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Early Roman imperial coins countermarked in late antiquity

By Gert Boersema

While trying to attribute an as of Domitian countermarked with the Roman numerals XLII in the left obverse field [figure 1], I realised that there is very scant online information on this intriguing group of early imperial coins recycled in late antiquity. In this short article I will try and fill that void and meanwhile offer the reader suggestions for further study.


At some time in late antiquity obsolete Roman imperial asses and dupondii of predominantly 1st century emperors were being countermarked with the mark of value XLII (42), while at the same time, sestertii were being countermarked with the mark of value LXXXIII (83) [figures 1, 2 and 3]. The countermark was not applied like it had been done in earlier times, using a small punch. The numerals were chiselled into the metal – usually in the left obverse field, carefully avoiding defacing the portrait.

The function of these peculiar marks of value – 83 being almost, but not exactly two times 42 – was first deduced by Philip Grierson.1 He recognized that the newly created denominations were not multiples of the nummus as might be expected, but divisions of a silver unit valued at 500 nummi, which itself amounted to the 24th fraction of a gold solidus valued at 12,000 nummi. 42 and 83 are the closest whole numbers one can get to a twelfth (exactly 41⅔) and a sixth (exactly 83⅓) of 500.


1a. As of Domitian countermarked XLII, photo courtesy of Gert Boersema                    1b. Detail of the countermark of figure 1a


2. As of Galba countermarked XLII, photo courtesy of Tom Vossen                                3. Sestertius of Galba countermarked LXXXIII, Leu/Numismatica Ars 
                                                                                                                                        Classica ‘Arcadius to Constantine XI’ 26 May 1993, lot 457 

North Africa or Italy?

There is difference of opinion about the place of origin of these countermarked coins. The traditional view, proposed in the 19th century by Friedländer and followed by Wroth in his British Museum catalogue, and later by Hahn in MIB, is that the Vandals produced them.2 Cécile Morrison, in her important study devoted entirely to these countermarked early imperials, also favours Africa as their place of origin.3 Philip Grierson in Medieval European Coinage proposes the attribution to Ostrogothic Italy, but he still maintains that they ‘may have been used in Vandal Africa’.4

The strongest argument for the attribution to Vandalic Africa is that the countermarked coins fit seamlessly within the Vandalic monetary system, which comprised copper coins of 42, 21, 12 and 4 nummi. Moreover, the epigraphical rendering of the numeral XLII on countermarked coins is typically very similar to that of the numerals on the Vandalic coin of 42 nummi – note the prolonged horizontal bar of the L and the two I’s placed on top of it [figure 4 and 1b].


4. Vandals. AE 42 nummi (mark of value XLII). Photo courtesy of CNG (67, 1829)           5. Ostrogoths. Theoderic c. AD 493-526, AE 40 nummi (mark of value XL). Photo courtesy of Gert Boersema.

On the other hand, provenance overwhelmingly points to Italy. In her 1983 study, Morrison found 72 coins of Italian provenance, contrary to just 5 coins originating from Africa.5 However, according to Morrison, this just shows that they circulated in Italy, not that they were actually produced there.

At first sight, the circulation of coins valued at 42 and 83 nummi in Ostrogothic Italy is hard to imagine. Ostrogothic copper coinage was based on a denomination worth 40 nummi [figure 5], which is of course very close to the countermarked coins’ value of 42 nummi. But, as Morrison observes, the simultaneous circulation of two denominations valued almost exactly the same is understandable because they serve two separate monetary purposes. The 40 nummi piece served as a multiple of the nummus (together with the additional denominations of 5, 10 and 20 nummi), while countermarked coins worth 42 and 83 nummi were useful as divisions of the half siliqua, providing third and sixth fractions.6 Morrison offers an almost contemporaneous example of two Ravenna mint silver coins being in parallel circulation whilst having almost exactly the same value of 120 and 125 nummi [figure 6 and 7]. The former was a multiple of the follis worth 40 nummi, the latter a fraction of the silver siliqua.  


6. Justinian I AD 427-565, AR 120 nummi. The letters PK are Greek numerals                       7. Justinian I AD 427-565, AR 125 nummi. The letters PKE are Greek numerals
for mark of value 120. Photo courtesy of Stack’s (Moneta Imperii Romani                              for mark of value 125. Photo courtesy of Stack’s (same auction, lot 3082)
Byzantini 2009, lot 3083)

Even though Morrison shows that the Ostrogothic kingdom could have benefited from these countermarked coins and that they are found primarily in Italy, she eventually credits the Vandals for the actual countermarking, on the ground that it cannot be discounted that the denomination of 42 nummi was struck in North Africa, not Italy.7 On the other hand, Grierson, in MEC, proposes that this might point to exactly the opposite direction: the inability of the Ostrogoths to neatly divide their silver coins might have prompted them to the countermarking. This, together with the provenance, lead him to attribute these countermarked coins to Ostrogothic Italy, where they formed a ‘supplementary fractional coinage’.8


Of course, the dating of these coins heavily depends on views concerning attribution and function. Hahn maintains the traditional early date of the second half of the 5th century. According to him, the countermarked coins were precursors to the proper Vandalic aes coinage developed at a later stage and contemporary to the imitative siliquae in the name of Honorius.9

Morrison, however, does not find it reasonable that ‘old coins could have been marked with values for which there was as yet no contemporary coin’.10 She dates them to the time of the heavier emission of XLII nummi (with the standing figure of Carthage on the obverse [figure 4]), minted c. 494-96. She identifies the countermarked coins as supplementary coinage to this ‘rather meagre issue’. After the fall of the Vandalic kingdom and the conquest of Africa by Justinian (AD 534) the countermarked coins spread to Italy, where official low-value currency was scarce due to conditions of war.11

Grierson proposes a similar date of the early sixth century for both the countermarking and the use in Ostrogothic Italy. He observes that they must postdate the first issue of anonymous Ostrogothic 40 nummi pieces, featuring Wolf and Twins on the reverse, because these are substantially heavier than the countermarked coins – it is hard to imagine that people at this time would accept the value of 42 nummi for the lighter countermarked coins. Grierson dates the countermarking relatively late to the 520-530’s, contemporary with the second issue of Ostrogothic anonymous folles, featuring an eagle on the reverse [figure 5], which have a comparable average weight and module. Another indication for a relatively late date, according to Grierson, is the minting of Justinian’s silver 120 and 125 nummi pieces. He considers this a similar means of ‘fine tuning the currency system’ and this would naturally place them close in time to the countermarked coins.12


As a conclusion, I would like to place three remarks. Firstly, I agree with Grierson’s observation that it comes down to ‘flying in the face of the find evidence’ to attribute these coins to North Africa. There is no compelling need to put definitive weight on the absence of an Ostrogothic denomination of 42 nummi. Italy and North Africa were in contact and coins did cross the Mediterranean Sea. The Ostrogoths cannot have been completely oblivious to the existence of a Vandalic coin worth 42 nummi and the merits of such a denomination and I think it is reasonable to suppose that a Vandalic denomination could have inspired countermarking in Italy.

Secondly, these countermarked coins must have a relatively late date. As Grierson rightly asserts, they cannot have circulated simultaneously with the first group of Ostrogothic follis that were substantially heavier but valued less at 40 nummi.

Lastly, only about 150 of these countermarked coins are known today. Their rarity, and the ad hoc method of the countermarking, using hammer and chisel, imply that they were created incidentally. Perhaps the discovery of a large hoard of Flavian era bronze coins, supplemented by individual finds  – 77% of the countermarked coins are Flavian13 – prompted some local or mint authority in Ostrogothic Italy to start organizing the countermarking.

1 Grierson, P., ‘The Tablettes Albertini and the value of the solidus in the fifth and sixth centuries AD’, JRS XLIX (1959) p. 78.

2 Friedländer, J., ‘Die Erwerbungen des Königl. Münzkabinets vom 1. Jan. 1877 bis 31 März 1878’ ZfN VI (1879) p.1-26; Wroth, W., Catalogue of the coins of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Lombards… in the British Museum, London 1911; Hahn, W., Moneta Imperii Byzantini, vol. I, Vienna 1973.

3 Morrison, C. ‘The re-use of obsolete coins: the case of Roman imperial bronzes revived in the late fifth century’ in: ed. C.N.L. Brooke et al. Studies in Numismatic Method presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge 1983). This is the only paper devoted solely to these countermarked coins.

4 Grierson, P. and M. Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage (1986) p. 28-31.

5 Morrison (1983) p. 98-99.

6 Grierson (1986) p. 28.

7 Morrison (1983) p. 99

8 Grierson (1986) p. 28.

9 Hahn (1973) p.94.

10 Morrison (1983) p. 98.

11 Morrison (1983) p. 99-100 citing her own earlier established dating. Grierson (1983 p. 420) has a much wider margin for this issue: AD 480-523.

12 Grierson (1986) p. 31.

13 Morrison (1983) p. 97.