Cast Greek & Roman Coins

"Cast", to a collector of ancient coins, generally means "fake". Almost all genuine ancient coins were struck from dies. Counterfeiters often make a mold from a genuine coin and cast replicas. The practice is almost as old as the real coins and continues today as a way of fooling the foolish tourist and collector. This week's Feature shows a few exceptions to the rule: Genuine ancient coins that were produced by casting rather than striking.

Perhaps it is a stretch to call our first coin 'cast'. Some will say it is a stretch to call it a coin. In fact it is the first Roman coin. This bronze lump of 10.9g, "Aes Rude", was produced in Central Italy in the early 3rd Century BC or before. The pre-coin economy of Central Italy was based on the bronze standard. Unformed lumps of copper or bronze were traded by weight for many years before the idea occurred to make the material into marked ingots or coins. Hoards of this period consist of lumps of varying size with no markings. Later, individual pieces of certain weight were stamped with a mark; later still the material was melted down and cast into a more recognizable form. Cast ingots (Aes Signatum) with designs were sometimes broken up to provide smaller denominations. The value was the weight of metal, not the markings of denomination. How can the collector know an Aes Rude from a lump of metal? One can't. This example was part of a hoard sold at auction by a reputable firm as having been found in that region. In fact, a lump is a lump and the important point here is that the idea of coinage did not spring fully developed from the head of an ancient sage; it developed over years of commerce as a more convenient way of exchange than the trade of 'coins' like this one.

Early Roman coins (Aes Grave) were cast from bronze in several denominations. Rome issued a number of types before standardizing on the 'prow' series usually associated with early Roman bronzes. One series bore a six spoked wheel on the reverse and an animal on the obverse. This 38.4g bronze sextans tortoise is one sixth of the as which would weigh a full Roman pound. Most coins show the denomination indicated by pellets (one pellet for each 1/12th as; S=1/2 as and I= one as) on both sides but the tortoise's two pellets seem to have done double duty as his rear legs. The denomination mark should also be found on the reverse between the spokes of the wheel. This very weak and worn specimen requires great imagination to see pellets at the 1 and 3 o'clock positions. Cast coins never show the fine detail common on struck coins but this example is far from the most clear of its type. As time progressed, inflation reduced the amount of bronze valued at one as. By the late third century BC, coins became small enough to allow production by striking.

Several other jurisdictions, both in Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean, issued coins produced by casting. In many cases these are large and chunky but still round and 'coinlike' in appearance. A few cast ancient 'coins' available to collectors more properly fall in the realm of 'odd and curious' money. Shown below are just two examples of cast items that are collected as coins. There is some dispute among scholars as to the exact status of these items. Someday, more research may clarify the part these items played in the history of their day.

Akragas, Sicily, produced a series of cast items in the early fifth century BC. The smallest denomination (onkia) took an oval form; the larger sizes were distinctly 'tooth' shaped. The denomination was indicated, as later at Rome, by pellets showing the number of twelfths, this time of the litra (a unit much smaller than the Roman pound). The example shown here (from three angles: 'obverse' and 'reverse' lose meaning on these) weighs 13.7g and has four pellets making it 1/3 (4/12) litra or a triens. Three pellets would indicate 1/4 (3/12) litra or a quadrans. The types resemble those used later on struck round coins from this city. One side shows an eagle; the other a crab. The designs on the 'teeth' are rarely very clear. This one has a reasonably well defined eagle but the crab will require the cooperation of your imagination.

Some consider the cast Akragas items to be weights rather than circulating coins. My personal opinion tends to side with their being coins since they exist in numbers far to great to be explained as weights. Again, as so often the case, we await more study on the subject.

Even more controversial is the status of the item pictured at the right. Attributed to Istros, Thrace, and dated to the 6th or 5th centuries BC, these are sometimes called 'arrows' and sometimes 'leaves'. Large hoards of them have recently entered the coin market. These 35mm long bronze items are never sharp like arrows but always show the central rib which leads to their identification with olive leaves. If they are money at all, they are a way of quantifying the amount of bronze and could well have been a unit of exchange. It might seem a bit much to call them 'coins' but they are sold by coin dealers and bought by coin collectors. Of all the poorly understood byways of ancient numismatics this is certainly one on the ones most in need of more information.

Also from Istros, but marked more certainly and much more 'coinlike', is this cast wheel. Dating about a century later than the arrowhead-leaf, the wheel is one of several cast forms used in the Black sea region at the time. At the top is a sprue by which metal entered the mold. It is likely that these items were cast in 'trees' like the round Chinese Cash that were produced for several centuries before (and two millenia after) this coin. Casting allowed transfer of only course detail and was rarely used for coinage after the period of this wheel.

Most popular of the cast coins is the dolphin of Olbia, Thrace. The dating within this series of issues (there are many minor versions in a range of sizes) is wholly beyond my abilities to explain. They extend at least from the 5th to 3rd centuries BC. A few have legends on the reverse but most, like this 26mm example, are unmarked. Most lack a tail which was lost when the coin was separated from the casting 'tree'. Very common and popular, dolphins that have good form with fins and eyes sell for considerably more than lumps requiring imagination to attribute as dolphins.

Beginning collectors should avoid any coin that shows the poor detail associated with production with casting unless the type is one listed in the catalog as being cast. The number of varieties that were cast is reasonably large but tiny compared to the overall count of ancient coins. Cast issues were produced over a relatively limited span of time in a relatively few areas. Nevertheless, cast ancient coins would make an interesting specialty for a collector of the odd and curious.

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(c) 1999 Doug Smith