Numismatist returns ancient silver to circulation

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Eddie Harrington examines a silver denarius bearing the image of Emperor Hadrian. He received the coin from Joe Darby, left, as payment for legal services.

Nathan Wilson

When Natchitoches resident Joe Darby needed a legal document revised recently, he agreed to pay attorney Eddie Harrington with a form of currency that doesn’t see much circulation these days: a coin dating to the Roman Empire. “In effect, I am paying for legal services with a 1,900 year-old coin,” says Darby. “It’s a silver denarius.” Darby is a history enthusiast, as is Harrington, so their meetings typically delve into topics in history. “Every time we meet for business, we end up talking history 80% of the time and business 20% of the time,” says Darby. “We exchange history books and things like that, so we’ve got that common interest.”

Darby is also a numismatist, a collector of coins, so when he stopped in to ask Harrington about updating the legal document, their conversation drifted to a coin Darby had added to his collection. “I showed him my latest acquisition, which was a coin minted in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor,” he says. “(He’s) not to be confused with Julius Caesar; that was his uncle.”

Harrington’s interest was piqued by the historic coin, so when the time came to discuss payment, the two struck a deal to exchange a similar coin for Harrington’s services. “How much is your fee Eddie? Oh, a silver denarius,” Darby muses about their previous meeting. Darby focuses on collecting French, British and American coins and didn’t have another silver denarius to spare, so Harrington suggested an alternative Roman coin.

“He had said, if you can’t find a good Caesar Augustus like I had, look for a Hadrian (denarius),” says Darby. He hands Harrington a small silver coin enveloped in clear plastic. On one face is the emperor Hadrian’s visage. “I got it from a rare coin dealer in France that I deal with,” Darby says. “It’s a beautiful coin. It’s got very little wear on it.” Harrington removes the coin from the plastic to get a better look. “I’ve done a lot of research. I was worried if I could touch it by hand, and you can,” he says. “You don’t want to mess up the detailing of it, because they survived this long in dirt and muck and whatever. It’s only if they’re bronze coins that you have to be a little more careful.”

Joe Darby presents Eddie Harrington with a silver denarius as payment for legal services.

He marvels at the coins features. “Most coins, especially this old that I’ve seen, the detail has been rubbed off, because it’s been used so many times, but you can see his eyes and everything. The detail is amazing.” He flips the coin over to see the reverse, which bears a woman’s figure along with a Latin inscription.

He puzzles over the text’s meaning for a moment before Darby offers an insight. “That’s all one word, providentia, so that female figure’s probably Providence,” Darby suggests. “I understand that in the second century, the denarius was worth about a day’s wage for a skilled laborer, like a craftsman: a carpenter or a mason.” He then asks Harrington about his choice of coin, “What was it about Hadrian?” “I’ve always been a big English history fanatic, and Hadrian, during his reign, was the emperor of Britannia,” Harrington replies. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Hadrian’s wall… that was the edge of the world. They didn’t know what was up there. They didn’t have a clue, and that was during his reign.”

The Hadrian coin is only the second Roman denarius Darby has ever acquired, so he takes a moment to compare its quality to that of his collection. “I’m working on collecting medieval French monarchs right now,” he says. “This is a lot better made than the medieval coins from England and France. They were very, very thin, almost wafer-like (and) they were cruder. The art of minting coins deteriorated after the fall of the Roman Empire.” Darby takes a last look at the Hadrian Denarius.

“This condition is very good, but obviously, they minted a lot of these particular denarius,” he says. “Each one by hand.” He offers the coin back to Harrington, “It’s still in circulation.” “Not anymore,” says Harrington. “I’m not going to pay for something with it.” The two antiquarians begin discussing other aspects of the Roman Empire such as the aqueducts, heated baths and Rome’s reputation during the middle ages, and their remarkable transaction becomes just another footnote in history.