The Wonderful World of Roman Coins

This blog aims to provide a whistle stop tour of Roman coins. However, this by no means represents the entirety of the Roman Coins, denominations, or, designs that can be seen throughout the Empire. Instead we’re aiming to provide a background to the types of coins that have been found in the UK

 

Denominations:

Just like our current currency system, the Roman system was made up of different denominations of coin, with different materials being used to create the higher status coins.

The Roman currency system underwent a series of changes due to inflation, and the debasement of some of the current coinage of the time. Debasement occurs when the base metal of the coin was reduced, and therefore its’ value was considered to be less. The most popular denominations of coins will be discussed in more detail below;

 

Aureus:

  • Largest denomination
  • Gold unit
  • First issued from the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 4th century AD
  • Most popular between the 1st and 2nd century AD
  • Equivalent of 25 denarius

 

Denarius:

  • Silver unit
  • Most commonly found coin by the reign of Septimus Severus (Reece 1975, 300)
  • Equivilant of 10 As
  • Struck between 211BC and 244AD
  • Replaced by the double denarius in the 3rd century (antoninianus)

 

As:

  • Copper alloy unit
  • Reduced production by the 3rd century

 

Under Emperor Augustus two additional units were introduced, the dupondii and the sestertii (Crawford 1970, 41). The exact reason for these additional denomination is unknown; however, it has been argued that the Empire was decreasing the fineness of their coins in order to allow their raw materials to go further. Therefore, in order to maintain the values of the coins in their monetary system, additional denominations needed to be added;

 

Dupondii;

  • Equivilant of 2 Aes
  • Copper Alloy unit
  • During the reign of Nero, the obverse image usually wore a radiate crown

 

Sestertii:

  • Copper Alloy unit
  • Equivilant of 4 Aes under Augustus
  • Commonly found in the UK between 50AD to 260AD
  • No longer minted towards the end of the 3rd century

 

 

Inscriptions:

Imperial Coins:

  • Emperor on the obverse
  • Inscriptions feature the name of the ruler, title and honorary titles
  • To read inscriptions start at 6 o’clock (the base of the neck) and follow the writing clockwise

Reading Inscriptions:

  • The first part of the inscription shows the emperors name
  • Emperors may also include the names of emperors before them to align themselves with their successes
  • In this case Marcus Aurelieus choses to identify with his father Antoninus Pius – M ANTONINVS
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.

 

 

 

  • Most Emperors also included the name of the first emperor Augustus
  • This became associated with symbols of power
  • AVG – Augustus
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.

 

  • The rest of the inscription usually focuses on religious, political, military or honorary titles
  • Here ARM represents victories in Armenia
  • The last part of the inscription also focuses on victories in the east – PARTH MAX
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website.

 

 

 

Crowns:

The types of crown on a coin can help us ascertain the denomination and the date of issue

 

Laureate:

  • Wreath of laurel, oak or ivy branches
  • Most common

 

Radiate:

  • Spiky crown (associated with the sun god Sol)
  • Used on double denominations (dupondius)

 

Diadem:

  • Band of metal or cloth (which can often be decorated)

 

Mints:

  • Mints refer to where the coins were produced
  • From the 3rd century AD Roman mints began printing mint marks on the reverse of the coin to show where it was made
  • Juno Moneta is the Roman goddess concerned with the personification of money, and sometimes features on coins

 

Currency System:

  • 1 Aureus = 25 Denarii = 250 aes
  • Following periods of financial instability (debasement) additional denominations were added into this system such as the sestertius in order to try and stabilise coin values

 

Debasement:

  • Lowers the value of currency
  • Occurs when the precious metal of the coin is reduced and new denominations are added to the currency system to try and counter balance the effects of inflation.

 

Contemporary Copies:

  • Contemporary copies are coins produced unofficially at the same time as the official coinage is being produced. There is an increased in contemporary copies from the 3rd century due to the monetary instability of the period
  • The most commonly found copies in England are Barbarous Radiates.
  • Barbarous Radiates are usually smaller in size, irregularly shaped and lighter in weight than official issues. They also show poor quality art work, such as inscriptions with errors or below standard portraits and reverse designs
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website. Highlights the differences between a Barbarous Radiate (left) and Official Radiate of Gallienus
Image taken from the Portable Antiquities Website. Highlights the differences between a Barbarous Radiate (left) and Official Radiate of Gallienus

 

Ribchester Coins:

  • So far at Ribchester we have found over 70 coins
  • There are a range of denominations and dates represented, supporting the interpretation of a long period of occupation in the fort
  • You may have seen one of our coins on the most recent series of Digging for Britain

Ribchester Coin

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a more comprehensive understand of the world of Roman coins, please visit the Portable Antiquities resources here: https://finds.org.uk/romancoins