Ancient Coins from the 'Junkbox'

Common Constantinian Copper

Mail received suggests that a number of beginning collectors have been buying lots of uncleaned and unidentified bronze coins. This page is intended as a resource that might help identify some of these coins. No coin shown is for sale. I am not a dealer. Thanks go to the collectors and dealers who helped me assemble this group of photos.

Uncleaned coin groupings could include almost anything but the most common things found are 4th century AD Roman bronzes. These were issued in a number of denominations and suffered the normal degree of weight standard reductions as the century progressed. The early years of the century saw the follis, first issued under Diocletian in 296 AD, decline in size from the diameter of a US half dollar to smaller than a dime. The middle of the century brought a new series of denominations to replace the follis.

Shown on this page are a few examples of coins from the early part of the 4th century when Rome was ruled by Constantine the Great and his family. It is most important to remember that most reverse types were issued in the names of several rulers. Just because I show a pairing of Licinius and Sol is no reason to assume that your coin showing Sol will not bear the portrait of Constantine. No ruler issued all the types shown and there are many (often more rare) reverses not shown here. Several rulers of the period are not represented here but the ones shown are the most common. Many uncleaned, unidentified lots will also include later coins of the house of Valentinian or earlier base metal radiates (page coming soon?). Even considering these disclaimers the chances are good that these samples will be similar to many coins you find in bulk lots and junk boxes. The examples shown were mostly pulled from pick out pots at coin shows and may be a bit more clear than coins sold in the uncleaned bulk lots. The quality of coins sold by various sources varies greatly; most bulk lots will contain few coins as attractive as these samples. Some contain nothing but unrecognizable trash! More reasonable expectations from these lots are the four coins illustrating this paragraph. All are at least partially identifiable. Coin dealers also offer choice specimens many times better than these. As the old saying goes: You get what you pay for (or less). Most 'bronze' coins of the period were originally issued with a thin silver wash. Some coins will be found that still bear at least part of this layer. Sizes, mints and catalog identifications are given for the examples but similar coins will be found with quite a variety of other possibilities in these areas. Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) to which these coins are referenced is a very detailed work separating issues by mint and minute points such as the placement of dots in the field. Care should be taken not to copy these references (which I hope are correct) unless your coin is absolutely identical to the examples.

Licinius I / Sol - Follis - 20mm
Arles mint 315-6 AD RIC 59

Alternately ally and adversary of Constantine was Licinius (Augustus 308-324 AD). Licinius controlled the East but was represented also on coins from Constantine's western mints. IMP LICINIVS PF AVG is just one of several legend varieties found for this ruler but all will include the title Augustus. Sol, the unconquerable sun god and comrade of the emperor (SOLI INVICTO COMITI), was most popular in the years immediately preceding the conversion of the Empire to Christianity. He is shown as a nude male wearing a radiate crown and holding a globe. The mintmark PARL combines the workshop letter P (primus) and the first three letters of the mint name. Code letters in the field (here SF) identify the issue (therefore date) of the coins. While some mint/issue combinations are rare and desired by specialists, Sol coins are generally very common.

Licinius II Caesar/ Jupiter - Follis - 19mm
Antioch mint 321-3 AD RIC 36

Coins were issued in the name of Licinius' young son who can be distinguished from his father by his younger features and legends bearing an abbreviation for Caesar. Licinius II was never Augustus so any coin with that title belongs to the father. This coin bears a long obverse legend that can be expanded to: Dominus Noster VALerius LICINianus LICINIVS NOBilis Caesar. He is shown wearing a helmet and carrying a spear and shield. On the reverse, Jupiter stands holding a statue of Victory and a staff topped by an eagle. At his feet is an eagle holding a wreath in its mouth and a bound captive. The legend is dedicated to Jupiter as savior (IOVI CONSERVATORI). The mintmark SMANTZ is Sacra Moneta ANTioch Z (#7 - the workshop). In the field is the Roman numeral 12 1/2, a mark of value of the denomination.

Constantine I / two soldiers with standards - Follis - 18mm
Trier mint 332-3 AD RIC 537

Constantine the Great (here using that title CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG) is shown here on a coin issued after Christianity was established as the state religion. Types showing pagan gods that were issued in his name earlier in the reign were now replaced by designs honoring the army (GLORIA EXERCITVS). Later varieties of this same type show only one standard between the soldiers. The mintmark, again, combines the city TReveri and the workshop Primus with a dot separating the parts. This coin now bears a nice green patina but was a silver plated copper alloy like the other coins shown here. Another coin of Constantine can be seen on a Featured Page.

Crispus Caesar / VOT X in wreath - Follis - 19mm
Arles mint 322-3 AD RIC 254

CRISPVS NOBilis CAESar, eldest son of Constantine, was discussed on a Featured Page. The reverse here is a wreath containing VOTa X refering to vows undertaken by rulers regularly for proper performance of their civic duties. Various issues are found with numerals between V and XXXX. This coin was issued after Crispus had completed five years as Caesar and was looking forward to continuing on to the tenth year. Around the wreath is CAESARVM NOSTRORVM. The minkmark T*AR again combines the workshop #3 'T' (tertius) and the city ARles separated by the star.

Constantine II / Sol rushing left - Follis - 19mm
Rome mint 317 AD RIC 84

Constantine the younger, second son of Constantine the Great, sometimes used the 'junior' legend shown here CONSTANTINVS IVN NOB CAES. This example was issued in his first year as Caesar. This reverse is less common than others shown on this page and allows me the opportunity to remind you that the coinage of this period is much more extensive than can be shown by these few examples. CLARITAS REIPVBLICAE expresses the hope for a bright future for the Republic now that it had fine young men like Constantine for Caesars. Of the three young men named Caesar in 317, only Constantine would live to be Augustus and, soon thereafter, he would be killed in battle with forces of his youngest brother Constans. The future of Rome was rarely as clear cut as hoped when this coin was issued. The mintmark RP combines Rome and Primus (workshop #1). In the field is the letter A which defines this issue and was later replaced by a series of other symbols.

Constantius II Caesar / Campgate - Follis - 18mm
Heraclea mint 327-9 AD RIC 96

Unusual among these samples is this coin which retains a good part of its original silver wash. Obverse legend FLavius IVLius CONSTANTIVS NOBilis Caesar includes additional family names. In general Roman coins issued early in a reign tend to use a more complex legend listing more titles and names. Later issues often cut back to a shorter form and drop the additional material. The reverse shows a campgate made of rows of stone blocks and topped with two 'turrets' which are best described as barbeque kettle shaped. Specialists in these coins show an interest in such matters as the number of rows of block, the number of kettles and the positions of stars (here above) and dots (here in left field). The mintmark SMH(gamma) includes a single letter for the mint name between the designation Sacra Moneta and the workshop #3 gamma. Reverse legend PROVIDENTIA CAESS seems to refer to the forethought of Constantine to provide Rome with enough sons that the next generations of rulers would be assured. As it turned out, this son would be the one that longest survived the family massacres ruling until 361 AD.

Constantinople Commemorative / Victory with shield on prow - Follis - 18mm
Siscia mint 334-5 AD RIC 241

For several years following the founding of the city of Constantinople a series of coins was produced honoring the event. The obverse shows the helmeted personification of the city and bears the legend CONSTANTINOPOLIS. The reverse shows Victory with spear and shield and her foot on a prow. The only reverse legend is the mintmark: here .BSIS. combines the workshop #2 'B' with the first three letters of the mint name. These coins were produced by the millions and are common from several mints. A few coins of this (and the next) obverse from Heraclea are found with the GLORIA EXERCITVS two soldiers reverse. These date to the last period of the issue of the commemoratives and were intentional issues rather than mint errors.

Urbs Roma Commemorative / Wolf and twins - Follis - 19mm
Alexandria mint 3334 AD RIC 63

In the interest of equal time requirements of 4th century politics a commemorative was also issued for the old capital Rome. Similar to the Constantinople coin, the obverse has the helmeted personification of the city with the legend URBS ROMA. The reverse shows Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf. Mintmark on this example is SMALA - Sacra Moneta ALexandria A (1st workshop). This specimen has no patina or remaining silver to cover the copper color. The coin is also noteworthy for its large flan showing the beaded border on both sides of the coin.

Constantius II / Battle scene - Majorina? - 23mm
Alexandria mint 348-351 AD RIC 72 variety

Of the coins commonly found in bulk lots and junk boxes, my favorite is the 'fallen horseman' type. Introduced c.248 AD the new denomination may have appeared in conjunction with the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Sources conflict on whether the name 'Centenionalis' should be applied to the largest of the three denominations or whether it was properly 'Majorina Pecunia' with 'Centenionalis' being the second size. These coins soon were reduced in size until the last of the series are no larger than the folles they replaced. This example, at 7.2g, is a full two grams too heavy even for the early issues. The appearance of the edge of the coin makes me consider if it could have been struck on a flattened tetradrachm from the last period of colonial coinage at Alexandria about 50 years earlier. The obverse shows a magnificent elongated portrait of the emperor with the legend Dominus Noster CONSTANTIVS Pius Felix AVGustus. The reverse shows a Roman soldier spearing a fallen horseman. The legend FELicis TEMPoris REPARATIO has been translated 'Happy Days are Here Again'. Mintmark ALEA identifies the first workshop at Alexandria. Various mints issued several different looking victims leading to the realization that each mint customized the barbarian horseman to the appearance of the enemy being fought in that region. Many of the coins of this type found in junk boxes will be smaller (and later in the reign) than this example. Note that the upper left coin (what little is left of it) in the first photo on this page is of this type. A interesting 'FTR' coin was subject of one of the first pages posted on this site: Stirrups? The large denomination was also issued with a reverse showing the emperor sailing a ship. Another coin of Constantius was Featured in the page discussing the Bavarian Collection.

Constans / Soldier and hut - Centenionalis? - 21mm
Antioch 348-350 AD RIC 126

The second of the new denominations was distinguished by the left facing, consular bust holding a globe. The required reduction in value was accomplished by this coin having only 1 1/2% silver compared to the preceding coin's 3%. This confused the public and was discontinued after two years. The reverse shows a soldier leading a small figure from a hut and refers to the resettlement of some barbarians inside the area of the empire. Another version of this denomination shows the soldier with two seated captives. Few coin dealers bother to distinguish between this denomination and the larger one above continuing the confusion that led to the early end of both types in 350 AD (before the period of weight reductions that was mentioned for the above type). Constans' obverse legend DN CONSTANS PF AVG splits between N and S so the left side reads exactly the same as does that of Constantius. This makes identification of off center coins more difficult. Since Constans died in 350 AD, falling horseman coins in his name did not fall below the larger size. Reverse legend is FEL TEMP REPARATIO as on the falling horseman type. Mintmark AN(gamma) identifies the third workshop of Antioch.

Constans / Phoenix - Half centenionalis? - 18mm
Siscia mint 348-350 AD RIC 421

Our example of the third of the new 'FTR' denominations (with almost no silver content), also discontinued in 350 AD, shows a phoenix on a pyre of stones. Other coins show the phoenix on a globe or nest. While not particularly common, the small size of these coins results in their being included in size sorted bulk lots when the contemporary larger denominations have been removed. As a symbol of renewal, the phoenix seems appropriate with the concept of restoring happy times. The mintmark ESIS (5th workshop of Siscia) is followed by a symbol (what?) that is different for each workshop. Why an additional control mark was used at this mint is not known to me. Persons wishing to know more about the 'FTR' coins should see the article by Victor Failmezger, FEL TEMP REPARATIO emphasized Rome's protection of the frontier against barbarians, in The Celator, Vol. 6 No. 10, October, 1992.

Constantius Gallus Caesar/Soldier-Centenionalis?-22mm
Sirmium mint 352-3 AD RIC 34

When Constantius II found himself alone in the Empire following the deaths of his brothers and the defeat of Magnentius he appointed his cousin Constantius Gallus Caesar. 'Gallus' is a name applied by historians and is not found on coins. This coin uses the 'junior' obverse legend DN CONSTANTIVS IVN NOB C but in most cases these coins will be distinguished by the lack of the title Augustus, the bare headed portrait and the continuous unbroken obverse legend which designated less status than a legend broken in the middle. The delta behind the head places this coin in the first weight reduction for the series following the elimination of the two smaller denominations discussed above. The reverse here shows a soldier with two labara (standards topped with Christograms) and bears the legend CONCORDIA MILITVM. It is one of the 'special' types used at mints once under the control of Vetranio but coins of Gallus are more common with the fallen horseman type. Mintmark BSIRM identifies the second workshop at Sirmium.

Julian II / VOT X MVLT XX in wreath - 'AE3'- 19mm
Heraclea mint 361-3 AD RIC 106

The end of the family of Constantine came in the person of Julian II (so enumerated by historians who either neglected to notice Julian of Pannonia or did not consider Didius Julianus as the same name). Half brother of Gallus, Julian was made Caesar as the only surviving member of the family. Constantius II and his brothers had killed the rest (including, most recently, Gallus). As Caesar, Julian issued coins similar to those of Constantius II including the fallen horseman type. Following the death of Constantius II things began to change. The obverse legend is Dominus Noster FLavius CLaudius IVLIANVS Pius Felix AVGustus. Julian is shown helmeted and carrying a spear and shield. Of the coins of the 4th century only issues of Julian as Augustus show a bearded portrait. His portraits as Caesar, however, were clean shaven. He reformed the coinage (again!) issuing two denominations at a ratio of 1:10. Again, part of the difference was a variation in silver content but the larger was twice the size of the smaller so no confusion was possible. The smaller (shown here) uses a variation on the Vota in wreath type (see Crispus above) reading VOT X MVLT XX. This can be translated: 'Having lived up to my vows for ten years I extend them for another ten'. The fact that Julian ruled for less than ten years is explained by his need to pay a donative to the former soldiers of Constantius and rushing the celebration of his elevation to Caesar was a convenient way of justifying the payment. Being raised in a family of Christian rulers so firmly intent on fratricide was hard on the philosophical Julian who turned to the old pagan religion as a refuge from the violence he associated with Constantinian Christianity. The popular larger ('AE1') coin shows an Apis bull on the reverse and is rarely found in bulk lots unless they are truly 'unpicked'. Following the death of Julian the empire reverted to rule by Christian Emperors so the bull type is the last 'pagan' type found on Roman coins. The actual names of the two denominations is not known so collectors refer to them by the scale of sizes that does not attempt to name the coins. AE1 is over 25mm diameter; AE2 = 21-25mm; AE3 = 17-21mm and AE4 is under 17mm. Issues near the borders between the sizes are sometimes sold as AE3/4 (for example). Many dealers use this size scale for all late Roman coins. This, at least, avoids errors that need to be corrected when a new discovery is made. The mintmark HERACL.B (workshop #2) is typical of this issue in its use of a longer abbreviation for the mint city.

No short discussion could hope to cover the low priced ancient coins to be found in junk boxes and bulk lots. The above examples hardly do justice to just one period of about fifty years. Still, I hope some of you will find this information useful.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith