Fourrees - Plated Coins

Roman Imperial Plated Coins

If you have not seen the first part of this series, please visit my: First Plated Coins page.

After the beginning of debasement of Roman silver under Nero, plated coins of good style become much less common. Increasingly, fourrees are seen with barbaric, crude or just plain 'bad' style. These coins have no real possibility of having been made in the official mints. Still, some may be semi-official 'money of necessity' issued for actual use rather than fraud. Many, however, are simply counterfeits. Of course, to many collectors, even these are collectable as genuine ancient fakes.

As before, the rest of this space will be devoted to an examination of some plated coins.

The Examples:

Nero - Fourree denarius / Salus - 2.4g Nero - Fourree denarius / Jupiter - 3.2g

These two denarii of Nero are very different in almost every way. The Salus is reasonably good style and plated with the foil technique favored in the Republic (and discussed on my Republican/Imperatorial Plated Coins page). I would suggest it might be a mint product but am concerned that this combination of obverse and reverse is not listed in the literature except as fourree. Is it possible that the combination of the Salus across the field reverse and NERO CAESAR AVGVSTVS obverse was the 'secret' mark that marked this as a plated issue? Of the fourrees I have seen, this coin shows the best example of a foil seam. The two foils must have been cut round and applied quite carefully to produce so even a circle on the reverse. The core shows clearly at several high wear points suggesting it was exposed in antiquity by wear rather than by peeling during the cleaning process. This was a well made, tightly bonded fourree but it has textbook faults around the seam and minor wear through making it a fine example of its kind..

The IVPPITER CVSTOS coin shows wildly barbaric style with ragged lettering and a very poor style portrait. The plating was probably done by coating the core with eutectic which would melt across the surface without liquefying the copper core. This would leave a lower quality (72%) silver surface than the foil technique but certainly anyone who would be sophisticated enough to see that would also realize that the style was not Roman. The coin must have circulated at the edges of the Empire where normal coins were not available. I have not been able to convince myself that this coin was plated before striking. The irregular surface could be from an after-plating which would not have been smoothed by the pressure of the dies. However, it is possible that the grainy texture of this coin is due to the leeching of copper from the alloy and was produced during the time of burial and cleaning process. Your opinion on this matter would be appreciated.

Trajan - Fourree??? denarius - 114-117 AD - 2.8g

Not all plated coins are so obvious. This denarius of Trajan presents a problem. Behind the Emperor's head is a raised bulge in the silver field. Moderate pressure on this area resulted in a dent with a fine crack. The bulge was caused by a bubble of gas under the surface. What caused this gas? The possibility exists that there was a natural inclusion in the alloy that corroded and expanded. More likely to my way of thinking is that this is a plated coin which shows no core exposure. A small amount of water could have seeped into the interior and corroded a bit of the core resulting in the bubble. Corrosion products present in the edge cracks could be from the core of this coin or simply have escaped the cleaning process. Is this coin plated? Its owner thinks it is; I agree. Do you? Would you feel right selling this coin as a solid denarius? While a careful measurement of specific gravity might add information, the absolute truth in this matter would require further damage to the coin. Weight and style seem within the normal range for this issue. Persons who consider plated coins uncollectable should be wary of unexplained surface bulges. Even then, there are probably many high grade plated coins lurking in collections that will never be discovered.

The beginning of the third century AD saw a new style fourree. These denarii were copper with the thinnest of silver coatings. Many survive today as copper coins. Some coins appear to have been cast rather than struck but these are difficult to separate from tourist grade fakes of more modern manufacture. Some appear to be die linked to solid coins but further examination suggests that they may have been cast or struck from dies made from regular solid coins. Others were struck from dies that have a distinct (incorrect) style but regularly have better style than solid silver barbaric coins of the period. Sometimes called coins of the 'limes' it seems likely that they were a money of necessity produced to support commerce on the borders ('limes') where losses of precious metal to barbarian raiders was likely. Whether this was approved or executed by Roman authority or was purely a local matter is not known. Much more study of these coins is needed but there is no real promise that the answer will ever be certain. The coins of the Severans are relatively common and sell for very low prices as appropriate for their appearance. There is a good possibility that some of these were made several years after the coins they copy.

Clodius Albinus/Commodus copper denarius
(193/191 AD) 2.2g
Julia Domna silver over copper denarius
(193-196 AD) 2.2g (chipped)

Most unusual (left) is this 'limes' class fourree core which retains only a speck of silver (behind head and, enlarged, inset). The obverse is a very early (193 AD) style Clodius Albinus where the portrait is hardly distinguished from that of Septimius Severus. The reverse is a type of Commodus and clearly dated to 191 AD (PM TRP XVI IMP.....) over a year before Albinus was made Caesar. Such mixing of dies are substantially more common with these 'Limes' coins to a degree that one wonders if it was intentional to mark the issue.

This 193-196 AD style Julia Domna denarius (right above and enlargement) is extremely unusual in its production by the old silver foil method. The cost of producing a good, thick silver foil fourree by this time must have been nearly as great as a solid coin of the debased alloy then current. Corrosion has eroded the core on this coin considerably but, as shown by the enlarged view, the silver is thick enough to support itself. Style is excellent in many regards but not at all correct for any of the mints striking denarii for Julia. This coin is a mystery among mysteries.

By the time of Trajan Decius (249-251 AD), the silver plating needed to be extremely thin to ensure a profit. This example shows excellent workmanship and a style that certainly could have gained the maker employment at the mint (if he did not work there already). The coin shows no wear (loss of detail on the head is due to flat striking); the patchy silver loss probably occurred when the coin was cleaned harshly following excavation. Note the lack of corrosion on the copper surfaces. At 3.1g this coin would easily have been accepted by the average Roman on the street. This is the latest fourree in my personal collection. I suspect that it still contains as much silver by weight as some of the 'solid' coins of the next decade. The coinage reform of Diocletian introduced a good silver coin, the Argenteus, which was later succeeded by a series of other denominations. None of these were common or played the important role in daily commerce as had the silver of earlier days. I regret that I have no plated examples to show. Much more common in the later Roman and Byzantine periods were gold plated coins (over copper or silver). One of these was shown at the start of the Republican/Imperatorial Plated Coins page.

Please visit the other two parts of this series:
Republican/Imperatorial Plated Coins
Greek Plated Coins

An excellent book on this subject complete with great micro-photographs is: Campbell, William, Greek and Roman Plated Coins, Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 57, American Numismatic Society, 1933. Numismatic used book sellers often have it.

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Answer to Trivia Question
Current Lincoln cents are copper over zinc. Solid copper cents cost over a cent to make.

1997 Doug Smith