Greek Imperial Coins

An Overview for Beginners

Some of you who visited our overview of Greek bronze coins may recall this Julia Domna which was used as the example an often overlooked area of ancient coin collecting that is especially well suited to students. Greek Imperials (also called Roman Colonials or Roman Provincials) are the coins of Greek cities issued for local use during the time that the city was part of the Roman Empire. The complete study and understanding of these issues has only just begun. There still are many fields available for original research. A few of the larger cities had the right to issue silver coins but the vast majority of Greek Imperials are bronze. While many are boring and miserable in every sense, some rise to a level of artistry and interest rarely approached on the regular Roman issues. Each city produced coins according to local needs and abilities. Most, but not quite all, show the portrait of a member of the Imperial house on the obverse and some scene of local interest on the reverse. A few larger cities struck almost continually until the coinage reform of Diocletian put an end to the last Greek Imperial coins and replaced them with a unified Roman coinage. Other cities produced a very few coins on a single occasion when the place grew to a position of enough importance that it seemed appropriate. Some were produced by the millions and are common today; others were made in small quantities and survive as single, unique specimens. No one can hope to have a complete collection. Even collecting a representative coin from each city would be a hopeless task considering the number of rarities and the constant possibility of a previously unknown city coming to light in new hoard material. This is certainly an area where great rarities might be found in junk boxes.

Our little survey can hardly graze the surface of so great a subject. We will show a few examples of commonly available coins but none of the really magnificent issues included in the corpus of Greek Imperials. Magnificent medallion sized coins with complex scenes of mythology are available to those who can spend thousands of dollars per coin. Most of the coins shown here might well be found at a local coin show or listed on eBay for a few dollars each. When finished with this page, my visitors will know almost nothing about this complex subject but, perhaps, will have discovered an area deserving of further study.

Tetradrachms of Roman Egypt


Antoninus Pius




Foremost among the great cities, second only to Rome herself, was Alexandria, Egypt. Taken from Cleopatra by Octavian (Caesar Augustus), Alexandria was given special status as the private property of the Emperor rather than the Roman state. To isolate it economically, the mint at Alexandria produced a local coinage unlike that of other parts of the Empire. The basic coin was a tetradrachm of low grade silver (billon) which declined in weight and purity in parallel with the Roman denarius until the last ones appear to be pure copper. Our five examples above shows this decline. Reverse types show a variety of Egyptian gods, animals and other scenes of interest. Legends are in Greek with most reverses dated to the regnal year of the Emperor according to the Alexandrian calendar. The Greek numeral (or, on occasion, word) follows the symbol 'L' for 'Year'.

Alexandrian Bronzes

Hadrian Drachm
Domitian Obol
Hadrian Obol
Antoninus Pius Drachm
Most popular of the Alexandrian coins are the large copper drachms (usually around 34mm). The variety of reverses available on these large coins is amazing. The peak of their issue was reached in the second century AD. Alexandrian bronze remained in circulation for many years and is often found in very worn condition (as shown by our Hadrian above left). Full drachms and fractions usually show a distinctive 'cup shaped' flan casting technique with the obverse edge very rounded. This, coupled with poor striking and great wear, makes full obverse legend coins unusual. Rarities in this series include astrological and historical scenes of great interest. To cover Alexandrian coins in the detail they deserve would require thousands of pages and a lifetime of study so we will leave them with notice of their status as most popular of the Greek Imperial specialities.

Another city of great significance that produced Greek Imperials coins in quantity was Caesarea in Cappodocia. Located at the base of Mt. Argaeus, a common type shows the mountain (sometimes placed on an altar). Our example is a silver drachm bearing a young portrait of Caracalla as Caesar dated (ET E - Caesarea used ETous where Alexandria used L) to the fifth year of Septimius Severus or 197 AD). This specimen is toned a deep black; other more natural looking silver coins of Caesarea have been shown on this site. The reverse legend names the city "Metropolis of Caesarea".

Caesarea also produced a number of bronze denominations represented here by this 31mm coin of Trajan. The obverse bears Greek translations of the usual titles used by Trajan on Rome mint coins while the reverse legend spells out the Greek versions of Tribunicia Potestas and Consul. The Greek numeral E (5) following Consul (UPATO) dates the coin to the period 103-111 AD. The convenient practice of naming the city and dating to regnal years found on coins of the city that started later in the reign of Trajan had not begun by the time of this coin. The reverse type is a head of Zeus as Ammon. Compared to the vast variety of types used by Alexandria, coins of Caesarea are a bit monotonous but still available in enough variety to interest a number of specialist collectors.

From the standpoint of variety available to collectors fortunate enough to live in the current age of the metal detector, it is had to match the coins of Nicopolis ad Istrum and other cities in Moesia. Dating primarily to the Severan period, these small (usually 17mm) 'assarion' bronzes are available in a huge variety. Our photo shows seven reverses (the Domna is two headed with Septimius Severus on the obverse) of several rulers and come nowhere close to scratching the surface of what is available in these little bronzes. Clockwise from Domna we see an agonistic pot (equivalent of a modern sports trophy), Apollo, Herakles, a coiled snake, Salus and the Roman wolf and twins. Recent hoards have placed thousands of these little coins in the pick out pots of ancient coin dealers everywhere. There is a great need for someone to publish an English language study of these coins.

The common multiple of the region was the 5 assaria piece often seen in the form of the twin portrait series covered on this site again and again. (Can you guess that I like them?) Our example this time is a 5 assaria (AE 27) of Marcianopolis pairing of the brothers Caracalla and Geta (both as Augusti: 209-211 AD) whose inability to get along ended the dreams of Septimius Severus for his peaceful succession. After murdering Geta, Caracalla banned his brother's image so many of these joint coins were destroyed. Some joint issue coins are seen with the portrait of Geta cut off the coin or defaced in the die. This little story makes this pairing rather special among all those available showing rulers of the first half of the third century AD. The reverse shows Cybele, the great mother goddess, with her lion and is surrounded by a legend naming not only the city (at right) but Ulpian, then governor of the province. Whether this Ulpian is the same man as the famous jurist is not certain but the timing is about right. Other than Nicopolis and Marcianopolis, several cities in the Black Sea region produced similar coins that have suddenly become available in increasing numbers adding greatly to the number of interesting coins available to the collector of Greek Imperials.

Not all large coins of the region are of the twin portrait type. This AE 32 of Serdica (in Thrace, now Sophia, Bulgaria) shows Geta alone on the obverse and Minerva/Athena holding a small Victory/Nike on the reverse. Coins this size and larger are not scarce in the Greek Imperial series but high grade specimens demand high prices due to their popularity their impressive detail. The flan clearly shows a dimple or shallow hole in the center where a centration point was used to hold the coin blank while it was being smoothed prior to striking. These have been mentioned several times on this site and more prominent examples shown. This one is more average in depth. To repeat: these marks are natural remnants of the manufacturing process and are IN NO WAY a fault to be held against the coin. All examples of this same issue should show the mark unless it has been filled with dirt/patina. Some are much less apparent; the Caracalla-Geta twin has extremely light marks which were nearly erased by striking. They are difficult to see on the coin itself and the obverse mark only barely shows as a light dot between the brothers. Why the technique was popular in some regions and not in others is a matter of speculation. Coins produced using this technique could accept less forceful final striking and still produce a smooth image of the dies with no surface irregularities. Many Greek Imperial bronze coins are not well struck. Perhaps the technical skills required to strike bronze coins of this size were not easily obtained. Even Roman sestertii frequently suggest this to have been a problem.

Perhaps the smoothing of flan surfaces was considered desirable to remove irregularities of the casting process. Greek Imperial coins on large flans are particularly prone to voids in the metal that were not erased by striking. This AE 32 of Amasia, Pontis, under Septimius Severus shows particularly bad pits on the reverse. Amasia did not grind flans to smooth so there is no round centration dimple, just pits. This coin is dated in exergue ET CH or Year 208. In this case the date refers to the year of the city from its founding in 2 BC placing this coin in 206 AD. Greek Imperial coins were dated using many different systems based on events of local importance. The reverse of this coin shows an altar with a tree growing to the left and an eagle on top.

The rules of coin production and design that seem obvious to modern collectors of mainstream Roman coins were by no means obvious to those responsible for Greek Imperials. This AE 28 of Diocaesarea in Cilicia shows a nice bust of Faustina II that seems to be centered a bit to the left of the space available. Accident? I don't think so. Other coins from other dies that I have seen from this city show this same characteristic. It seems that the local cutter or officials found it more pleasing if the portrait had free space in front. They did it 'their way'. Our example was struck off center making this characteristic even more pronounced. The coin shows another point of originality that could trouble collectors. The Greek obverse legend clearly reads ANNIA FAUSTINA which was the correct name of the lady. Since her Roman coins never used Annia but the rare coins of the third wife of Elagabalus (also Annia Faustina, a granddaughter of this one) always did, this coin could be attributed incorrectly and thought to be much more rare than it is. The thought that they were creating a trap for numismatists 1800+ years in the future never occurred to the designers of this coin. The reverse shows a winged thunderbolt (symbol of Zeus) of particularly fine style. This coin shows a great deal of care in design and execution; its creators were true artists. This was not the case with all Greek Imperial coins.

Far from barbaric or crude, this AE 22 of Antioch in Pisidia (there were several cities named Antioch!) shows a portrait that would be termed 'local' style. The variations of style differing, often greatly, from that used at Rome is one of the most interesting features of Greek Imperial coins. I have always considered this triangular little portrait of Septimius Severus especially charming. The coin also shows another interesting point: its legends are in Latin. Most Greek Imperial coins bear legends in Greek but some cities used Latin regularly. Perhaps a study of the history of the individual city would explain why this was done. Some colonies were founded as homes for retired legionaries who were not originally from that region. Some cities might have participated in special trade or served a legion stationed nearby that would have made Latin legend coins more desirable. The history of the Roman Empire is much more than what was happening back in the capital; it was the sum of events in thousands of places spread over the entire Mediterranean region. Individual cities and circumstances could be quite different from time to time and place to place.

A large (AE35) coin of Antioch with Latin legends shows Gordian III. On the reverse, the Emperor sacrifices over an altar with three legionary standards in the background. Many coins of this city show types of military interest adding to the evidence that the coinage supported a legionary presence. The city produced a great number of large bronzes with particular appeal to collectors and accompanying smaller denominations that are usually quite reasonably priced. Antioch, Pisidia, is just one more city whose Greek Imperial issues were sufficient to be collected as a specialty by interested students.

Some Greek Imperial coins are made interesting by the different ways they represent their subjects. Modern students of art may find interest in the aerial perspective view of a temple garden shown on this Greek legend AE 30 of Zeugma, Syria, from the reign of Philip I. The temple itself is shown at the top with a grove of trees fenced by a ring of columns below. The side columns are shown laying outward giving a bird's eye effect. The trees are indicated by individual lumps which become hard to distinguish on worn coins. The reverse design is completed by the encircling city name and a capricorn in exergue. Coins of this and some other Syrian cites are unusually round and sharp edged showing fine technical controls on the striking process. Such evenness is hard to match again until the advent of milled (screw press) coinage in early modern times. Was this just careful work or did they know some technique not used elsewhere? Part of the answer can be seen by observing the edges of the coins which will reveal file marks looking very much like the reeding on modern coins. These go up and down, never around the edge, and indicate that the evenness was not an accident. On most ancient coins, file marks would add suspicion that the coin was a fake but they are to be expected (even required) on coins of this region.

This AE 24 of Odessus, Thrace, is unusual as an example of a commemorative issue for a deceased Emperor. Few Greek cities bothered to honor a dead Roman. Here the Greek obverse legend read DIVW CEVHRW PEIW translating directly the DIVO SEVERO PIO found on Rome mint issues. The reverse shows a standing figure of the great god of the city surrounded by the city name. I find it interesting that the catalogs do not call this god Serapis here but a similar appearing headdress and beard appear on the portraits cataloged as Serapis from the twin headed series. This, at least, suggests that there is room left for study of the mythology of the colonies that made up so much of the Roman Empire. Finding little inconsistencies in coin catalogs is not difficult but finding definitive answers to the questions they bring up is not always simple. That is part of the fun of the hobby.

Our little overview of Greek Imperials has become much longer than was originally intended but still it omits many topics that really need to be included. The standard catalog of these issues is David Sears' Greek Imperial Coins and their Values. The book lists 6000+ coins but usually listed only one coin of each city for each ruler. Finding a coin 'unlisted in Sear' should take no more than a few minutes at any coin show. Still, the book contains a wealth of information and will lead to correct identifications of many coins not listed. The fourth volume of Wayne Sayles series Ancient Coin Collecting is a good overview for beginners with many excellent photos. These and many other catalogs and overviews of these coins will add to a student's knowledge of the subject but no single book (let alone a web page) can hope to cover this subject completely. If you like variety with your coins, Greek Imperials may be the choice for your collection.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith