Introduction to Roman Coinage
| Origins | Mints and Minting Authority | Denominations |
| Key Legends | Glossary |
From the earliest times of the Roman Republic until the fifth to fourth centuries BC, the Roman economy functioned on a system of barter in which cattle were used as a means of exchange. Around the fifth century BC, or even earlier, lumps of bronze called Aes Rude came to be used as money since they could be used to produce tools and weapons. The lumps consisted mostly of copper with a small amount of tin. These lumps of bronze eventually graduated to bars of cast bronze known as Aes Signatum and cast coins called Aes Grave which date from about 269 BC. These pieces (at times weighing almost a pound) were cast in a two-piece mould made of either steatite or baked clay inlaid with some form of carbon to produce a smooth surface. These moulds consisted of carvings of exotic animals or gods with the ship’s prow eventually becoming a common feature. Vents were incorporated into the moulds to prevent the bronze from blistering.
The Romans no doubt found these large pieces of bronze cumbersome and inefficient to use. Thus, during the mid-third century BC, Roman moneyers were obligated to develop a new coinage that would accommodate for the complexity of the growing Roman economy. Since the Greeks had been experienced in producing coinage since the seventh century BC, the Romans brought Greek workers from the mints of Southern Italy (also known as Magna Graecia or “Great Greece”) to develop a silver currency. As a result, a number of coin types commonly found on Greek coins made their way onto the faces of Roman coins.
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Mints and Minting Authority
The finances of the Republic which included minting were generally governed by the Senate. Exactly who was responsible for issuing Rome’s earliest coins is uncertain since the coins bear no names, but it is theorized that the consul was responsible for the issue of coinage. Around the time of the institution of the denarius special officials called the tresviri monetales, a board of three moneyers, were placed in charge of the mint.
It was also at this time that symbols and actual names appear on the coins which represent the families of moneyers and the moneyers themselves. These moneyers often selected a coin type which glorified the achievements of a famous ancestor and included his own name, which not only emphasized the prestige of the state, but also advertised the influence of the family to which he belonged, an influence which backed him in his political career. It is also believed that moneyers’ names and symbols were placed on coins in order to provide a safeguard for maintaining quality. Any discrepancy in weight and content of a coin could easily be linked to the moneyer who issued it.
The board of three moneyers was one of the minor offices of the vigintivirate, a board of twenty young men at the beginning of their political careers. Being a member of this board often led to higher offices such as quaestor which if successful led to the consulship. The three moneyers were generally appointed annually and usually struck coins concurrently. Besides the three moneyers at Rome, there were also boards of three located in mints throughout Italy and the provinces and sometimes moneyers from Rome issued coins at provincial mints. The tresviri monetales worked under the general supervision of the quaestor.
Although the tresviri monetales were the authority appointed by the Senate for issuing coinage, after 100 BC we see other minting authorities appearing on coinage such as quaestors, curule aediles, and praetors. There were also issues marked EX S C (Ex Senatus Consulto) or simply S C (Senatus Consulto) which means “by decree of the Senate.” These coins were issued by men with special authority granted by the Senate who do not specify who they are or what their office is.
During the time of the late Republic (after 49 BC) civil wars depleted the authority which the Senate had to issue the coinage. Generals such as Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, controlling vast armies, now had the authority to strike their own coinage which was used to pay their troops. The Senate’s authority to mint coinage continued to deteriorate which paved the way for Imperial coinage, where the emperor was the official minting authority.
The mints themselves (both Republic and Imperial) often employed freedmen and slaves who were skilled designers, die-engravers, and mechanics for smelting, flan-casting, and striking. There is a lot of uncertainty as to the number of mints and their locations during the Republic. Differences in style and type indicate that more than one mint existed and that they were mostly located in Italy, although mints are known to have existed in the provinces.
The names and titles of the minting authority can often identify a particular mint. Mintmarks and marks of value were also indicative of a specific mint. Mintmarks begin to appear around 124 BC and continue to 56 BC and included numbers, fractions, letters, and symbols which identified work of a particular period and work group within the mint.
During the Roman Empire, the issue of coins was divided between the emperor and the Senate, with the emperor striking gold and silver coinage and the Senate striking bronze coinage marked by the legend Senatus Consulto. These bronze coins were based on coin types suggested by the emperor. However, bronze coinage could be struck without the legend S C. The little authority which the Senate had over the issue of coinage was in name only.
The structure of the magistrates in charge of managing the mints changed considerably since the times of the Republic. Legends indicate that the tresviri monetales were still being employed as late as the third century AD, but their names disappear completely from the coinage around 4 BC. Senior magistrates directly controlled the working of the mints. The mints of the emperor were under the control of a chief financial minister; provincial mints were controlled by provincial procurators; the Senatorial mints were governed by heads of the Senatorial treasury.
Imperial mints were located in Rome and in provinces such as Spain, Gaul, and Egypt. Evidence found in inscriptions pertaining to the Imperial mint of Trajan indicate that the mint was staffed by freedmen and slaves and was organized on military lines. The Imperial mints were divided into shops known as officinae.
Mintmarks are rare during the first two centuries of the empire, but become common after the reign of Gallienus. The mark identifies the mint and the officina in which a specific coin was issued. The use of mintmarks allowed the emperor to maintain strict control over the actions of mint officials. Coins of improper weight and content could again be easily traced to the people responsible for minting them.
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As has already been mentioned above, the earliest coinage of central Italy, dating from about 269 BC, was the Aes Signatum and the Aes Grave. Around the mid-third century BC, struck silver and bronze coins were introduced, such as the silver didrachm and bronze litrae and half-litrae.
Modifications were made to the coinage before and after the Second Punic War (218-210 BC), and by the end of the second century the principle coin of the Republic was the silver denarius, which was equal to ten bronze asses. During the 140s BC, the denarius came to equal sixteen asses.
The denarius also came to exhibit some unique features such as the denarius serratus with its serrated edge. The reason for this type of coin is highly debated, with some suggesting that the serrated edge proved the purity of the coin, while others say this feature made it difficult for the coins to be clipped for their precious metal.
There was also a silver quinarius (one-half the value of the denarius) and the silver sestertius (one-quarter the value of the denarius).
In the latter period of the Republic, the bronze sestertius came to be the common denomination; prior to this time all amounts were recorded in asses. Gold coins were seldom issued and were not part of the regular coinage of the Republic. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the gold aureus was struck by and for various disputants.
The emperor Augustus did much to standardize the Roman monetary system. The gold aureus and quinarius were regularly minted; the silver denarius and quinarius were kept as the monetary standard; the sestertius, dupondius, and semis were minted in orichalcum, an alloy of copper and zinc (orichalcum became the standard alloy during the late Republic when the use of the original bronze alloy of copper and tin was dismissed); the as and the quadrans were issued in copper.
TABLE OF DENOMINATIONS
(from the reign of Augustus to Nero)
Gold Aureus = 25 denarii, 100 sestertii, 400 asses
Quinarius = 12 1/2 denarii, 50 sestertii, 200 asses
Silver Denarius = 4 sestertii, 16 asses
Quinarius = 2 sestertii, 8 asses
Orichalcum Sestertius = 2 dupondii, 4 asses, 16 quadrantes
Dupondius = 2 asses, 8 quadrantes
Copper As = 4 quadrantes
The emperor Nero (AD 54-68) lowered the weight of gold and silver coins and reduced the fineness of the silver. Successive emperors, always in need of money, continued this debasement until, by the reign of the emperor Caracalla (AD 198-217), the denarius was barely 40% silver. Caracalla also introduced the antoninianus, equal in weight to 1 1/2 denarii, but worth two denarii.
By the middle of the third century the antoninianus had superseded the denarius, and had itself been debased to the extent of becoming a copper piece with a slight silvery wash. The only coinage which retained any of its former fineness, though reduced in weight, were the gold denominations. The sestertius, dupondius, and as were issued more or less continuously, but fell out of use when the antoninianus became a bronze coin. The last sestertii of the old style were minted under the emperor Postumus (AD 259-268).
The emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) regularized the coinage, introducing the silver argenteus, similar to the denarius under Nero, and the follis, a coin of silver-washed bronze resembling the as of the earlier empire. The issue of the antoninianus was discontinued. In place of the aureus, the emperor Constantine (AD 307-337) introduced the solidus, which superseded the aureus as the standard gold coin of the empire. The follis declined in size and weight.
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The obverse of imperial coins were monopolized by portraits of the emperor or members of the imperial family. The portrait was usually accompanied by the emperor’s name, or a portion of it, and various titles indicating civil and military distinctions. Some of the most common of these titles and their meanings are listed below. While most of these legends are primarily found on imperial coins, such legends as IMP and S C can also be found on Republican coins.
AVG (Augustus) - The Senate and Roman people conferred this title on Octavian, the emperor Augustus, in 27 BC as an acknowledgment of the services he had rendered to the state. The epithet, which signifies “revered” or “worthy of veneration,” chosen for its dignified but vague significance, became attached to the first emperor, and after him became the title of sovereignty. Most of the emperors took the title as a sign of respect for the memory of the founder of the empire and as the mark of their right to succeed him.
CAESAR (often abbreviated C, CAE, or CAES) - Originally the surname of Julius Caesar and of his adopted son Octavianus, it continued to be the hereditary name of the Julio-Claudians, being transferred to the sons or adopted sons of a Caesar. For example Tiberius was adopted by Augustus and Germanicus was adopted by Tiberius; both men then held the name “Caesar.” After the reign of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, emperors adopted the name of Caesar as well as Augustus as honorific and distinguishing titles although they were not descendants of Julius Caesar and Augustus. Around the time of the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 137-161), the name Caesar became a title of secondary rank bestowed upon the sons and heirs of the emperor. Eventually, during the reign of Diocletian (AD 284-305), two Caesars were appointed as subordinates to the two Augusti (emperors) and assisted them in governing the empire.
COS (Consul) - Under the Republic the two elected consuls were the chief civil and military magistrates of Rome. Perhaps to preserve some semblance of the old Republic, from vanity, from a desire to appear more exalted, or for some other reason, the emperors assumed the office of the consulship or bestowed it as a sign of favor on a relative or friend. The emperors sometimes held successive consulships, hence on coinage a numeral will often appear after the title.
DIVVS/DIVA/DIVOS (masculine/feminine/plural of “Divine”) - The mark of consecration. This title indicates that the coin was minted after the person’s apotheosis, or deification, and therefore after death. The pagan right of apotheosis involved voting to place a man or woman among the deities. After the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, the coinage of Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, bears the inscription Divi Filius, “Son of the Divine One,” indicating Augustus’ right to succeed and his filial connection to a deity. The wives of emperors were often deified after death, the first being Livia, wife of Augustus. Augustus himself was treated as a deity during his lifetime, but actual apotheosis occurred after death. Many emperors were deified because of the positive nature of their reigns; some merely so that their successors could endorse their own right to rule. Some, like Tiberius, considered unworthy of the honor, were never deified. The author Seneca, with some wit, wrote the Apocolocyntosis, a satirical description of the pumpkinification (that is, after death he became a pumpkin instead of a god) of the emperor Claudius.
IMP or IM (Imperator) - Commander-in-chief, giving us the English word “emperor.” Under the Republic, the title imperator was applied to generals who had been acclaimed by their troops for a military victory. From the time of Tiberius the title was monopolized by the emperors; they frequently added a repetition number to show on how many occasions they or their deputies were victorious. As general and chief of the Roman legions, the emperor could claim merit for any military victory. In time, it mattered not at all that no victory had been won; the title was an automatic appellation of every emperor.
P P (Pater Patriae) - The title “Father of the Country” was bestowed in 63 BC upon Cicero, who had “saved Rome” from the Catilinarian conspirators. In 2 BC, Augustus was granted the title by the Senate and all the Roman people. He welcomed the title as the crowning of his life’s work. Some emperors appear to have treated this title with more seriousness than other recognized epithets. Tiberius refused the title as did many of his successors, at least until they felt it had been earned. It appears to have been more freely accepted from the time of the emperor Pertinax (AD 193).
PIVS (“Pious”) - Nearly all Roman emperors from the time of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) assumed this venerable epithet, which means pious and dutiful. It appears often on coinage in the phrases Pii Filius, Son of the Pious One, and Pius Felix, the Pious and Lucky One.
P M (Pontifex Maximus) - Title of the official head of the Roman religion. The office was accepted by Augustus in 12 BC and was regularly bestowed on subsequent emperors. It carried with it great distinction and reverence, since the Roman religion held an integral role in the functioning of the Roman state.
S C (Senatus Consulto) - “By decree of the Senate.” This phrase intimates that coins were struck by the public authority of the Senate, according to the constitution of the Republic and the laws of the Roman mint. S C is not found on imperial gold and silver money, leading some scholars to believe that the right to mint bronze coinage was permitted to the Senate, while the emperor appropriated to himself the right to mint gold and silver.
TR P, also abbreviated TR POT or TR POTEST (Tribunicia Potestas) - Under the Republic the tribunician power was held by a Tribune of the Plebs, of which there were usually ten. The tribunes were officials whose duty was to defend the lives and property of the plebeians, the common people. Though the tribunes were long the instruments of the Senate, by the first century BC the veto power inherent in the office had caught the attention of individuals seeking power in Rome. Julius Caesar assumed the sacrosanctity of the Tribunate, while Augustus assumed a permanent tribunician power as one of the foundations of his personal power. The other emperors followed his example. On coinage the numbered tribunician power is used to indicate the year of the reign.
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This glossary outlines some of the common terminology used throughout the descriptions of Roman coins. Other less common terms which are explained in the descriptions of the coins themselves are not included here.
augur - a member of the college of augurs which originally only included three members and was gradually expanded to sixteen. These men were diviners whose duty it was to determine whether the gods were in favor of a proposed action through the observation of signs. These signs were often given by birds. Being a priest in the college was a highly dignified post. The highest ranking members of society, which included members of the imperial family, considered it to be an honor and an advantage to be chosen as a member of this college.
caduceus - a wand or rod entwined at one end by two serpents was an attribute of Mercury, the messenger god. The two serpents represent prudence, while wings sometimes added to the wand were symbols of diligence, both qualities desired in trade and commerce, of which Mercury was the patron deity. The caduceus is often held by female deities such as Pax, Felicitas, and Concordia, in which case it is a symbol of peace and harmony.
cippus - a raised stone which is inscribed to preserve the memory of an important event. These stones were usually small and square in shape, used for both secular and religious purposes.
cistophorus - coins whose name is derived from a cista mystica or mystical box, housing a sacred serpent, used in the worship of the god Dionysus. The term cistophorus was originally given to the person who carried this box. The coins with this title were struck in Asia Minor in recognition of feasts carried out in honor of Dionysus and came to be a symbol for Asia. After Rome’s conquest of Greece, names of Roman magistrates began to appear on them.
cornucopiae - horns filled with fruits, corn-ears, and flowers are a recurring symbol on Roman coins pertaining to abundance, fertility, and happiness. This symbol was sometimes used by moneyers to refer to the abundance of things acquired through money and also by emperors who wanted to advertise the attributes of prosperity and happiness to be a key feature of their reigns.
cuirass - a piece of armor worn to protect the chest; a breast-plate.
eagle - a common symbol of the city of Rome, the eagle was also the minister of Jupiter’s thunder bolts and is often depicted with the god. When seen with another deity, the eagle represents Rome and the blessings which that god or goddess has bestowed upon it. The eagle was also found on Rome’s military standards and was an important figure in consecration ceremonies, where it was released from the summit of a funeral pyre, symbolizing the dead person’s soul being carried up to heaven and therefore becoming a god.
globe - a symbol of the world and the domination of it. Thus it was the sign of the Roman Empire. The globe was also a symbol of eternity since its spherical shape had neither beginning nor end.
jani-form head - a double head derived from the picture of the god Janus. The two heads appear to be looking in different directions: one forward, looking to the future, and one backwards, reflecting on the past. However, where figures other than Janus are presented in this fashion, their symbolic meanings may be somewhat different than that of Janus himself.
laurel wreath or crown - the laurel tree was a symbol for the god Apollo. The leaves of this tree were woven into a crown and bestowed upon commanders as a symbol of their military achievements. Eventually it came to be worn by the emperors as their official head-dress.
lituus - the staff held by an augur while carrying out divinations.
oak wreath or crown - the civic crown made of oak leaves which was originally bestowed upon a man who had saved the life of a citizen during battle and was considered to be a very distinguished honor. During the empire, emperors adorned their own heads with this crown, which marked them as saviors and preservers of the state. The emperor Augustus was the first to wear this crown, since he was believed to have saved Rome from the perils of civil war.
olive branch - the olive tree was believed to have been invented by the goddess Minerva during her contest with Neptune for the possession and name of Athens. The olive branch when held by Minerva herself and other deities is a symbol for peace.
palm branch - a symbol for victory since it was carried by victorious generals during their triumphal processions. It also was a symbol for the permanence of the empire since this tree lived a long time.
patera - a round, shallow dish used by the Romans during religious rituals to either pour libations of wine to the gods or to receive blood from the sacrificial victim. The patera is often depicted on coins being held by gods and goddesses as a symbol of their divine rank or of rites carried out in their honor.
pileus - the cap of liberty often presented with the goddess Libertas or as an attribute of a particular event or reign of an emperor.
pontiff - a priest of the gods and member of the college of pontiffs whose primary functions was to carry out sacrifices to the gods. A pontiff was considered to be in a position of distinction and therefore took precedence before all other magistrates. He often wore a veil (tutulus), pointed cap (apex) and carried a staff (simpulum). The positions of pontiff, which numbered fifteen, were filled by the highest members of society, which included members of the imperial family.
prow - the fore-part of a ship. Frequently found on both Republican and Imperial coins, it was a symbol of Rome’s naval power.
quadriga - a chariot drawn by four horses or elephants, often driven by victorious generals and emperors during triumphal processions. This chariot is often depicted on coins being driven by gods and goddesses, triumphal generals. Sometimes it is simply empty. The quadriga is unanimously known as a symbol for victory and the mark of a triumphal event.
rudder - mechanism in the rear of a ship, used for steering. The rudder of a ship is frequently found on Roman coins and was a symbol of their military power. When seen with the goddess Fortuna it is the means by which she steers the world.
scepter - staff often carried by gods and goddesses as a symbol of their divine power. It also served to represent imperial power during the later empire.
shekel - a denomination of Carthaginian money.
simpulum - a small ladle with a long handle used at sacrifices to pour libations to the gods and to taste the wines that were poured on sacrificial victims. It was one of the insignia of the college of pontiffs.
tessera - a tablet with a handle containing a certain number of points showing that the emperor had given money, corn, or other gifts to the people. It is a symbol of the goddess Liberalitas.
triumph - an honor given to a general in recognition of some exceptional victory over an enemy. A ceremony was carried out in which the victorious general was clothed in a triumphal toga (toga palmata) and the laurel crown. Carrying a palm branch, he rode in a quadriga driven by four white horses, or sometimes elephants, through the city to the capitol. Magistrates also took part in the procession and the quadriga was followed by the spoils of war.
triumvir - a member of a board of three. The Second Triumvirate consisted of three triumvires: Marc Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. The mints were governed by a board of three known as the triumvires monetales.
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