Incredibly rare Roman coin found during highway works

A Roman coin that is only the second example ever discovered in England has been found during construction work on the A14 highway in Cambridgeshire. The bronze coin features the radiate bust of the usurper emperor Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus on the obverse and winged Victory holding a wreath and palm branch on the reverse. It has been hard worn and the edges are scalloped so it’s difficult to read the inscription, but Laelianus only made two versions of this coin so we know it was minted at Mainz, his imperial seat.

Very little is known about Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus. The Ulpii were an important Spanish family — Trajan was an Ulpius — but there’s no evidence he was related to them. The aureus coin he issued had a depiction of a personified Spain on the reverse, which may have meant to suggest a connection to the famous Ulpii. As a usurper who claimed the imperial throne after rebelling against another usurper (his commanding officer Postumus), he would have a good reason to promote himself as related to the legitimate emperor who expanded the Roman empire to its greatest size, even if said connection was entirely fictional.

Laelianus’ “reign,” and I use the term loosely, lasted for two months in the spring of 269 A.D. and covered a snipped of Gaul and Germania. He commanded two legions and successfully repulsed a Germanic assault with them. In the wake of his victory, he declared himself emperor in Mainz. A couple of months later, his capital was besieged by his former commanding officer and he was killed, either by his own men or by Postumus’.

Because he was such a flash in the pan, his coins are extremely rare and very much sought after by collectors. Only one aureus and two bronze antoniniani are known. This bronze antoninianus was found in a ditch of a Roman farmstead excavated in the A14 expansion project.

Julian Bowsher, numismatist at MOLA Headland Infrastructure, added: “Roman emperors were very keen to mint coins. Laelianus reigned for just two months, which is barely enough time to do so. However, coins were struck in Mainz, Germania.

“The fact that one of these coins ever reached the shores of Britain demonstrates remarkable efficiency, and there’s every chance that Laelianus had been killed by the time this coin arrived in Cambridgeshire.”

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