Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 3

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 is the second in our series that will attempt to correct this problem. If you have not seen the earlier page, I would suggest starting there: Part One.

Roman Republican

The period of Roman history following the overthrow of the (largely legendary) early kings (c.509 BC) is called the Republic . No Roman coins date to the period of the kings so the earliest Roman issues are termed Republican. The beginning of Roman coins is no more clearly defined than was the Greek. In central Italy, bronze was the metal of choice for commerce. Unformed lumps of metal Aes Rude were traded as items of value for centuries. In the Third century BC bronze was cast into rectangular bars of about 5 pounds, Aes Signatum, which were broken into smaller pieces as needed. These bars sometimes had designs and qualify as the first coins if we are willing to accept large ingots under that definition. Contact with the Greek cities of Southern Italy led the Romans to issue silver coins for trade even though these were not used at home. I regret not having one of these rare items to show on this page. For home use, round coins as large as a Roman pound (Aes Grave) were cast combining the idea of heavy bronze with round coins. Around the time of the Second Punic War (c.211 BC) silver was coined for home use in a denomination of ten bronze asses named the Denarius. These are the first easily collectable Roman coins. Bronze continued to be coined for small change. As inflation progressed the bronzes became small enough that it was practical to strike them from dies rather than casting them in the old method. The remainder of this page will cover coins of the Roman Republic from this time until the formation of the Roman Empire in 27 BC.

As on the preceding page, our illustrations include a few representative coins to illustrate terms needed to describe these coins. Obviously, many of the terms discussed on the previous page will also apply here.

Republican Struck Bronze (AE) As, Sextantal Standard c.211 BC, 37mm diameter 40g.
Our first coin will represent all Republican bronzes. The basic unit was the As (plural Asses). By the time of the introduction of the denarius and the beginning of bronze production by striking, the as had declined to a weight about the same as one-sixth of the full pound (Liberal) as of earliest times. Since the as was now the weight of the old 1/6 fraction, the sextans, this weight standard is called sextantal. Later, when the weight was reduced even further we see standards called uncial and semi-uncial named for the original coin denomination that matched the weight of the new as. In addition to the as, fractions were issued in most standards. Commonly seen are the half (semis), third (triens), quarter (quadrans), sixth (sextans) and twelfth (uncia). The usual type for the as was a head of Janus (looking left and right) and the prow (rostrum) of a ship. Both sides bear the numeral of denomination 'I'. Under the prow on the reverse should be the city name ROMA but this specimen was not well enough struck for it to show. Many Republican bronzes are poorly struck and quite crude in appearance. Even high grade coins are often missing significant details.

Anonymous AR (silver) Denarius, c.211 BC
The earliest denarii bore the helmeted head of Roma on the obverse and the Dioscuri (heavenly twins) on the reverse. Castor & Pollux are shown on horseback with a star above each head. Behind the Roma head is a value mark X, Roman numeral for 10 (asses). Under the twins is the city name. Both sides are surrounded by a beaded border, a characteristic found on most Roman coins for centuries following this early use. Early denarii, like our example, are Anonymous.and have no further legends but slightly later it became standard to add initials of moneyers, mint officials responsible for the issue of coins. The art work of the die engraver or style varies greatly on these coins. This particular example is especially well done with excellent modeling and rounded features. This probably indicates a Greek engraver. Other coins of this general type are much more angular or severe in style. The same type coin was issued in the half denarius or Quinarius (V = 5 behind head) and quarter denarius Sestertius (IIS = 2 1/2) but the denarii are by far the most common.

Marcus Aburius Geminus moneyer, AR Denarius, c.132 BC
After roughly 60 years of denarii with the Dioscuri reverse, it became fashionable for moneyers to show a chariot driven by a god (here Sol) and pulled by two (biga) or four (quadriga) horses. Some were more creative and used teams of other animals (goats, elephants, even snakes!). Also as time progressed, names of moneyers were spelled out more and more fully. This denarius shows the name divided on the two sides of the coin with M. ABVRI under the horses and GEM behind Roma. Around.140 BC, the denarius was revalued to 16 asses. Earliest issues showed the value as XVI but by the time of our sample this was replaced by a crossed X symbol (here under chin of Roma). Style on this coin is particularly severe and angular especially when compared to the fine work of the preceding coin. The chariot type reverses were not as universally used as had been the Dioscuri. Some moneyers used varied and interesting reverses but most retained the obverse head of Roma. Toward the end of the second century BC, both sides were used to display the moneyers' choice of designs.

Titus Didius, AR denarius, 113-112 BC
Our next coin shows several minor points of interest to numismatists. The family of the moneyer was responsible for coin issues only twice, here in 113-112 BC and later in c.55 BC. Between these two issues, the spelling of the family name was changed from Deidia to Didia. Catalogs often use the 'modern' spelling even though our coin clearly uses the old version. The obverse head of Roma was engraved in High Relief standing up from the fields of the coin enough that our edge view of the coin shows an exceptional 3D effect. Ancient coins vary greatly in terms of the relief but almost all are much higher than modern coins. Stacking more than half a dozen of these coins is difficult. Under the chin of Roma we see the crossed X denomination mark valuing the coin at 16 asses. Behind the head is a monogram of ROMA (vertically) with the R and A tucked under the M and the O (more of a dot) placed above. The reverse of this coin has been interpreted in different ways by different scholars. Some see a contest between gladiators. On the left, one uses a whip while the other, on the right, has a staff. Both carry shields and wear swords at their sides. Some see the staff held by the right figure as a sword but the long, thin shape makes it more likely a stick than a gladius. Other students note that an ancestor of the moneyer was responsible for putting down a revolt of Sicilian slaves in 138 BC and consider this coin a commemorative of that event. Some note that the scene might be a form of promise on the part of the moneyer to put on gladiatorial shows if were to be elected to higher office. (It worked, Titus Didius was elected consul in 98 BC.) Proving beyond doubt whether the intent was to show a scene from history or from the arena will be difficult and controversy regarding the meanings the types on Republican coins is common. Ancient numismatics is not the best pursuit for those who require irrefutable facts to be memorized by rote. Assumptions accepted as truth in the past are often thrown into question or even ridicule by later studies. It is important to keep an open mind when reading the evidence presented on our coins.

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi, AR denarius, c.90 BC
Among the most common of Roman Republican coins is this type issued to fund the Social War of c.90 BC. The types show a head of Apollo and a racing horse. Both were selected to demonstrate the pride of the moneyer's family in their ancestor (with the same name as our moneyer) who had organized the first Ludi Apollinaris (Games of Apollo) in 212 BC. Moneyer was a relatively low office on the Cursus Honorum, a series of positions that could result in the aristocratic Roman eventually holding the top office in the Roman Republic, the Consulship. Young men holding this position (at least, at this time) would not think of portraying themselves or their own accomplishments on the coins but to bring honor to their ancestors was perfectly acceptable. Both dies of this huge issue bore control marks to distinguish the exact date/sequence of the issue. This was sometimes done with symbols like the deer head (under chin) and tongs (behind head) shown on this coin's obverse or with numerals like the CXXXVII on the reverse. These controls allowed the moneyer to keep close accounts of the coins produced and silver used. As a junior bureaucrat, it was crucial that he avoid any hint of inpropriety in the execution of his duties. Failure at this low office would quite possibly end all hope of his rising to the eventual goal of the Consulship. The moneyer's name is placed under the horse but, in this case, omits the family name Calpurnius. The obverse of this coin shows a cracked die resulting in a raised line running from Apollo's mouth to the edge of the coin. The reverse was struck off center causing the horse's head to fall off of the flan. These errors do not cause this coin to be especially desirable to collectors like they would if found on a modern coin. Such variability and signs of poor workmanship are common on ancient coins and, unless severe enough to be interesting, considered faults by most collectors.

Tiberius Quinctius, AR Denarius, 112-111 BC
Another moneyer refers to the games on quite a different coin. The obverse is a heroic bust of Hercules. The obverse without legend of any sort is termed anepigraphic. The reverse shows a desultor, a circus rider who jumps back and forth between two horses. Above the horses is the control, in this case a dot followed by a large letter N. Under the horses is a raised tablet on which D.S.S in engraved in incuse. Note that the letters are cut into the tablet rather than being raised as are the N and TI Q, the very abbreviated name of the moneyer. D.S.S De Senatus Sententia or by decision of the Senate identifies this as a special issue. I regret that I am not able to tell you the difference between DSS and (EX) SC seen on the next two coins on this page. Also under the horses is a rat. This rat appears on all of these coins unlike the N which changes from die to die. Therefore, the rat is not a control mark. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who understands the symbolism of the rat on this coin. Remember that I am a student of Roman coins, not an expert. These pages are done to share the fun of this hobby with beginners and to add to my own education. I hope to be able to update this page with this information as soon as some kind soul provides it. A small device added to a coin design that is not part of the overall scene itself is termed a minor type. On the previous coin, the deer head was both a minor type and a control mark. On the obverse, Hercules is shown with his club. Since this is an attribute that helps us identify the bust it is not proper to call the club a minor type. Similarly, other gods and personifications have attributes of their own. An owl in the field of a coin showing Athena or an eagle shown with Jupiter are attributes not minor types. Our example has several faults as a collectable coin. The obverse is heavily porous or roughened by corrosion. It is not uncommon for a coin to have this fault only on one side if it was hoarded with many other coins which protected the reverse from exposure to the elements during the centuries it spent buried in the earth. The reverse is weakly struck with detail on the horses heads not being transferred properly from the die. This is termed a flat strike.

Tiberius Claudius Nero, AR Denarius, c.79 BC
Another very common Republican denarius reinforces some points previously made and adds a few more. The obverse is a head of the goddess Diana with a bow and quiver (her attributes) over her shoulder. S.C. on the obverse declares that the coin was issued by decree of the Senate (Senatus Consulto). This identifies the coin as a special issue rather than the regular coinage for that year. Times of war or other large public expenditures required extra issues of coins. The reverse shows a winged Victory driving a biga of horses. In the field below the horses is the control A.IIII marking the position of this coin in two series (with and without the A) with numerals running over 170. The horses run over a ground line below which is an area of the coin surface termed the exergue. Here the moneyer's name appears in two lines in exergue: TI CLAVD TI F // AP N abbreviating TIberius CLAVDius TIberii Filius (son of Tiberius) APpii Nepos (grandson of Appius). Some letters (VD and AP) are joined to form Ligatures. Ligate letters are common on Republican coins (they were also used for ABVR on coin #8). The edge of this coin is Serrate or individually notched on the flan before striking. Serrate edges were fashionable for many issues of Republican denarii but there has never been a fully satisfactory explanation of why this was done. There have been several suggestions but most have been disproven by later studies. Most popular is the belief that it was done to prove the coin was solid silver but plated serrati are not rare. If this was the intent, it did not work. Our example has a multicolor tone to the silver. Collectors value coins which have not been cleaned to bright silver or that have retoned in an attractive manner.

Marcus Aemelius Scaurus & Publius Plautius Hypsaeus, AR Denarius, 58 BC
As time progressed special issues of coins became more common. In addition to coins of the regular moneyers, we see issues signed by other magistrates (e.g. quaestors or curile aediles). Our example is a bit unusual in several respects. The obverse bears the name and title of curile aedile M SCAVR AED CVR as well as the notation that this was a special issue EX SC (placed across field on either side of the camel) . The type is a man kneeling in front of a camel holding up an olive branch. Under the figure is his name REX ARETAS. What makes this coin unusual is that the issuer defeated King Aretas of Nabataea just a few years earlier so the coin commemorates his own success rather than that of an ancestor. The coin was issued jointly with the other curile aedile who provided the design for the reverse. It is signed at the top P HYPSAE AED CVR and shows Jupiter in a quadriga trampling a scorpion. The scene is explained by the legend in exergue and at the right C HYPSAE COS PREIVE CAPTV. The issuing aedile's ancestor, a consul, had captured the city Privernum (the scorpion? - as with the rat above, the symbolism here is not clear to me) in 329 BC. Perhaps it seemed necessary to name the ancestor honored by this side of the coin since the other side honored the aedile himself. The coin was struck on a flan too small for all the design and is termed tight flan or crowded. This issue usually is found on small flans with partial legends.

Lucius Plautius Plancus. AR Denarius, 47 BC
By this time the point has been made that many Roman Republican coin types honored the exploits of famous ancestors of the issuing moneyer. These stories have been deduced by centuries of prominent numismatists who link details on the coins to historical and mythological events providing stories of what 'must have been' the intent of the moneyer. In some cases there are competing possibilities that could explain what we see on the coins. Such is the case with one of the most popular of Republican coins, the Medusa issue of Lucius Plautius Plancus. The obverse is a beautiful facing head of Medusa. Traditional scholarship links this face to masks of Medusa worn by performers on stage. As the story goes, in 312 BC, the famous ancestor (Gaius Plautius) was responsible for returning Rome's troop of professional entertainers to the city after they had been driven off by his fellow Censor. This was accomplished by bringing the players into town wearing masks so they would not be recognized. The people, happy with the return of their entertainment (remember there was no TV, movies or internet), heaped praise on the man responsible for the restoration. Since the return was at dawn, traditional scholarship identified the reverse figure with Aurora leading the four horses of the sun. Another view recognises that yet another ancestor, Lucius Munatius Plancus, had dedicated a popular painting in the Capitol by the 4th century BC artist Nichomachus. This is identified as Victory leading a quadriga (chariot with 4 horses). Which is the true story? I accept the Medusa as related to the traditional story but prefer the painting explanation for two reasons. The name of the moneyer is split on the two sides of the coin. Plautius, which he shares with the hero who returned the players, appears with Medusa. Plancus, shared with the painting provider, is on the reverse with the scene from the painting. Secondly, it is not uncommon for a moneyer with more than one famous ancestor to split the honors on the two sides of a coin. In this case, our moneyer would enjoy greater personal honor by pointing out both of the famous men in his lineage. This illustrates the possibility (and need!) for us all to keep an open mind to new evidence and seek out refinements of 'traditional wisdom'. Achieving wide acceptance of a new reading of old evidence is never an easy task but, eventually, we can hope to find the truth or at least be aware of all the possibilities. This coin illustrates another situation common on coins of the Republic. Certain issues are regularly perfect in their production reflecting great care and oversight by the officials responsible for the issue. Others are styled by cutters with great artistic ability. Some issues enjoy both positives; others neither. This type is usually poorly struck with at least some areas of Flat striking. Our example shows this on the top of the reverse leaving the Victory and horses mere outlines of the forms. A heavier blow with the hammer might have transferred more detail to the blank. Many coins of this type are far worse than this example with small flans, missing legends and fewer than four horses (we have 3 outlines and a fraction above Victory's head). It seems such a shame that such beautiful dies were used in a sloppy manner.

Pompey the Great by Quintus Nasidius, Fourree Denarius, 44-43 BC
The last years of the Republic (49-27 BC) are referred to as the Imperatorial Period. During these years, generals, the Imperators, vied for control of the Roman world. Included in these are most of the famous Roman names recognized by non-historians: Caesar, Brutus and Antony. Some coins of this period are very much like the earlier Republican issues while others actually portray the men who issued them. Our example portrays the Imperator Pompey the Great but was issued after his death by Q. Nasidius, who is believed to have been an admiral in the navy supporting first Sextus Pompey (son of Magnus) and later Mark Antony. Portraying as it does a great Roman of the past, this coin would not seem subversive to the Republican ideals like those issued by Caesar bearing his own portrait or the infamous EID MAR denarii of Brutus commemorating the murder of Caesar. Pompey, not named by the legends, is easily recognizable by his distinctive portrait. He is shown as Neptune with attributes of a dolphin and trident. The reverse shows a ship of the fleet and bears the name of the moneyer/admiral Nasidius. This example is a silver plated fourree. Plated coins are particularly common during this period but are not highly valued by collectors. Persons buying Republican denarii need to learn to recognize plated coins and not pay high prices for them.

Mark Antony, AR Denarius, 31 BC
Our final Imperatorial (and Republican) coin was issued in the period just before the Battle of Actium by the loser of this final fight for control of Rome. This final battle was to be at sea and Antony's sailors were paid in these coins showing a warship and military standards. Antony was short on resources to pay such huge sums so he added copper to the silver used for these coins. The alloy was, therefore, debased. After the battle (and Antony) had been lost, these coins remained in circulation. The fact that they were not good silver caused them to remain in circulation until the debasement of the regular Roman coinage reached the same level and made them desirable to be buried in hoards. Legionary denarii of Antony are common in hoards deposited over 200 years after their issue. Many of these coins are worn slick. The legends are ANT AVG IIIVIR RPC (Antony Augur, one of the three for establishing the Republic) and LEG VIII (the legion for which the coin was issued). Other Legionary issues name the other legions I to XXIII and a few special units by name. Our example is struck on a broad, thin, oval flan showing not only the complete beaded border but the impression of the edge of the die (reverse upper left). The public awareness of the possibility of plated pieces (also common on these!) and the odd look of the coin caused it to be tested several times with punched bankers' marks. This coin is solid, not plated. The extreme flatness of the flan suggests that it may have been struck on an older coin hammered flat before being reused. At 24mm this is the widest flan denarius I have seen. Such oddities are only of interest to persons like myself who value technical numismatics. They are avoided by the mainstream of coin collectors who would prefer a round, well struck coin. This coin has a very uneven surface tone with several areas of dark stain.

Next section:

Roman Imperial Coins (1)

For more of this series see:

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

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