Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 2

This site has been dedicated to the spreading of the 'word' on ancient coins. While some attempt has been made to do this in comprehensible English, it has been necessary to use a specialized vocabulary that might not be understood fully by every person. This series of pages will attempt to correct this problem. This second page continues what we began on the first by looking at coins sometimes called 'Greek' but perhaps not quite so Greek as those covered before. If you have not seen the first page of this series, I strongly recommend you begin here.

Some Not-so-Greek Coins?

We will begin by examining a few examples of coins struck in lands once considered Greek (in the greater sense of the word but not limited to the modern country) during the time these places were part of the Roman Empire.

Macrinus & Diadumenian, AE 27 or 5 assaria, 217-218 AD, Marcianopolis, Moesia, 12.4g
Following the Roman conquest of the Greek world, coins continued to be issued by many cities. A few major cities were allowed to produce silver or gold but by far the most common coins of this period were bronzes (recall that various alloys of copper are all covered by this one term). Of all ancient coins, these Greek Imperial or Roman Provincial issues (the terms are used interchangeably with each preferred by a segment of collectors) are available in the greatest variety. Hundreds of towns issued coins for local use. Most bore the portrait of the Roman Emperor (or a member of his family) on the obverse and a reverse type of local interest. Legends were usually in Greek but some major colonies issued coins with Latin legends. Our example shows portrait heads of Macrinus and his son Diadumenian vis-a-vis (face to face). The coin was issued by the Moesian city Marcianopolis while Pontianus was governor of the province (UP PONTIANOU on reverse left). Here, the city name is displayed on the reverse right and continued in exergue (below the ground line) . MARKIANOPO // LITWN "of the Marcianopolitans" demonstrates the genitive plural to assert the coin belonged to the people of the city. Marcianopolis and other cities of Moesia and Thrace issued a particularly large variety of reverse types copying statues (here of Bonus Eventus, probably located in the city). Our example also shows the use of a denomination mark E = 5 (assaria) in the reverse field. While hardly rare, relatively few ancient coins were marked with their values. Different cities, different times and different weight standards have caused many collectors to refer to all Greek bronzes as AE and the size of the coin in millimeters. This coin is, therefore, correctly called either 5 assaria or AE27. Over the centuries, many bronze coins acquired a colorful surface color or Patina (here green). Collectors consider this of particular beauty and discriminate against coins Cleaned of this natural surface. Silver coins often tone or take on a gray tarnish that is generally preferred to brightly shined coins. Coins are graded or rated by condition taking into account not only wear from circulation but also factors of manufacture and preservation. Grading ancient coins and assigning a value to collectors is a very difficult matter often involving severe differences of opinion. Coins of many Greek Imperial mints were struck on flans smoothed on a device that left a small pit in the surface of the coin. Our example clearly shows this centration dimple between the two portraits. While this is a fact of production and not a fault, a complete description of this coin would include its mention. The same pit on the reverse figure was nearly erased by the strike and does not show on our photo.

Herennia Etruscilla, AE28, Viminacium, Moesia Superior, 250-251 AD, 13.1g
Among cities in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, greatest honor was afforded to those termed Colonies. Colonies were home to Roman citizens, often retired army veterans, and issued coins using Latin legends rather than the Greek usually found on other cities. Our example is a coin of Viminacium issued in the name of Herennia Etruscilla, wife of Trajan Decius. This reverse type has been the subject of more of my mail recently than any other coin. These have been found by the thousands! Issued from the time of Gordian III until Gallienus, our coin shows a figure representing the province of Moesia flanked by a bull and a lion, the mascots of the two legions that lived there. The legend PMS COL VIM identifies the city's location in Province Moesia Superior and its status as a Colony. In exergue (the area below the ground line) is ANN XII indicating the coin was struck in the twelfth year of the city's status as a Colony (250-251 AD). Most common of these issues are those of Philip I who issued a large size (like the one shown here) and a half denomination showing the emperor wearing a radiate crown. It is probably correct to equate these to sestertii and dupondii (which will be covered in the Imperial section of this series). Earliest coins of the type (those of Gordian III) are slightly larger (30mm) while the last are smaller (26mm).

Antoninus Pius, AE Drachm, Alexandria, Egypt, 151 AD, 20.7g
Most extensive and most popular among collectors are the Roman Provincial issues of Alexandria, Egypt. When Augustus defeated Cleopatra VII, Egypt became the personal property of the Emperors. Its economy was set up as a closed system with its coins good nowhere else and no other coins good there. To maintain this separation, coins of Roman Egypt are considerably different than coins of other parts of the Empire. The system was based on the bronze drachm, a large coin suitable for beautiful designs. Blanks for the coins were cast in shallow cups in a stone mold producing a distinct taper which was regularly placed on the obverse of the coin. This often results in obverse legends falling on the tapered surface being weakly struck. The reverse was large, flat and ready to receive an interesting design. Here we see a lounging figure of the river god Nilus accompanied by his crocodile. Coins of Alexandria were usually dated to the Regnal Year (year of reign) of the Emperor expressed by an L (not a Greek letter but the symbol for 'year') and either a Greek numeral or (as here) the spelled out date. therefore we have L TPICKA for 'Year 13'. Following the date is the Greek numeral IS (16) which was the level on the 'Nilometer' required for a good flood to renew the fertility of the vast fields depended on by the economy of Egypt (and to a great extent, the Roman world as well). This number does not vary but is simply a sign of good luck for a suitable inundation. Usually, for this series, I have tried to present nice looking coins as illustrations. This is an exception to make a point. These coins circulated for many years with many, like our example, surviving in extremely worn condition. In this particular case, the coin was evenly struck and wore evenly leaving reasonably attractive outlines of the designs. These drachms are sometimes found worn slick with only a hint of the design remaining. If one collects coins for the beauty of their detail, such worn things will be avoided. If the intent is to hold a piece that played an active role in the economy of its time, these worn coins must have participated in thousands of transactions and may be exactly what is wanted. The Alexandria monetary system also produced a large number of debased silver tetradrachms. For much of their history, current tetradrachms contained about the same total amount of silver as the then current Roman denarius but the additional copper made the coins much larger. In the first century AD, this produced a good sized coin made of very low grade silver which is termed Billon. Third century examples were small but thick and made almost entirely of copper. Several of these are shown on my page on Greek Imperial coins.

Commodus, AR didrachm, Caesarea, Cappadocia, 183-185 AD, 4.5g
While rather few cities produced silver coins during the Greek Imperial period, those few produced large issues of attractive types. One of the most popular series was produced by the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia. While the city used other reverses also, the typical coin of this city shows Mount Argaeus which rose in that region. Often stylized, decorated or shown on an altar, the sacred mountain was used on many coin issues of the city. Our example portrays the Emperor Commodus. The reverse legend is Greek: UPATOS D PAT PATRI or Consul 4 times Father of his Country. The Roman section of this series will examine this dating system in more detail. While the use of the Consulship number can date this coin to a short span of years, many coins of Caesarea bear regnal year dating using ET (year) followed by the appropriate Greek numeral. Our coin is an example of a Reduced didrachm. The subsequent reissue of the same denomination at a lighter weight standard is termed 'reduced'. Earlier Commodus didrachms of Caesarea weigh 6g making our example 'post-reduction'. The Didrachm, coin of two drachms or half a tetradrachm, was struck more rarely by many cities than either the larger or smaller denominations.

Agrippa (and Augustus), Cut half of an (AE26) As, Nemausus, Gaul, c.14 AD
Nemausus was a Colony founded with retired veterans of Augustus' army. The highlight of many of their careers must have been service in the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC (see our Roman Republican page of this series for more on him). Coins of the Colony showed back to back portraits of Augustus and Agrippa, his general at Actium. You'll have to trust me on this one folks since the coin I'm showing is only the half with Agrippa. Augustus was cut off and spent separately. In some places (certainly Gaul of this period) it was acceptable to Cut coins to make change. These double portrait coins almost beg to be cut and many were. Some were cut randomly but our example shows great care to align the cut to spare the portraits. The reverse once showed a crocodile chained to a palm tree (symbol of the defeated Egypt) but all we see is the head of the reptile. The tail went with Augustus' half of the coin. I must apologize for showing you only half of this coin but sometimes coins that suffered most have more interesting stories to tell than their mint state brethren.

With our last coin (rather, half a coin) we will leave the Roman Provincials or Greek Imperials (making the point again that the terms are interchangeable) and proceed to coins of ancient people who were neither Greek nor Roman but issued coins that are collected by many collectors. Many books on Greek coins include these issues but they were products of other societies which traded (or warred) with the Greeks and Romans. There are many other 'not-so-Greek' coins available to collectors that are not shown here. These include Spanish, Eastern and Celtic coins.

Carthage, AE18, 3rd century BC, 5.7g
Phoenician sailors founded colonies along the north coast of Africa. A few of these cities produced coins. Most interesting of these are the coins of Carthage, enemy of Rome during the Punic Wars. Our example shows the head of the goddess Tanit and a horse's head with no legend. This student knows nothing of the Carthaginian system of denominations but the large pellet (indicating the onkia?) resembling what we observed on the Sicilian coin shown on the first page of this series might suggest the two shared a system. It is likely that some coins of the Carthaginians were produced in Sicily during the time they occupied the island. This student simply can not say if this example is one of those issues. Our example shows remnants of the sprues leading in and out (obverse 1 o'clock and 7 o'clock) showing that the blank was cast in a chain linked together. It is possible that the coins were struck before the flans were separated. Study of such matters of Technical Numismatics is an interesting specialty enjoyed by a minority of collectors. After defeat in the Punic Wars, Carthage was destroyed and, except for a few issues of usurpers, did not regain status as a mint city until the early 4th century AD. Note that this coin is the only one on this page that does not have Greek legends (O.K., it doesn't have any other language either). It is discussed here because of the location of the city on the Mediterranean coast.

Judaea, Alexander Jannaeus, AE Prutah, 103-76 BC, 2.4g
Following centuries of rule by foreign powers, Judaea achieved independence under kings of the Hasmonaean dynasty. Coins such as our example were first produced by Alexander Jannaeus in the early first century BC. These very small bronzes were made in huge numbers in a wide variety of styles. Many were so hurriedly produced that they must be considered crude. Following the Roman arrival in Judaea, coins were produced that could be considered Roman Provincials since some bear the names or portraits of Roman Emperors. Most popular among collectors are the rare products of Jewish forces during the 1st and 2nd Revolts against Rome. Our example is the most common of the Judaean coins. The types are an anchor surrounded by Greek legend "King Alexander" and a wheel with eight spokes which encloses tiny Hebrew letters "Yehonatan the King". A minute fraction of one percent of these coins show a legible Hebrew legend. A bit more on these issues can be found on my page on the Widow's Mites.

Parthian Empire, Phraates IV, AR drachm, 38-2 BC, Mithradatkart mint, 3.8g
A most common example of the non-Greek coin producing societies lumped by collectors into "Greek Coins" is the Parthians. Ruling the Persian regions from the late third century BC to the early third century AD, descendants of Arsakes (comprising the Arsakid Dynasty) were partners in trade and adversaries in war with the Greek and Romans of their period. Early Parthian coins bore legends in Greek but by the time of our example the legends had degraded into illegible Greek like letters occasionally with a name in Parthian script. Parthian silver is commonly seen in two denominations. Our example is a drachm struck in very good silver and made for circulation in the Parthian homeland. Tetradrachms were struck in much more base silver to circulate at par with the Greek or Roman coins of their day. Parthian drachms bear a reverse design showing a seated archer (Parthian archers were known for their skill). When legible the legend names all of the kings as Arsakes, founder of the dynasty. Very few Parthian coins bear the individual name of the king. Portraits, however, are very distinctive and allow attribution of most coins.

Axum, Anonymous, AE14, c.350 AD, 1.1g
Of the societies that produced coins in the ancient era, Axum is particularly interesting. The only coin producing society in sub-Saharan Africa, Axum was a merchant capital connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. Coins were issued in gold, silver, bronze and a unique series where a tiny spot of gold was applied to a bronze carrier coin. In c.330 AD Ezanas of Axum converted to Christianity (several years before the baptism of Constantine the Great) becoming the first Christian ruler of a nation. Our example is probably the most common coin of this civilization but it is still a scarce item. The king is portrayed as a right facing bust surrounded by the Greek legend BACILEVC (king). The reverse is a cross (the coin is after the conversion) surrounded by TOVTOAPECHTHXWPA (May this please the people). The king is not named but is generally thought to be one of the unknown successors of Ezanas. Several rulers of this nation are known only from coins and there are gaps where history did not record the name. Axum was then remote from the rest of the world and modern study of this civilization is only now beginning. While crude themselves, the coins of Axum could provide much information about this land of the far South.

Indo-Greek Kingdoms, Menander, 160-145 BC, AE14 square 2.3g
Even further east, many rulers of the Indian region also issued coins in the Greek tradition. As time distanced the influence of Alexander and the West, the Indo-Greek coinage developed coins with more of a local style. Our example here is square and shows the mixing of Greek legend on the obverse and the local Karosthi on the reverse. Menander is best known for his conversion to Buddhism where he is remembered under the name Milinda. The head of the elephant wears a bell on a rope. The reverse shows a club flanked by mintmarks. Coins of this region are frequently 'odd' by Greek and Roman standards but make an interesting focus for a collection highlighting lesser known ancient civilizations. Several other examples were shown on my Eastern page. A question that can not be answered with certainty is where coins stop being 'Greek'. This coin has one side with Greek legend and one in the local script. Trade existed across the vast expanses of Asia hardly limited to the regions directly influenced by the conquests of Alexander the Great. Coins existed throughout the ancient East before Alexander and in places he never reached. It is very hard to point with certainty where we should stop this survey of "Not So Greek" coins. Having shown a few coins with Greek legends that are far from really "Greek" we will later return to the East to examine coins that are not at all Greek.

Next section:

Roman Republican Coins

For more of this series see:

Greek Coins (1) - Roman Imperial Coins (1) - (2) - (3) - Asian Coins

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