Archive for November 14, 2013

At the recent Roman health and medicine symposium I attended there was an excellent talk by Prof Eberhard Sauer (Edinburgh Univ) on the spring veneration in the Roman Empire. The tossing of coins into water has become a common feature and it is now almost impossible to pass any fountain or similar item without observing coins at the bottom. In regards to springs I was surprised to find that there is little evidence for veneration before the Roman period, although there is some evidence for devotional springs in Greece as early as the eighth century BCE. Certainly, there were water veneration sites in earlier times but these did not seem to include springs focusing instead on rivers and bogs.

Prof Sauer presented data on the spring at Bourbonne-les-Bains in France, still one of the most used spas in northern Europe and which can date its history back to the early Roman Empire. It is the only such site where Augustan coins have been found within the offering.

Caesar Augustus coin
photo by Kim Forest (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/)

Augustus
phot by Portable antiquities scheme (http://www.flickr.com/photos/finds/)

Most of the coins seem to us to be of small value and have often been cut in half (These half coins were used in circulation as legal tender). However, if you work out the value relative to the salary of a legionary it was 10% of daily pay. If we were to compare it to someone who earns £20,000 per annum, most of these ‘small coins’ would be the equivalent of donating around five pounds, considerably more. I would hazard a guess, than most people throw into them today and so these were not just a causal offering.
It is likely that the coin offerings were offered either in response to a healing or alternatively as an offering to the God of the spring for the health of someone else. Suetonius tells us that representatives from all classes of society threw a coin into a spring for the health of the Emperor Augustus.

The coin offering at Bourbonne-les-Bains seems to decrease about the time that Christianity becomes prevalent in the Roman Empire, but does continue although at a much reduced quantity into the early Middle Ages.