Lifespan for ancient coins

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by ambr0zie, Mar 3, 2021.

  1. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    First of all I apologize if this was discussed but I have this curiosity since I started collecting and I haven't found an answer.

    When a new Roman emperor was crowned, it's clear that the coins from the old emperor remained in circulation. So I expect a Roman citizen in Trajan's time to pay without issues with this Denarius

    Especially but not exclusively in remote parts of the Empire, where "new" coins arrived later than in Rome.
    Question is how long. Was there any rule? Or the average Joe didn't care about the emperor and the reverse and just knew that when he needs to pay something with 4 Denarii, he will take 4 silver coins about the same size from his pocket? Same thing with 3 sestertii, he would need to pay with 3 bulky bronzes, no matter what was written on them.
    When I started collecting, I was amazed about the large number of varieties for all coins. I don't think an average citizen was too interested about legends or even a middle class Roman had the chance to see all the coins with the portrait of the current emperor.

    In the time of, let's say, Antoninus Pius, was one like this still in circulation?
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  3. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Unwell Unknown Unmembered Supporter

    You know, 99% of the people using the coins were completely illiterate so the coin was just a portrait of someone that gave it some look of familiarity.

    In some cases coins were circulating centuries after they were minted - not likely continuously of course but if someone found some older coins in say a jug or something they would put them to use and not let them become worthless.

    I have read accounts of a coin survey done in the south of France early in the 19th century where some ancient Romans were used in transactions even at that late date - it is probable that they were found much later and then used for their created purpose.
  4. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    I read somewhere that in 14th-15th century somewhere in Western Europe, bronzes from 4th century, extremely worn of course, were still accepted as alternate currency, but I can't remember the source.
    I realize people in ancient times were, most of them, illiterate and didn't care about portraits, designs, legends. However they were still somehow careful, as they had to know how to distinguish a Dupondius from an As (and for some we all know this is difficult even for us as collectors).
    For Greek coins the problem is even bigger, as the drawings are more abstract so I don't see how a simple person could distinguish an obol from a hemiobol, especially since these are rarely well centered and the "correct" size ....
    +VGO.DVCKS, ominus1, NOS and 2 others like this.
  5. Scipio

    Scipio Well-Known Member

    Under Vespasianus huge amounts of wornrepublican denarii were tested to check their weight and countermarked to grant they can still circulate, like this one. 416C6D9F-ED19-4903-B22A-FCE7B283C479.jpeg
  6. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    As there were no banks, all excess cash was stored as it was. Imagine the variety of coins in temple treasures!
    Also, the Roman empire traded with peoples that had a far cruder economy. A big find in Denmark some years ago, contained Roman coins spanning 150 years, from Nero to Septimius Severus. Those northern tribes didn’t have a money economy, but they appreciated prescious metals like everybody else.
  7. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    Technically, you could accept a Roman coin now as payment if you wanted to. I would! But in terms of what was in general circulation, hoards give you some idea of the mix of coins at the time.

    Galba Denarius, 68-69
    Rome. Silver, 16x17mm, 3.03g (RCV I#2109).

    This Galba was in the Westbury-sub-Mendip Hoard, which by other coins in the hoard can be assumed to have been buried around 193AD. So the Galba had been circulating 125 years. The hoard contained coins from Marc Antony (32-31BC) to Septimius Severus (AD193), covering 225 years. But they were all silver denarii, so there was some rationale behind what was accepted.

    In the Thruxton Hoard, buried around 402AD, all the coins were miliarenses and siliquas from the period 355 to 402AD (Constantius II to Arcadius). They weren't still using denarii or Constantinian bronzes, even though only 130 years had passed since the last denarius was struck (compared to 225 years for the oldest coins in the Westbury-sub-Mendip Hoard). They had presumably come out of circulation during the monetary reforms, either to be melted down or hoarded.

    Arcadius Siliqua, 392-395
    Treveri. Silver, 17mm, 1.3g (RIC IX Trier 106b var). From the Thruxton Hoard.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2021
  8. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    One of the triggers of perhaps the recalling of coins was debasement and inflation. So long as the standard for silver coinage in terms of purity was roughly the same, one might not see the public losing confidence in the coin of the realm. However, when the government started pulling tricks like reducing the fineness of the silver to 50% or less and introducing a new coin that weighed 1.5x a denarius yet was tariffed at two, those kinds of things must have been noticed, particular when tax time came around where the central authorities were earning a profit off the citizens' backs.

    After the 250's A.D. the monetary system imploded - provincial civic issues ceased around 260 A.D., both in silver and bronze. Sestertii, asses, and dupondii disappeared, and the only thing passing for coinage to be used by average folks were the antoniniani of less than 5% silver, that being a silver "wash" designed to give a shiny appearance for a short amount of time. Gold however remained of high purity, however the aureus shrank in weight and size during the reign of Gallienus.

    Given the conditions, there was no way good silver was still circulating, either confiscated by the government to issue millions of antoniniani or hoarded. If I was in that situation and still had some coins worth something, I undoubtedly would have hidden them in a jug and either buried them or sealed them inside a wall in my house - hoping for better times.
    Zebucatt, Scipio, +VGO.DVCKS and 6 others like this.
  9. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Here's an old thread with my comment on the general subject you raise in your first sentence, quoting from an even older thread:

    I was having a sense of deja vu while reading through this, because I thought I might have posted before about some of these issues, citing some articles or books. It turns out that I did, back in June in the "Ancient Idiots: Ask the Experts Anything" thread. Here's what I posted:

    "[W]hat looks like a very interesting article, as translated into English, entitled "Circulation of Roman Coinage in Northern Europe in Late Antiquity," can be found at at A brief excerpt:

    "In North-Central Europe 2nd century denarii and subaerati are noted almost always in Late Roman and Early Migration Period contexts, i.e. be-tween A.D. 3rd and the 5th century. Most of the denarii hoards, which additionally contain non-numismatic elements, mainly ornaments, are dated to the Migration Period; many deposits from Gotland are recorded even in Late Migration Period contexts. Denarii continue to appear also in Frankish graves dated to 5th and 6th centuries and even later. Strong wear of the denarii from Barbaricum suggests that they were used over a long period.

    The other very important group of Roman coinage in Barbaricum are 2nd and early 3rd century sestertii found particularly on the south-eastern Baltic — in Pomerania, Sambian peninsula and the lower Neman River, areas settled by Germanic and West Balt societies. Sestertii are registered in hoards, graves, and as stray finds. In my opinion the influx of the wave of sestertii to the Baltic coast ought to be dated to the period between A.D. 180 and the mid 3rd century, until early Valerianus and Gallienus. There is evidence that they originated from the western Empire and the latest series, dated to the mid-3rd century, may have come directly from northern Italy. The distribution, chronology and provenance of this very specific group of coinage strongly suggest its links with the amber trade which, as a result of Marcomanic Wars, had to take place by a roundabout sea route."

    See also at p. 7: "There is some evidence that late Roman low-denomination coins were still circulating in the
    fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as were privately produced jettons (Dyer, 1997, p. 40)." [From an paper entitled "Technologies of money in the Middle Ages:
    The ‘Principles of Minting’," by Oliver Volckart of the London School of Economics.]

    Finally, see the [2016] thread at entitled "How long were Roman coin in circulation for?"; it's at;wap2. One comment cites an article mentioning Roman bronzes from a hoard circulating (on a small scale) as farthings in 1741; see [The book cited is
    Rev. Gilbert White, The natural history and antiquities of Selborne, London, Printed for J. and A. Arch [etc., 1837], Source:
    cf. pp. 516-517.]

    [Another comment, by our own @Jochen1, mentions that he had read that "Roman sestertii were used until begin of 19th century as sous pieces in France," presumably because of the similarity in size.]

    Another comment, by a Forum member named Gallienus1, states:

    "With the collapse of the Western Empire the new coins minted by the tribal successor states probably could not be produced in the numbers needed for trade, pay for the loyalty of warriors or even for every day exchange. It is therefore reasonable to expect that Roman coins that survived in circulation would be used until worn into featureless discs, then melted down for reuse.

    Then the[re] are hoard coins. Hoards have been found from the time they were hidden to the present day. Reading an excerpt from The Social Circulation of the Past: English Historical Culture 1500-1730 by Daniel Woolf indicates to me that hoards were discovered at a much greater frequency in the past than they are today. In the 15th through to 18th centuries some of these coins must have re-entered the economy as unofficial units of exchange based on the monetary value of their metal content.

    Names given for Roman coins such as 'madning money', 'Binchester pennies' and 'Burrough money' certainly suggest that the locals at least may have used them as a means of exchange.
    The part in the excerpt that makes me weep is the schoolmaster who gets his students to look for Roman coins and when they found enough silver ones he had them melted down to make a silver tankard!" (Citing<a href='' target='_blank'>roman</a>+coins&source=bl&ots=eCC8e-HzIS&sig=IGt_9KA2bw0GKhI7GE9JFVoBXPk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiZzKq62IjQAhWJHJQKHUjQBtE4KBDoAQgfMAE#v=onepage&q=circulation of roman coins&f=false .)"
  10. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    @DonnaML many thanks. Quite something to read there.
    DonnaML likes this.
  11. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    If we think about United States coins, right now, we see a very long lifespan. In theory, US coins from 1792 are still acceptable as legal tender, so that's almost 250 years of acceptable coinage.

    Also like Rome, US coins circulate all over the world as well, though not to the same extent. Some foreign countries demand certain types of US coin and currency only and will not accept the older stuff.
    However, at least in this country, you can still get face value for pretty much coin every minted under the auspices of the United States Treasury.
  12. Victor_Clark

    Victor_Clark standing on the shoulders of giants Dealer

    two different questions here...continued usage versus re-introduction

    two re-introduced coins-- apparently Spanish IIII maravedis over a millennium of "circulation"


  13. romismatist

    romismatist Well-Known Member

    I remember visiting Fort York in Toronto and reading in one of the displays that a few late Roman bronzes were found in excavations on the site, which was in use during the late 18th / early 19th centuries. The British colonies (even the first New England ones) suffered from an ongoing lack of copper coinage... this led to various tokens being struck for profit, but also resulted in other unofficial "coinage" also being brought over from the Old World. Examples include the "raadsteken" (early town tokens) of Groningen being found in Roanoake, VA, or the often worn, countermarked "douzains" being shipped over from France to New France (Quebec all the way down to Louisiana) back in the 17th century. So having LRBs coming into the mix in the colonial days may have not been that crazy a notion.
  14. Everett Guy

    Everett Guy Well-Known Member

    Excellent thread...very interesting.
  15. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    The shops at Sardis were destroyed around 617 A.D. (possibly by Persians). In the ruins, thousands of coins were found by archaeologists. Lots of Byzantine coins, of course, since this was Byzantine territory, but also lots of little Late Roman Bronze coins that were a couple hundred years old then - in fact about half of the coins found were Roman (pre-491 A.D.).

    A while back I posted excerpts from the findings:
    DonnaML and ancient coin hunter like this.
  16. Silverlock

    Silverlock Well-Known Member

    As a point of reference, it takes about thirty years of constant usage for a freshly minted modern coin to wear to the point it is less than Good. Think coins in a casino or penny arcade. Most coins aren’t subjected to that frequency of use, however, so an average fifty to seventy year useful lifespan is a good rule of thumb for copper and silver coins. When the mint used to retire coins they were generally of that age. Gold coin lifespan is anyone’s guess, since they were commonly used as stores of wealth rather than in everyday transactions.

    There are many reasons coins would not last their expected lifespan. Change of government and debasement being the most frequent. Sometimes coins lived well beyond their useful lifespan through countermarking or by being treated as bullion rather than a coin.

    Short answer: If things were stable enough long enough — it’s surprising how infrequently that occurred — then a reasonable expectation is up to seventy five years.
    svessien and DonnaML like this.
  17. kirispupis

    kirispupis Well-Known Member

    From what I understand, Spanish Dollars were valid tender in the US until 1857, so in theory it was possible to pay for groceries in 1857 with a coin minted in 1497.
  18. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Unwell Unknown Unmembered Supporter

    Going earlier than Rome, the Athenian tetradrachm circulated literally for hundreds of years. athensowl.jpg
    hotwheelsearl, Bing and Johndakerftw like this.
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