Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 4

This site has been dedicated to the spreading of the 'word' on ancient coins. While some attempt has been made to do this in comprehensible English, it has been necessary to use a specialized vocabulary that might not be understood fully by every person. This continues our series that will attempt to correct this problem. If you have not seen the earlier pages, I would suggest starting there: Part One.

Roman Imperial Coins - the First Two Centuries

27 BC, the traditional date of the beginning of the Roman Empire, saw no radical change in the coinage. Late Imperatorial issues were very much like the first coins of Caesar Augustus as emperor. The assumption of the title Augustus (revered one) merely confirmed the position that Octavian had held since the defeat of Antony at Actium in 31 BC. Rulers following Augustus would also assume this title as the identifying mark of the Emperor. Our examples below will skim the surface of Roman Imperial coins from the beginning of the Empire until the death of Commodus in the late 2nd century AD. Later pages will extend this date to the end of the Empire. Most of the significant terms have been covered on the earlier pages of this series. These will be reinforced and joined by a few more. So vast a subject can hardly be covered with so small a page but the beginning student will be able to derive from these samples a general overview of Roman Imperial coins.

Caesar Augustus. AR Denarius, 27-24 BC
On our first coin Octavian has assumed the title of Augustus. Whether called Octavian, Caesar or Augustus, this one man required no introduction to the Roman man on the street. Titles are minimal. The anepigraphic obverse shows a dignified portrait of a simple bare head facing right. Judging from coins of his earlier years, the portrait is a bit idealized. At the time this coin was struck Augustus was about 40. Few of his coins show age progression. It is interesting to observe which emperors allowed themselves to be portrayed accurately and which opted for more idealized portraits. The reverse shows a Capricorn, Augustus' sign of the zodiac, with rudder and globe steering the course of history. Above, a cornucopia, horn of plenty, promises good times to come. Behind the head is a circular punch mark testing the coin and proving it solid. Earlier coins of Augustus fit better into the style of the Imperatorial period than they do in the Imperial. His later coins adopted the encircling legends that were to become standard as will be seen on the remainder of the coins on this page.

Caligula, Bronze Sestertius, As and Quadrans, 39-40 AD, 37-38 AD and 40-41 AD
The first four Emperors following Caesar Augustus were members of his extended family, the Julio-Claudians. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, through a tangled web of adoptions, claimed kinship with Augustus and his adopted father Julius Caesar. Many coins of the period bore extensive legends spelling out exactly who was the ruler and what gave him the right to rule. Bronze coins were issued from the largest, the Sestertius or 1/4 denarius, to the smallest the Quadrans or 1/64 denarius. Most sestertii bore the portrait of the ruler (we show an exception) while quadrantes used simpler types. Our sestertius (27.6g) shows a seated figure of Pietas, personification of piety, surrounded by the (expanded) legend running clockwise starting at the lower left : C(aius) CAESAR DIVI AVG(ugusti) PRON(epos) AVG(ustus) P(ontifex) M(aximus) TR(ibunicia) P(otestas) III P(ater) P(atriae) and, in exergue, PIETAS. This translates: Gaius Caesar, Great-grandson of the Divine Augustus, Chief Priest, with the Power of a Tribune, Father of his Country. Significant among the titles is the spelling out that Gaius was descended from the god-Augustus and was himself Augustus. At any one time there were many priests but only one was the highest, Maximus. TRP was an office related to the Republican Tribune of the People who had the power of veto over actions of the Senate. In the Republic, this office was held for one year so the Emperors renewed the title every year and marked the number on their coins with a numeral following TRP. The first year was TRP with no numeral; year two TRP II etc. Emperors of the first century advanced the number on the anniversary date of their assumption of the first TRP. Several different systems would be used by later rulers. This sestertius with TRP III dates from March, 39, to March, 40. Father of his Country was an honorary title traditionally accepted a while after the beginning of the reign and always last in the series of titles shown. The appearance of Pietas on the coin declares that Caligula (a nickname by which Gaius is known to history to distinguish him from many other rulers named Gaius) was doing his pious duty in a manner which would be explained on the reverse of this coin. Here we see Caligula sacrificing over an altar while two attendants stand by with a bull (to be the next sacrifice). In the background we see the newly completed Temple of the Divine Augustus. This Commemorative coin was issued for several years to reinforce the position of Caligula as the natural successor of Augustus who was still remembered and revered by most Romans. The reverse legend is across field: DIVO AVG (to the Divine Augustus). Also across field is SC (Senatus Consulto - by decree of the Senate). SC was used on almost every issue of bronze coins during the Imperial period. Scholars have argued several theories about why this use was so universal and why it was on so few silver issues. We will leave it with the note that it is to be expected on bronze coins and wait for better evidence on the exact reason for SC. The example quadrans (3.1g) weighs considerably more that the 1/16 of the sestertius that one might expect. The reason for this is that it was struck in (relatively) pure (red) copper rather than the more valuable orichalcum, the (yellow) brass alloy used for the sestertius. When new the two coins would have been greatly different in color but the toning of the different metals often leaves the two hard to distinguish without cleaning the coin to a point that would ruin its value to collectors. It is customary to refer to all copper alloy coins as AE or Aes, the Latin word for bronze. They are sold as 'bronzes' without regard to exactly which alloy was used. Later in the Imperial period the distinction between the metals weakened to the point that all coins were more or less the same alloy, usually a leaded bronze. The obverse type is a cap of Liberty of a style traditionally given to freed slaves. The reverse center shows RCC (Remissa ducentesima - Remitting the 200th) referring to Caligula's repeal of a .5% sales tax. The legends C CAESAR DIVI AVG PRON AVG SC/ COS TERT PON M TRP IIII PP add only the title of COnSul followed by the ordinal 3rd rather than the more usual Roman numeral III. Consulships were assumed on the first day of the year so this combined with TRP IIII assigns the coin to the period March to December, 40 AD. Emperors did not always assume the consulship (highest office of the old Republic) every year so the COS dating is not always as good a dating device as it is here for Caligula who assumed COS IIII in January, 41 AD. Quadrantes are relatively common during the first century but cease to be issued shortly after the middle of the second century. Inflation seems to have made the small denomination unnecessary. Also struck in copper, our third coin (10.3g) is a portrait As (plural asses - 1/4 sestertius or 4 quadrantes) with reverse showing Vesta, goddess of the hearth. This example has Patinated an attractive green color hiding the red copper color it had when new. The obverse legend C CAESAR AVG GERMANICVS PON M TR POT honors Caligula's father Germanicus. Struck in the first year of his reign, this coin bears no numeral following TR POT. Note also that the coin lacks the title PP which had not yet been assumed. Vesta asses are the most commonly seen portrait coin of this popular Emperor.

Vespasian, AR Denarius, 75 AD
Following the death of Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian Emperors, civil war resulted in five emperors reigning in 68-69 AD. The eventual winner was Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Vespasian was succeeded by his eldest son (bearing the same name but known to historians as Titus) who, in turn, was succeeded by Vespasian's younger son Domitian. These three Emperors are known as the Flavian dynasty. Three Flavians, three short term rulers of 68-69 (Galba, Otho and Vitellius) and five Julio-Claudians were the subjects of a major surviving work of the biographer Suetonius (early 2nd century AD). Since Suetonius began his series with a biography of Julius Caesar (not an Emperor but certainly a great Roman), his biographies and the men they covered are called the Twelve Caesars. Coins of the Twelve Caesars form an extremely popular specialty among collectors. The portrait on our denarius of Vespasian wears a laurel wreath(a bit worn on this coin), a symbol reserved for the Augustus but not shown on all coins. This coin demonstrates two minor variations on the norm. The head faces left. Most Roman coin portraits face right but some periods favored the opposite view. Some issues were entirely left facing. Most 1st century Emperors issued coins looking in both directions. More unusual is the obverse legend which runs counterclockwise beginning at the lower right: IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG. The legend begins with an abbreviation for Imperator which refers to the Emperor being a military leader. While the word Imperator is the source of our word Emperor it does not equate to that title in English. Augustus means Emperor; Imperator is more like General. Most Roman Emperors made a point of claiming this military honor on at least some of their coins. The reverse is a Roman eagle with consulship date COS VI across field.

Hadrian, AE (orichalcum) Dupondius, 119-138 AD
Following the death of Domitian, it became normal practice for childless Emperors to adopt a man of great potential and name him to be the next Emperor. In this manner, Nerva was followed by Trajan; Trajan by Hadrian; Hadrian by Antoninus Pius and Antoninus Pius by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (as co-emperors). Rome benefited greatly by this system insuring that succession would not be left to chance. This period is sometimes called that of the Adoptive Emperors. Our coin of this period is a Dupondius (13.1g) or bronze coin of two asses. Like sestertii, dupondii were struck from yellow brass or orichalcum. The surface of our coin bears a natural green patina which has been worn away from the high points of the coin to reveal the yellow metal below. Such wear could be the result of damage from cleaning the coin after it was dug from the earth or simple friction against envelopes or collectors' cabinets. Our coin also shows pitting or corrosion on the chest of the portrait far more severe that the porosity mentioned on the Republican page. Usually, the dupondius was distinguished by a radiate crown on the head of the Emperor. It was fashionable during the reign of Trajan and on early coins of Hadrian to use a very long obverse legend consisting of very small letters. Flat striking at the lower left destroyed part of the legend on our example: IMP CAESAR TRAIANVS HADRIANVS AVG PM TRP COS III. TRP is not followed by a numeral but should not be assumed to be indicating the first year of the reign. COS III would seem to be our best hope for dating but Hadrian assumed the consulship for the third and last time in 119 AD so this device could have been used any time from that date to the end of the reign in 138 AD. An early date is suggested by the use of Hadrian's adoptive father's name in the legend. As a general rule, coins with long legends come early in reigns while the Emperor was still being introduced to the people. The reverse shows SALVS PVBLICA SC with a figure of Public Health. Perhaps this coin was issued to ward off an outbreak of the plague that tormented Rome during this period. There are literally hundreds of reverse types for coins of the adoptive period.

Antoninus Pius, AR Denarius, c. 161 AD
Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius ruled for many peaceful years and was declared to be a god upon his death. This denarius was issued by Marcus Aurelius and his fellow Augustus Lucius Verus. The deceased Emperor is shown bare headed as was the practice for Consecration issues. The obverse legend is simple DIVVS ANTONINVS, the divine Antoninus. Consecration coins used a variety of special reverses including funeral pyres and eagles carrying the emperors to heaven. This coin shows a seated Antoninus and is surrounded by DIVO PIO, to the divine Pius. Most Emperors judged 'good' by their successors were consecrated with a small issue of coins produced for the funeral. A few, including Pius, were honored by huge issues of various types honoring a ruler who was to be missed by the people. Antoninus Pius lends his name to the period of the last half of the second century. While he and his immediate successors also are known as Adoptive Emperors, they are joined by Commodus, the natural son of Marcus Aurelius, to form the Antonine dynasty.

Marcus Aurelius, AV(gold) Aureus, 161 AD
This website fails to present a balanced overview of ancient coins in one major respect. There is almost no material presented on gold coins. While they exist in reasonably large numbers, these coins remain out of the price range of most collectors including this student and most of the people who have allowed him to photograph their collections for the purpose of illustrating these pages. Our exceptional example (not my coin, to be sure!) shows the standard gold denomination of the early Empire, the Aureus of 25 denarii. Only slightly larger than the silver denarius in diameter, the greater weight of gold places most aurei around 7g or twice the weight of the denarius. The coin was issued just after the death of Antoninus Pius, the time when Marcus Aurelius had first became Augustus. The reverse shows Marcus shaking hands with his co-emperor Lucius Verus promoting concord between the two men sharing power in the Empire. This time of two Augusti was a first for Rome but it was a situation that would be repeated many times over the coming centuries.

Commodus, AE Dupondius or As, 175-176 AD
Marcus Aurelius, unlike his predecessors, had a son Commodus to whom he left the Roman world. (At this point we need to point out that the recent movie Gladiator used the names of these people but did not see fit to follow anything approaching historical fact beyond the names.) I believe our coin is a copper as (half a dupondius, 1/16 denarius etc.) but, at a weight of 10.1g, it also could be a dupondius. To know for sure we need to see the color of the metal which is hidden by the green patina. The portrait has a bare headed bust but this coin could not use the radiate crown even if it were a dupondius since, at this period, the radiate crown was reserved for the Augustus. Commodus is shown as Caesar, heir to the throne but not yet full Augustus. Augusti also used Caesar as part of their own titles but gave it alone to their sons or other heirs. Bust portraits including shoulders and clothing were always used for the lesser position of Caesar. Augusti had the option of using the bust style or the head portrait which stopped at the neck. The obverse legend L AVREL COMMODVS CAES AVG FIL GERM identifies Commodus as Caesar and son (filius) of the Augustus. Note that AVG here refers to his father of whom he is FILius not to Commodus himself. He is further honored by the title Germanicus referring to recent Roman victories in Germany for which the boy was in no way responsible. The reverse shows a donative scene with Commodus seated on curule chair flanked by the personification Liberalitas and a soldier. A citizen climbs the stairs at the left and catches a coin thrown into the waiting fold of his toga (note a coin is shown just right of the citizen's head). The legend reads LIBERALITAS AVG SC. The coin was probably issued to be given out in such a scene in honor of Commodus being named Caesar. Commodus did not turn out to be a 'good' Emperor and his murder on the last day of 192 AD brought an end to the Antonine period and to this page of our survey.

Next section:

Roman Imperial Coins (2)

For more of this series see:

Greek Coins - (2) - Roman Republican Coins - Roman Imperial Coins (3) - Asian Coins

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