Here’s another of those weird sidelights that form part of the tapestry of fringe history. Today’s example comes from Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (1919) where the unsystematic compiler of the strange recorded the following paragraph based on a passage from the journal Records of the Past that he had chanced upon:
That, early in 1913, a coin, said to be a Roman coin, was reported as discovered in an Illinois mound. It was sent to Dr. Emerson, of the Art Institute, of Chicago. His opinion was that the coin is “of the rare mintage of Domitius Domitianus, Emperor in Egypt.” As to its discovery in an Illinois mound, Dr. Emerson disclaims responsibility. But what strikes me here is that a joker should not have been satisfied with an ordinary Roman coin. Where did he get a rare coin, and why was it not missed from some collection? I have looked over numismatic journals enough to accept that the whereabouts of every rare coin in anyone’s possession is known to coin-collectors. Seems to me nothing left but to call this another “identification.”
Domitius Domitianus was a usurper against Diocletian who declared himself Roman Emperor in Alexandria during a revolt in that city in 297 CE. He died in December of that year as Diocletian approached to retake the city, which he did in March 298 CE.
This particular incident caused a little flap in the press around the time of the supposed discovery, and reporters began to quote Alfred Emerson, the archaeologist and curator of antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, as supporting a Roman discovery of America. (Emerson should not be confused with his son, Cornell professor and zoologist Alfred E. Emerson.) Emerson became outraged that reporters were using his credibility and prestige and promote goofy claims about Roman voyages to America, and he wrote a letter to the journal Records of the Past (vol. 12, 1913, p. 183) hoping to set the record straight:
Dear Sir: The indications are that the coin is of the rare mintage of Domitius Domitianus, emperor in Egypt. As to its discovery in an Illinois mound the responsibility for that lies with the discoverer and owner. For my part I consider the find to show that the mound was either posterior to white ranging of this continent, or that the coin reached the mound after its erection. Having expressed myself pretty clearly in this sense to reporters I was not surprised to be quoted as an illustrious person holding the opposite view. ... It will be a pleasure to clear myself of the foolishness imputed to me by these irresponsibles by a short notice in RECORDS OF THE PAST.
This is Fort’s source, and you can see that he has seized on Emerson’s identification of the coin as “rare” to declare that a hoax or a lost piece from a collection was unlikely. The trouble is that what Emerson meant by rare isn’t quite what Fort took it to mean. The coins of Domitius Domitianus are not so rare that they are precious, or even particularly poorly represented on the antiquities market. Images of his coins were well represented in nineteenth century texts, such as Samuel Sharpe’s The History of Egypt (1859).
In fact, because the ancient records are scarce on his reign, the coins are the best testimony to the usurper’s time as pseudo-emperor. The coins are “rare” in the sense that Domitius Domitianus reigned only a few months, and his coins were largely confined to Alexandria and the surrounding parts of Egypt, and therefore are largely unknown in European contexts. They are correspondingly fewer in number than those of long-lasting emperors, but not so rare as to be particularly valuable or noteworthy. Today, you can by dozens of them online if you are so inclined.
Fort, though, took “rare” to mean that the specific coin itself was virtually unknown—a museum piece—and therefore a poor choice for faking a Roman find. But Alexandria was in the nineteenth century a common port for tourists (particularly those on tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land), and it was a hotbed of antiquities trade at the time. There is therefore nothing in the discovery of this particular coin that would argue against Emerson’s evaluation that the coin was a recent traveler to the United States. Its deposition in the mound need not even be attributed to intent; whoever did so may have lost it by accident, and even if a hoax, the hoaxer need not be assumed to have known who Domitius Domitianus was, only that he picked up a Roman coin on a trip to Alexandria or in a coin shop and recognized it as Roman. The Romans were among the many people alleged to have been the “true” builders of America’s mounds in the 1800s and therefore an appropriate group to use in a hoax to discredit the scientific view that the Mound Builders were Native Americans.
But it’s interesting to see the way claims carry on through the decades. Fort failed to understand Emerson’s adjective in 1919, and in 1977 Vincent Gaddis—the mystery-monger who coined the phrase “Bermuda Triangle”—recycled Fort’s claims in his book American Indian Myths and Mysteries, stating as fact (as opposed to Fort’s speculation) that “[a] hoaxer would hardly have used a rare coin when a common Roman one would have been as satisfactory.”
It is fun to see the way that not just facts but even dismissive anger at academia is copied and recycled from author to author and repackaged for new generations.
1/21/2015 06:10:15 am
"I have looked over numismatic journals enough to accept that the whereabouts of every rare coin in anyone’s possession is known to coin-collectors."
1/22/2015 03:00:22 am
1/21/2015 09:01:58 am
"It is fun to see the way that not just facts but even dismissive anger at academia is copied and recycled from author to author and repackaged for new generations."
1/21/2015 09:24:59 am
This is what I find amusing. Even today, experts are making discoveries about Roman engineering feats that are mind-boggling. I'm not even talking about their advancements in several sciences that are coming to light with recent archaeological finds.
1/21/2015 09:33:34 am
Bigfoot brought it with him, he fled to North America to escape persecution
1/21/2015 09:59:10 am
As every student of archaeology knows the Romans are notorious for leaving few signs of their presence wherever they went. :)
1/22/2015 12:37:52 am
Just like deer, when they died, their bodies were consumed by the environment within a couple of weeks - that's why North America is not littered with dead romans
1/21/2015 09:37:21 am
Where are the Roman ruins? Temples? Fortifications? Garrision towns?
1/21/2015 09:38:39 am
The French destroyed them preventing future Roman land claims.
1/22/2015 12:40:54 am
Didn't cha know. They were all based on Oak Island. The ruins are at the bottom of 10X
1/21/2015 09:41:28 am
Can't fool me. It was dropped by a Knight Templar in 1362 while on an expedition to find the Holy Grail lead by Henry Sinclair.
1/21/2015 12:58:11 pm
This is plainly correct. Case closed.
1/22/2015 02:12:16 am
Surface finds of Roman and Greek coins are not rare in the USA. As to whether or not such finds indicate Romans in America in pre-Columbian times well that is another story. Aside from the lack of a secure pre-Columbian archeological context there is the issue of where the coins turn up. All this Romans running all over America north of the Rio grande river supposedly. Yet the almost complete absence of even surface finds of Greek and Roman coins in Mesoamerica. One would think the Romans etc., would have gravitated towards the high cultures of Mesoamerica, for trade etc., instead of America north of the Rio grande. I would think Teōtīhuacān would attract the Roman tourists, traders etc., and yet not a single Roman coin has turned up.
1/22/2015 03:00:20 am
2/3/2015 02:45:32 pm
Many Roman coins found their way into the ballast of ships in the 1600's and 1700's. With the Spanish shipping tons of silver and goods from the orient to Europe, I could see lots of ballast being dumped in Mesoamerica with a few Roman and Greek coins in it.
1/22/2015 05:13:12 am
"Do you really want to believe?", something that believers in pseudo-history and pseudo-archaeology sometimes ask skeptics, and by which consider themselves to be superior.
1/25/2015 03:21:34 am
Typo in this sentence:
2/3/2015 02:42:19 pm
I just took a quick look at Vcoins.com and there are 6 Domitius Domitianus coins available for about $2,000. In numismatics, this would be considered a rare coin, but not super rare or one of a kind.
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