The Bicharacta


Roman coin denominations today fall into a number of categories.

First of all there are the well attested ancient names (denarius, sestertius, as for example).

Secondly there are names that crop up in ancient texts that refer to coins in a general way that then gets modern use for a specific denomination, the best known of which is antoninianus.

The antoninianus gets its name from Caracalla (M. Antoninus), the emperor who introduced the radiate silver coin in 215 AD, and occurs in the oft discredited text the Historiae Augustae. The name antoninianus crops up four times in that document and scholars have chosen to attribute that name to the coin. However, for three of the occasions (during the letters of Valerian) it refers to a GOLD coin and on only one occasion (during the letters of Aurelian) it is referring to a silver coin!

Thirdly there are modern names used to differentiate issues, for example, the use of the term "aurelianus" for the post reform base silver radiate coin (frequently marked XXI or KA) introduced by the emperor Aurelian, taking as its model the antoninianus or pre-reform radiate base silver coin.

In the early 1970's an inscription was published by Crawford, Erim et al. from Aezani that referred to a coin called the bicharacta or bicharactam. This was taken by the original authors to mean that the coin was struck twice, that is, was overstruck, presumably on a previous issue. The date of the inscription was c.301 AD and was connected to the Edict of Maximum Prices issued by Diocletian. However few (if any?) coins from that period are encountered overstruck in such a manner.

Aezani inscription from Erim, Reynolds and Crawford, JRS 1970

The inscription is very fragmentary and the late John Kent of the British Museum knew an additional portion, one that was un-published as far as I am aware. By supplementing the original inscription fragments with the new piece the text reads "bicharactam pecuniam.........qvae in maiore orbis partec......qvattvor denariorvm", or in other words the "bicharactam pecunia.. the coin that most of the world knows as a four denarius". Sadly I do not have a photograph of this fragment, however I do have a hand written note from Dr Kent's presentation.

It is clear from the value of this coin that the coin referred to is the radiate base coin ("post reform radiate"), that certainly from the eastern mints like Antioch has two figures (bi characters) on the reverse.

The feature of the two figures on the eastern radiates was not new at this time but was a familiar feature from the mid third century onwards. Whether the attribution of the aurelianus post 274 AD should be a four denarius piece (as to the supposed two denarii of the antoninianus, pre Aurelianic reform at least) cannot be derived from this inscription. What is evident is the increase in weight and metallic composition, thereby suggesting some form of re-valuation in the aureliani. What could be derived, however, is the name, even if it is a colloquialism for the coin, the bicharacta.

If anybody knows whether this is published anywhere in any language I would be grateful for the reference as contemporary names for the Roman coins fascinate me.

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2004 RJB