Circus Maximus from Rome but as time wore on gradually gave in to British demands for “reality circus”, which involved putting a dozen members of the public in the ring for a month and watching them call each other slags. And when this got boring they presumably started doing it with “celebrities”, including former gladiators, oracles, actors and orators — giving rise to a kerfuffle over what that Visigoth-loving senator Georgus Gallowus was doing in there.
In the early years of the occupation I imagine they were still reading their Virgil and their Horace and their Herodotus but within a generation had given in to the local preference for children’s books about schoolboy wizards, and were saying to each other: “I never knew reading could be so much fun.”
I dare say that, as the decades passed, they began to fritter all their money away on a national lottery despite odds on even a small win being MMMMMMMMMMMMM- MMMMMMMMMMMMM to I. And when their friends tried to explain to them that that meant the sky was more likely to fall on your head they weren’t in the least bit put off, because they thought that was pretty likely.
And so we learn that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire came about not because of corruption or deflation or incipient softness or military weakness or orgies or buggery, but because they were just too thick to go on living. Either that, or they didn’t throw enough money in the river.