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 in 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 means sestertius.

    This got me to thinking that my own understanding of what a nummus was was 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 word used 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 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 would 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 nummus of Jovian, Sear 4086, issued right after he succeeded Julian and a very small Ae 4 nummus of Hororius. Lastly 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. View attachment 1424430 View attachment 1424430 View attachment 1424431
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2022
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    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.

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  4. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    I place much less importance in the matter than most people. To me, nummus means 'coin' and nothing more. It does seem odd that it was used by Pliny since his day had multiple denominations but much of the time in later periods there was just one common coin so people would know what you meant. Yes, there were other coins like gold, for example, but people probably could communicate values in context without spelling out details any more than if I were to ask you what you paid for your car and you answered '23'. After the middle of the third century it seems that most attempts to have parallel denominations did not last long and different people from different classes might rarely have occasion to need to know how many coppers you had to give for a gold. 'Scholars' don't like to admit that they don't have all the answers or that the answer they have don't apply in every time and place. From that we get invented names like antoninianus or expect the word coin to have meant the same thing to Pliny that it did to Constantine. In the later period, I doubt people saw old coins very often. I am curious what you did if you had no current coin but had a bunch of old ones that had been called in years before. I am unaware of any explanations of this in primary sources and guesses made on assumptions are not solid facts. To me, it is an interesting question but not one with a clean cut answer.
  5. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

  6. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

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