Analysis of Roman Coins Proves Roman Empire Got Rich on Iberian Silver
An analysis of Roman coins has revealed information about the defeat of the Carthaginian General Hannibal and the rise of the Roman Empire. The scientists who examined them suggest that the defeat of the Carthaginian general led to a flood of wealth across the Roman Empire coming from mines on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain.
Roman Coins Track Down the Fall of Hannibal of Carthage and the Rise of Roman Empire
A recent examination of Roman coins has revealed how the defeat of Hannibal and the Carthaginian Empire led to coinage spreading across the Roman Empire from silver mines in Spain, as Phys Org reports.
Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who fought against Rome during the Second Punic War. His name became synonymous with inciting fear, and to this day he is considered one of the greatest military leaders of all time. As reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, Hannibal was born in Carthage (known as Tunisia today) in 247 BC to Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca. One of his most notable achievements was his crossing of the Alps into Italy, where he sought to join up with anti-Roman allies in the region.
According to many historical accounts he led the Carthaginian army and a team of elephants across southern Europe and the Alps Mountains to battle against Rome in the Second Punic War. There has been much scholarly debate as to Hannibal’s exact path through the Alps, but it is the consensus that the journey was treacherous.
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Detail, Hannibal's Famous Crossing of the Alps with War Elephants (Public Domain )
During the Second Punic War, Hannibal defeated the Roman army in several battles, but never managed to capture the city completely. Eventually, Rome counterattacked and he was forced to return to Carthage where he was defeated. He worked for a time as a statesman before he was forced into exile by Rome. To avoid capture by the Romans, he eventually took his own life.
Geochemical Analysis Techniques Reveal New Information
Many centuries after the end of the Second Punic War and Hannibal’s downfall, the use of geochemical analysis techniques has helped modern scientists to prove the vast significance of the Spanish silver – owned by Hannibal before losing to the Romans – to the Roman Empire’s rise. As Phys Org reports, a team of scientists based in Germany and Denmark examined seventy Roman coins dating from around 310 to 101 BC. The coins were drilled at the rim to obtain fresh, untouched heart metal for the measurements. Using Mass Spectrometry, the scientists were able to show that lead in the coins made after 209 BC has characteristic isotopic signatures which identified most of the later coins as undoubtedly originating from Spanish sources. After 209 BC, the lead isotope signatures mainly correlate to those of deposits in southeast and southwest Spain or to mixtures of metal unearthed from these districts.
"Before the war, we find that the Roman coins are made of silver from the same sources as the coinage issued by Greek cities in Italy and Sicily. In other words the lead isotope signatures of the coins correspond to those of silver ores and metallurgical products from the Aegean region," researcher Katrin Westner told Phys Org. And added, "But the defeat of Carthage led to huge reparation payments to Rome, as well as Rome gaining large amounts of booty and ownership of the rich Spanish silver mines. From 209 BC, we see that the majority of Roman coins show geochemical signatures typical for Iberian silver."
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A Carthaginian silver shekel depicting a man wearing a laurel wreath on the obverse, and a man riding a war elephant on the reverse, c. 239-209 BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Iberian Silver Changes Rome's Economic Status
The scientists have no doubt that the incredible flood of wealth across the Roman territories coming from mines on Iberian Peninsula played a significant role to the Empire’s economic rise, “This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome's economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire,” they stated as Phys Org reports. Furthermore, Dr. Kevin Butcher of the University of Warwick, said the project has verified what had previously only been speculation, "This research demonstrates how scientific analysis of ancient coins can make a significant contribution to historical research. It allows what was previously speculation about the importance of Spanish silver for the coinage of Rome to be placed on a firm foundation."
The scientists presented their work for the first time in Paris yesterday, at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference.
Top image: The Battle of Cannae was a major battle of the Second Punic War that took place on 2 August 216 BC in Apulia, in southeast Italy. The army of Carthage, under Hannibal, surrounded and decisively defeated a larger army of the Roman Republic (public domain)