Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 6

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 Late Empire

Our final page on the Roman Empire begins with the coinage Reform of Diocletian and continues to the fall of the Empire in the West (traditional date 476 AD). As before, many terms needed to understand coins of the period have been covered on earlier pages of this series and will be mentioned here only as reinforcement. There are, however, several new terms to be learned in this section.

Diocletian, AE1, Alexandria mint, c.300 AD
The coinage reform of 294 AD saw the introduction of several new coins. Most important was the one known to collectors as the Follis or Nummus. At about 10g and 30mm diameter these silver washed coins were quite impressive compared to the issues they replaced. The problem is that history has not recorded what the coins were called by the people that used them. For years collectors used the name Follis (plural Folles) but it is reasonably certain that this term should be reserved for the much later Byzantine coins of 40 nummi and is inappropriate for these issues. Other writers use Nummus which simply means "coin". This student prefers to use the size scale which does not attempt to force a name on the unknown denominations but does serve to distinguish the various issues by size. As we will see, inflation caused the decline in size of the coins so persons using either of the names will apply the same word to coins vastly different in size. The diameter of coins of the same issue will vary a bit due to striking (there was no collar to keep the coins from spreading out as they were struck). The traditional size scale forces coins into four groups by diameter and numbers these bronze (AE) coin groups one through four from largest to smallest. Therefore:

AE1 = over 25mm
AE2 = 21 - 25mm
AE3 = 17 - 21mm
AE4 = under 17mm

As a footnote we should note that this is completely different from the system used for Greek coins discussed on the first page of this series. Our coin is an AE1 from the mint of Alexandria. It bears the city mark ALE (in exergue) and the officina numeral E (=5 in right field). XXI indicates that the coin still contains the familiar alloy of one part silver to 20 parts copper. Relatively few of the post-reform are marked with the allow mark and the coins tested rarely measure up to that high of a standard. Prices at this time were quoted in a money of reckoning, the denarii communes. In the early part of the reform the AE1/Follis/Nummus appears to have been valued at five denarii communes. This ratio would change several times in the next few decades. It is believed that these coins were valued at 1/5 a new silver denomination (of unknown name but called Argenteus by collectors). Relative value to the gold Aureus is less certain and seems to have floated according to the market demand. The portrait on our example shows the 'bull necked' look that became fashionable at the time of the reform. The realism of the Emperor as First Citizen of the Empire was being replaced with a formalism showing him more as a Lord. The reverse shows the most common type used on these issues: Genius of the Roman People (GENIO POPVLI ROMANI) standing holding a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and pouring a sacrifice from a patera (dish).

Maximianus, AE Post-Reform Radiate, Cyzicus mint, 295-299 AD
A second denomination of the Reform is called the Post-Reform Radiate. This coin appears to have been valued at 2 denarii communes making it the theoretical equivalent of the old antoninianus which it greatly resembles. The big difference here is that this coin contained no (or only a trace) silver and was NOT issued with the silver coating that was used on antoniniani and the large coin described above. Inflation quickly made these small coins of little demand and they were discontinued. For collectors, it is important to note that no post-reform radiate bears the XXI mark. This student observes that these coins often have surfaces more smooth and evenly patinated than the silvered coins. It seems that the small amount of silver or the silver plating caused many coins to survive with rough or patchy surfaces while the silverless radiates are often more smooth and attractive. This example in the name of Maximianus, joint Augustus with Diocletian, shows a sand patina which is nothing more than soil packed on the surface of the coin and hardened over time. While the soil would clean off with relative ease, the contrast it gives the coin is considered attractive by many collectors. The reverse shows Jupiter presenting Victory to the Emperor, a common type on old antoniniani. In the reverse field is the mint city initial K and the officina numeral D. Accompanying this coin but not shown here was a smaller silverless bronze with portrait wearing laurel wreath which represented the denarius or half the radiate.

Constantine I as Caesar, AE1, Rome mint, 307 AD
Our first coin of Constantine I (the Great) is unusual in several ways. It dates to early in his career when he was fighting for recognition as successor to his father Constantius I Augustus in the West. The coin was struck at Rome which was under the control of Maxentius (whom in 313 AD Constantine would defeat at Milvian Bridge). Our coin shows Constantine bearing the junior title of Caesar by which he was recognized in the East but other coins of this same type show him as Augustus indicating that Maxentius changed his level recognition of Constantine. While still AE1 diameter, this coin weighs only 6g or a little over half the first coins of the AE1 denomination. It is a rather thin coin. Other mints at this time were issuing thicker AE2 coins with the same weight. The mints under Maxentius often used Architectural types such as this scene of Roma in a Hexastyle (six column) temple. The mintmark shows the city initial R and 4th officina Q (quartus) with a star between the letters.

Anonymous Pagan Issue, AE4, Antioch mint, c.310 AD
Even smaller in size than the bronze laureate 'denarii' are issues of strange little coins not bearing the name or portrait of an emperor. These Anonymous coins show a pagan god on each side (two reverse types, if you please). They are often called 1/4 nummus pieces but their exact place in the scheme is not known. The obvious question is why they were issued. Numismatists of the 19th century assigned these coins to the Pagan Revival under Julian II (360-363 AD) but this is now realized to be incorrect and the coins are assigned to the time of the Great Persecution under Galerius and Maximinus II. Citizens at that time were required to perform a sacrifice to prove their piety to the state. Christians considered this act sacrelegious and refused preferring to suffer death or imprisonment. I see a distinct possibility that these coins served some role in that sacrifice. Perhaps the requirement was as simple as throwing a sacred coin of minimal value in the offering plate at a temple. Perhaps this is not a coin at all but a receipt of having complied with the requirement. This is a matter needing study. The obverse of our example shows Fortune (Tyche) of Antioch with swimmer (River Orontes) at her feet. This copies the bronze statue by Eutychides of Sicyon which was commissioned by Seleucus I when the city was founded. The reverse shows Apollo holding his lyre. The figure is a copy of the massive acrolithic statue of Apollo by Bryaxis that stood in the temple at Antioch. Ancient descriptions of these statues (both now lost) enable us to be certain of the identifications. The mintmark SMA expands to Sacra Moneta (Sacred Money) of Antioch. In the field is the additive numeral of officina 9 (5+4) as seen on our previous page. This use in itself suggests the error of the attribution to Julian since coins of his period used theta for officina 9. The timing of the confusion on the date of these coins led to them being omitted from RIC. When Volume VI was written, many people attributed them to Julian II who is in Volume VIII but when Volume VIII came out, they had been 'moved' to the Volume VI period so they are not in RIC. Pity, they are very interesting coins.

Licinius I, AE3, Arles mint, 315 AD
By the date of our next coin, the basic denomination (Follis/Nummus) was being struck at AE3 size. This is termed by many collectors a Reduced Follis or Nummus. This example weighs 4.3g and has lost all trace of its original silvering. The coin shows Licinius I, ruler in the East even though the mint at Arles was under the control of Constantine. For a decade the two Augusti alternately fought and made truces which included recognizing each other by issuing coins from their mints in the both of their names. The reverse shows Sol the sun god (still popular as when we previously met him as Oriens under Aurelian). In exergue we see the officina P (Primus) followed by the mint city ARL. Coins of the many issues during the early part of the 4th Century often bear code letters in the fields. Some of these give a value in terms of some other money; some probably refer to some other matter of mint organization; some are just not understood. The best guess offered for the SF across the field here is Saeculi Felicitas (Happy Days) but I can not offer a reason why the mint felt the need to include these letters on this particular issue.

Licinius II Caesar, AE3, Antioch mint, 321-323 AD
Our next coin shows the young son of Licinius I, Licinius II Caesar. With the same name as his father, coins of Licinius II are distinguished by the fact that he was only Caesar (often, as here NOB C = noble Caesar) while his father was always Augustus not holding the junior office prior to being made Augustus. Another clue would be the fact that Licinius II was about two years old when named Caesar in 317 and about seven when this coin was issued showing him dressed in full military armor. Portraiture was aged a bit to make it look like the Empire was certain to have a suitable successor. Constantine had four sons (only one of which was as old as a teen) so many coins of this period depict young rulers. The reverse shows Jupiter holding Victory and accompanied by his eagle and a seated captive. The mintmark reads SM (Sacred Money) ANT (the city) and Z (=7 the officina as a Greek numeral) all in the manner we have seen before. What is new is the numeral in the right field. Inflation ravaged the Roman economy. Since the coin supply in a cash based economy needs to mirror the actual purchasing power they represented, it was necessary to remove old issues from circulation and reissue new coins on the newly appropriate standards. This resulted in a repetitive cycle of demonitization of the old coin followed by remelting and reissues. This coin marks the reduction in value by half of all coins in circulation with the Follis/Nummus dropping from a theoretical value of 25 denarii (we skipped the steps when it jumped from 5 to 25!) to 12 and a half. Doing this effectively reduced (by half) the purchasing power of money in circulation. The numeral is XII^ or 12 and a half. The sign for a half is variously shaped on different coins. These look like an S, half an M or the Greek G and probably should be read as 'semis'. This marking was used only for a short time before another round of inflation changed the rules again.

AE3 Constantinople - Nikomedia mint - 330-337 AD - AE3/4 Urbs Roma - Antioch mint

To honor the founding of his new capital at Constantinople, Constantine issued a large series of Commemorative coins for both the new and the old capitals. On the left we see the personification of Constantinople with a reverse type of Victory on a prow. On the right URBS ROMA (City of Rome) with the classic scene of the wolf and twins (Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome). These coins were issued for several years and experienced some reduction in size straddling the border between AE3 and AE4. Frequently we see them sold as AE3/4 recognizing that some of the coins are too big to be one while some are too small to be the other. The Roma coin shows two additional points of interest. The mintmark includes the officina 9 numeral Q now, under Christianity, no longer avoided due to superstition. Several issues of the series bear code marks of unknown meaning. On our wolf's shoulder there is a star not found on most issues. Some collectors are particularly fond of these marked coins.

Divus Constantine, AE3/4, Antioch mint, c.337 AD
Upon the death of Constantine the Great, a consecration issue was issued by his surviving sons. These continued for several years and included several varieties. Our example shows Constantine veiled with legend DV (Divus) CONSTANTINVS PT(father) AVGG (of the Augusti). The reverse type is exceptional. Constantine, in a chariot, is riding off to heaven reaching out to take the hand of God extended down from above. It appears that mints under control of one son, Constans, did not participate in the issue. It has been questioned if this indicates a problem between father and son or if Constans considered the deification of a Christian inappropriate. Constantine had been baptized a Christian on his deathbed so this coin commemorates his becoming a Saint (as he is recognized in the Eastern Church). This was the last consecration issue on which an Emperor was titled 'Divus'.

Constantius II, AR Siliqua, Arles mint, 355-360 AD
Constantius II, son of Constantine I who survived and ruled the longest, is most often associated with the massive issue of FEL TEMP REPARATIO coins. Since I have a separate page on these silvered bronzes, Constantius will be represented by another popular coin, the silver Siliqua (again a name provided by collectors but not by history). Several denominations of silver were struck during the 4th century and the relations between these and the silvered bronzes is not at all clear. A particularly large issue of silver was made from several mints near the end of the reign of Constantius II. The portrait shows a diadem replacing the laurel wreath common in earlier periods. These decorations are found in several forms including the Pearl variety seen here. The reverse shows VOTIS XXX MVLTIS XXXX in a wreath. This commemorates Constantius' renewing his vows to serve the state for another decade on completion of his 30th year. Vota issues were particularly common during the reigns of Constantine and his sons. Numerals range for an initial five year (VOT V) to the large number shown on our example. The mintmark of this coin includes the officina ordinal abbreviation P (Primus) and the city name CON. The city Arles was renamed Constantina in 328 AD creating confusion among collectors with coins of Constantinople. The obverse legend begins with DN (Dominus Noster = Our Lord) which became the standard title of rulers from this time to the end of the Empire. This title change reflects the development of the Emperors from the civil servants of the early period to the absolute monarchs of the late Empire.

Magnentius, AE2, Arles mint, c.353 AD
Civil wars between the sons of Constantine occupied the years following his death. The situation was made more complex when Magnentius overthrew Constans and set himself up as Augustus in the West. After three years of independence, Magnentius was killed and the Empire reunited under Constantius II. Coins of Magnentius show several types not seen on other rulers of the period including the extremely popular Christian symbol the Christogram or Chi-Rho. While he assumed the title Augustus, it is interesting that Magnentius is shown with a bare headed portrait rather than the Laurel wreath or diadem common to other Augusti. Workmanship in this period was not consistently high with many coins showing partial legend or other signs of rushed work. Note the die break running from Magnentius' nose to the edge of the flan and the very irregular flan of our example. Note that the city of Arles reverted to its previous name while under control of Magnentius. The mintmark in exergue reads (weakly) S (Secundus) AR.

Theodosius I, AE2, Alexandria mint
Following the death of the last member of the House of Constantine, Rome was ruled by the dynasty known as the House of Valentinian and Theodosius. Named for its founder Valentinian and its most prominent member, this dynasty ruled for nearly a century. Their bronze coins were issued without silvering in all four size groups (although AE1's were unusual and only in the very beginning of the period). Most common are AE3's showing types with military references or Victory. During much of the period, power was shared by several rulers so the same types can be found in several names from several mints. As in the earlier period, officina marks and series markings are common. Our example is an AE2 of Theodosius I. The bust is a military style with helmet and spear. The reverse shows Victory steering the ship of state carrying the Emperor in military dress. The reverse legend GLORAI ROMANORVM contains a small spelling Error for GLORIA ROMANORVM. Error coins are much more commonly found in ancient coins than in modern, machine made issues. Each die was cut individually and oddities often were overlooked. In addition to die errors, many coins show striking or production errors. These include brockages, clashed dies, doublestrikes and overstrikes. While many collectors enjoy errors as a specialty, they are a segment of the numismatic vocabulary that can be postponed until the student has mastered the more standard terms. We will leave them here with this mention.

Theodosius II (Augustus in the East) AV Solidus, Constantinople mint, 441- 450 AD
Gold, in the late Empire, was issued as the solidus as well as its fractions and rare multiples. Gold was required for many transactions and taxes even though the bronzes and silver might be used for daily commerce. Following the reign of Theodosius I, the Empire was split into Eastern and Western parts with separate Emperors. While some issued coins for their colleagues, the split was permanent with the prosperous East watching as the West (and Rome itself) fell into control of the barbarian tribes that had pressured the Empire for centuries. Our example from the late part of the reign shows Theodosius II, grandson of Theodosius I and son of Arcadius. He was made Augustus in 402 AD at 9 months of age. Ruling (at first through regents) for 48 years (a record), the Emperor was required to pay huge numbers of solidi to barbarians (including Attila the Hun) to maintain their position. It may not be too far fetched to think this coin may have been part of that tribute. It is certain that the coin has served as a decoration in more modern jewelry. Four small marks around the edge show where it was once held by prongs. Ex-jewelry coins are considered damaged by collectors and sell for much less than perfect coins. Facing military portraits as shown here became fashionable during the last century of the Empire.

Leo I (Augustus in the East), AE4, Constantinople mint, 457-474 AD
The 5th century saw a continuation in the shrinking of the standard coin (whatever we choose to call it). These are often termed Nummi Minimi or smallest coins. Along with falling size came a reduction in quality of workmanship. It is very rare to find a coin of this period that shows as much as half the legends. Our example is at least typical if not better than most. At 11mm and 1.2g this coin is twice the weight of many of its day but all were the same denomination. Western mint coins are often much more crude than this. Coins were gathered in pouches to make transactions easier so each coin was just a part of the group rather than money in its own right. Bronzes floated with the market in terms of the number that would be traded for a gold solidus but 7200 is a good average. The flan on our example has a natural hole (mostly filled with dirt) and is, at best, ragged and poorly struck. The mintmark is off flan but is most likely CON for Constantinople which is known to be the source of this obverse variety reading DN LEONS PF AVG (substituting the Greek letter for the L in Leo) used with the Latin monogram (the letters of Leonis). Monograms of the ruler's name was a popular reverse type for small bronzes of this period. This was the pathetic end of Roman Bronze coinage. The next reform introducing new (and much better) bronzes would take place under the Emperor Anastasius and is considered by collectors to mark the beginning of the Byzantine coinage.

Next: Asian Coins
For more of this series see:
Greek Coins - (2) - Roman Republican Coins - Roman Imperial Coins (1) - (2)

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