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History of Ancient Roman Coins

History of Ancient Roman Coins

Jul 20th 2020

Ancient coins

Ancient coins have been a numismatic favorite for centuries, appealing in particular to those with a strong interest in history. Surprisingly, apart from high-grade, rarer issues and gold coins, many ancient coins are not very expensive because billions of them were minted over more than a millennium. In addition, new sources of these coins are found regularly in countries like Italy, Greece, Israel and others. However, legal restrictions on exporting those coins have been placed in recent years such as in Italy that have hampered the trade in ancient coins.

Some collectors are intimidated by ancient coins. Modern coins can be collected without having a great deal of knowledge of the types of coins collected, whereas ancient coins do require that one study the field. This may include acquiring some good books, consulting web sites, attending coin club meetings or coin shows and getting to know dealers who specialize in the area, who may be able to share some of their knowledge with you.

Another factor that has changed the ancient coin field in recent years is the growing number of third-party-graded coins of this type. Unlike modern coins that are graded on a 1-70 point system, ancient coins are graded a bit like coins were before the Sheldon system, except that the majority of non-mint state coins are either very fine or extra fine, and lower grades than that are not usually found in graded pieces. There is also a 1 to 5-point scale for strike and surface.    

Ancient Roman coins

Compared to ancient Greek coins, arguably the most artistically beautiful coins ever made that served as inspiration for some of the most popular numismatic motifs of classic American coinage, ancient Roman coins are most notable for their connection to history. In addition, the motifs on ancient Roman coins have also had a huge impact on the development of numismatic art over the centuries. For example, the idea of personifying values such as Liberty as a female, or of personifying a nation as a female warrior like Britannia (the name Romans gave to the British Isles), is something that appeared on ancient Roman coins.

From 260 B.C. until the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., over 100 moneyers (the people who issued coins) issued over 900 different Roman coins as the Roman Republic expanded and dominated the Mediterranean world. After Rome’s republican government became corrupt and fell, it was replaced with rule by Emperors from Julius Caesar to Mark Antony, Cleopatra and many others. Caesar was the first living Roman to have his image placed on coins.

The obverses of Roman coins depicted these various rulers along with inscriptions around the inner border that were abbreviated, and which corresponded to their individual name, the name of their clan and the name of their family. The Roman use of short abbreviations such as AUG for Augustus, or PM for Pontifus Maximus, may be confusing initially. These portraits featured realistic images of the Roman rulers in most cases showing them as they aged.

There were many different types of reverse designs on Roman coins with some featuring gods and personifications of Roman virtues, while others showed historic buildings or contemporary scenes. In addition, these coins were a way for the emperors to convey information to their citizens and were used for political propaganda such as celebrating wars, political victories, new colonies or new tax reforms and other achievements.

Roman coins

The earliest Roman coins, which date to the 5th century B.C., were known as AES RUDE, which were crude bronze coins that were cast rather than struck and were shapeless and heavy. In the 4th century they were replaced with AES SIGNATUM, or large, cast ingots, and in the 3rd century with AES GRAVE, heavy, bronze cast coins that were circular in shape. Those coins were issued in various denominations including Quadrans and others, and each had its own design and mark of value. Their weights were reduced over time, but they remained the standard bronze currency until the end of the 3rd century A.D.

Denarius and other denominations

The first Roman silver coins were issued in 241 B.C. after the end of the First Punic War and were known as didrachms, or two drachms, a term borrowed from Greek coinage. They were issued in various fractional denominations.

The standard silver coin of the Roman Empire was the Denarius, which featured an emperor wearing a laurel wreath and was first issued about 211 B.C. In AD 215 Caracalla introduced the double denarius, which showed the emperor wearing a radiate crown, and was better known as the Antoninianus.

Around 211 B.C., the Sistertius was introduced, which was initially a small silver coin, but under Augustus it was changed to large brass coin. The larger canvas provided space for designs that commemorated military victories or the virtues of rulers. These coins are among the most artistically compelling Roman issues. By the 3rd century A.D., the denomination became a smaller bronze coin.

The As, which was a whole or unit, functioned as the founding unit of Roman currency like our penny. 2 Asses equaled 1 Dupondius, while 4 equaled 1 Sistertius, and 16 equaled 1 Denarius. 8 Dupondi equaled 1 denarius, 4 Sisterti also equaled 1 Denarius, 2 Denarii equaled 1 Antoninianus, and 25 Denarii equaled 1 Aureus (the main gold coin).

The weights of these coins mostly decreased over time, as the purchasing power of the various denominations was reduced through inflation.

From A.D. 284 to 305, Emperor Diocletian transformed the Roman monetary system with the introduction of the Follis, a bronze coin with a very small amount of silver, known as a silver wash. The Follis rapidly saw changes in its size and weight.

Roman gold coins

First issued under Julius Caesar around 46 B.C., the Aureus was the standard gold coin. Its weight was reduced over time, but its gold content remained high. It circulated until A.D. 309 when it was replaced by Constantine the Great with the Solidus, which weighed 4.45 grams. There were also fractional versions known as semissis (half solidus) and tremissis (third solidus).

Roman coins for sale

If you are new to Roman coins, you will want to start with basic some bronze pieces. A nice way to jump start your collection is this lot of 20 different NGC-certified Roman bronze coins that features coins of different rulers.

The most well-known Roman coins are the Denarius silver pieces, which can be purchased today for less than $100 to about $200, including some nice graded examples.

We also have a nice selection of silver Antoninianus coins, including mostly NGC-graded examples.

If you like your Roman coins ungraded, we have a variety of raw examples, including several collections of coins of different eras and rulers in attractive display boxes with informative booklets included.

This is just a small sampling of our huge inventory of Roman coins. We are your one stop shop for ancient Roman numismatics.