ERIC Table of Contents
NERO CLAUDIUS DRUSUS
Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins
Coins of Other Ancient Cultures
In learning about Roman coins it is helpful to be able to distinguish them from other ancient coins. A short guide is presented outlining the major differences between these.
Examples of Roman Imperial Coins Let us examine first the coins which we will be dealing with in this book. Roman imperial coins span a period of over 500 years beginning, technically, with the first issues following the Roman Senate‟s bestowment of the title Augustus on Octavian in 27 BC and gradually blending into what will become known as the Byzantine culture in the 6th century. During this entire period almost every coin minted within the borders of the Roman empire will feature a ruler from the present imperial court as a portrait on the obverse of each and every coin. This trait alone is so consistent that it becomes an easily identifiable signature which can be used to quickly rule out the majority of other ancient coin-making cultures. The second main features are the inscriptions themselves which although 1,500-2,000 years old are still often perfectly readable to anyone familiar with the Latin alphabet.
Roman imperial coins are the most plentiful and cheapest coins of antiquity. It is therefore a safe bet that any coin from antiquity that has a person's portrait and has at least partially readable Latin legends can be assumed to be a Roman coin.
Examples of Roman Imperatorial CoinsRoman imperatorial coins immediately precede the imperial period. This rather brief numismatic period extends from shortly before the death of Julius Caesar until Octavian is given his title of Augustus; less than 20 years in all. Numismatically, this period blends characteristics of the Roman republican period before and the coming imperial age. Among these are the first examples of living persons being featured on coins.
The imperatorial period issues some gold and copper coinage but are of excessive rarity today. The Roman economy during this time is nearly monopolized by the silver Denarius.
Examples of Roman Republican Coins The Republican period precedes the Imperatorial and the Roman coinage of the day is heavily influenced by Greek art. From about 200 BCE until near the end of Julius Caesar's life these coins will employ the usual Roman rebadged Greek gods with Latin inscriptions but are otherwise similar in makeup to contemporary Greek coins. As was the case with imperatorial Rome, the Denarius is the backbone of the economy.
The Greeks were the inventors of coins. From about 550 BCE until conquered by the Romans they strike millions of coins in all metals but prefer silver as the medium of exchange. Greek coins undergo several periods whereby the art styles change significantly. The coins make heavy use of traditional Greek mythology. As a whole, the written word is moderated or unused so as to not compete with the art which is generally regarded to be the greatest numismatic legacy the world has witnessed.
Examples of Roman Provincial Coins
There are several contemporary cultures which issued coins during the Roman imperial period. After the various Greek nations fell one by one to the Romans the skills of their moneyers were put to good use. Unlike other regions within the Roman empire the Romans allowed for the issue of their own autonomous coinage using Greek legends and traditional themes so long as the various Roman gods and, most importantly, the incumbent emperor were featured prominently. As a class, Roman provincial coins, or more specifically, Greek imperial as they're more appropriately termed, are very similar to Roman imperial coins with the only major difference being the use of Greek legends. They were also restricted to bronze and limited runs of silver but never gold which was a privilege reserved for Rome on most occasions. The last of these provincial coins are struck in the late 200's and coins with Greek legends will not reappear until the Byzantine period.
Examples of Judean Coins
Immediately to the east in what is now known as the Holy Land coins had been made for centuries. The Jews and other nearby civilizations produced a distinctive coinage paralleling the Roman imperial period and then incorporating some of its elements after the region was annexed by the Romans. Asides from the use of Hebrew and other archaic alphabets the coins scrupulously omit any representation of living beings, particularly humans, which was considered sacrilegious.
Examples of Persian Coins
The Greek and then Roman empires' most formidable enemies were the Persians with whom they constantly quarreled. They left behind a significant body of numismatic material that began shortly after the Greeks themselves invented coinage and evolved over time into the modern Islamic currency.
Coins issued in antiquity will look quite exotic to Western eyes from the inscrutable inscriptions to the designs. Portraits feature equally exotic headgear and dress.
The Celts were not one people. They were a diverse number of tribes inhabiting all European regions not under direct Roman control. They include Spanish, British, Germanic and near-eastern nations of semi-nomadic makeup and lumped together under the Roman pejorative “Barbarian”. The extent of their coinage was limited insofar as their economies were more primitive. However, trade was an important element of their various civilizations and many found the convenience of coinage.
The style used on Celtic coins is hard to reign in given how dissimilar the various tribes were. Most uniquely distinguishable is their abstracted portraiture and rendition of animals, particularly horses.
Examples of Barbarous Coins
Minor Celtic tribes along near the Roman empire's borders were influenced and occasionally even Romanized to a degree. What commerce they engaged with amongst themselves, outsiders and Romans alike was presumably facilitated with their acquired wealth, mainstream Roman coins and coins of their own making which closely resembled official issues. The bulk of these mimic Roman bronzes of the fourth century with varying degrees of craftsmanship but all are connected by the thread of illiterate “writing” in place of true inscriptions.
Examples of Coins from the Dark Ages
After the fourth century these tribes amalgamated with other Celts to form new tribes and would continue to copy the core Roman currency well into the sixth century, often taking care to honor the nominal Byzantine emperor of the day who was still regarded as the legal sovereign of the former Roman lands. Bronzes ceased to be made in any appreciable quantities but gold production began in earnest under the banner of the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Avars, Merovingians and many others.
Examples of Medieval Coins
As the Roman influence vanished and the Byzantine influence waned these tribes now began to slowly disassociate themselves from the old empire and instead issued coins honoring their own kings. In the vacuum that was left the inhabitants of Western Europe gained stronger identities and new cultures were born giving way to the medieval period.
Coin craftsmanship will for the next 1,000 years be far below the standards of the Greeks and Romans and acquire a look and feel unique and easy to identify. However, a thorough knowledge of European medieval coinage is intricate and difficult to master. It will not be until the 16th century when Arabic numeral dating on coins and the eventual introduction of machine-stamped coins that the modern age of currency is born.
Meanwhile the Byzantines carry on the political legacy of the Romans by continuing the now ancient imperial tradition. Spanning a full millennium the Byzantine currency undergoes many changes over the years. The ending section of this book introduces the Byzantine age while the coins are still fully indistinguishable from their Italian counterparts. In fact, at this stage the mints in Constantinopolis and Rome still closely coordinate their coin production to give every appearance of a seamless monetary system and, by extension, a solidly unified empire.
The book closes with the reign of Anastasius who is a pivotal figure in reforming coinage in a new direction that breaks with the past. Numismatic historians prefer to pin this date as the start of the Byzantine period.
Coins of Other Ancient CulturesThere are other cultures in ancient times where coins were struck. Highlighted above are a few of these. Next to the coins of Persia, India has the most extensive variety with many different kingdoms striking unique designs which occasionally borrow Western elements but are always infused with a healthy dose of regional relevance.