Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Part 5

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

Roman Imperial Coins - the Third Century

Six denarii of Septimius Severus, Rome mint, 193 AD
Following the death of Commodus on the last day of 192 AD, a period of civil war resulted in the eventual victory of Septimius Severus, the emperor covered in greatest detail on this site. Founder of the Severan dynasty which would rule Rome from 193 to 235 AD, Septimius Severus introduced two concepts that make him a most important figure in Roman history. While several earlier Emperors were military men, Septimius introduced the concept that would rule Rome for the rest of its history: Might makes right; the army is might. While several earlier Emperors were from the provinces, Septimius made being Italian in no way better than coming from any other part of the Empire. He began the series of moves that eventually would lead to other cities of the Roman Empire competing with Rome in significance. Our photo shows six portraits of Septimius. All were engraved at the Rome mint within the last half of 193. All are Legionary denarii shown elsewhere on this site. Compare how their style makes them the same and different. Which is the best work? Which might have been engraved by the same hand (artist or engraver)? Earliest dies of a reign often employ portraits with features that resemble earlier Emperors. This might be due, in part, to habit and in part to uncertainty at the mint of the exact appearance of the new ruler. I see a little Pertinax in the first (upper left) coin and Didius Julianus in the second (upper middle). Perhaps the men who cut these dies had done coins of these earlier rulers only days or weeks earlier. Relative 'art' quality and identification of the artists are matters involving more opinion than fact. Certainly the author of this page has his opinions (subject to regular change!) but strong arguments can be made for the opposite views. Different eyes with different backgrounds will interpret the same evidence in ways that may not be perfectly aligned. Most of what we know about ancient coins is 'reverse engineered' from study of the coins themselves. Almost nothing survives in the way of primary documents regarding mint operations. Actual mint sites are not among the archaeological sites yet studied in detail. Very few genuine coin dies or other mint tools have been found. What we have to study are millions and millions of coins with more being unearthed every day. Some facts seem irrefutable while other matters are open to review. What is accepted as given fact one day can be thrown into doubt by a significant find. Coins once rare can become common as dirt. For a subject 'dead' for millennia, ancient numismatics is quite dynamic.

Caracalla, AR Antoninianus, Rome mint, 215 AD
The eldest son of Septimius Severus is known to historians as Caracalla after a Germanic cloak he was known to wear. His name, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, was shared with other Emperors so nicknames are used to avoid confusion. In 214 AD, Caracalla introduced a new denomination which has come to be known to collectors as the Antoninianus. In fact, we have no idea what the Roman on the street called this coin. Worse, we have no absolute proof that the coins was valued at two denarii (the most popular assumption). At less than twice the weight of contemporary denarii, the new coins would provide immediate profit to the state if they were valued at that figure. Portraits on antoniniani are marked by the radiate crown previously shown on the double as (dupondius). Unlike dupondii, antoniniani of Caesars used the radiate crown suggesting that making the point of the denomination was considered of greater importance than restricting the honor of the crown to the Augusti. The new denomination must have met some popular resistance (like US dollar coins?) and was issued sporadically until catching on two decades after the first issues. Our example shows porosity common to debased silver coins with over 50% copper in the mix. This characteristic is made worse on many coins (including this one) by some copper leeching out of the coin while buried in the earth. What remains is a textured silver 'sponge' weighing less than when struck. Other coins struck at the same time but in better state of preservation may look like they were made of much better silver.

Julia Maesa, AR Denarius, Antioch Mint, 218-225 AD
Following the death of Caracalla, Julia Maesa, sister-in-law of Septimius, orchestrated the continuation of the Severan dynasty in the person of her young grandson Elagabalus. His name was changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus suggesting he was the son of Caracalla. When Elagabalus proved not to be appropriate for rule, Maesa arranged his replacement with another grandson, Severus Alexander. The woman was a survivor. Our coin illustrates the Severan extension of coin production to Eastern mints in addition to the mint at Rome. The increasing importance of the East during this period of history made a local denarius mint desirable. The exact location of these branch mints is not always certain but style and the importance of the city at that time suggest Antioch as a likely place for this issue. Obviously this is a point that may benefit by further study and evidence yet uncovered. Some writers consider the Eastern coins inferior in style to the Roman but this student prefers to call them only different. I find them charming, if less photo-realistic than Rome mint issues. The Oriental style both in the portrait and the lettering separates these issues from the Roman. Mintmarks were not used at this time. The reverse of this coin FECVNDITAS (fertility) is an appropriate type for an Augusta. Women of the Imperial family were given the title Augusta whether they were wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters or sisters of the ruler. There was no feminine equivalent of the junior title Caesar.

Gordian III Caesar, AE Sestertius, April - July 238 AD
The end of the Severan Dynasty saw the beginning of a period of turmoil in the Empire. Emperors were made and overthrown by the armies. Some lasted only a short time. The period from the death of Severus Alexander in 235 AD to the ascension of Diocletian in 284 AD is sometimes called the time of 30 Tyrants. The exact count of rulers during these years is not even certain including some unknown to history except for a few surviving coins. Persons declaring themselves to be Augusti who were defeated are termed Usurpers. Strictly speaking one could consider someone who declared himself and won to be a usurper but the term usually carries the negative connotation of being evil and the loser as much as being a volunteer for state service. Short reigns and violent death was the standard story. In 238 AD, joining 68-69 and 193 as pivotal dates in Roman history, six men held the title Augustus. In a move of political compromise, two of these men (Balbinus and Pupienus) named the young Gordian III to be Caesar. Gordian III was grandson of the popular (and recently killed) Gordian I. In less than 100 days, Balbinus and Pupienus were killed and Gordian (in the care of adult advisors) became sole Augustus. Ruling for six years, his reign was relatively long for his period in history. Coins of Gordian III survive in huge quantities and are common in collections. Coins struck during his short period as Caesar under Balbinus and Pupienus are, by comparison, rare. Our example sestertius shows the bare head portrait expected of a Caesar. The reverse type of sacrificial implements was commonly used for coins of Caesars. The double G in PIETAS AVGG indicates there were multiple rulers when the coin was issued. By this time the sestertius had become a bit smaller that those we saw earlier. It is common to find them struck on squared flans. This suggests that blanks for the coins were chopped off a larger piece (perhaps a squared rod?) rather than cast individually. Our example is only slightly squared. Some coins of the period carry this point to an extreme while others are quite round and well produced. The entire matter of technical mint practices is sorely in need of more study. There are a few students working to recreate ancient mint practices through reverse engineering. Such experiments can never prove how something was done but can do much to help us understand what may have caused our coins to look the way they do.

Otacilia Severa, AR Antoninianus, Rome mint, c.248 AD
Philip I, the successor (and murderer) of Gordian III, is represented here by a coin of his wife Otacilia Severa. The radiate crown being inappropriate for a female, the denomination is distinguished by a crescent placed under the bust. Our example dates late in the reign of Philip and marks the first 'open' marking of internal mint operations since the die numbers of the Republic. On occasion, previous rulers had used codes (dots, spaces etc.) but here we are presented the Greek numeral D signifying the coin was produced by the 4th of six workshops: A, B, G, D, E and S (digamma) . Marking of the officina numbers only occurs occasionally over the next two decades before becoming a regular part of the coinage. The is no indication of the mint city even though Philip was striking at two mints at this time. Other issues used different systems for numbering workshops. Some of these will be presented later in this series of pages. Some collectors specialize in issues showing women and, for the most part, they were made in smaller numbers than the coins of the emperor himself. It would seem that these factors would make them more expensive but that is not always the case. Issues for women other than the wife of the emperor also exist and these do include some rarities with large price tags.

Gallienus, AE Antoninianus, Rome mint, 260-268 AD
Debasement continued until in the reign of Gallienus it became necessary to apply a layer of silver to the outside of the coins if they were to appear anything other than plain bronze. This thin wash survives intact on a small percentage of specimens but most, like our example, are doing well to show a few spots remaining. The method used to accomplish this plating is a matter of considerable controversy. A silver/mercury amalgam strikes this student as most likely but must have been lethal to mint workers involved in the technique. Inflation and the pressures to produce vast numbers of coins to meet demand resulted in poor workmanship. Poor strikes, flan cracks and other defects became increasingly common. Large output allowed Gallienus to use a large number of interesting types including a series of real and mythological animals. Here a hippocamp dedicates the coin to Neptune. Lettering style on the coins often varies from collectors expect. Note this coin shows N rendered as III. The style of lettering is a matter of fashion and should not be considered sloppy workmanship. Several mints produced coins during this period and collectors soon become skilled in recognizing the characteristics of the mints even when the coins are not marked.

Tetricus I, AE Antoninianus, Lugdunum mint - - - - - - - - - Barbarous Radiate, unofficial mint
When the Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians, Gallienus was left as sole ruler of the Empire. His resources were stretched too thin to defend the whole Empire. In Gaul, Postumus set himself up as ruler of an independent Gallic Empire which remained separate until its last ruler surrendered the territory back to the mainstream Emperor Aurelian. Our example is a coin of that ruler, Tetricus I. Gallic coins were produced at several mints in Gaul and Germany but appear rather like those issued at the same time at Rome. By the end, workmanship was poor in every respect. In return for his surrender, Tetricus was allowed to retire and live out his life as an honored Roman. This was a better deal than enjoyed by any other ruler of the period where violent death was the normal end of every reign. Coins of the Gallic emperors are often seen copied by unofficial mints including some that are extremely crude. These are termed "Barbarous Radiates" and are popular with some collectors. Our example is relatively skillfully done with recognisable types and legends. Many are much more 'barbarous'.

Aurelian, AE Antoninianus, Rome mint
Aurelian, in addition to strengthening and reuniting the Empire, is known for his reform of the coinage. By the time he came to power in 270 AD, debasement left the antoninianus with almost no silver. Aurelian standardized the alloy at one part silver to 20 parts copper (still needing a silver wash but better than the coins of his predecessors) and marked the flans of his coins with 20:1 in Greek or Roman numerals. Most mints used Roman numerals XXI but a few used the Greek KA for the same purpose. Increasingly at this period, the Emperor is shown in full military attire emphasizing the importance of the army to his continued rule. The mintmark in exergue on our sample shows the officina mark D=4 followed by the alloy mark followed by R indicating the coin is from the mint at Rome. As with all new developments on the coins, marking the mint city was done sporadically at first but eventually became the rule rather than the exception. The term mintmark is applied to this entire string as well as to the specific portion that refers to the mint city. Many mintmarks omit one or more of these segments but most coins of this period are mintmarked in some fashion. The reverse type on this coin is particularly interesting. It honors the sun god Oriens whose cult was increasingly popular in Rome at this period. At his feet are shown two captives that can be identified by their appearance. On the left, the curved cap identifies a Persian. On the right sits a bareheaded, bearded Goth. Constant warfare with these two peoples was the fate of Rome during this period.

Probus, AE Antoninianus, Ticinum mint, 276-282 AD
Of the series of military emperors that issued coins during this period, Probus deserves special mention. While we have no information that Probus collected coins (the fact is we have rather little written history of any kind on his reign), his administration was certainly friendly to later numismatists. In addition to the usual run of reverse types and many special issue medallions, the everyday coins of Probus display the widest range of obverse portrait types of any ruler. This variety is so extensive that one wonders how many different suits of armor that man owned! It has been estimated that, counting minor portrait varieties, the total number of different coins of Probus exceeds 10,000. A few of them are shown on my Probus pages. Our example here shows the emperor dressed in Consular robes. This denotes that the Augustus was head of the civilian state as well as the military. The reverse mintmark shows the Roman numeral VI used to designate the sixth officina. While some issues used a series of Roman numerals for this purpose, this coin is from a series that used the initial letter of the ordinal number. The first workshop was designated P for primus. S (secundus), T (tertius) and Q (quartus) expand the series to cover four officinae. When this coin was struck the mint at Ticinum was using six shops. The ordinals for fifth and sixth both begin with a letter already used in the series so the Roman numeral was used to avoid confusion. The letter I in the field marks this coin as part of the EQVITI series on which I have a separate page. Also in the field is a star which probably indicates some internal mint detail of operation with exact meaning not yet understood. These stars began popping up on coins of Commodus with the same coin type showing star left, star right and no star. Perhaps future numismatists will be able to decipher the meaning of these stars.

Numerian Caesar, AE Antoninianus, Antioch mint, 282 AD
Mentioned above in our discussion of Caracalla, this antoninianus of Numerian as Caesar shows that the radiate crown was not restricted to the Augusti. This coin of Antioch shows the expected XXI alloy mark but uses (in field) a slight variation on the officina numeral. Antioch used Greek numerals and struck from more officinae than most mints (up to 15 at one period). Our example is a coin from the ninth workshop but superstition prevented the mint from using the Greek numeral for nine. Theta, Q, was the first letter of Thanatos or death and was considered unlucky when used alone. This caused the numeral to be avoided on many issues. Here the officina is listed as ED or 5+4=9. Other coins avoided the numeral by spelling out the word for nine. Theta returned to normal use when Christianity eliminated this superstition (replacing it with 13 - but that is another story not seen on coins). The reverse legend VIRTVS AVGGG indicates the coin honors three rulers (one for each G) even though only one of them was actually Augustus. When this coin was issued, Carus was Augustus while Numerian and his brother Carinus were Caesars. This triple G use was not consistent at this period but did reappear in the later Empire when there were three Augusti. In many cases we see AVGG meaning plural Augusti even though the actual count was more than two. Perhaps the point here is that it is wise not to expect too much consistency from our diecutters. Fashions in such matters as abbreviation form varied from time to time and place to place. Hard line rules even for spelling is a rather recent characteristic of language and we should avoid projecting modern values onto ancient subjects.

Diocletian, AE Pre-Reform Antoninianus, Siscia mint
The end of Rome's period of chaos was brought about by the Emperor Diocletian. While several of the rulers during the 30 Tyrants period were men of some ability, Diocletian was able to bring relative stability to the Empire and put an end to the reign of caprice exercised by the army. He accomplished this by dividing his power into four sections appointing two senior rulers, the Augusti, and two junior rulers, the Caesars. This four headed system is termed the Tetrarchy. Part of Diocletian's plan for stability was a massive reform of the coinage which will begin the next page of our series. For this paragraph, we will examine an example of his Pre-Reform or old style coinage. The example is an antoninianus bearing the expected XXI alloy mark and the officina mark B (=2) in the field. The oddity that caused this coin to be selected for this discussion is the O following the XXI in exergue. This code letter identifies the coin as part of the series issued at Siscia dividing the words 'Jupiter' and 'Hercules' (in Latin but written in Greek letters!) among the officinae. The purpose of this code might be assumed to be an attempt to control counterfeiting or to add a mystical power to the coins but the absolute facts of the matter is not something I claim to understand. It is simply one more thing that remains to be studied by the next generation of numismatists.

Allectus, AE "Quinarius", Camulodunum mint, c.296 AD
The final coin for this page probably does not belong here but serves to represent another interesting side light of Roman history. In 287 AD, Carausius, a naval commander in Britain, revolted and declared himself Augustus of the North. The central rulers made considerable effort to end his usurpation but he continued to rule until 293 AD when he was killed by his subordinate Allectus. Our coin shows Allectus and a ship reminding us of the importance of the navy to his power. Almost nothing is known about Allectus except that he was overthrown by central authority in 296. His coins were issued from two mints L=London and C=Camulodunum(?). Most are standard antoniniani but the last issue (of which we show an example) was much smaller that the predecessors. Earlier students refer to these coins as 'quinarii' (recall from the Republican page that this was the half denarius) partially to explain the 'Q' that precedes the city mark. The fact is that we do not know with any certainty what we should call these coins. The radiate crown and only slightly smaller size (certainly not 1/4 the antoninianus) has led some to refer to them as 'reduced antoniniani'. Their late date places them after Diocletian's coinage reform (294 AD) so they may be a northern interpretation of his post reform radiates (and therefore belong on our next page). This theory is weakened by the lack of the large folles (see next page) that would seem to be required if Allectus was following the lead of the central government. We simply do not know. This student has always held the opinion that any question that is answered must generate at least two more questions leaving students, in the end, twice as aware of their ignorance than when the study was begun. All studies of ancient history are plagued by maddening gaps in the record. Third Century Rome has even more gaps than the periods before and after that time. For the student of coins we have vast quantities of material to be studied and endless opportunities to add to the body of numismatic knowledge.

Next section:

Roman Imperial Coins (3)

For more of this series see:

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

Return to main page

(c) 2001Doug Smith