Ancient Coins

An Overview for Beginners - Page 4

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The silver denarius, the gold aureus (25 denarii) and the accompanying bronze fractions was joined in 214 AD by the double denarius or antoninianus. 'Antoninianus' is a modern name applied by collectors to the coin first issued under Antoninus "Caracalla". The ancient name for this denomination is not known. Inflation made this larger coin desirable for commerce. Debasement of the silver used for coinage continued at an accelerated pace after the introduction of the antoninianus until there was so little silver in the coins that a thin wash was applied to make the copper look silver. Since this silver layer was so thin many, especially lower grade, coins of this type now appear wholly bronze. Examples exist that appear to be mint state but are without a trace of silver.

Toward the end of the third century AD monetary reforms were put into place to shore up the failing economy. Include in these was the issue of a new silver washed denomination: the follis. Monetary change took place at such a rapid rate over the next two centuries that collectors often classify coins according to their size using a scale with AE1 being the largest and AE4 the smallest. In some cases we know the names of some denominations but more research is needed before this period is fully understood. A gold "solidus" and silver "siliqua" existed at this time but the value of these in terms of the silver washed coins requires further study. By the end of the Empire in the West (476 AD) coinage was mostly the gold solidus and the tiny AE4 nummus. Silver and larger bronzes were produced more rarely and are not likely to show up in the collection of a beginner.

Bronze coins of the late Roman period frequently make up a major part of a beginning collection. Rampant inflation and the unstable political climate resulted in the burial of millions of low value bronze coins. Hoards consisting of thousands of these coins are found frequently supplying fresh, low cost material to collectors. Most coins from this period are marked with an abbreviation of the mint city and workshop (officina) that produced the coin. After the emperors became Christian (starting with Constantine I in 336 AD) the pantheon of pagan gods disappeared from the reverses often to be replaced by types glorifying the army or relating to the wars with barbarian nations.

The next major change in coinage marks the end of what collectors consider Roman and the start of the Byzantine. The Empire now centered on the Eastern capital Constantinople. Emperor Anastasius issued a new series of coins highlighted by a follis of 40 nummia. These were clearly marked with the value in Greek numerals (M=40). Art style had changed from the old Roman realism. Roman coinage as it had been known for centuries was finished just as was the social system it had served.

Now we must backup to the point where Rome entered the picture taking the place of the Hellenistic monarchies. Under the Roman Empire, Greek cities were permitted to produce bronze coinage for local use. These coins are called the "Greek Imperials" or "Roman Colonials". A few special cities were even allowed a local silver coinage. While the cities were allowed to produce these coins with a local flavor, discretion required almost all to include the portrait of the Emperor or a member of his family. Workmanship, style and reverses types vary greatly. Some dies were cut by master artists; others by rank amateurs. Denominations varied from city to city and are not always fully understood. Common practice among collectors is to refer to a bronze coin of, for example, 28 mm diameter as AE28. Local coinage grew in quantity for the first 200 years of the Empire and tapered off during the next century. When branch mints producing the regular Roman coins were opened across the empire the need for the local coins ceased. By the end of the third century AD local coinage had ended and the Empire was unified on a single coinage.

Ancient Greek and Roman coins include a vast variety of items varying from ugly little bits of metal to unquestionably the finest numismatic art ever produced. Collectors of all ages, interests and income ranges can find an area of specialty for their individual collecting enjoyment.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith