Identifying Late Roman Coins

Using RIC

This page will take a look at a few examples of Late Roman Bronze Coins and use them to evaluate not only the coins but our own abilities to read, identify and understand what we see. While we are at it we will go through the process of identifying these coins using the commonly available major reference on ancient coins that each collector might (or should!) consider adding to the library. I simply can not produce a simple web page that will enable the passive reader to identify every coin in hand but it is hoped that these few examples will smooth over a few of the questions that might come up when looking at their own various coins. Readers here who have any background with these coins will most likely say I am dwelling to much on questions that are obvious but the purpose of this page is not to assume the reader already knows more than I do (although that frequently may well be the case). We will try to explain things to cover the obvious questions however simple they may seem to some. As we advance from one coin to the next, it is hoped that much of the material will be seen to be applicable with each new coin. To get full value from this page you will need to have RIC Volumes VII and VIII available to follow along with the process.

Bruun, Patrick, The Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC), Volume VII

Kent, J. P. C., The Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC), Volume VIII

IMP CONSTA----NTINVS AVG
PROVIDEN--TIAE AVGG MHTB
1. Our first example is a very nice coin to illustrate the fact that many or most (but not all!) late Roman bronze coins were issued with a thin silver wash on the surface to remind folks that the alloy contained a minute amount of silver (often in the 1% to 4% range depending on the period). Some coins survive into our collections with some amount of silver remaining. This one shows a few worn spots where the darker copper shows through but remains a decent example to most standards. The coin has a diameter of 20mm and weighs 3.8g.

Bruun, Patrick, The Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC), Volume VII:

RIC is THE #1 reference for Roman Imperial coins. At ten volumes and over $1000 it is some investment in both time and money but there is a lot of information to be found after the new user gets used to the layout and learns a few tricks that will help find a coin. RIC is divided into ten volumes written by individuals or teams that made no effort to match the format of the volumes that had come out previously. Each volume has its own little rules and tricks. This coin comes from the period covered by Volume VII but I fear I can not tell you a foolproof way of determining that fact without knowing something about the coin so, for now, we will suggest making a guess and looking for a coin in a volume. Failing to find the coin, the best course is to try another volume. Knowing the ruler who issued our coin should help so we will read the obverse legend and see if it does.

IMPCONSTA----NTINVSAVG is divided to left and right sections around a left facing bust of the ruler. Our basic title breakdown skills will allow us to add spaces separating out the titles from the name. We must also recognize that Roman Emperors saw honor in having their names split in the middle (honestly, folks, in some periods this split format was reserved for the senior ruler with lesser players having their names displayed in one continuous arc). This produces IMP CONSTANTINVS AVG. IMPerator was the title denoting the Emperor's position of commander of the army while AVGustus was the title that can best be translated as 'Emperor'. Our ruler's name was CONSTANTINVS. English speaking people tend to translate this name to "Constantine". Counting the Byzantine rulers there were more rulers named Constantinus than you have fingers to count so for now we will leave the ID at this partial point "one of the Constantines".

RIC, within Volume VII, is divided into separate sections for each city that minted coins during the period covered by that volume. Vol. VII covers the time from 313 to 337 AD or, more exactly, the time from the defeat and death of Maxentius to the death of Constantine the Great. Seventeen mints operated for all or part of this period so our next task is to decide which mint produced our coin. This is made easier by the late Roman practice of placing a mintmark on the reverse of the coins. On this specimen, in the space below the groundline of the reverse scene (called "exergue") we see MHTB. This is the mintmark. In a few cases, the mintmark will be pretty obvious and tell which mint produced the coin with no more than the application of common sense. In other cases, the mint marks consisted of several components including the mint city but not exactly obvious to the first time student. Our example falls in this last category. An index of mintmarks would seem to have been an obvious feature of this book but the author did not see it as necessary so we will have to look for another means of determining the city.

There is an index of reverse legends and types. The type of our coin shows what the authors of RIC called a "campgate" (more recently the type has been called "watchtower"). Our example shows a tower with three turrets on top and no doors in the archway. Since our coin has a clear reverse legend (PROVIDENTIAE AVGG) we will look it up. The index on page 747 (last line) lists very few pages for us to check and all refer to pages in the Heraclea section. Had we a coin with two turrets, the search would have taken longer but as it is we are sent to pages 544 through 547. On pages 544 and 545 we see coins listed with our mintmark MHT followed by a workshop letter. We are left to wonder if we are correct in expanding the mark to Money of Heraclea in Thrace. RIC spends little effort in explaining the meanings of abbreviations. The row of mintmark varieties list versions with and without dots in various locations. Our coin shows no dots so we will look in the first section where types without dots are detailed. To the right of the row of mintmarks we see a "317" which is the date to which RIC attributes these coins. This year, we will learn if we read the chapter introducing the Heraclea listings, was the end of the first civil war between Constantine and Licinius. Heraclea was under the control of Licinius so our coin was issued to commemorate the end of hostilities. The next two pages show coins with a different mintmark (SMH - Sacred Money of Heraclea - followed by a shop letter) which are given later dates. Coins in the MHTA group were issued in the names of the two Augusti (Constantine I and Licinius I) using the reverse legend ending in AVGG and in the names of their sons, the Caesars, with reverse ending CAESS. Looking at the list of obverse legends we see ours (IMP CONSTA----NTINVS AVG) listed as number 1. Of the various numbers in this section, only coin 16 is listed for obverse legend 1 so we will examine this listing and see if it is our coin. In the second column (marked "Obv.") is a "1" referring to the first obverse legend listed followed by (J1 l.) which is a reference to the bust design of the coin. In Volume VII, these codes are listed on pages 88 through 91 with our J1 to be found a quarter of the way down page 90. A note at the top of the list tells us that the "l." following a listing denotes a portrait facing left. J1 is described as "laur.,dr., globe, scepter in l. hand, mappa in r. hand" which is expanded as "laureate head, draped bust holding globe and scepter in left hand and mappa (a roll of cloth symbolizing the Consulship) in the right hand". While the globe is small and the mappa looks more like a branch that many of its kind, this listing would seem to describe our coin reasonably well. Users of RIC Volume VII are advised to place a bookmark at page 88. You will need to return to these pages frequently and there is no need to have to search for it every time.

The next column is marked "Reverse" and describes our campgate mentioning that the coins show a "varying number of stone layers". A footnote for listing 16 at the bottom of this page adds the information that coins of officina B regularly have 6 layers as does our specimen. Next we see the "Mintmark" column. Under a bold heading MHTA we see B and E. This is RIC's way of telling us that the mintmark for coin number 16 is expected to read MHTB or MHTE but that no coins were known to the authors that showed the other officina letters. Looking down the list, it becomes clear that the other shops were busy striking for other Imperial persons. Many are confused by the inclusion of the 'A' in the header MHTA even though that exact mark was not used for the coin following that header which happens to be the only listing that fits on that page. While the B on our coin is none too clear, it is a B. Both coins bearing MHTB and MHTE marks are correctly catalogued as RIC 16, page 544 (it is always good to list the page since there are RIC 16 listings for each of the seventeen mints covered by this volume.

The next two columns cause more confusion for new users than the authors ever could have dreamed. Under "Rarity" we see widely spaced "C1" and "R5". The spacing here matches the two officina letters and tells us that this coin is Common (C1) for shop B and very rare (R5) for shop E. Rarity scales here used C, S and R for Common, Scarce and Rare with numbers added to the first and last to explain just how common or rare they were. R5 indicated that the author had only seen one coin of that reading so it was of the highest rarity. It did not mean there was only one specimen of this coin; it just means that of the museums he checked, only one had a coin. I have seen coins listed R5 displayed in groups of three so don't be fooled in thinking you have the only known specimen of a coin just because it is R5. The coin is, or at least was once, rare. Our example from shop B is listed as C1 which can be translated as most museums had a specimen. A C2 listing would be more common; C3 extremely so. The rarity scale is listed but not explained on page xix. The last column lists a coded reference to where the author found the coin. In the case of shop B, he lists code "L". which is the British Museum in London. Since this was a common coin, many other museums also had one but only the one is listed and that coin became the definition of the type for this listing. The shop E coin is listed as "RT" which I had to look up on the list of collections starting on page xxi as the Museo delle Terme in Rome.

The above was a great deal more complicated to explain than it is to actually look up a coin. The problem is that using RIC requires a bit of practice and we approached that coin as if we had none. Coins that follow in this discussion will be easier since we may know some tricks we learned with that first coin.
D N FL CL CONSTANTINVS NOB C
PROVIDEN--TIAE CAESS .MHTE.

2. Our second example coin was selected because it is so much like the first that we can practice cataloging it applying what we learned from the extensive process of the first coin. The coin is very different in appearance being very worn and showing almost none of the original silvering. The obverse legend ends in NOB C showing that this coin was issued for one of the junior rulers, the Noble Caesars. The reverse also varies in that the AVGG of our first coin is replaced by CAESS making it consistent with an issue of a Caesar. Both AVGG and CAESS plurals are indicated by the double last letter. The mintmark is different but similar MHTE is lead and followed by a pellet (.MHTE.). We will now examine the listing for this coin in the same references used above.

RIC lists this coin on page 545 (the page facing our first coin. Looking down the bold listings in the mintmark row, we find .MHTA. above numbers 23 through 26. Of these only number 26 is suggested for officina E (.MHTE.) . This same number is coded in the Obv. column as a '7' which we look up in the list on page 544 and discover to be D N FL CL CONSTANTINVS NOB C (Lord Our Flavius Claudius Constantinus Noble Caesar). Our Lord (Dominus Noster) and Noble Caesar replace the more highly honored titles found on our first coin. Did you notice that there was no break in the legend? This also is consistent with the lower station of this person. Legend 7 is attributed to Constantine II, son of Constantine I who was born in 316 AD. Perhaps you noticed the portrait bust (a J1 l. just like the one on our first coin) was a bit small. Actually I think the portrait adds some years to his one if we accept the RIC attribution of the coin to 317 AD. There is also some question about the exact date of his birth but the coin here certainly portrays a very young child.

The Rarity column here lists coin 26 as R5 or the highest rarity rating used in RIC. It is referenced to Ox. (Asmolean Museum at Oxford) but our specimen proves the coin is available. This one came from an uncleaned pick out pot I saw at the summer 2003 ANA show in Baltimore. As mentioned above, please do not put too much importance on the RIC rarity ratings. This is not one of one or one of two. They may be less common than some other coins of similar type but they are out there waiting for your collection.

We might ask why the dots were added to some of these mintmarks. The stock answer is that these denote an 'Issue' of coins but it seems odd in this case that the dotted coins for MHTA are only listed for the Caesars and not the Augusti. It is obvious that workshops 4 and 5 produced few coins since all of their listings are R4 or better. I do not pretend to understand the operations of this particular mint. While the text in RIC mentions some of the questions, this field seems to await a thorough study to yield concrete answers.

FL IVL CONSTANTIVS NOB C
GLOR---IA EXERC---ITVS .GSIS.

3. Our third coin is quite different so we will have to start over with our ID process but, hopefully, we can expedite the process by applying what we learned above. To look up the coin in RIC, we need to start with the mint mark .GSIS. and ask what city might have used this mark. We saw above how some mintmarks include a section for the city and a section for the workshop. We may have noticed that the workshop letters at Heraclea were Greek numerals (even though the ones we used (Band E) are also Roman letters the series included G & D so we were actually dealing with beta and epsilon). This mintmark begins with a gamma so it might be reasonable to set this aside as a possible workshop letter. What remains is SIS. Looking at the list of mints in the table of contents we see a listing for Siscia so we would not be risking too much to look in that section first and see if we can find our coin. About this time I would hope some readers are ready to ask me why I am assuming that this coin will be found in RIC VII instead of another volume. The answer is that I should not without trying to place this coin in time at least to a point that I can establish which RIC volume covers it. This can be done in three ways. The reverse shows two soldiers and between them TWO standards. As it turns out the number of standards is very important here. The legend is GLORIA EXERCITVS. On page 740 we will see quite a list of references for this type including one for 455f. which includes our coin. I hope you were not tempted to stop on page 453 where we see a very similar listing but lacking the pellets before and after the letters of the mintmark. Doing so would suggest we didn't learn to watch those dots if you are going to use RIC. Our obverse legend FL IVL CONSTANTIVS NOB C appears in the list on page 455 as number 8. It appears, therefore, we are in the right volume. The second way to this same end would have been to visit the index of obverse legends and find ours on page 725. Finally, method three, we could apply common sense and recall that the period covered by Volume VII ends with the death of Constantine I. If we recognized that the name on this coin is a son of Constantine and the title is NOB C, we might be able to understand that the boy had not yet been promoted to Augustus (on the death of his father) so the coin was struck during the lifetime reign of Constantine I (Volume VII and part of Volume VI). This may seem too simple to waste all these words but sometimes the hardest part of using RIC is deciding which volume to use. If you read this whole page, that point will be demonstrated later.

Returning to our listing in the Siscia section we follow down and onto the next page (456) to coin number 237 which has our obverse legend 8 (assigned to Constantius II) and our two standard reverse. I trust you noted that the name Constantius is one N short of his father and brother's names ConstantiNus. Whatever reference you are using, please be careful to read every letter. If your coins are poor quality and do not have every letter, the ID process may involve some other steps and a little guessing. In this case the inclusion of the IVL would allow ID of this coin even if missing the entire right side legend since the coins issued for brother Constans at this mint omitted the IVLius. Older brother Constantine II was Flavius Claudius but used neither name in this issue. Sometimes we get lucky. Information of this type often will allow users of RIC to identify partial legend coins by process of elimination. The bust type is listed as B5 which a quick flip back to our bookmark placed at page 88 tells us is "bust laur(eate) cuir(assed)." Checking our portrait we see the laurel wreath on the head and note the armor (cuirass) is present without additional drapery which would have pushed the design into the area of code B4.

The Mintmark column suggests that the coin is to be found from four workshops but the footnote at the bottom of the page warns that the reports of A could be misreadings of delta coins. Our coin reads workshop gamma (G). Reading between the lines of the footnote it is reasonable to place our coin to the period after the mint began to strike for Constans (but we don't know when that was). Perhaps the older boy wanted to move up to the better shop which previously had been striking only the wolf and twins types. The Rarity column points out that this shop is R1 while the more often seen D coins are C3 (very, very common). If this coin has any cash value, it is not due to this added rarity. Despite the poor cleaning, it is not a bad looking coin. Perhaps it will improve when the metallic highlights tone down in time. The market for such coins depends on how many people are collecting these common coins by flyspeck varieties. The coin may be rare but more rare will be those who care about these minor varieties.

IMP CONSTANTINVS AVG
GLOR---IA EXERC---ITVS PCONST

4. As promised above, this coin is an example where some difficulty might be met trying to decide which volume of RIC to consult. For that matter the coin is trouble in more ways than one. As usual we will begin by trying to decide which mint produced the coin. As seem before, the mintmark PCONST combines both the officina initial and the city ID. In this case the officina is indicated by the first letter of the Roman ordinal Primus=first, Secundus=second, Tertius=third, etc. Following the P is CONST which might seem obvious that is the start of Constantinople. Unfortunately, the Romans set a trap for unwary coin collectors. The city Arles had the honor of being renamed Constantina in honor of the Imperial family's eldest son who appears on our coin. While this name change was reversed for periods according to the political situation, we find coins of both Arles and Constantinople using similar marks. Similar, perhaps, but they were not the same. First, like most mint cities of the East, Constantinople marked officinae using Greek numerals while Arles followed the Western practice of using ordinal initials. Second, Arles sometimes, as here, expanded the city abbreviation to CONST while Constantinople stopped at CONS. Our coin having both the ordinal initial P for the first shop and the added T at the end is from Arles. Is this information in RIC? Certainly, but by the time you find it, you may already have wasted a bit of time in the wrong chapter. From the obverse legend we see our coin was issued by an Augustus named Constantine (CONSTANTINVS). At the time of his death in 337 AD, Constantine I was issuing coins of this type (two soldiers but only ONE standard both in his name and in those of his sons. Our coin shows an "O" on the flag at the top of the standard. Upon the death of Constantine I and the elevation of the three sons to rank of Augustus Constantine II began issuing coins using the same titles used by his father. In some cases, including here, distinction was made between the two in RIC by legends. At some mints, the father and son used the exact same legends. Looking in RIC VII we are told that Constantine I issued his final coins from Arles with a legend including MAX (which we translate "the Great" even though "the Greatest" is more nearly correct). Since our coin lacks MAX, we will find it in RIC VIII page as number 1 (matching our obverse, reverse and having the "O" as listed).

Kent, J. P. C., The Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC), Volume VIII:

Since this is our first example from Volume VIII we should look at the format differences compared to Volume VII that we need to learn. Like VII, VIII lists the Obverse legends in a table before each group of coins. Our coin is Abbreviation C4. The bust type is listed as D5. In Volume VIII bust types are keyed in a fold out chart with D meaning "draped and cuirassed" and 5 being "laurel and rosette diademed". We see on our coin a head band with alternating laurel leaves and circles (rosettes). While volume VII marked coins illustrated in the plates with a note to the side of the listing, Volume VIII expresses the catalog number of illustrated coins in bold numerals. As with our other examples, RIC does not illustrate this exact coin but it does have, on plate 6, the Constantius II version RIC 5. Coins in this first section are dated starting 9 September 337, the date the sons were elevated to Augustus. The same reverse types produced one day earlier would be found listed in Volume VII (page 278) with obverses bearing the title Caesar. Since there are no coins listed with Constantine I portraits and legends, RIC places this issue to the period following his death but before the sons were officially elevated. Since the "O" appears on coins both of the boys as Caesars and as Augusti, it is relatively safe to place this as the earliest type coin of Constantine II as Augustus. Later series from this mint replaced the O with other letters or symbols but some of these do not exist for Constantine II. When he died in 340 AD, coinage stopped immediately. Since the city had been named in his honor, the CONST mintmark was immediately replaced by ARL. Considering that Constantine II died in an attempt to take over areas controlled by his brother Constans, this is not surprising. After the death of Constans, the name was changed to Constantia (dropping the N) and CON mintmarks returned.

CONSTANTI---VS MAX AVG
GLOR---IA EXERC---ITVS SMALA
5. Another coin of the two soldiers, one standard type will serve to further illustrate the same points. When reading late Roman coins care must be taken to read what was intended. When the coins are small, the letters smaller and the coin victim of 1700 years of mistreatment, reading the legends can be a problem. Some coins, like this one, may be in excellent condition but 'handwriting' of the die cutters and the tiny format alone can challenge us. This coin bears typical letter styles for its mint and period. That does not make it easy to read. I am reasonably certain of the readings listed under the photo but some will question them. This coin is a tricker. The obverse legend includes the title MAX which is regularly associated with Constantine I. For a very short time following their father's death, all three sons used MAX at some mints. Our coin appears to read 'Constantius Max' lacking the N before 'ius' that would make it a Constantine (either I or II). The small module, young portrait and lack of the N identify this coin as an issue of Constantius II. The reverse should confirm the date of the coin and, therefore, the attribution. We see the two soldiers with one standard and mintmark SMALA (Sacred Money ALexandria shop A) so we should find the coin on Volume VIII page 539 (get there by using the index of types or legend as necessary OR perhaps after working with a few coins, you can find the section on 2 soldiers 1 standard just by 'feel'). In fact our coin is almost a match for RIC 14 page 539 but there is a little problem. The coin shows two dots or pellets, one on either side of the top of the standard (three if you don't call the top one a finial on the standard). Things of this nature are usually recorded as separate types in RIC. In fact, RIC 51 page 515 from the Antioch mint is illustrated on Plate 26 and clearly shows these dots catalogued only for Antioch. Does our coin mean that the two dot type was also struck at Alexandria but was missed by RIC? If you feel the mintmark is not clear and could be Antioch, you might note that Antioch did not use the obverse legend including MAX for the dot issue. Finding a coin not listed in RIC is far from impossible but still a special moment for a collector. The portrait is coded D2 which matches the laureate, draped and cuirassed bust on our coin. Can someone point out to me where I am misidentifying this coin? Does anyone have another coin of this type and mint that can confirm the dots? It seems likely that references more recent than RIC might have reported this variety but I have not seen them. Help would be appreciated. I can be reached at dougsmit (at) comcast.net

Anyone for a quiz?

Few who started this page will have persisted this far. If you have, perhaps you would like to take a little quiz and find the coin here in RIC. This time I am not providing a reading of the legends or giving other help with the photo. Can you find it? The answer appears in the black box below. To reveal it, click your mouse on the box and drag down to reverse video the letters.

Constans Caesar RIC VII, page 458 number 255, officina 4 (delta), R3

This is the coin of Constans similar to the Constantius II we saw as the third coin on this page except it is the one standard version and lacks the dots flanking the mintmark. The obverse legend is genitive case (used only here in Roman coin obverse legends) or "of Constans, Blessed Caesar". This probably was done to denote his young age and lesser status compared to his brothers.

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