Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics - Postscript

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.

Other Questions

The preceding pages addressed coin subjects in a geographic and chronological order. This page, a postscript, will mention some numismatic questions that do not fall easily into those classifications. Most subjects here have been covered in greater detail on other pages on this site. This overview is mostly to introduce the material in a most basic manner in the hope that the reader will be interested enough to do further reading either on my site or from other sources.

The question most often heard when a non collector hears of your interest in ancient coins is: "Are they real?" That is a very good question. In fact, the vast majority of coins being sold as ancients actually are Genuine. There are many fakes but there are even more, many more, genuine coins on the market. This page will not attempt to make the reader any more able to tell the good from the bad. Fakes are somewhat common in some venues but scarce in the mainstream numismatic trade. To avoid fakes, buy coins only from reputable dealers who specialize in ancient coins. Avoid flea markets, sellers that claim to know nothing about what they are selling and cute kids near archaeological sites. A certain place to find fakes is while traveling in the countries of the Mediterranean. Selling fakes to tourists is almost a national sport in some regions. Trade in genuine ancients is strictly forbidden in many places but cheating tourists trying to break the local antiquity laws is perfectly legal. I receive an average of one note a week from someone asking me to help identify a coin purchased overseas while on vacation. These are almost always fakes of the most obvious nature. I can not emphasize too strongly that no one should plan on combining coin shopping with a visit to ancient sites. Visit Turkey, stay out of jail and buy your coins when you get home! Our illustration shows six fake ancient coins. On the left are two replicas produced to serve as souvenirs and marked "Copy" in accordance with the US Hobby Protection Act. Even unmarked, they should be recognizable as fake by anyone with minimal exposure to genuine coins. The center two are old fakes with something of a pedigree. On top is a 'Paduan' Divus Pertinax sestertius produced during the Renaissance to meet the demand for ancient items. Below is a white metal denarius of Nero by the 20th century copyist Peter Rosa (just one of several big names in the history of fake ancients). On the right are two very recent fakes. On top is a 'Black Sea Hoard' diobol of Messembria while below is a 'Slavei' (a Bulgarian copyist working currently) drachm of Alexander the Great. Persons interested in studying more on the subject of fake ancients should read Wayne Sayles' fine 2001 book Classical Deception available widely at larger bookstores. I show a few more commonly seen fakes on my Fakes page.

We must be careful to distinguish between various classes of non genuine mint products. The coins shown in the paragraph above were made to supply a need of coin collectors. In some cases this was open and educational; in others the intent of the maker was less high minded. This section adresses coins made in ancient times to circulate as money. They may not be genuine official mint issues but they were very much a part of the overall picture of coinage as it existed in ancient times. In the upper left we see a Fourree denarius of Caesar Augustus showing a butting bull. Wear on the rear of the bull has revealed a copper core under the thin silver surface layer. Plated denarii are very common in the Republican period and continue to be found until the official coinage contained too little silver to make the practice worthwhile. Some are impossible to distinguish by style from the real thing. It is quite possible that some fourrees were produced at the regular mints either as official policy or by 'moonlighting' employees. Those interested in this subject should visit my pages on Plated Coins.

The lower left coin is a pure silver copy of the Tribute Penny of Tiberius. This style was found in India probably dating to a period shortly after the issue of the originals. Traders in the East respected the good silver coins of the Republic and early Emperors (up till the Debasement of the silver under Nero). When good silver coin was not available, local craftsmen turned out copies for use in local commerce. This is termed Money of Necessity. The intent was not to deceive but to serve as spendable cash. The quality and weight of silver in this coin left no room for profit for its maker. The upper center coin is similar in many respects. Copying a drachm of Alexander the Great, it was issued by Celtic people in Eastern Europe who had been introduced to the concept of coinage and made coins of their own long after the departure of the invaders that had brought coins and cash economy to their lands. It is difficult for a culture to revert to a barter economy once they have tasted cash. A third example of Money of Necessity is the Constantinian (4th century AD) Urbs Roma commemorative bearing the mintmark TRS of the Treveri (Trier) mint. The style on these replicas varies from as good as the official to very crude. This (British?) coin is very good in terms of style but the wolf faces to wrong way compared to official issues. But for this error, the coin would probably pass unnoticed with genuine coin of the Empire.

Of uncertain status are thousands (millions?) of surviving bronze coins of the Severan era that copy silver denarii. Some examples still bear traces of a very thin silver wash. Our example in the upper right bears the legends of Clodius Albinus around a portrait of Septimius Severus. The reverse (not shown) belongs to Commodus. Such mismatches are common on these coins. Termed Limes (Lim-ace) or coins of the borders, these may be another example of coins of necessity. They may also be officially sanctioned issues for use in regions where political unrest made it hazardous to ship large amounts of silver. These low value issues could have served troops on the front and been redeemable for good coinage when they returned to the stable regions. We simply do not know. Some Limes denarii were cast in molds made from genuine coins while others (like out example) were struck from dies made for the purpose. They copy both common and rare types and are being found in large quantities in Eastern Europe on the edges of the Empire during the period of their issue. Perhaps future study will bring to light more information on these coins. A final class of questionable coins are Severan bronzes listed in Cohen and following catalogs as 'Cast in Gaul'. Our example (lower right) is an as of Caracalla much thinner and lighter than the coin it copied. Molds for these copies were made from original coins and copy die varieties quite closely. Their thin fabric and fuzzy details should enable collectors to identify them. Unfortunately, they are often sold without mention of their status by dealers who should know better. Again the correct status of the issue will require more study to understand.

Being 2000 years old, some ancient coins have survived in Condition as perfect as the day they were made; others were lost in fertilized fields and have corroded to a point that they can hardly be recognized as coins. Some were buried in sealed pots soon after manufacture; others circulated of over a century passing from hand to hand in thousands of transactions. Every ancient coin was an individual struck by hand with extreme variations of force and alignment. Beginners and non collectors can accept the poor condition of something 2000 years old. To collectors, those fortunate few coins that survived all the factors of chance and remain beautiful are valued far more highly than the ugly, worn and corroded majority. Modern coin collectors Grade coins according to the amount of Wear or detail removed from handling and friction in purse and pocket. Our illustration shows five coins showing differing amounts of wear. In the upper left a legionary denarius (galley) of Mark Antony is almost worn slick but retains just enough detail to be recognizable. Collectors call this 'Fair' condition. The second coin (Titus) has the outline of the portrait intact but has no separate detail within the outline. This is termed 'Very Good'. Not shown (I don't own one right now) is 'Good' which falls between these two. The right coin on the top row (Nerva) shows more detail but wear has broken the laurel wreath and merged the ear with the head. This is 'Fine'. The lower left coin (Elagabalus) has intact laurel wreath but shows light wear on the high points that leaves intact the outlines of the leaves on the laurel wreath but erases details of each leaf. Finally, the lower right and enlargement (Septimius Severus) shows sharp detail on the individual leaves and sharp texture in every hair. The coin shows a trace of wear on one leaf and the tip of the ear but still qualifies as 'Extremely Fine'. Perfect coins (termed 'Mint State') are exceedingly rare. I have never owned one. Many coins were struck poorly and never had full details of the die. When a coin is missing detail from strike rather than wear, dealers use the term 'As Struck'. In some cases these coins can be little better looking than the 'Fair' shown here. Buyer Beware! These grading standards are Conservative; others with lower standards try to sell Overgraded coins one or two grades higher than these guidelines. Moreover, ancient coins often have suffered from an array of other Factors of Manufacture and Preservation which have a great effect on the sales price/value of the coin far beyond the wear alone. With so many opinions and such a wide range found in the market, it is dangerous to buy any ancient coin described only by a letter grade. My Grading Pages are thought by many to be the best part of my website. I encourage everyone to visit all of its sections.

More to come?

For more of this series see:

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

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