Same or Different?

Comparing three Republican denarii

Unlike modern coins, it is common for ancient coins to be available with a great variety of minor variations. In some cases this is an accident caused by individually hand cut dies each being a little different even when every attempt was made to make them the same. In other cases, the differences were part of the plan to control mint operations and, by chance, provide collectors with both major and minor varieties for the collection. Particularly varied in this sense are the denarii of the Roman Republic. On this page we will examine three denarii that may seem all the same but will prove to be quite different. As is common with Roman Republican coins, these coins were issued by a young Roman on his way up the ladder of success in the Roman government: the Cursus Honorum. Moneyer was a relatively low rung on this ladder but could eventually lead to the top spot, the consulship. The moneyer could select the design used on the coins struck under his authority. Commonly, the design would relate to some honored ancestor. The Calpurnia family, responsible for these coins, was proud of their ancestor who established the Ludi Apollinaris (games of Apollo) in 212 BC. The head of Apollo is shown on the obverse. The reverse shows a race horse with jockey holding a victory palm. This is one of the most common of all Republican denarii. Issued during the Social War of 90-89 BC, millions of coins were needed to support the army. Each die was made different from all others so there are several hundred minor varieties of these coins. We will examine each separately.

On the left we see Roman numerals used to number the dies on both obverse (LXXVII) and reverse (XCIV). This suggests an appropriate life expectancy of the dies since obverse 'anvil' dies should last longer (77/94ths longer?) than reverse 'punch' dies which had to bear the direct blow of the hammer used in striking. Under the horse is L.PISO FRVGI naming the moneyer Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi who (by coincidence?) had the same name as the honored ancestor who started the games. As is often the case in this series, the family name Calpurnia is omitted but is required to find the coin in Seaby's Roman Silver Coins (following the system of the 19th century numismatist E. Babelon). In truth, I can't tell you for certain which artificial grouping based on the placement of numerals and lack of other devices best describes this coin. I'll call it 'Calpurnia 11' but I could have missed something here. Some other catalogs lump all these coins in one number recognizing that the series is too complex to organize in the space available. Below the name is a monogram (MAR????) with meaning wholly unknown to me (help!). There is more to collecting coins than finding an exact match in the catalog. To my eye, the interesting point on this coin is the use of a 'down arrow' form of L (50) commonly found during the Republic. Others may find humor in the epithet FRVGI (the frugal) used by the man responsible for more denarii than any before him. He was frugal in his duties. Both this coin and the next are good silver weighing 3.7g. We will each see different things of interest in our coins. Such is the hobby.

The center coin is very much the same. The reverse die is up to number CXXXVII but lacks any monogram and the placement of the numeral differs. The obverse is more interesting. Instead of a numeral there is a symbol (deer head?) under the chin and another behind the head (tongs?). Like the numerals, there are many different symbols available for the collector who wants a specialty collection of this coin. The obverse die has cracked leaving a raised ridge of metal running from the nose to the right edge of the flan. These coins were produced with some haste (or there would not be so many of them!) so we can forgive the poor centering of the reverse losing the horses head. Note these two coins both show a well muscled stallion in the rocking horse pose commonly used in art until Muybridge (1878) photographed a running horse and demonstrated the correct foot positions did not include this pose.

Our third coin is very different. It was struck not in the name of Lucius Piso but by his son 'Gaius Piso, son of Lucius, Frugi': C PISO LF FRVG. Oddly, as moneyer, junior decided to use exactly the same coin type struck by his father 22 years earlier. The flan is thin and the strike did not transfer all the information on the die to the flan. The symbol behind the head is not clear to me and if the reverse was marked in the die, it does not survive on this coin. The coin is a light 2.9g. Under the horse is a large hole in the silver revealing a copper core. The coin is a fourree, a copper core covered by a thin envelope of silver. While I believe that SOME plated coins were produced in the mint, I consider this one to be the product of an ancient counterfeiter. Note in particular the thin horse (filly?) has an awkward positioning of the front legs with one jutting out from the middle of the neck. I consider the obverse die rather well done but the reverse betrays the coin's unofficial origin. Please note that there are many good silver coins of the younger Piso (c.67 BC) and some of them are not particularly well done. I could be wrong but I consider this coin to be an ancient counterfeit privately made to deceive the man on the Roman street.

You will note that I am no expert on coins of the Roman Republic. One of the reasons I do these pages is that I receive nice email from people willing to add to my knowledge on the subject covered. Republican denarii have been studied extensively by great scholars and they have disagreed on many points of dating and sequence. Some coins of the Republic are very rare. Others, due to the needs of war and commerce, were produced in huge numbers and are easily available. The need for proper accounting for silver and quality of the coin (after all a guy that couldn't run the mint certainly could never be made consul!) resulted an many forms of accountability marks (far beyond the few shown here). The desire of the great Roman families to honor their names resulted in many fascinating and historical coins. A collector of minutiae could assemble a few hundred different Piso's but most of us will prefer to have examples from the scores of other men that issued coins as part of their duty to the Republic. The type selected for this page is far from the most interesting Republican type; it is merely the most common.

(c) 2000 Doug Smith