I've waited a long time to come out with a dirty little secret. In early 2008 I traveled on a six-week long European tour in preparation for my then nearing-completion ERIC II book on coins. One day while walking around the deserted grounds of what was once a minor Roman city called Grumentum, now turned historical park, my downwards gaze caught what I'd been longing to glimpse for years: my very own find of a Roman coin.
I had metal detected before back in the states when I was in college in the early 90's as a pastime. It was always a rush to find that one Mercury dime or even a wheat penny out of the dozens of trash pull tabs and rotten zinc pennies. This though was a rush of a higher order. I'd been anticipating the eventuality prior to the trip and to bolster these hopes I'd brought with me a new metal detector even though I was afraid to use it, or even get caught with it still boxed up, as it's outlawed in many European countries. And using it within the boundaries of an archaeological park was unthinkable. Which made that day's find all the more sweet considering I'd had the luck to find it while just walking around. It was just there, sitting on the ground a shade of green like a sliver of the Statue of Liberty against the earth and only a few inches off a sidewalk built by men who spoke Latin and whose great-great-great-grandchildren died many centuries ago. Who knows how many people had walked that same length of sidewalk since then, starting from the original owner whose careless slip may have cost him a reprimanding perhaps but whose next owner would so enthrall him?
I did not want to spare the ultra-geekiness of the occasion. For a couple of minutes I savored, really relished, this feeling, ineffable to description, of knowing I at last held a man-made object whose direct line of ownership passed from one anonymous Roman to me with no intermediaries howsoever temporary. Wondrous though the experience had been of handling hundreds of thousands of other ancient coins prior to this moment that all really paled in the transcendence of the link I felt on that wintry day in Grumento. And then, after I exhausted that high, came an unexpected question from my conscience: "What do I do with it?"
I think that deep down I knew I was going to take it but at the moment my superego, that Freudian construct more familiar as the metaphor of the angel-on-the-shoulder counterweight to the devil on the other side, sure put up a respectable fight. A museum with a scrappy, low-budget display of finds from previous archeological digs within the park, should be told about this find. Maybe even left in situ while the staff dutifully took notes of the location and prepare records that in some small way help humanity understand itself. But in my fantasies no denouement figured in such a selfless act to martyr my desire for possessing this ratty little piece of metal. And it was so dirty, so thoroughly featureless under corrosion, that even in my professional capacity I would have been unable to say virtually anything about it. So into my pocket it went and eventually flew Continental from CDG to ORD and then to its new home halfway around the world in Washington state where it sits on the pedestal of my monitor and gets an appreciative rub or two every day.
In the grand scheme of things I justified my taking the little coin a million different ways including, most compellingly perhaps, that an act of publishing such as this would be an honor the coin would never have received in the otherwise unremarkable storage it would have gotten at the local museum. All the same, the fact that I struggled - am obviously *still* struggling - indicates my guilt at not sacrificing my selfish desire for the greater good of the public. But have I really done any wrong?
For now, I'm okay with leaving the question unanswered. In the meantime, I can say that after having rubbed it daily for a couple of years the coin has revealed the faintest outlines of a portrait and even the merest whisper of letters "IVS". The tails side still eludes complete certainty but am now fairly convinced it is an ordinary FEL TEMP REPARATIO soldier-spearing-horseman type; perhaps the most ordinary of all Roman coins minted by one its most prolific minters, Constantius II. Ordinary, yet so extraordinary!