TRIVIA: Ancient Roman Coin Denominations

Discussion in 'Coin Chat' started by Clinker, Aug 3, 2010.

  1. Clinker

    Clinker Coin Collector

    In Ancient Rome, the empire's currency system was based entirely on coins of different types and values, which also served as political statements by the emperors who minted them.

    Types of coins in the Roman monetary system were the as (made of bronze), the sestertius (also made of bronze), a silver coin called a denarius and, a gold coin called an aureus.

    The as was the base unit of Roman currency. A sestertius was worth four ases, and a denarius was worth 16 ases. The aureus was the most valuable by far, worth 25 denarii.

    Now that you know, what do the coins look like?

    AS Augustus Circa 14 AD:

    As Roman Provincial Moesia Caesar Marcianopolis Diadumenian 217-218 AD:

    Sestertius Augustus Circa 14 AD:

    Sestertius Jukia Mamaea Augusta 228 AD:

    Denarius Veturius 137 BC:

    Denarius Quinticus 112-111 BC:

    Aureus Augustus Circa 14 AD:

    Aureus Nero 65-68 AD:

    Thought you'd like to know...

  2. Avatar

    Guest User Guest

    to hide this ad.
  3. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Nice write up, I am still a bit of a newb to roman coins so this was helpful.
  4. Clinker

    Clinker Coin Collector

    Good to hear from you...

  5. Gao

    Gao Member

    To be clear, these are denominations from Augustus' coinage reform, which lasted in some form from 23 BC until Diocletian's reform in 293 AD. Republican coinage can get pretty complicated with its shifting standards (the Aes Grave, which eventually turned into the As, originally weighed a full Roman pound, but was gradually debased to 10 grams by the time of Augustus), so I won't post about those here. I would however like to give some more information on the Roman monetary system of this period.

    First of all, while most of the common denominations of imperial coinage were listed above, these were not all of the denominations of Roman coins that were made at this time. There were coins worth less than an as, the semis at 1/2 an as and the quadrans at 1/4. I always found it interesting that the quadrans rarely had an imperial portrait. There was also a coin called the dupondius, which was worth 2 asses. The dupondius was made of yellow brass, called orichalcum like the sestertius, rather than the reddish copper of the as, but it was about the same weight and size as an as. From Nero onwards, these coins almost always carried the image of the emperor in a radiate crown, which came to be a sign that a coin was worth twice what another coin was worth. On the higher end, there were also silver and gold coins both called the "quinarius," which were worth 1/2 of a denarius and 1/2 of an aureus respectively.

    One thing that should be kept in mind is that like most coinage systems, the Roman one was not static. The denarius became more and more debased over time, starting with Nero in 64 AD, though occasionally rulers like Domitian and Macrinus would briefly restore old standards, and the bronze coinage shrank a bit as well. The smaller denominations, and eventually even the bigger ones like the sestertius, were phased out due to inflation eroding their value.

    In addition to that, new denominations were introduced, such as the antoninianus*:
    This was a denomination introduced by Caracalla in 215 AD at the value of 2 denarii, which was indicated by a radiate crown on male busts and a crescent moon shape under the bust for females. Despite the assigned value, it generally only had the silver content of 1.5 denarii. People understandably felt cheated by this, and Elagabalus (who reigned 218-222) ceased production of them, but due to inflationary and financial troubles, the denomination was reintroduced by Gordian III (238-244). The example above depicts Gordian III and dates from this period. Gresham's law meant that denarii were quickly driven out of circulation and the antoninianus became the standard silver coin of the empire.

    *The name derives from Caracalla's proper name, Antoninus, but it probably wasn't it's name in antiquity. We really don't know very many denomination names from this period onwards, but collectors and researchers have names that they commonly use for them. This coin is also sometimes called the double denarius or radiate denarius.

    Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249-251, introduced a denomination known as the double sestertius, which, like the antoninianus and dupondius, was marked with a radiate crown. These were often overstruck on old first century sestertii. The denomination was not popular and ceased to be manufactured rather quickly, though for some reason, the break away Gallic empire used it during the reign of Postumus (260-268). The example below is one of these Gallic double sestertii:


    The third century was a rather bad one for the empire, and the antoninianus shrank and lost silver content until they were essentially bronze coins with a silver wash. This wash usually doesn't survive. Here's an example from Claudius Gothicus, who reigned from 268-270:
    Due to the low value of these coins, "smaller" denominations like the sestertius were driven out of circulation and no longer produced.

    One thing I found interesting is that it's been shown that during this period, workers at the mint in Rome were actually putting less silver in their coins than they were supposed to, keeping the extra for themselves. The emperor Aurelian (who reigned from 270-275) took an interest in having solid coinage again, and his attempts to stop this practice actually caused a revolt of mint workers. Aurelian put down the revolt, and the mint at Rome was briefly closed. Aurelian also made the first major restoration in coinage in decades and stabilized the value of the currency for a while by producing a coin with just under 5% silver:

    The exact value of this coin is disputed, and the issue mostly stems from the mysterious "XXI" mark (sometimes expressed in Greek as kappa alpha) found in the reverse exergue of these coins. Some argue that it's a statement of the metal content, saying that it's 20 parts base metal and 1 part silver (which in fact is just about the actual ratio in these coins), and that it still had the face value of 2 denarii. Others argue that that mark was a statement of value, stating that it was 20 sestertii (the basic unit of account in the early empire) for each one of these coins, making them worth 5 denarii. To further complicate matters, there's an inscription which might imply that these were worth 4 denarii. I'm not going to get into the whole debate about that, but I should note that that radiate coins based on Aurelian's standard are sometimes called "Aureliani," particularly by those who say that it was worth more than 2 denarii, but are usually still called antoniniani.

    I think that about does it for the major points of imperial coinage before Diocletian's reform. I might make another post about Diocletian's reform and provincial coinage later today. If Clinker's post or my own has intrigued you and you want to get into the nitty gritty of the history Roman coinage, it's values, and its use, I recommend picking up a copy of Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 by Kenneth W. Harl.

    Attached Files:

    Alegandron likes this.
  6. Bart9349

    Bart9349 Junior Member

    Let me add my thanks to Clinker and Gao for their excellent posts.

    The problem with books written on Ancient coins is that they tend to be aimed at the more experienced collector.

    For example, although I enjoyed Kenneth Harl's book, it is too academic and scholarly for the beginner or non-scholar of Ancient numismatics. (The rich footnotes in the book are a great source of information, by the way.) Although there are a few of us might who enjoy topics on the "fiduciary coinage of provincial Roman Egypt" or "the effects of Gresham's law with the increasingly debased coinage of the turbulent third century," it would have more helpful if Harl had taken the time to explain and define these concepts before delving further into them. It would have made his classic book more accessible to a wider audience.

    Harl is an entertaining and knowledgeable lecturer and teacher of Ancient history. (I highly recommend his courses from the Teaching Company, for example.) His writing style is too dense for most of us, however.

    I feel there is a need for a solid book on Roman coinage that is written in a clear and concise matter aimed toward the non-academician and non-scholar. I haven't seen that book, yet, but I think there is great potential. (I think Doug S., for example, has written many thoughtful and informative posts on Ancient Roman coinage that I have found as informative, clearly written, and insightful as anything I've read in books.)

    Anyways, good job, you two.

  7. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

  8. swhuck

    swhuck Junior Member

    Ten points to anyone who can explain the relative face values of the AE1, AE2, AE3, and AE4. :)
  9. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter


    There is a US cent under the AE3 example for scale.

    Early numismatists not knowing what to call many coins provided a scale of coin sizes used to describe late Roman bronze (including silvered bronze) coins when the correct denomination name is not certain. This can be used for any coin after the reform of Diocletian (follis, centenionalis or whatever). The system uses the abbreviation for bronze followed by a number 1 through 4: AE1 = over 25mm (Valentinian I); AE2 = 21-25mm (Honorius); AE3 = 17-21mm (Arcadius); AE4 = under 17mm (Theodosius I). Of course, there are still coin issues that straddle the lines with various specimens being, for example, slightly over or under 17mm. In this case you see a split listing 'AE3/4'. Mint workers placed little importance in exact diameter or roundness; if anything was important it was weight. All four sizes were rarely produced together and the system fails to separate the two sizes of AE2 'centenionales'. However imperfect, this system will have a place in describing late Roman coins until all denomination systems are understood. Care should be taken to separate these listings from the millimeter scale used for Greek coins where AE20 is a coin of 20mm diameter. There should be no confusion here since the smallest AE coins are over 4mm diameter.
    Alegandron likes this.
  10. Clinker

    Clinker Coin Collector

    Hi, once again, Gao:

    And thanks for sharing your knowledge...

  11. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Perhaps but I believe this is a reflection on the fact that there are so many books on Ancient coins that buyers have trouble sorting out the correct one for their level. Sometimes I classify books in two groups: those over my head and those I could have written. Writing beginner books for this market is a thankless task. Wayne Sayles wrote a good beginner primer called Ancient Coin Collecting Volume 1. It had 197 small pages, well selected illustrations and information that a new collector could master to a 100% level and still be considered a relatively new collector. It met two major criticisms: 1. It was NOT a Red Book since it did not catalog all of the coins available (an absurd impossibility but what people expect when they already own a Red Book and Krauss). 2. It glossed over so many subjects so quickly that the beginner really did not know enough to collect but had only been made aware of what was out there. Wayne corrected the second problem by releasing volumes II through VI (and an unnumbered volume on Fakes) each of which expanded on one area allowing a beginner to buy only, for example, the Roman volume (III) and ignore the rest of the Ancient World. These did nothing to quiet the criticism of not allowing assignment of a catalog number like a Red Book. Other authors have books on small or large subsets of what is available but even the best tend to miss some coins. Very shortly Raisel Suarez is releasing a second edition of his Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins (ERIC II) which attempts to catalog all of the Roman Imperial coins but will probably miss a few (especially those that get dug up between now and when the book comes out). At 1400+ pages it will be criticised for being too big and expensive ($150) but it is still a beginner level book and does not come anywhere close to teaching everything there is to know any more than a Red Book does for US coins. It replaces the very good ERIC I which was criticised for being incomplete and costing $75.

    Neither of the books mentioned (for that matter not 90% of all books on Ancients) address the question of coin prices and probably 90% of new collectors consider this a fatal flaw. No one in their right mind would try to issue a book pricing every Ancient coin in five grades but the market for beginner's books still looks for a Red Book.

    One of the things that we can do on the Ancient/World section of Coin Talk is to help guide beginners to books or information in other formats (the Internet has really changed this!!!). There is no such thing as a do-all book for beginners and no one alive is capable of writing one. Numismatics is a lifetime study that attracts people of every level. The difference between beginners and experts is to some degree that the latter have a better understanding of a few of the questions and are more aware of the fact that they are lacking firm answers.
    Alegandron likes this.
  12. Clinker

    Clinker Coin Collector

    Hi Bart9349:

    Glad to hear from you. I personally want to thank you for your insight into a tough subject. Maybe ypu should author that book you'd like to see. You certainly know what it should contain. That readership is waiting too...

  13. Clinker

    Clinker Coin Collector

    Thanks forsharing the photo coin chart and for sharing your knowledge about Ancient Roman coins...

  14. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    almost missed this topic :eek: Great posts!

    and yeah, Sayles book is pretty good "Ancient Coin Collecting"
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page