This page hopes to give you more than just, an insight into the complex subject of Roman Coins… But before we go too far, let’s have a brief look at the coinage of the Romans, & see how it developed through time, although this is only a brief look, it gives you an idea, of the development, from the very beginning to the end of the Empire…
Common term’s used for Roman Coins…
Numismatics use all kinds of strange words, & a lot you will find are listed here, because whilist reading about the coinage of Rome, you will come across a lot of strange words, shown below are just some of these strange words & some of the more common terms you will come across relating to ancient coins:
Æ; an abbreviation for Aeratus, which is Latin for copper, this is a given name by numismatics, and is the term used to describe a coin whose name is unknown or whose denomination / value is unclear due to state of preservation, especially ones dug up on there own, like those found when Metal Detecting; but if you found a hoard of copper coins in a pot, which has preserved the coins, you could have all four copper Roman coin categories tucked away in the pot, these four categories are the standard for roman copper coins: which is;
Æ1: Copper coins (to include bronze, billion, orichalcum, etc.) of size over approximately 27mm in diameter.
Æ2: Coins ranging in size from ~22mm to ~27mm in diameter:
Æ3: Coins ranging in size from ~16mm to ~21mm in diameter.
Æ4: Coins smaller than about 16mm in diameter.
Additionally, just to confuse everyone there are weight considerations to be considered so that for example, an Æ3 of unusually high or low weight may be bumped up or down accordingly, but I would not worry too much about this, its more for the purest’s out there, as most numismatics just use the terms based on size alone, & it is far to confusing…
here is a very good link for bronze coins; http://tjbuggey.ancients.info/Trajae.html
Antoninianus; a Modern-given name to the coin denomination created by Caracalla and popularized by Gordian III, in step with the phasing out of the Denarius. Initially, this coin held the equivalent of 80% of the silver content of two Denareii. However, within a few years the silver content petered out to just 2%. It is generally thought that even this low amount of silver remaining was unintentional. The mint workers simply did not know how to refine the silver out any further from the alloy mix they were working with, so when the Antoniniani became so debased, the moneiers could no longer make the coins look silver, a process was formed to give the coin a pure silver coating, which countered for a substantial part of the total silver content of the coin.
AR; which is an abbreviation for Argentum which is Latin for silver, most of the time letters “AR” will precede denominations of coins that are normally struck in silver, for example, you may find a coin described as an AR Denarius.
Argenteus; A short-lived silver denomination equivalent in weight and fineness to the Denarius created under Diocletian’s currency reform of 293-294. Although it was essentially a restored Denarius it had a face value of 100 Denari. The Argenteus never caught on as a commercial institution. They were minted in limited quantities and their high official cost made them inadequate for the marketplace.
“As” a copper coin, was of relatively low value, worth half a Dupondius. The As was discontinued in the third century.
Attribution; i have stuck this in here in case you decide to sell your coins, as you will get asked this from a collector or a numismatic, this is a simple case of attributing or cross-referencing a coin, to do this you would need to back it up in writing to a published numismatic reference work, such as the huge works of the Roman Imperial Coinage series (RIC) (see below) although this is the main book reference used in numerous collections, do not dismiss what you have at hand, as long you have written down your source of information, that can be a starting point as someone elses “cross reference”
AU or AV; is an abbreviation for Aurum, the Latin word for gold.
Aureus; a gold coin of the Roman empire, since Republican times until the reform of Diocletian, this was thew standard gold coin, an Aureus was minted from 22 karat gold and weighed between 7 and 8.5 grams during its long tenure, this is the pay of a Roman solder each month…
Caduceus; A winged staff with intertwined snakes, originally of Babylonian and then Greek significance, the staff and snakes were associated with healing priests, whilst the Roman used it as a symbol of peace and neutrality, whilst today most medical companies have it as a motto…
Celator; an engraver of coin dies…
Cornucopia; these large horns were used to store food, & other items, which has become symbolic of abundance and prosperity;
Shown below is a Trjan Antoninianus with Uberitas standing & facing to the left, holding a purse and a Cornucopia. Reference: RIC 28;
Cuirass; a type of armoured breastplate, usually shown with captured arms, & slaves
Denarius; The standard silver coin of the Roman Empire; weighing about 4 grams, the Denarius suffered a slow but gradual debasing and weight loss following the coin reform of Nero, Emperor Gordian III struck the last of the Denarius…
Denticles; these are the little dots that appear around coins, they acted to delineate the border of a coin, which helped to discourage clipping.
Diadem; these are not laurels but a head ornament used by emperors to depict their absolute power, symbolically, diadems represented authority of the emperor who has seized this power due to his personal & military accomplishments an adorned Diadem, could have amongst other things were pearls, rosettes etc…
Dupondius; A bronze or brass coin worth half a Sestertius and two Asses. The Dupondius features the emperor with a radiate crown as in Antoniniani.
Exergue; The bottom area of the reverse side of a coin. Usually delineated, this space was sometimes used prior to the advent of mintmarks to include especially wordy legends. Once mintmarks became common in the mid-3rd century they quickly settled into this “reserved” area although the reverse fields continued to be used as well for this purpose. In rare cases, the obverse also carries some exergual material.
Fields; The flat, indented parts of the coin.
Follis Coin; a denomination introduced by Diocletian. Minted in large quantities, the Follis became the backbone of the new coinage. It contained approximately 3% silver and was tariffed at 25 Denarii. Folles diminished in importance after Diocletian’s abdication and were quickly reduced in size and what little silver they had evaporated. Over the course of a generation Folles had become ordinary AE3’s.
Flan; The coin itself, as in the blank it was made from. Coins will sometimes be referred to as having been struck on an irregular flan or a large flan or some other adjective.
Labarum is an early Christian sign; the labarum was a banner with the Greek letters Chi and Rho superimposed over each other. The symbol became a Christogram, to signify the bearer was a follower of Christ. Constantine The Great was the first emperor to use the labarum and the Chi-Rho on coins.
Lituus; A wand-like religious instrument used in ritualistic ceremonies.
Obverse; The front or “heads” of a coin. Almost every Roman coin will have the portrait of the current ruler, a family member or the personification of a Roman god. In rare instances some coins may seem to have two obverses. In those cases the true obverse will be the one whose portrait represents the living or senior ruler.
Patina; Metal oxides forming on the surface of a coin, particularly copper-based ones. Patinas are not only considered attractive but also serve to protect the rest of the coin from further deterioration. Patinas come in many different colors depending on the environment they were found in. A patina is not to be confused with soil residues that are sometimes left on a coin for aesthetic reasons such as to enhance its contrast.
Quinarius A rare coin denomination worth half an Aureus. They were minted in very limited quantities in the late 200’s.
Reverse The back or “tails” of a coin. The opposite of obverse. The reverse carries any of a number of messages that the mint has designed on behalf of the emperor on the obverse. In some cases, particularly late in the Roman empire, reverses were shared for different emperors. In general, the vast majority of reverses honor a traditional Roman god or depict some triumphant event performed by the emperor.
RIC; Acronym for the Roman Imperial Coinage series of reference books. This series is widely regarded as the definitive reference set for Roman coins. Begun in 1923, it grew to encompass ten volumes that were not finished until 1994 and is still undergoing periodic revisions to this day.
Scepter; A staff. On Roman coinage, the staff is symbolic of imperial power.
Semissis; A rare gold coin denomination worth half of a solidus. Late fourth century through Byzantine period.
Sestertius; A Roman coin made from orichalcum, a copper and zinc ore and worth a quarter of a Denarius and two Dupondii. It weighed approximately 26 grams. The Sestertius proved to be a popular coin during the first and second centuries. Because of the large coin size coin engravers were able to achieve their highest artistry on this coin denomination. In fact, after the declining use of the coin in the third century Sestertii were the preferred vehicle for producing presentation medallions on special occasions.
Siliqua A silver denomination used in the post-Tetriarchal period of the empire and beyond into the Byzantine. A siliqua weighed a little over two grams but was tariffed significantly higher than the discontinued Denarius. In fact, siliquae were rather rare currency and never circulated widely due to their scarcity.
Simpulum A ladle-like instrument used in religious ceremonies.
Solidus; The standard gold coin of the post-Tetriarchal Roman empire. Solidi weighed roughly 4.5 grams and were worth 24 siliquae. They were always minted in high purity even during troubled times. The Solidus remained in use from the early 300’s through the fall of the Roman empire and for the entire length of the Byzantine empire.
Standards Roman battle insignia. Standards took the form of ornamented poles and were carried into battle. Far from just morale boosters, the various elements in their design could be changed continuously during the course of the battle as a signalling device.
Tremissis; A Roman gold coin weighing approximately 1.5 grams, and equivalent to a third of a Solidus, In use from the 4th century onwards.
here is a website that is used by the professionals… once found, all Roman coins are now easy, to ID…well it helps your basic knowledge…
this is exactly what it says, a very clear and precise understanding of ancient coins..
By following these link’s, you have an unprecedented amount of information at your fingertips for Identification of known Roman coins, if the coin has been recorded, then it’s here [somewhere]
Below is another great selection of books in a serious titled “ERIC” which stands for “Encyclopaedia of Roman Imperial Coins” with some great photos and inscriptions, making the identification of the coins even easier….
If we do not include the later Roman silver-washed coins, then the silver coinage from the Roman period comes under three different types, of groups;
Denarius Obv: IMPCAESVESPAVGPM – Laureate head right. Rev: AVGVRPONMAX – Simpulum, aspergillum, jug and lituus. 70-72 (Rome).
1) The legendary Denarius. One of the longest-running coin denominations of all time, the Denarius started out about 200 B.C. and continued through until the reign of Gordian III in the mid-200’s. Although re-tariffed at a different value, the Denarius would be reborn in the Argenteus and then the Siliqua until the final fall of Rome.
It is rare to find Denarii, or any other silver denomination for that matter, in groups of uncleaned coins such as came with this kit. However, unlike gold, silver does tarnish in dirt given enough time and/or appropriate soil conditions. For this reason, you may occasionally stumble upon a Denarius and no matter how worn it is always a welcome sight and cause for celebration. Because during the time the Denarius was in vogue it coincided with the Roman empire’s greatest military and economic might, the portraits of the various emperors were rendered in excruciatingly lifelike detail. In fact, the portraits are so realistic that one can literally track the aging of several emperors who held their title long enough. All facial features including defects, wrinkles and so on were captured by the skilled engravers. What this means to you is that it should be relatively easy to identify the emperor based simply on matching the portrait to other coins which have already been attributed. If the lettering is clear in most cases the emperor’s name will stand out immediately.
ANTONINUS PIUS (138-161). Denarius. Rome. Obv: IMP T AEL CAES HADR ANTONINVS. Bare head right. Rev: AVG PIVS P M TR P COS II. Emblems of the augurate and pontificate: guttus, lituus, capis, aspergillum and simpulum. RIC 28. Very fine. Weight: 2.89 g. Diameter: 17 mm.
2) As the economy and heyday of the Roman empire began its decline, the Denarius was slowly phased out in favor of a slightly larger silver coin whose name as given by the Romans has so far eluded numismatic historians. We simply call them the Antoninianus or “double Denarius”. In the beginning the Roman authorities insisted that one of these Antoniniani were to be worth two Denarii despite the fact that the average silver weight of the coin went up only about a gram to ~4.5 grams. For all intents and purposes they looked the same. To distinguish the old from the new, it was decided that the emperors would wear a radiate crown representing sun rays in association of the god Sol, the foremost deity.
3) The emperor Diocletian inherited a chaotic empire which was being besieged from within by civil wars and by foreign nations alike. In order to reverse this sorry condition he enacted several visionary reforms which were to have a lasting impact on the empire. One of these reforms was a complete overhaul of the coinage system. He had the mints coordinate with one another so that the designs and weights of the various coins would match and thus be consistent throughout the empire. Along the way he abandoned the failed Antoninianus but was unable to revive the Denarius because of a severe shortage of silver. Instead, he initiated the Follis which was still a copper coin at heart but now attached to it the incredible valuation of 25 Denarii to one of the new Folles. Naturally, no one was very amused but what could they do?
DIOCLETIAN (284-305). Argenteus. Nicomedia. Obv: DIOCLETIANVS AVG. Laureate head right. Rev: VICTORIAE SARMATICAE / SMNΓ. Camp gate, with four towers and star above open door. RIC 25a. Condition: Near very fine. Weight: 3.28 g. Diameter: 20 mm.
True silver coins were produced but in very limited quantities for special occasions or during the rare periods when silver was plentiful. The Argenteus, Siliqua, Miliarenses and related fractions are all rare denominations you have no reasonable hope of finding in uncleaned form. Rarest of the silver issues are oddly large medallions minted at the very end of the empire under the obscure emperor Priscus Attalus. These mammoth medallions weighed up to 80 grams, or about 20 Denarii, and might have traded as the equivalents of a gold Solidus. Needless to say, these are exceedingly rare.
shown below – is a worn Roman Denarius, but by photographing the coin and then playing around with the tones and mid-tones on a basic editing suite, found on most computers, the details, words and letters are brought to life, a good way of avoiding any eyestrain… all of the details become a lot clearer, by being able to crop the photographed coin, this can be achieved, once you have a clear enough shot of the coin, you can then start cropping the coin into sections of interest, to be able to see all of the detail for a positive ID…
again as shown below, by playing around with the basic tones a very clear picture can be created with some good results by using the basic software, that comes with any computer…
Trying to read a Roman coin is not that difficult [once you know how]
Whilst trying to work out the letters on Roman coins, there are a few strange things to us, as we think we are educated to a certain standard of reading and writing, but please remember that the Celator’s [they are the die makers, and only had a basic knowledge Latin Alphabet, like England at the time, many other country’s the romans invaded like Syria, Egypt Etc. to these people Latin was a foreign language.
Even when the Celator’s were well-versed in Latin, the letters may not have taken their modern form as uniformly as we know them today. Add to this the difficult task of engraving lettering into metal and it’s actually rather surprising that we can often read these letters at all!
The main deviations seem to occur on letters which are made up of roughly parallel strokes such as N, V and A. These often become disjointed so that A’s resemble H’s and V’s open up to look like two I’s. The R’s can often be indistinguishable from A’s. All lettering tends to blend into the background as worn dies cracked or wore down making the legend nearly impossible to tell apart even when the coin itself is in relatively good shape. Almost without exception you should expect to have some difficulty in making out the complete legend or even part of it. With experience, the idiosyncrasies of the engraving style will become more familiar until it’s fairly easy to tell at a glance what it says.
General lettering rules that apply to all Roman coins:
All letters will always be capitalized
There are no U’s in ancient latin, V is used both as a vowel and a consonant depending on context.
There are no J’s. As above, I’s are used instead.
G’s almost always look like C’s, typically with oversized serifs.
There is usually no spacing in between words or titles. Where words/titles are broken up it is usually because of the design and not meant to facilitate the reading. In fact, the words will often be separated in non-sensical places.
In the course of over 500 years, the font, or style, of the lettering remained remarkably consistent throughout. Indeed, the typical font of a newspaper nowadays is called “Times Roman” in acknowledgement of this timeless style. The lettering of this font is serifed, that is, the letters have little ornamental hooks at their ends. The I, for example, looks like a rotated H instead of a stick. The opposite of this font, called sans-serif is more modern and is used most frequently in advertising.
Writing in the exergue may include Greek letters and unusual symbols. Mintmark lettering can also be found in the fields, especially in late Roman coinage, and most often take the form of single letters or symbols.
Very late in the Roman era, coins coming from the eastern mints will have letters that look increasingly bizarre. This is due to an increasing influence of Greek. V’s will resemble U’s or Y’s, letters will be reversed, familiar phrases will look oddly mispelled and so on.
Look above if the wording on your coin is readable, even if only a few letters, enter them into the search field of any database and see what comes up. Having readable letters on your coin is the best-case scenario as it should be fairly easy to at least narrow down the possible emperors under whose reign the coin was minted. If you get too many “hits” try guessing the letters to the right or left of the readable part so as to make a longer letter sequence. Repeat the search for the other side of the coin if any of the letters there are readable. Running this secondary search will likely return different emperors. However, only the emperors that match BOTH sequences will be the good candidates. Use the many other clues the coin provides to make a match. For coins made up to about the year 300 the portraits are unique to each emperor so this should be cross-referenced against the typical portraits of those emperors.