It’s September 2018, and in the city of Como in Italy, construction work is underway that will lead to an astonishing discovery. Yes, an excavation on the site of the 19th-century Cressoni Theater reveals something incredible: a real-life treasure trove buried in the earth. And inside an ancient jug lies one particular haul that could be worth a fortune.
Welcome to Italy – a land of incredible food and beautiful landscapes as well as one of high fashion’s cultural centers. And in addition to being a draw for tourists looking for summer sun, gorgeous views and shopping to die for, the country is, of course, a wonderland if your passion involves history in any way, shape or form.
From its earliest conception, in fact, it’s fair to say that Italy has been a trailblazer. And the legends that surround the founding of what is now the country’s capital city, Rome, are particularly remarkable. The most popular is the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, who were allegedly the city’s founders. The story goes that the twins were brought up by a wolf before they decided to establish a major urban center. Soon after, it’s said, a feud between the pair over what to name the city ended in Remus’ death at his brother’s hand. The victor then used his own name as the inspiration for the city’s moniker – or so the legend has it.
Plus, of course, the Italian Peninsula once served as the seat of the highly influential – and hugely successful – Roman Empire, which existed for an incredible five centuries. The empire spanned from North Africa and the Middle East right up to Britain, and at its height some 21 percent of the world’s population lived under its rule.
Featuring famous leaders such as Julius Caesar, Nero and Caligula, the Roman Empire spread its rule of law across its domains. Meanwhile, its forces came into contact with such important historical figures as ancient Egypt’s Cleopatra, queen Boudica of Britannia and Jesus Christ. And that’s not even to mention how the Romans gave humanity roads, sanitation and central heating. Indeed, so mighty was Rome’s influence that it dominates much of our knowledge about the world during the period of its existence.
But post-empire, the cultures of the Italian Peninsula didn’t rest on its ancient laurels – at least not ultimately. Once again, then, the area emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the 14th century. This time, though, it was through art and science that it spread its influence. And the resulting Italian Renaissance period brought about a cultural shift that still resonates today.
During the three centuries that marked the Renaissance, the region produced myriad great artworks, including Leonardo da Vinci’s the Mona Lisa. In literature, meanwhile, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is among the works that are famous even now. And in science, the Polish thinker Nicolaus Copernicus first posited a model of the universe with the Sun at its center.
But this cultural revolution didn’t stop at the Italian Peninsula’s borders; instead, the Renaissance spread rapidly across Europe. And it wasn’t just art and science that were changing; exploration also began in earnest too. Christopher Columbus – the man claimed to have discovered America – was one of a number of Renaissance-era explorers, for example.
Meanwhile, the creative explosion of the Renaissance also brought about a new art form: opera. Combining dance, music and poetry, this type of sung drama became all the fashion across Italy. And by the end of the 17th century, other European territories had fallen for it, too. Having been performed mostly for courts during its early days, the art form soon took off among the general public, which helped to fuel its spread.
Opera was so popular, in fact, that theaters began to appear all across Italy. And in 1870 one such venue opened its doors in the town of Como. Known as the Cressoni Theater, it staged productions of Rigoletto and The Barber of Seville, among others. But it wasn’t just a high-brow venue by any means; the theater’s program also included wrestling and magicians.
In 1913, however, the Cressoni became a cinema, and it remained in this form until it closed its doors for the final time in 1997. Then, after that, the theater was abandoned for more than two decades. Yet fast-forward to September 2018, and the venue was once again in demand – and the reason might surprise you.
In 2018 the construction of a new apartment block began on the Cressoni site, meaning the theater ultimately needed to be torn down. Excavation then started to take place in September that year. But the demolition work came to an abrupt halt when workers found something unusual in the soil.
Nestled in the dirt was what looked like an old jar – or perhaps even an ancient amphora. It was almost complete, too, except for one missing piece. And the hole that was left there gave the workers a tantalizing glimpse of what lay inside – something, in fact, that must surely have shocked the builders.
There, ensconced in the jar, were what looked like hundreds of gold coins. At this point, then, the builders contacted the local authorities to report their find, leading specialists to make their way in turn to the site. Finally, it was thereby discovered that the jar itself is indeed ancient – although it was the soapstone receptacle’s contents that really stood out.
Experts found, you see, no fewer than 300 coins packed into the jar – making the find a truly incredible one. Specialist Maria Grazia Facchinetti elaborated further on the discovery at a press conference, saying, “[The coins] were stacked in rolls, similar to those seen in the bank today.”
So, in addition to having been buried in a jar, the coins also appear to have been neatly packed before burial. At the press conference, Facchinetti continued, “All of this makes us think that the owner is not a private subject; rather, [the jar] could [have belonged to] a public bank or deposit.”
And the revelations about the haul just kept coming. It seemed, for instance, that not only were the circumstances of the coins’ storage and burial unusual, but also that the relics themselves appear to be incredibly rare. As a result, the owners of the stash lived, it’s believed, through a particularly interesting period in world history.
What’s more, the 300 or so coins – all made of gold, just as they’d appeared – are also fairly ancient. Experts reckon, in fact, that they date to as far back as 474 A.D., making the currency potentially more than 1,500 years old. And while their age alone makes them a pretty amazing find, it gets better still.
That’s because these ancient coins are thought to have come from a very specific period in history: the age of the Roman Empire. This theory is backed up, too, by the fact that the money bears the names of the Roman emperors Libio Severo, Leon I, Antonio and Valentinian III.
And if the coins really come from around 474 A.D., this means that they were produced at the close of Imperial Rome’s lifetime. In fact, since the empire finally ended around two years later – and after nigh-on 500 years of rule – these relics may have been among the last of their kind to be minted. The haul therefore took on special significance as a small link back to the conclusion of a historical era.
Yet upon examining the coins, experts found one more surprise. Some of the gold pieces are, as mentioned, stamped with the name Libio Severo, or Libius Severus. One of the final rulers of the Roman Empire, this puppet emperor sat on the throne for four years, although he actually held little real power.
But what else of the newly discovered monetary artifacts? Well, for one thing, they were found to be in near-perfect condition, featuring as they do their original markings and engravings. Indeed, in a 2018 interview with The Times, local archaeology superintendent Luca Rinaldi referred to the haul as “unlike anything else ever found” in the area.
Rinaldi continued, “Sometimes coins are found that are stuck together, but these are all separate. It was like opening a wallet.” Meanwhile, Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities Alberto Bonsoli could, for his part, barely hide his excitement at the discovery. As he said at a news conference in September 2018, “[It’s] more than exceptional. It’s epochal – one of those discoveries that marks the course of history.”
Historically and culturally, the gold relics are, of course, priceless. But speaking in a purely financial sense, even one of these coins could set you back a pretty penny. In September 2018 precious metals retailer APMEX valued each of them at between $2,500 and $5,500.
But even with such a value in mind, the haul still has more to give, it seems. As well as laying their hands on the gold coins, archaeologists also found a gold bar in another jar on the site. And yet it’s actually the container of the coins itself that is unique in the archaeological record – at least, according to Bonisoli.
As for where the haul was uncovered, well, perhaps that shouldn’t come as such a huge surprise. After all, the city of Como – which lies close to the famous lake of the same name and not far north of Milan – has been around for a very long time. The hills surrounding Como, for instance, have been occupied from the Bronze Age, when a Celtic tribe lived there. And the area itself was later taken over by the Romans in 196 B.C. However, things got a lot more intriguing when one Julius Caesar took an interest in the place.
Caesar ruled Rome from 49 B.C. until his death five years later. And during his reign, he expanded the empire by ordering the construction and renovation of vast new cities. Years before he became emperor, however, Caesar had overseen significant changes to Como, as he’d seen great potential in the settlement.
At first, though, Como’s proximity to the lake that shares its name meant that the land between the water and the town was rather swampy. Caesar therefore gave the order to drain the swamp at the southern end of the lake; and this was to have a hugely significant impact on the town in the years that followed.
After that, Caesar ordered an exterior wall to be built around the town, and so a new design was set out for the settlement that was in line with Roman architectural principles. The town – which he called Novum Comum – then flourished under Roman rule. And as the ruling classes began moving in, it also became something of a business hub.
Even today, evidence of Como’s Roman past can be found – and you don’t have to dig it up first. The thermal baths – constructed some time during the first century A.D. – still exist and are open to the public, for one. As for the aforementioned exterior wall that Caesar had built, it survived until the 12th century.
So, with all this in mind, perhaps the fact that a cache of coins was found in Como isn’t that surprising. The real mystery, then, lies elsewhere. Who owned the coins, for example? And why were they buried in the way that they were? Yet even the experts don’t at present have clear answers to these questions. You see, despite their initial assertion that a bank would have owned the haul, it seems that there could be another explanation.
In particular, there could be some significance to the manner in which the jar containing the coins was concealed. During a September 2018 press event, Facchinetti posited the idea that the container was “buried in such a way that, in case of danger, [the owner] could [have gone] and retrieve[d] it.”
So, who buried this treasure trove – and why? Well, the chances are that we will never know for sure, although the mystery is certainly a tantalizing one. What is more certain, however, is that Roman coins have actually been found all over the world – and they have sometimes appeared in very unexpected places.
For example, during a 2016 dig in Okinawa, Japan, archaeologists unearthed some startling treasures. The excavation was taking place at Katsuren Castle – a structure believed to have been built between the 13th and 14th centuries. And work has actually been ongoing at this important Japanese cultural location since 2013.
Prior to the big discovery, a team from the Board of Education in the city of Uruma had actually already uncovered samurai armor, among other artifacts, at the site. However, Gangoji temple cultural properties department researcher Toshio Tsukamoto stumbled across something very unusual not long after he had arrived at the castle. At that time, a small cache of just ten coins appeared. And having worked on digs in Italy and Egypt, Tsukamoto immediately knew what they were.
Tsuakamoto had, in fact, found Roman coins dating from between the third and fourth centuries – in Japan. Amazingly, then, the researcher had discovered the first ever currency of its kind in the country. So, just how did Roman money end up in Katsuren? Masaki Yokou from the Board of Education in Uruma offered an explanation. As she told CNN in 2016, “The discovery confirms how this region had trade relations with the rest of Asia.”
“[It’s] a strange and interesting find,” Yokou continued. She then revealed that the coins could have arrived in Japan through the trading routes that connected Asia to the West in the third and fourth centuries. But even so, that doesn’t explain how the far older coins ended up in a castle that was built up to a thousand years later.
Meanwhile, Okinawa International University’s Hiroyuki Miyagi chose to give his thoughts after seeing the haul – which he described as a “remarkable” discovery. He told CNN, “I couldn’t believe they’d found coins from the Roman Empire in Kasturen Castle. I thought they were replicas that had been dropped by tourists.”
But just as with the coins found in Como, the Japanese haul raises as many questions as it answers. The journey that took the relics from Europe to Japan centuries ago would indeed have been fascinating. So, too, would be the story behind the burial of 300 pieces of gold under a theater in the Roman homeland. For the time being, though, the Como coins remain in a lab in Milan for cleaning and examination.
In conclusion, then – and whether they are found in Italy or Japan – Roman coins provide a tangible link to our ancient past. And even if we may never know who they once belonged to, each artifact adds a piece to the rich mosaic that is our understanding of the Roman Empire. So, as scientists work to discover the origins of these priceless items, we’ll have to wait and see what they will reveal about our shared history.