Twelve Types

A Review of Common Late Roman Coins

My experience in working with school groups participating in the Ancient Coins for Education (ACE) program leads me to offer this page as a resource for participating classes to identify their coins. Certainly there are a million types of ancient coins if you count all the minor varieties and the rarities that almost no one ever sees. I do not wish to dash the hopes of youth with this page but the fact remains that the VAST majority of coins found in ACE lots seem to be Romans from the 4th century AD and most of those from the periods of great inflation where tiny little coins were produced in truly massive numbers. For this page, I have selected a dozen (counting very roughly) categories (types or groups of types) that seem to make up about 80% of the coins I have seen in ACE uncleaned lots. Certainly it is possible that some schools will receive groups that include none of these but the odds are pretty good that most students would benefit by ruling out the coins on this page before considering the possibility that they have something different or rare. Another fact that may not be popular is that these twelve types and the next dozen I might add if the page were to be expanded are very, very common coins. There are a few minor variations included in these groups that are rare but, for the most part, coins on this list need to be in very nice condition to have any monetary value to coin collectors (a group whose desire for coins in great condition far exceeds the fraction of a percent of coins found in excellent states of preservation). As a result, identified ordinary examples of the coins on this list are worth less than the uncleaned coin before it was touched. I like to point out the similarity here to lottery tickets. Many play, few win. Having said that, I wish all ACE participants the best of luck in finding that coin that will pay for college but, let's be realistic, we are here for some fun and to learn something.

Before the eagle eyed among you point it out: I forced this page into the 12 categories. Several could have been split in two and there are other types seen almost as often as these. Most of these were selected from the smaller diameter types that are most frequently donated to ACE. There are many larger coins equally common (and equally worthless in a commercial sense) not covered here. If your coin is larger than a quarter, you will not find it here. In the 200+ coins I saw in the last year, one was this size (a worn copper as of the second century). The twelve are presented here in the order they come to mind. That means that I recall seeing more of the first than the last but don't hold me to each type being more common than the one that follows it. I'm a coin collector, not a statistician or a fortune teller. Your results may differ.

Note: This page is divided into twelve sections. Clicking on the small image will lead to a secondary page with a larger version of that same image and a discussion of the sample coins shown. While it is very unlikely that students will receive exactly the same coins shown in the photos, it is hoped that the discussion will address the questions they might want to research for their own coins. While much information is repeated on several pages, students that read only the paragraphs that cover their coin may miss something covered in a discussion of another type.

#1 - Falling Horseman

Most commonly seen is what I consider one of the most interesting types of the 4th century: the Falling Horseman. The coinage reform of 348 AD (just in time for the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Rome) saw a new series of good looking large coins replace the smaller and more crude ones (type # 3 below) then in circulation. Several types in three denominations shared the reverse legend FEL TEMP REPARATIO. Coin legends were abbreviated more than most Latin teachers would prefer. Wishing to avoid arguments about the case of every word that was abbreviated, I will offer the rough translation: " Happy Days are Here Again". This translation used to get a chuckle from everyone hearing it for the first time because this slogan was used by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) during the Depression. Now that some Latin teachers and most students would have to ask Grandpa who FDR was, the humor is becoming less universally successful. Literally we have "the restoration of pleasant times". Any Latin teacher who refuses to accept the FDR translation is missing the point that the economic situations of the 1930's and the 340's have enough parallels to justify bending the grammar a bit.

The Falling Horseman was the type used for the largest and most valuable denomination of the FTR series. I have an older page dedicated to the series as a whole and invite anyone interested to visit it. This reverse type shows a large (important) Roman soldier spearing a smaller (less significant) barbarian on horseback. Often the Roman is closer in size to the horse than to the rider. This was not intended to depict a fair fight but to show the power of invincible Rome over her enemies. There are several variations separated on the pose of the horseman. In the most common he reaches back toward his attacker in a futile attempt to fend off the fatal blow. Such violence is rarely exceeded in ancient coins. Try to imagine what modern design would be required to give the same effect to a modern audience. Some horsemen can be separated by tribes based on their hair styles and headgear. We see Gothic pigtails, Persian caps and others waiting to be recognized by the next generation of numismatic scholars. In my mind, students who get a nice Falling Horseman, however common, might be getting the best coin of the bunch in terms of interest and historical relevance. Several mints produced the type. In addition to the mintmarks found under the scene ("in exergue") there are often letters in the field that will assist more advanced students looking for a match in references.

The FTR series was issued by joint Emperors Constans and Constantius II. Shortly after the series began, the death of Constans left Constantius II in sole power (and made Constans' coins considerably less common). In a short while, Constantius II appointed his cousin Constantius Gallus as Caesar (Emperor, junior grade). With the exception of a rare issue by the usurper Magnentius, large flan Falling Horsemen will belong to one of these three rulers. Coins of Gallus stand out since the Caesar was not shown wearing the Imperial diadem. Separation of the other two will require enough legend clarity to read CONSTANS or CONSTANTIVS. Actually, seeing -TIVS is plenty to make the identification as is -NS. The chance of ACE participants getting one of these larger FTR coins is slight. The more common ones come next.

Following the war with the usurper Magnentius, massive inflation hit the Empire and the coins size spiraled downward. FTR denominations other than the largest were eliminated and the horseman type shrank rapidly to a diameter of less than 17mm by 355 AD. Since Constans died before the size was changed, small coins of the type are not found in his name. In 354 AD Constantius II beheaded Constantius Gallus (probably a very popular move - history has little good to say about him) and replaced him as Caesar with the one surviving member of the family, Julian II. This means that the smaller versions of the Falling Horseman (the common ones in ACE groups) exist for Constantius II wearing the Imperial diadem and with bare headed portraits for Constantius Gallus and for Julian. Coins of the two Caesars usually can be separated by finding a trace of the legend CONSTANTIVS or IVLIANVS on bare headed coins. The last issues bore an M in the reverse field which is considered a sign that 1000 (Roman numeral M) of these equal one gold solidus. Shortly after Julian was made Caesar, the Falling Horseman type was discontinued bringing to an end this chapter of our story. We will try to make the others shorter.

#2 Two Soldiers with Standard(s)

Our second most common type was issued during the 330's by Constantine I ("the Great") and various members of his family (sons and Caesars Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II as well as nephew Delmatius Caesar). The type shows two soldiers each holding a spear and curved shield. Between them, on early issues, are two standards consisting of a stack of medallions on a pole. Like the Falling Horseman type, these suffered a decrease in size during the period of issue. Shortly before his death in 337 AD, Constantine I reduced the size of the 'nummus' (= 'coin') and marked the change by replacing the two standards between the soldiers with a single one they share. Since this happened before the death of Constantine I, we find both one and two standard coins issued in his name.

"Caesar" indicated a junior grade ruler who assisted the Augustus (or Augusti in periods of joint rule) and could be expected to succeed to that higher office. The title was abbreviated 'CAES' or just 'C' and sometimes modified by 'NOB' or 'N' ("noble"). The three sons became Augusti on their father's death so there are single standard coins of each son both as Caesar and as Augustus. The only real problem here is that single standard coins bearing the name CONSTANTINVS were issued both for Constantine I and Constantine II as Augustus. This is where a good set of RIC (Roman Imperial Coinage) volumes will help. The easy (but not always accurate) answer is that the father was considerably older and more muscular than the son. This is not always shown well on the coins. The other two sons can be separated by their names. Constantius II issues will not have that extra 'N' found in ConstantiNus while the smaller number of letters often makes Constans' coins easy to spot. If you read -VS on the right of the portrait, it is not Constans who would read -NS with one exception. That exception is a scarce issue for the child Constans which bore his name in the genitive case "CONSTANTIS". These scarce coins should be the favorites of Latin teachers who should give extra credit to any student who correctly identified the coin and realized that "CONSTANTIS" was the genitive of "CONSTANS". Other coins of our period use nominative obverse titles. Delmatius (a single standard issue) is less common (I did see one in a school group this year) and is recognized only if the legend is legible.

The reverse legend is GLORIA EXERCITVS (Glory of the Army). There are minor variations which show letters or designs on the top of the standards (the one with Chi-Rho is most popular) and, as with all coins of the period, they were issued from several branch mints designated by letters under the ground line on which the soldiers stand ('in exergue'). Soon, Delmatius was killed followed shortly by the oldest brother Constantine II (in 340 AD). The two remaining brothers then changed the coin type and ended this chapter of our story.

#3 Two Victories facing

If there is a period of coins less appreciated and less studied than the period of 340 to 348 AD it would be hard to find. The remaining brothers Constans and Constantius II issued a series even smaller than the Two Soldiers, one standard (#2) showing two winged Victories facing each other. Between them each holds a wreath. There are issued from several mints (comments on mintmarks from above apply) and a few with fancy devices or letters between the two. The reverse legend strikes me as a bit interesting since it shows the Roman way of abbreviation to advantage. VICTORIAE DD AVGG Q NN which we will take as dative of dedication "To the Victory" followed by DD doubled to show that the word beginning with D is a plural. The word is Dominus (='Lord') . Next is AVGG again plural for Augustus. At the end is NN the plural abbreviation of Noster (='our'). That leaves the 'Q' which abbreviates 'Que' positioned to show that the NN modifies both DD and AVGG. That gives us a translation "Dedicated to the Victory of Our Lords and Augusti". So much grammar is hard to fit on so small a coin. Victories are recognized by their wings. There is an earlier series under Constantine I where the two Victories flank an altar but most coins seen in the ACE groups have been the version of Constans and Constantius II. Separation of these two requires enough legend to make the distinction discussed in the third paragraph of #1 above. This is not always as easy as it may seem since many on these coins are so small that they lack most of the legend. Nice, full legend specimens are a premium find but coins identifiable only to the type are very common and lack demand among collectors. Seeing the last of these #3's might make a student appreciate the effect of the coinage reform that introduced the early #1's. It was a good try but, in time, inflation doomed it to failure.

#4 Spes Reipublice

I saw what seemed an inappropriately large number of these coins this year so I am elevating this miserable little issue higher in my listing than ordinarily it might merit. Following the termination of the Falling Horseman (#1) type nearing the end of the reign of Constantius II (361 AD), the mints issued a coin showing the Emperor standing holding a globe and spear. The legend is SPES REIPVBLICE ('Hope of the Republic'). They are smaller and more miserably produced than the last of the Falling Horsemen and almost make you appreciate the workmanship of the Two Victories (#3). They were issued for a very short time compared to the other common issues but the numbers were large and many survive in hoards that are donated to ACE. The portraits will show either Constantius II (with diadem as discussed above) or Julian II as Caesar (bareheaded). Full legends are the exception but the head decor makes the distinction for us. After the Death of Constantius II, Julian II became Augustus and put into effect another big reform of the coinage ending the issue these tiny coins.

#5 City Commemoratives

Here I take the license to combine discussion of two very different looking coins into one 'type' for the purpose of this page. Constantine I (the Great) dedicated a new capital for the Empire at Constantinople in 330 AD. In honor of this move, a new coin was issued showing no portrait of an emperor but the helmeted bust of a personification of the new city. Around the bust is the legend CONSTANTINOPOLIS (some mints used CONSTANTINOPOLI). The reverse shows Victory (winged female) standing on the prow of a ship. Constantinople was situated on a point of land commanding excellent defenses from the sea. Rome (the city in Italy) may have fallen in 476 AD (or another date of your preference) but Constantinople hung on as Romaion (The Byzantine Empire) for another millennium. The foresight of Constantine in selecting the location might be partially credited for this longevity.

At the same time as the Constantinopolis Commemorative, Constantine showed political correctness (4th Century style) with an equal issue in honor of the old capital at Rome. The obverse shows another helmeted female identified by the legend as VRBS ROMA (The City Rome). The reverse shows the twins Romulus and Remus with the wolf from the city's creation myth. This type is probably the most popular of all 4th Century coins and was selected by ACE as their masthead coin. The reverses of these coins lack legends except for the mintmarks in exergue. Some minor varieties bear small symbols, dots or letters providing specialists extra varieties to collect.

The commemoratives were issued in parallel with the Two Soldiers types (#2) and exhibit the same size reductions but lack the mark of the changed number of standards. Specialists separate the coins into three groups: (1) those issued with the two standards coins, (2) those issued with the single standards types while Constantine I was alive and (3) those issued after the death of Constantine I in 337 AD. Separating them and assigning correct catalog numbers can be difficult and, sometimes, a bit speculative. Unusual but not really rare are a few issues combining the Commemorative obverses with the Two Soldiers, One Standard reverse issued from the four mints in the Balkans. These are too numerous to have been accidental. This variety might have been a result of a local policy to use serviceable obverse dies after the reverses (which always fail sooner) were retired.

#6 Constantine I Death Commemoratives

Following the death of Constantine I (337 AD), the sons issued several commemoratives in his honor. Of these, two are common. Both show an obverse portrait of Constantine I veiled. Most people seeing it for the first time will call it the portrait of a woman wearing a shawl. The obverse legend DV CONSTANTINVS PT AVGG (Divine Constantine Father of the Augusti) is unusual to modern standards since it implies this first Christian Emperor was made 'Divus', the term earlier Emperors received on death that made them a god. This was the last use of Divus as a Roman title on coins. First (and best!) of the common reverses shows Constantine driving a quadriga into the clouds with the hand of God reach down to lift him up to heaven. This is the first depiction of the Christian God on Roman coins. The hand would reappear on the obverse of issues in the last years of the Century and portraits of Jesus would become common on later Byzantine coins. The reverse legend is limited to the mintmark in exergue. Second is a type showing the divine Constantine standing flanked by VN - MR (Venerated Memory). The first type accompanied the last issues of the Two Soldiers types (#2) while the latter dates to the first of the Two Victories (#3). Considering the number of coins included in the City and Death issues, the issues of the period of the Two Soldiers types would equal the output of the later Falling Horsemen (#1). In both cases the number of coins required to support daily commerce was huge and many survive and appear in uncleaned lots.

#7 The old pagan gods: Jupiter or Sol

Since type #6 was the first appearance of the Christian God on coins we will next visit the last appearances of the old pagan gods on coins. While he was a strong supporter of Christianity, Constantine I was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. Moreover he was a skilled politician and realized that many of his subjects were still pagans. Furthermore, for much of his reign he shared (or contested) power with the very pagan Licinius I. During the period of joint reign several versions of reverses honored Jupiter or the sun god Sol whose cult had been very popular since the preceding century. As a result, the coins of the first Christian Emperor (Constantine I) commonly honored the most powerful of the pagan gods. The types were also issued in the names of Constantine's sons Crispus and Constantine II, Licinius I and his son Licinius II Caesar who can be distinguished by his titles never including AVG.

There were too many variations on this theme to list here. The coins tend to be a bit larger than the later issues that make up most ACE offerings with 18mm diameter being most common. Jupiter (dative of dedication IOVI) is often styled as Conservator (Savior) of the rulers and shown accompanied by his pet eagle and holding a small figure of Victory. Some issues have a captive at his feet. Sol is commonly styled as SOLI INVICTO COMITI (to Sol the invincible companion of the Emperor). Sol is shown wearing a radiate crown and holding a globe. Other gods appeared on issues of the day but these two were most common. Following the death of Licinius, Constantine deleted the pagan gods but kept personifications of the old style like Victory, Virtus, Salus and Spes. Most common were types honoring the army. Constantine was well aware of whom he needed to thank for his position.

#8 The Watchtower or Campgate

Our next type is extremely popular among collectors and very controversial. Collectors can not even agree what to call the type. Issued during the joint rule of Constantine and Licinius, it continued well into the period of sole reign. What is shown is much discussed. A wall of blocks has a central door and is topped by two to four devices that have been best described (in my opinion) as looking like Webber barbecue kettles (beacons or turrets, depending on who is speculating). There are many versions for those who like to count rows of blocks and note whether doors are open or absent. The legends most commonly honor Providentia (foresight) of the rulers. Some say the structure is a fortified city wall while others downgrade it to a camp gate. The last option (and the one I prefer) calls the structure one of a series of towers that were spaced along the frontier. The kettles are assigned the role of signal fires which could be uncovered in sequences to send messages. Separate codes have been suggested for configurations of 2, 3 or 4 fires. It has been pointed out that mints in the East tended to use three beacon towers while most in the West used two or four. Speculation suggests that the code system varied according to the needs of Greek as opposed to Latin messages. Perhaps someday we will have certain proof but for now the subject remains controversial. Coins from the Constantinian period tend to be well made and about 18mm diameter. Toward the end of the century, the towers reappear as 12-14 mm bronzes tending toward partial legends on ragged flans. Between the two periods nearly a dozen rulers issued the type.

#9 Vota

Another common type that is easy to identify but not always easy to understand are the Vota issues. Most show a wreath enclosing the letters VOT followed by a numeral. Some continue adding a second numeral following MVLT. These coins record the vows undertaken by the rulers to execute their duties for a period of time designated by the numeral. For example a coin reading VOT X MVLT XX could be read: " Having redeemed my vows to rule well for a period of ten years, I extend the vows to a period of 20 years." These would seem to be easily dated but the fact remains that rulers played it fast and loose with Vota numbers. In some cases a ruler who failed to last 5 years would renew his 10 year vows and others would issue coins several years out of step with their actual chronology. The type was used by twenty different rulers so reading other legends is necessary to make a good ID. Often, the wreath is enclosed by various encircling legends including some that name the ruler (e.g. DN CONSTANTINI MAX AVG) allowing ID even if the other side of the coin is blank.

#10 Victory Walking

Up to this point most of the coins fitting in the above categories were issued by the family of Constantine the Great. Victory walking to the left holding a wreath before her was used as a type since the time of Constantius II (using different legends) but really became common during the dynasty founded by Valentinian I. The reverse scene appears commonly with three different legends. SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE is found with portraits of Valentinian I, Valens and Gratian. GLORIA ROMANORVM is found with Valens, Gratian and Valentinian II while VICTORIAE AVGG is common from the period of time of Valentinian II, Theodosius I and Arcadius. Scarce exceptions and additions exist but the purpose of this page is to suggest the commonly seen answers. During this period, the old practice of naming junior rulers to the office of Caesar was ended in favor of making everyone Augusti. There were usually three rulers issuing coins of the same types. The death of one ruler would usually see the elevation of another even if the new ruler was very young. While it was not new to this period, coins of the Valentinian period used an obverse lettering convention that strikes me as worth mentioning. Greater honor was attached to having a break in the legend so the letters did not continue over the head of the portrait. This was used for Augusti of senior status while juniors (the ones that would have been Caesar in the previous system) have legends in a continuous, unbroken arch. For example, a coin of the young ruler Gratian might bear the legend DNGRATIANVSPFAVG while the same ruler when he had advanced in stature (through the deaths of his predecessors) would be shown with a gap in the middle DNGRATIA --------- NVSPFAVG. This 'trick' can help distinguish coins of the dynasty founder Valentinian I who was never junior so all legends are broken from his son Valentinian II who was made Augustus at age 4 but did not become 'Senior' (at age 12) until Gratian died. Coins of Valens can often be identified with very few letters since his short name led to use of larger letters. If a coin has partial legends "VAL" but the longer name would not fit, chances are good it belonged to Valens. Another tip is that Valentinian I and Valens were strong, almost bull necked, military men whose portraits often show a more muscular build than those of the younger rulers.

It became a practice of the mint during this period to place a number of letters in the reverse field. These are not fully understood and often include some fancy items not from a normal alphabet. Poor condition specimens of the Victory walking type often show either the wreath carried by Victory (on the left) or her wings (at the right) allowing at least partial identification of the coin. As in the Constantinian period, several mints produced the same type and left their mintmarks in exergue. Understanding and reading these will require a more in-depth resource than this page.

#11 Soldier Dragging Captive by the Hair

Not quite as violent as the Falling Horseman type (#1) but still not something we see on modern coins is the late Roman type showing a Roman soldier holding the labarum (standard topped with the Chi-Rho symbol) dragging a smaller captive by the hair. These common coins were issued by rulers from Valentinian to Arcadius so tips for recognizing rulers mentioned in #10 apply here as well. The legend is GLORIA ROMANORVM (Glory of the Romans). The type was issued from several mints and with a large variety of field letters as described above. They are probably the most commonly seen coins bearing the Christian symbol Chi-Rho. Since I have only one coin to show in this category, the photo is combined with Type #12.

#12 Three Emperors

Our twelfth and last category represents another late type and is included here mostly because I saw several in the ACE schools I visited. Three figures stand on the reverse; the middle one is smaller than the other two. This is said to represent the three Emperors Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius II. Since the last named was very young (about 5) he is shown smaller than his fellow Augusti. The legend is GLORIA ROMANORVM. There is a star behind the obverse bust. Generally these were about 15mm in diameter but many seem to have been chipped on the edges and are found smaller. Finding one with full legend including the mintmark is an exception while finding small flan examples that can not be attributed to a specific ruler is common. At least the three possibilities have different names so the coins can be identified if you have legend on the obverse left. The workmanship is rather crude and portraits are not very distinctive making them hard to place with confidence when missing legends.

O.K. This page really had to work hard to make the number of types come out to a dozen but I believe a majority of the coins found in ACE uncleaned lots will be found here. Certainly some schools will get groups that include not a single coin mentioned here. After all, there are a million types of ancient coins. If that number is an exaggeration it is not out of line by far. These coins were produced in really huge numbers during times of inflation. Life savings were buried and coins were forgotten on the death of their owner.

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