Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Andrew Burnett, Richard Simpson, Deborah Thorpe (ed.), Roman Coins, Money, and Society in Elizabethan England: Sir Thomas Smith's 'On the Wages of the Roman Footsoldier'. Numismatic studies, 36. New York: American Numismatics Society, 2017. Pp. xxii, 205. ISBN 9780897223522. $80.00.

Reviewed by William Stenhouse, Yeshiva University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Roman Coins, Money, and Society in Elizabethan England is a study of Sir Thomas Smith (1513-77), an Elizabethan Renaissance man, and his work on ancient numismatics. Richard Simpson contributes an intellectual biography of Smith, Andrew Burnett discusses his treatise on soldiers' pay and the value of coinage, and Deborah Thorpe provides an edition of the text (titles are listed at the end of the review). Smith was a remarkable figure, who probably deserves to be more famous than he is; his unpublished essay on coins is more or less completely unknown, and certainly deserves a wider circulation. This is a fine book, thoughtful, learned, and accessible, which provides a fascinating picture of Smith and sixteenth-century classical scholarship in England.

Smith's academic talents were pronounced. He went up to Cambridge at the age of eleven, and became a fellow of Queen's College at seventeen, Public Orator at twenty, and then, after a trip to visit legal scholars in France and Italy between 1540 and 1542, Regius Professor of civil law at the beginning of his thirtieth year. His lectures on Roman law show him taking a strongly humanist, philological approach to legal texts, which he argued were to be understood in their original context, and not through the lens of later, anachronistic commentaries. Two years later he was vice-chancellor at Cambridge. If he is known today, however, it is not primarily for these achievements—he climbed the academic ladder without having published anything—but for his next moves as a politician and diplomat. He became secretary of state in 1548 under Edward VI and was knighted in 1549, but soon lost favor and lay relatively low in the reign of Mary Tudor. Under Elizabeth his star gradually rose once more: he served as ambassador to France between 1562 and 1566, and then with the support of William Cecil, a former pupil, he became Chancellor of the Order of the Garter and Secretary to Elizabeth in 1572.

As Simpson shows, Smith's interests in the Roman past informed his practical political experience and vice versa. In 1549, for example, he wrote a "Discourse of the Commonweal", a dialogue reflecting on recent unrest against the government. The most persuasive interlocutor, a doctor, claimed that debasement of coinage lay behind England's more visible problems, drawing parallels with Rome, and recommended that the farmer study Columella and the knight Vegetius. In the 1570s, Smith suggested a program of colonization to Ireland based firmly on Roman models, as a means of reducing England's overpopulation and pacifying the restive Irish. There is little doubt that his treatise on numismatics, probably finished in 1562, was written with pragmatic policy questions in mind. It addresses two problems: what a Roman soldier was paid, and the relationship between Roman and English weights and measures. The first was suggested to Smith by William Cecil, at that point Secretary to the Queen. Smith refers to the development of English military pay, remembers how he asked his father about soldiers' wages when he witnessed them going past, "hired to fighte against the Frenchmen or Scottes" (p.194), and ends up talking about a "naturall order of wages" for the labourer and soldier (p.198). He concludes that Roman and English soldiers were paid the same, a denarius and a grote a day, respectively. Smith's concerns about debasement and inflation inform the second question; at one point, pointing to the difficulties Greek authors had with Roman measures, he imagines the problems a historian would face when dealing with English measures of the sixteenth century: "it is soone seene," he claims, "how madde a reckoning he should make and how farre he should goe out of square from the verie trewe valor" (p.190). Smith probably wrote this work just after the recoinage early in Elizabeth I's reign, and so it seems very likely that his readers would have had this in mind, although Smith, tactfully, does not insist on the connection.

Smith drew on the best of contemporary scholarship for his arguments. Burnett demonstrates his debt to Andrea Alciato, Guillaume Budé's De Asse, and Georgius Agricola, who published a work on weights and measures in 1530. Smith also used Cuthbert Tunstall's earlier attempts to equate English and Roman measures. In addition to works such as these, many of which Smith owned, he also referred to the evidence of coins. To a reader of Alciato, Renaissance numismatics can seem a very technical and theoretical discipline, involving lots of analysis of Latin texts, and no discussion of coins themselves; from today's perspective, there is a basic divide between sixteenth-century treatises on weights and measures and those that discuss and illustrate coins' iconography. Smith, however, had a more practical bent, and he tried to collect coins that "neither semed clipped nor washed" (p.176) in order to establish their weights. He also included general information about other collectors, providing evidence for a circle of fellow coin enthusiasts in Cambridge and London interested in examining coins and their meaning. He described eight examples in sufficient detail that Burnett can identify them: seven Republican denarii, and most strikingly, a gold aureus of Claudius that commemorated the conquest of Britain, found by a farmer in 1537. Smith used his coins and the evidence of his texts to conclude, wrongly, that the Roman and English (Troy) pound were the same; thanks to his careful documentation, though, Burnett can show where Smith went wrong. The equivalence that Smith established, however, supported one of his basic arguments, that despite its distance from Rome, in its customs his native land was "most neare of all other nations to the olde and auncient Romanes" (p.149). This argument, in turn, could support his attempt to draw political lessons from Roman models.

As the quotations from his works suggest, Smith wrote in an energetic and sometimes colorful vernacular. Budé's De Asse, for example, demonstrated an "infinite and unwearied diligence", and was "as it were a medowe full of most pleasaunte flowers to beholde and taste" (p.165); scholars today are more likely to agree with the former than the latter. Before his conclusion, Smith acknowledged that "we have ronne now an harde and large race" (p.192). Thorpe bases her edition on British Library Add. MS 48047, with reference to the other two main manuscripts that survive. She keeps Smith's variable orthography and includes marginal annotations that appear in two of the manuscripts. The text is clear, though contemporary readers trying to follow Smith's argument will find themselves referring back to Burnett's analysis. The use of English and the slightly disorganized contents suggest that Smith composed it initially for a small circle. In 1576 he wrote to Cecil, then Lord Burghley, asking for a copy of it, showing that he had lost his own and suggesting that he wanted to revise it for publication. His health declined quickly, however, and the work was soon forgotten.

The answers that Smith provided to his two basic problems would not find favor with modern numismatists, but the methods that he followed, and the range of sources that he used, offer a fascinating glimpse of sixteenth-century classical scholarship in action. His hints at a comparison between Roman and English economic policies, however rudimentary, are unusually precocious. As Burnett points out, his direct references to current affairs are relatively understated, but the work is more impressive as a result. This review barely does justice to the depth of learning in the essays and notes that the three authors have produced, which is a worthy tribute to Smith's talents.

Table of Contents

Richard Simpson, "Sir Thomas Smith (1513-77). An Overview of His Life and Works", 1-71
Andrew Burnett, "Thomas Smith's On the Wages of the Roman Footsoldier", 73-144
Deborah Thorpe, ed., "Text of On the Wages of the Roman Footsoldier", 145-200

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