Severus Alexander AE 21
Bronzes of Nicaea, Bithynia

From the Same / Different series

My daughter teaches Kindergarten. This was probably a good choice for someone who stands 5'0" and considers Dr. Seuss her favorite author. Kindergarten isn't the same as it was when I was there in 1951. Today's 5 year olds are expected to learn reading writing and arithmetic and some other concepts that they will need to compete successfully when they enter First Grade.

In some ways this site is like Kindergarten for future numismatists. To aid in our future numismatic studies, we must learn to look at coins with a critical eye far more than required to assign a letter grade and a catalog number. A beginning concept in Kindergarten is Same / Different. In this series (to be expanded irregularly in future updates), we will examine pairs or groups of coins and discuss how they are the same and how they are different. Without too much effort, you should be able to find some that I have not mentioned. Perhaps the process of looking and comparing will bring up questions that will require further research. Any question whose answer suggests even more questions was time well spent. I hope some of you will find this basic exercise interesting and worthwhile.

Severus Alexander AE 21 Bronzes of Nicaea, Bithynia

Two coins, both cataloging Sear 3287, are very disparate styled examples of a vast issue that covered much of Alexander's 13 year reign. These are very common in Greek coin 'junk boxes' found at coin shows. I have had half a dozen notes from visitors to this site asking the ID of this coin making it the most frequently submitted ID request. The catalog lists the legends as M AVP CEV ALEZANDPOC AVG - NIKAIE / WN. Both of our subject coins are part legend but appear to agree with this listing in great part. Letter styles are similar but cut more clearly on the left coin. Most of these coins split the city name into two lines placing the last two letters in exergue (below the ground line). The coin on the right probably used this format but a weak strike on that part of the legend leaves that area blank. The coin on the left placed all on one line rearranging the letters between the standards and using an interesting ligate form of WN. The obverse legend of the left coin ran out of space at the end so the last two letters were omitted. An unfortunately placed lump of red 'patina' on the right coin obscures the expected Zeta in 'Alezander' which is quite clear on the left coin. Whether the Z is a spelling variation or simply a local form of the expected X (Xi) is not clear. The Greek language was used in a wide variety of dialects each having individual differences. What was proper usage in 5th century Athens was not always common usage 700 years later in Moesia.

Catalog descriptions and most specimens seen agree with the right coin showing a portrait "laureate head right". The left coin clearly shows a draped and curaissed bust. This high relief portrait is executed in exceptionally lifelike style compared to the grotesque semi-barbaric caricature of the right coin. Even the ties on the laurel wreath on the left coin flair artistically across the neck while the right ties hang limply as normally seen. The cutter of the left obverse was a true master of his craft; with charity, the right could be described as 'quaint'. There is a great deal of portrait variety seen in this issue. Some have a radiate crown. Both of these portraits seem young and probably date to the early years of the reign (222 - 235 AD). Perhaps the right coin is barbaric and was not produced in the official mint. It is not always easy to be certain about such matters without studying hundreds or thousands of examples and feeling comfortable with what is normal and what is exceptional.

Neither of our coins is particularly well struck. This is normal for this issue. Both coins show beaded borders on both sides but poor striking has reduced the right coin's border to a few dots. Oddly, the reverse dies reverse the situation. Both coins show three standards each with three round and three bar shaped elements and each topped with a loop. The left coin strongly highlights the cross bars while the right coin has prominent three dimensional globes and wavy ribbons in place of the top bar. All things considered, the right reverse seems the more artistic of the two.

Although both coins are 21 mm diameter, the thin, exceptionally ragged flan and low weight of the right coin (2.5g compared to a more normal 4.1g for the left coin) add to the suspicion of unofficial mint origin. Wear through the patina on both coins shows the metal to be yellow brass but the nearly complete patina on the right coin prevents seeing the tiny points on the scan.

So What? These two coins illustrate the extreme variety that can be found within an issue that most people would consider all the same. Specialists will dissect each of the clues presented by these differences and, with much study, be able to reconstruct an order of issue, the structure and number of mints or workshops and other details certain to bore most collectors who would want, at most, one of these common little coins.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith