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I. The As Libralis, was 12 unciae (or ounces) in weight. This lasted from Servius Tullius, about the A.U.C. 107 (555 B.C.), as far as the time of the first Punic war, which commenced in the year of Rome 490 (B.C. 264).--The Denarius, a silver coin, began to be struck five years before this war, and was valued at 10 asses librales, whence its name.
II. The As Sextantarius was of the weight of two ounces. This standard began whilst the first Punic war was at its height, and continued till the dictatorship of Q. Fabius Maximus, upon which he entered A.U.C. 537 (B.C. 217, 2nd year 2nd Punic war.)
III. The As Uncialis, weighed one ounce; from the dictatorship of Q. Fabius until the introduction of the Lex Papiria; respecting which law, it is not precisely ascertained at what time or by which Papirius it was carried. The word mox, used by Pliny, shews that this form of the as did not last long. From that time the value of the denarius was authoritatively fixed at 16 asses.
Such are the sum and substance of the indications given by Pliny. But there are not a few circumstances which appear to be at variance with them. And these Eckhel proceeds to point out in the following manner:
"Firstly, they are contradicted by experience itself. For in many museums there are numerous specimens of the as, and those undoubtedly Roman, which weight 11, 10, and 8 ounces, &c. Also semisses of 5, 4, &c.--And in the same ratio the triens, quadrans, sextans, and uncialis. Hence it is evident that the as could by no means have been (as Pliny appears to assert) reduced suddenly without any intermediate diminution, to the weight of 2 unciae.
"Secondly, as the commonwealth, on the reduction of the as to 2 unciae, gained a profit of 5-6ths for the liquidation of the public debt; so, to private individuals, the loss was proportionate. Then came the half of this; when the sextantarius was diminished to one uncia. And lastly, the half of this again, on the introduction of the semiuncial as. Therefore he, who, in the year U.C. 490, had 60,000 asses, put out to interest, found himself suddenly reduced to 10,000; in forty-seven years afterwards to 5,000; and not long after that, by Papirian law, to 2,500. Now if this money decreased in weight, the rich, by the concomitant rise in the price of articles, must have been reduced to poverty, and the poor to utter destitution, could any other result have happened than the entire ruin of the state?
"Thirdly, since the denarius was worth 10 asses librales, and there were 34 denarii in the libra, (on Pliny 's testimony concurred in by that of Celsus and Scribonius Largus,) it necessarily follow, that silver was to brass at that period, as 1 to 840, in value. Now, how much soever we may be inclined to regard the ancient Romans as poor, and deficient in the more precious metals, can such an extreme disproportion between silver and brass be considered probable? But though to the great majority this opinion must appear repugnant to all truth, yet to many it was matter of belief that the denarius struck at that time when the as libralis was still in use, was of greater weight. [After combatting with conclusive effect the visionary conjectures of Savot and others of the elder school of numismatists on this point, Eckhel next observes:]
"Fourthly, the most astonishing fact is this. The denarius, which at first was equivalent to 10 asses librales, or 120 unciae, within a comparatively few years, was worth 16 semi-uncial asses, or 8 unciae. I do not (adds our author) impugn this last proportion, which indeed does not exceed the bounds of moderation--namely that, for a denarius, which was one-seventh of an uncia, were exchanged 8 unciae of brass money. But who can easily digest the notion, that in so short a space of time, silver, from being the most costly metal, was reduced to such cheapness?"
So far the Author of "Doctrina," on Pliny 's account of the early history of the Roman coinage, and of the diminution of the as.--Dr. Cardwell in one of his lectures, treating of the same subject, offers remarks, of which the tenor perfectly coincides with the above cited views and reasonings of the great Numismatist of Vienna, as to the doubtful correctness of Pliny 's account. "But," adds the Learned Principal of St. Alban 's Hall, "the strongest objection against the statement of Pliny still remains. If his account were correct, no as could ever have been minted of a weight between the libralis of the earliest period, and the Sextantarius of the Punic war; nor, in like manner, any Semissis between the full weight of six ounces, and the reduction to one single ounce; whereas the fact is, that we meet with both these coins, in all the several stages of degradation, proving incontestably that the change was gradual. That such changes were actually made, and that the common currency of Rome underwent repeated, and at last extreme variations in its standard, is a fact that might certainly be anticipated from the unscientific character of the times, from the demands of a constant state of warfare, and even from the universal prevalence of debt; but this fact is fully established, as to the mode and extent of its operation, not by what we gather from history, but by what is clearly laid before us in a series of coins."--vi. p. 140.
[As to the voluminous opinions which have been founded on the statements of the old writers, by a host of modern ones, as well respecting the real weight of ancient Roman libra (or pound) as with regard to the reductions successively made in the weight of the as--neither are they clear enough in themselves, nor are they sufficiently accordant with each other, nor (what is most important) are they, with the requisite degree of correspondence, borne out by the coins themselves to which they refer, to furnish a clue by which any positive decision can be arrived at, on those respective points of discussion; whilst they equally fall short of establishing any well-digested scale, by which to measure those sudden and extraordinary diminutions in the size and weight of the Roman brass coinage, that Pliny and the others affirm to have taken place. If indeed a Froelich declared himself incompetent to the task of disentangling this question from its great ambiguities and difficulties--if even an Eckhel, with all his vigour of industrious research, but in the same spirit of modesty inseparable from true genius, has ventured to do little more, in this instance, that to adduce the varying opinions of others, and then "leave the reader to select that which appears to him most reasonable." And though last not least entitled to consideration, if, after the acquirements and exertions of such eminent antiquaries as Cardinal Zelada, and other Italian investigators of Uncial coins--men who had such superior advantages for evolving the truth, from the genuine pieces before them--if (we say) after all these advantages and efforts, so comparatively trifling an advance has been made in practical knowledge, on a question which has been most assiduously and obstinately disputed--we may well be excused for dwelling no longer upon it, that whilst summing-up the amount of the information furnished to us from the sources above-mentioned. And this cannot perhaps be better done than by here concentrating the remarks of M. Hennin, on this subject:--
"The notices given by Pliny on the diminution of the as, and of weights, are neither free from the features of improbablility, nor are they confirmed by the data furnished, on a comparison of the weights with the coins themselves. It is difficult indeed to believe that, in so short a space of time, the as should have been reduced from twelve to two ounces. The differences, which must have resulted from such large reductions, would have caused too great a destruction of property, to have admitted of such enormous changes.--On the other hand, there exist as, or parts of the as, whose size and weight indicate a still lower reduction than that to the as semi-uncialis: that is to say, a reduction from the half-ounce to the quarter-ounce as; whence it follows that the as was successively diminished to the forty-eighth part of its original weight. And whatever may have been these successive reductions, the fact remains that there exist as and fractions of the as, of different weights, and which may be classes according to their respective weights."
In conclusion, amidst much that is vague, confused, and improbably, thus much may be looked upon as matter of fact, devoid altogether of doubt and uncertainty, viz.--1. That the first Roman money was of brass.--2. That the first unit of the Roman mint was a value named as, which was likewise the unit of weight and measures.--3. That the first as money existed from the establishment of a coinage at Rome, under Servius Tullius, to the first Punic was.--4. That five years before that period, namely, A.U.C. 408 (B.C. 269), silver money was first struck at Rome.--5. That, at this epocha, an alteration took place in the monetal unit. The as, which had become of less and less value, ceased to serve the purpose of numbering sums, and the Sestertius took its place as the unit of money.--6. That the module and weight, and consequently the metallic value of the as, having experienced these successive reductions up to the era of the imperial government of Rome, brass money then became fixed at a lower value, in the ratio of its weight; and this value preserved a greater degree of steadiness than it had previously possessd.-- See Manuel de Numismatique Ancienne, T.i. passim.
[It has already been observed, that the as has for its types, on one side the head of Janus, called bifrons, having two faces, with an oblong sign , placed at the top of the head, as the distinguishing nota, or mark; and on the other side, the prow of a ship, with a similar note or sign.
At the beginning of this article, on the subject of the as, is placed an engraving in wood, to the exact size, from a cast, of which the original is, with others of the same class, in the cabinet of the British Museum. It weighs 8 ozs. 4 dwts. 20 grains, and measures two inches and a half in diameter.
This well preserved and rare specimen of its circular brass coinage is assigned, by numismatic antiquaries, to a very early, though not the earliest, period of the Roman mint. Nevertheless, looking to its style of fabric--its free design--its high and bold relief--and particularly to the features of the bifrons, so decidedly analagous as they are with the characteristics of Etruscan art, it seems scarcely possible to avoid asociating this noble relic of antiquity to an age of monetal workmanship anterior to that of Rome. But then there is the fact to encounter, that even this cast piece of rounded copper, from the die-sinker 's matrix, with all its breadth, thickness, and weight, is itself an instance of great diminution from the original as, which from a pound of 12 ounces, gradually dwindled down to the weight of hardly half an ounce! So un-
satisfactory, even to repulsiveness, are as yet the results of research and argument, on points of essential importance, connected with this particular branch of Roman Numismatics.
In the preceding example of the smaller sized as, without the names of families, the word ROMA on the reverse is certainly not required to indicate either the place, or the later date, of its mintage. The archaics of Etruria had clearly nothing to do with coins of this description, which are stamped as to legend and fabric, with the indubitable impress of republican Rome.--This specimen is selected from a plate in Kolb 's Traite Elementaire, (T.i.pl. 1), chiefly on account of the winged thunderbolt accompanying the prow, a symbol rarely seen on this class of coins.
The two following are proofs of the still further reduction of the as, and each is inscribed with the name of a Roman family, viz.:--
Cornelia gens.--A second brass on which we read CIN.AE, above the ship 's prow, and ROMA, below it. It was Cn. Cornelius Magnus, grandson of Pompeius Magnus, whose name thus appears under the form of Cina.--See Dict. of Greek and Roman Biography, &c. 1, 755.]
As libralis.--In reference to this appellation, given by Latin authors, to the most ancient brass money of Rome, and as also indicating a weight of twelve unciae, Eckhel says, "Up to the present time, no Roman as libralis has ever been discovered; and of the parts of the as, Passeri cites but one instance of a triens, which weighed four unciae."
As Italicus.--Several cities of Magna Graecia, and of other districts of Italy, adopted in the earlier times, for their monetary unit, the Roman as. And the explanations, which relate to the as. also apply to them.
It is to be observed, however, that by the elder school of numismatic antiquaries, sufficient distinction was not made, between the as minted at Rome, and that of the other Italian cities. More attention was paid to this subject by deeply learned men of a subsequent period; and the result of their recondite studies has established the fact, that certain nations of Italy (such as the Volaterrani, the Tudertes, the Iguvini, the Hadriani,) had each their own coinage of the as; and that these were of the proper weight, as is shewn by the name of the respective cities inscribed on their coins.--Livy, in more than one passage, related, that the inhabitants of Italy, conquered at different periods by the Romans, were despoiled, by the victors, of their brass money. "Therefore," says Eckhel, "we must not reckon amongst the coinage of Rome, all pieces of that king, which, being without inscriptions, do not declare the locality in which they were struck. It is the TYPES which furnish the clearest evidence of the ROMAN die. For the as presents on its obverse a head of Janus; the semis, of Jupiter; the triens, of Pallas; the quadrans, of Hercules; the sextans, of Mercury; the uncia, also of Pallas; whilst all of them exhibit the prow of a vessel on their reverse.--And that these types were peculiar to the Roman coins is proved by the asses, and their constituent parts, which, afterwards diminished in size, bear the names of Roman families, with ROMA inscribed near them; and which continued to be distinguished by the same types on both sides respectively, to the latest period of the Republic. For there are brass coins even of Sextus, which display on one side the head of Janus, and on the other the prow of a vessel."--The erudite and sagacious author of Doctrina, then goes on to caution his readers against considering, indiscriminately, coins which bear the very name of the Roman people to have been all of Roman fabric, many of them having been ascertained to belong to Panormus (Palermo, in Sicily), Paestum (in Southern Italy), and other places.--Moreover there are extant, brass coins of the Clovia, Oppia, and other Roman families, which present every indication of a foreign mint.--If therefore all these are (and they ought to be) excluded, there would remain but an insignificantly small number of those which form exceptions to the rule, and respecting which any doubt could be entertained, as to whether they should be classed amongst the coins of Rome." Since then (adds Eckhel) "it may be regarded as a rule, failing only in a very few instances out of a vast number, that those are Roman coins, which are distinguished by the above-mentioned types, so I should scarcely hesitate to pronounce, that the exceptions belong, in almost every case, to a foreign people, though an unknown one."
For some further notices, incidental to this subject, see Brass coinage of the Romans.