Just What Is a Nummus?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Jan 11, 2022.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Most of us are familiar with the term, "Nummus", which seems to be commonly applied to small bronze coins, frequently advertised on coin sites as the Ae 3 or Ae 4 coins or actually giving these small bronzes the denomination of Nummus. For me, I think of the nummus in that way, a small bronze, circa late Roman Empire or early Byzantine empire.

    Now I like to keep up on my Latin and so I was translating some Pliny a few days ago and ran into the phrase (Epistulae 6.3) " centum milium nummum" literally, a hundred thousand nummi, which in this letter is the selling price of a piece of land. Since Pliny lived in the First Century AD I found his use of the term Nummus, a rather odd choice of words. Why not sesterces or denarii? Why not the use of a term with no ambiguity, something not a good idea when making a large purchase? Looking this up in an English translation of Pliny I found it translated as sesterces, one hundred thousand sesterces. It seems that Pliny and his correspondent knew full well that the word nummus in this context meanstsestertius.

    This got me to thinking that my own understanding of what a nummus was might be incorrect. I decided to research this term a bit. It looks like the Romans picked up the term from (where else) the Greeks. In Southern Italy and Sicily the Greeks were calling their silver staters by the term NOMOS. Why that word for a coin? The word NOMOS appears in my Classical Attic Greek dictionary as law or custom, but not as a word for coin, any kind of coin. But it is a commonly used word in Magna Graecia, perhaps in the sense that their staters were lawfully minted and the customary coin of commerce. For whatever reason the Romans picked it up and used it for their coinage. But what exact, individual denomination coin? Looking up nummus (also sometimes spelled with only one m) in Latin sources is not much help. It seems that the word could be used for several common Roman coins. I kept running into definitions that were maddingly broad and nebulous. To the Greeks it was a two drachma coin, to Romans a sestertius or a slang term for a denarius or just money in general as in our term cash. Then, to top it off, some Roman authors of the early Empire like Horace and Martial use the Greek variation nomisma, a term I always thought to be a much later Byzantine term but one apparently already in use centuries earlier (and still in use as a word for coin in modern Demotic Greek). Trying to nail down a definition of what is a nummus (or nomisma) by using dictionaries was not working, so, I tried books on numismatics.

    Stevenson's old dictionary of Roman coinage has the numus as "a coined piece of metal". Harl explains a nummus as a tiny billon or bronze and suggests a weight of .6 to 2.5 grams, but he also calls the follis of Diocletian a nummus and that is usually a larger and heavier coin. The Greek variation of nummus, the nomisma in Rynearson and Sear is mentioned as a coin that could be in either gold, electrum, silver or bronze. Carson's World of Coins says that nomisma was the common word for the solidus. i am getting the impression that nummus can be used for any coin depending on context, which is not so good if one does not know the context.

    If any readers can offer some insight on how these words, nummus and nomisma can be used with any kind of precision, please chime in on this and tell us how they ought to be used. Anyway, I have posted a few coins below which I think were called by the terms NOMOS, nummus or nomisma in their day. If readers can add to this list or the discussion please do and remember that if a person says or writes that someone spent a nummus or nomisma on something it does not mean a whole lot without more context.

    First is a nomos of the Southern Italian city-state of Velia with Athena on the obverse. It is a di-drachma of 7.4 grams and was minted about 300 BC. It is Sear 269. Next is a sestertius of Titus issued about the time Pliny was killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. it weighs a hefty 24 grams, not what I think a nummus should weigh. it is Sear 2527. The third coin is a follis of Diocletian from about 300 AD weighing in at 8.4 grams, again somewhat heavy for what I have though a nummus would be. Next are two smaller bronzes, a bronze Ae 3 nummus of Jovian, Sear 4086, issued right after he succeeded Julian and a very small Ae 4 nummus of Honorius. Next, a 40 nummia follis of Justin II, ca. 570 AD showing us what the Byzantines though a nummus (nomisma) ought to look like if this coin is worth forty of them. it is Sear 360. The last is an electrum nomisma of Michael VII issued about 1075 AD , weighing 4.4 grams and is Sear 1868. Again, any other examples of what might have been labelled a nomos, nummus or nomisma in its day or any thought on this, please join in. IMG_2161Nomos Nummus obv.jpg IMG_2161Nomos Nummus obv.jpg IMG_2162Nomos Nummus rev.jpg
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2022
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  3. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    The same discussion would work for terms like 'stater' or 'follis' (up to a point) and I think the reason for most of the confusion is the fact that authors wrote for their day and age, where everybody living at that particular time and in the Roman world knew exactly what they were talking about. The base denomination usually used in Pliny's time was the sestertius, so he wouldn't even bother mentioning that. In similar vein, what would a civilization 2000 years into the future, cut off from our common context, think about what '5 grand' or '500k' or '50 large' mean?
    RupertP and kevin McGonigal like this.
  4. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Good points,
    Sulla80 likes this.
  5. octavius

    octavius Well-Known Member

    I always thought the word nummus was the Latin word for "a coin" in general and not specific to any denomination at all.
  6. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 12, 2022
  7. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    I remember living as an Expat in the UK, and I used the term "a buck" for a dollar when we were talking values of items. My Team chuckled about it, and actually really liked the term and how it easily rolled off Americans' tongues. Similar to their "Quid" for a Pound (from "Quid quo pro")

    YET, a BUCK is from the time when we had X's for TEN on our currency. Those X's looked like SAWBUCKS to cut wood, and were shortened to Buck. However, it was from TEN dollar or TWENTY dollar notes, but now the term "BUCK" has moved to meaning one dollar.

    The language quickly changes when spoken and oral!
  8. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    The common billon coin in Diocletian's currency reform is referred to as the nummus, the plural form is nummi.

    2491170-023, AK Collection.jpg

    The essay in the link below gives a detailed explanation of Diocletian's Currency Reform.
    Diocletians_Monetary_Reform.pdf (moneta-coins.com)
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  9. savitale

    savitale Well-Known Member

    Thanks for this interesting write-up. I have also wondered about the terms nummus and follis, but never worked up the energy to dive deeper.
  10. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    That was my first thought. Language changes all the time, especially with money.

    the term "two-bit" refers to two of 12.5 cents, or a quarter. One bit was 1/8 of a US dollar, perhaps a holdover from cutting a Spanish 8 reales into 8 pieces.

    Another very common term is "dinero," which is Spanish for "money," just generic money. Obviously inspired by the term "denarius," which was once a denomination; now it's a catch-all phrase.
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  11. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    The term buck as the equivalent of a dollar long predates X's on dollar bills. In colonial America a male deer hide was the equivalent of the Spanish Pillar dollar, in trade, hence buck = dollar. And that could become a lot of doe.
    Ryan McVay and Alegandron like this.
  12. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    Random-ish thoughts. To begin, I think it is important to understand that the use of nummus by modern writers has its own technical sense which may or may not comport precisely with ancient uses.

    That said, the Latin term, as as others have noted, derives from the Greek and according to Mattingly and Robinson in the article linked below, originally referred specifically to the didrachm, the only Roman silver coin of the early period. As time went on and the Roman coinage evolved, “the term nummus became ambiguous and needed to be defined by adjectives expressing denomination (denarius) or type (victoriatus).”


    Fast forward to the late 4th century and two laws preserved in the Codex Theodosianus. The first, a law of 395 (9.23.2) refers to two coins then in circulation, centenionalis nummus and decargyrus nummus, both nummi and so requiring further adjectival definition. The law itself demonetizes the “large” decargyrus (believed to be the silvered AE2) and removes it from circulation, leaving the smaller centenionalis as the sole nummus in circulation:

    “We command that only the centenionalis nummus shall be handled in public use and that the larger money shall be abolished. No person, therefore, shall dare to exchange the decargyrus nummus for another, and he shall know that the aforesaid money, which can be seized if found in public use, will be vindicated to the fisc.”

    A few years later, a law of 398 (14.19.1) again refers to the nummus but without further qualification because (apparently) only one variety was then in public use:

    “The price of Ostian bread. It is our will that Ostian and fiscal bread shall be sold for one nummus (uno nummo). Furthermore, we sanction that no person by the authority of a sacred imperial rescript shall dare to increase the price, and if any person should offer such a supplication to the Emperor, a fine of two pounds of gold shall be inflicted upon him.“

    What ever you do, don’t ask the emperor to raise the price of bread! :jawdrop:
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2022
  13. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

    [delete, duplicate]
  14. sand

    sand Well-Known Member

    7Calbrey and kevin McGonigal like this.
  15. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    Interesting. In France the price of bread is free since 1987 only; when I was young it was decided by the government. I would very much like to know the weight of an Ostian or "fiscal" bread of the 4th c. AD., so I could calculate the buying power in €uros of a Theodosian LRB.
  16. Hommer

    Hommer Curator of Semi Precious Coinage Supporter

    Any idea where smacker or smackeroo originated?
  17. savitale

    savitale Well-Known Member

    Seems quite confusing, I suppose in part because the coins evolved a lot over this period. Though at the time it probably seemed quite gradual. I’d enjoy seeing a “mint set” of all the denominations minted in a given year.
  18. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Thanks for your response quoting the original sources. That makes a difference when a writer does that.
  19. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Edit Duplicate
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2022
  20. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    EDIT: Duplicate
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2022
  21. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    I posted this in the duplicate thread yesterday but nobody is posting on that one, so here is again.
    I have also encountered this conundrum, and it seems like outside of denarius, sestertius, dupondius, and as it's all a bit confusing. For example, everyone knows that the word antoninianus is not in history but was invented by numismatists after Antoninus Caracalla, who introduced the coin.

    I have a nomisma in my collection (gold) which as you say seems like a term for a tenth/11th century Byzantine gold coin (replacing the term solidus) that eventually was debased. If anyone can figure out exactly what a nummus was they should win a million dollars.

    Constantine X Ducas, 1059-1067.

    AV Histamenon Nomisma. (AV, 28 mm, 4.41 g, 5 h), Constantinople. +IhS XIS RЄX RЄςNANTҺIm Christ, nimbate, seated facing on square-backed throne, wearing tunic and pallium, raising his right hand in benediction and holding book of Gospels in his left. Rev. +KωN RAC Λ O ΔOVKAC Constantine X standing facing, wearing crown and loros, holding labarum in his right hand and globus cruciger in his left. DOC 1a. SB 1847.

  22. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Thanks for reposting and is a gorgeous Nomisma. Byzantine copper tracheas from this time period are often illegible, blundered, strikes but when they made these scyphates of precious metals they could do a very good job.
    ancient coin hunter likes this.
  23. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    For whatever it's worth, here's the definition of "nummus" from pp. 222-223 of John Melville Jones's Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins, published by Seaby in London in 1990:

    Nummus definition p. 1.jpg

    Definition of Nummus 2.jpeg
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