Ancient Coins from the 'Junkbox'
|Mail received suggests that a number of beginning collectors have been buying lots of uncleaned and unidentified bronze coins. This page is intended as a resource that might help identify some of these coins.
No coin shown is for sale. I am not a dealer. Thanks go to the collectors and dealers who helped me assemble this group of photos.
Uncleaned coin groupings could include almost anything but the most common things found are 4th century AD Roman bronzes. These were issued in a number of denominations and suffered the normal degree of weight standard reductions as the century progressed. The early years of the century saw the follis, first issued under Diocletian in 296 AD, decline in size from the diameter of a US half dollar to smaller than a dime. The middle of the century brought a new series of denominations to replace the follis.
Shown on this page are a few examples of coins from the early part of the 4th century when Rome was ruled by Constantine the Great and his family. It is most important to remember that most reverse types were issued in the names of several rulers. Just because I show a pairing of Licinius and Sol is no reason to assume that your coin showing Sol will not bear the portrait of Constantine. No ruler issued all the types shown and there are many (often more rare) reverses not shown here. Several rulers of the period are not represented here but the ones shown are the most common. Many uncleaned, unidentified lots will also include later coins of the house of Valentinian or earlier base metal radiates (page coming soon?). Even considering these disclaimers the chances are good that these samples will be similar to many coins you find in bulk lots and junk boxes. The examples shown were mostly pulled from pick out pots at coin shows and may be a bit more clear than coins sold in the uncleaned bulk lots. The quality of coins sold by various sources varies greatly; most bulk lots will contain few coins as attractive as these samples. Some contain nothing but unrecognizable trash! More reasonable expectations from these lots are the four coins illustrating this paragraph. All are at least partially identifiable. Coin dealers also offer choice specimens many times better than these. As the old saying goes: You get what you pay for (or less). Most 'bronze' coins of the period were originally issued with a thin silver wash. Some coins will be found that still bear at least part of this layer. Sizes, mints and catalog identifications are given for the examples but similar coins will be found with quite a variety of other possibilities in these areas. Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) to which these coins are referenced is a very detailed work separating issues by mint and minute points such as the placement of dots in the field. Care should be taken not to copy these references (which I hope are correct) unless your coin is absolutely identical to the examples.
Licinius I / Sol - Follis - 20mm
Alternately ally and adversary of Constantine was Licinius (Augustus 308-324 AD). Licinius controlled the East but was represented also on coins from Constantine's western mints. IMP LICINIVS PF AVG is just one of several legend varieties found for this ruler but all will include the title Augustus. Sol, the unconquerable sun god and comrade of the emperor (SOLI INVICTO COMITI), was most popular in the years immediately preceding the conversion of the Empire to Christianity. He is shown as a nude male wearing a radiate crown and holding a globe. The mintmark PARL combines the workshop letter P (primus) and the first three letters of the mint name. Code letters in the field (here SF) identify the issue (therefore date) of the coins. While some mint/issue combinations are rare and desired by specialists, Sol coins are generally very common.
Licinius II Caesar/ Jupiter - Follis - 19mm
Constantine I / two soldiers with standards - Follis - 18mm
Constantine the Great (here using that title CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG) is shown here on a coin issued after Christianity was established as the state religion. Types showing pagan gods that were issued in his name earlier in the reign were now replaced by designs honoring the army (GLORIA EXERCITVS). Later varieties of this same type show only one standard between the soldiers. The mintmark, again, combines the city TReveri and the workshop Primus with a dot separating the parts. This coin now bears a nice green patina but was a silver plated copper alloy like the other coins shown here. Another coin of Constantine can be seen on a Featured Page.
Crispus Caesar / VOT X in wreath - Follis - 19mm
Constantine II / Sol rushing left - Follis - 19mm
Constantine the younger, second son of Constantine the Great, sometimes used the 'junior' legend shown here CONSTANTINVS IVN NOB CAES. This example was issued in his first year as Caesar. This reverse is less common than others shown on this page and allows me the opportunity to remind you that the coinage of this period is much more extensive than can be shown by these few examples. CLARITAS REIPVBLICAE expresses the hope for a bright future for the Republic now that it had fine young men like Constantine for Caesars. Of the three young men named Caesar in 317, only Constantine would live to be Augustus and, soon thereafter, he would be killed in battle with forces of his youngest brother Constans. The future of Rome was rarely as clear cut as hoped when this coin was issued. The mintmark RP combines Rome and Primus (workshop #1). In the field is the letter A which defines this issue and was later replaced by a series of other symbols.
Constantius II Caesar / Campgate - Follis - 18mm
Constantinople Commemorative / Victory with shield on prow - Follis - 18mm
For several years following the founding of the city of Constantinople a series of coins was produced honoring the event. The obverse shows the helmeted personification of the city and bears the legend CONSTANTINOPOLIS. The reverse shows Victory with spear and shield and her foot on a prow. The only reverse legend is the mintmark: here .BSIS. combines the workshop #2 'B' with the first three letters of the mint name. These coins were produced by the millions and are common from several mints. A few coins of this (and the next) obverse from Heraclea are found with the GLORIA EXERCITVS two soldiers reverse. These date to the last period of the issue of the commemoratives and were intentional issues rather than mint errors.
Urbs Roma Commemorative / Wolf and twins - Follis - 19mm
Constantius II / Battle scene - Majorina? - 23mm
Of the coins commonly found in bulk lots and junk boxes, my favorite is the 'fallen horseman' type. Introduced c.248 AD the new denomination may have appeared in conjunction with the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Sources conflict on whether the name 'Centenionalis' should be applied to the largest of the three denominations or whether it was properly 'Majorina Pecunia' with 'Centenionalis' being the second size. These coins soon were reduced in size until the last of the series are no larger than the folles they replaced. This example, at 7.2g, is a full two grams too heavy even for the early issues. The appearance of the edge of the coin makes me consider if it could have been struck on a flattened tetradrachm from the last period of colonial coinage at Alexandria about 50 years earlier. The obverse shows a magnificent elongated portrait of the emperor with the legend Dominus Noster CONSTANTIVS Pius Felix AVGustus. The reverse shows a Roman soldier spearing a fallen horseman. The legend FELicis TEMPoris REPARATIO has been translated 'Happy Days are Here Again'. Mintmark ALEA identifies the first workshop at Alexandria. Various mints issued several different looking victims leading to the realization that each mint customized the barbarian horseman to the appearance of the enemy being fought in that region. Many of the coins of this type found in junk boxes will be smaller (and later in the reign) than this example. Note that the upper left coin (what little is left of it) in the first photo on this page is of this type. A interesting 'FTR' coin was subject of one of the first pages posted on this site: Stirrups? The large denomination was also issued with a reverse showing the emperor sailing a ship. Another coin of Constantius was Featured in the page discussing the Bavarian Collection.
Constans / Soldier and hut - Centenionalis? - 21mm
Constans / Phoenix - Half centenionalis? - 18mm
Our example of the third of the new 'FTR' denominations (with almost no silver content), also discontinued in 350 AD, shows a phoenix on a pyre of stones. Other coins show the phoenix on a globe or nest. While not particularly common, the small size of these coins results in their being included in size sorted bulk lots when the contemporary larger denominations have been removed. As a symbol of renewal, the phoenix seems appropriate with the concept of restoring happy times. The mintmark ESIS (5th workshop of Siscia) is followed by a symbol (what?) that is different for each workshop. Why an additional control mark was used at this mint is not known to me. Persons wishing to know more about the 'FTR' coins should see the article by Victor Failmezger, FEL TEMP REPARATIO emphasized Rome's protection of the frontier against barbarians, in The Celator, Vol. 6 No. 10, October, 1992.
Constantius Gallus Caesar/Soldier-Centenionalis?-22mm
Julian II / VOT X MVLT XX in wreath - 'AE3'- 19mm
The end of the family of Constantine came in the person of Julian II (so enumerated by historians who either neglected to notice Julian of Pannonia or did not consider Didius Julianus as the same name). Half brother of Gallus, Julian was made Caesar as the only surviving member of the family. Constantius II and his brothers had killed the rest (including, most recently, Gallus). As Caesar, Julian issued coins similar to those of Constantius II including the fallen horseman type. Following the death of Constantius II things began to change. The obverse legend is Dominus Noster FLavius CLaudius IVLIANVS Pius Felix AVGustus. Julian is shown helmeted and carrying a spear and shield. Of the coins of the 4th century only issues of Julian as Augustus show a bearded portrait. His portraits as Caesar, however, were clean shaven. He reformed the coinage (again!) issuing two denominations at a ratio of 1:10. Again, part of the difference was a variation in silver content but the larger was twice the size of the smaller so no confusion was possible. The smaller (shown here) uses a variation on the Vota in wreath type (see Crispus above) reading VOT X MVLT XX. This can be translated: 'Having lived up to my vows for ten years I extend them for another ten'. The fact that Julian ruled for less than ten years is explained by his need to pay a donative to the former soldiers of Constantius and rushing the celebration of his elevation to Caesar was a convenient way of justifying the payment. Being raised in a family of Christian rulers so firmly intent on fratricide was hard on the philosophical Julian who turned to the old pagan religion as a refuge from the violence he associated with Constantinian Christianity. The popular larger ('AE1') coin shows an Apis bull on the reverse and is rarely found in bulk lots unless they are truly 'unpicked'. Following the death of Julian the empire reverted to rule by Christian Emperors so the bull type is the last 'pagan' type found on Roman coins. The actual names of the two denominations is not known so collectors refer to them by the scale of sizes that does not attempt to name the coins. AE1 is over 25mm diameter; AE2 = 21-25mm; AE3 = 17-21mm and AE4 is under 17mm. Issues near the borders between the sizes are sometimes sold as AE3/4 (for example). Many dealers use this size scale for all late Roman coins. This, at least, avoids errors that need to be corrected when a new discovery is made. The mintmark HERACL.B (workshop #2) is typical of this issue in its use of a longer abbreviation for the mint city.
No short discussion could hope to cover the low priced ancient coins to be found in junk boxes and bulk lots. The above examples hardly do justice to just one period of about fifty years. Still, I hope some of you will find this information useful.
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(c) 1997 Doug Smith