What's in a Name, Ancient Denominations

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Oct 28, 2020.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    IMG_1787[7349]Odd coins obv..jpg IMG_1787[7349]Odd coins obv..jpg View attachment 1195741 Most of us who collect ancients are well aware of the names of the different denominations of coinage from drachmas to denarii, assaria to aurei but every once in a while we hear or read of the somewhat unsettling suggestion that what we call them now may not be the name by which the ancients referred to these coins in the marketplace. That ought not to be entirely surprising, though, as we sometimes use colloquial terms for our currency rather than their official denominations in our everyday language. Though the US treasury has not ever issued pennies or bucks (or the Brits quid or bob) we have used these more colloquial terms in our everyday parlance, if not at the bank, then at least at the corner shop.

    What I have been trying to figure out is whether what we call denominations of ancient coins are what the locals called them in the agora or forum. Ancient authors rarely talked about the names of their denominations at all. On occasion some the playwriters of ancient literature. Aristophanes, Plautus, Terrence, mention these things in their dialogues. For example we hear of a certain Spartan leader (who should not be familiar with any money other than iron spits) having a rather large number of 'owls' roosting in his attic. Of course the reference is to the Attic tetradrachma of Athens and probably everybody in Athens who heard this knew that the 'owl' was the Attic tetradrachma coin and got the joke. Lacking very much of this kind of insider information we have to consider whether we have it right or not, with what names the ancients actually employed for their coins. I simply cannot imagine a Greek walking into his local taberna and asking how much wine he can get for a tritartemorion. There had to be more common names for these coins.

    The earliest Roman coinage we have knowledge of is the copper As and this name does appear so often in documents that it probably was the term used in the streets for the coin, though its fractions like sextans and triens and uncia do not get much mentioned and may have had slang names. The first Roman silver coins, based on the nomos (or didrachma) of the Greek states in Magna Graecia were probably referred to by the Romans as nomoi or nummi and when imitated by them, as Quadrigati (according to John Melville Jones in his Dictionary of Ancient Roman coins, pp. 88-89). It also appears that the Roman silver coin we call the Victoriatus was also commonly called that by contemporary Romans. The denarius was so commonly called its correct name in actual use that it survived the fall of the empire and entered any number of later languages as the name for a coin or money (dinar, denier, dineiro, denaro). The odd thing is that the Romans did not use the denarius as a coin of account until it was pretty much out of circulation as an actual coin, keeping their accounts is sesterces, an actual first small silver coin and later a larger brass piece, until the time of Diocletian and the use of denarius communis as a new coin of account. As for the gold coin, aureus seems to have been both the common name and official one. In Latin aureus simply means, of gold or golden so an aureus was a gold piece. In the Fourth Century AD, it became the aureus solidus, the sturdy, solid gold piece.

    Now for the really difficult part. We are pretty certain that what name that we use today for some coins was not the one used in ancient times. The double denarius of Caracalla has only one reference for ever being called the antoninianus in ancient times(Van Meter p. 14) and that by an author, (Ammianus) who wrote long after that coin was out of circulation. It was probably the double of the denarius in value(though not in weight). Jones even speculates that the term, binio, was used for this coin before it was later applied to a double gold coin (Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins, p. 37). And when we hit the Fourth century it gets even more muddled. Today we commonly refer to the large silvered bronzes of the tetrarchy as 'folles' when we are
    IMG_1788[7353]Odd coins reev..jpg
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2020
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  3. Victor_Clark

    Victor_Clark standing on the shoulders of giants Dealer

    except there is a quote from Palladas (4th cent A.D.) writing about the melting down of statues of gods to produce coins---

    "Having become Christian, owners of Olympian palaces dwell here unharmed; for the melting pot that produces the life-giving follis will not put them in the fire."
  4. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I am not sure what you are saying. Is it that Palladas' use the singular for follis and indicates that there is a single coin named a follis?
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  5. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Could the context mean that follis meant “money” instead of unit?

    If I speak about all the money I have, I could just as easily talk about all the dollars I have.
  6. Pellinore

    Pellinore Supporter! Supporter

    @kevin McGonigal I would expect coins' names to turn up in accounts. I believe many ancient accounts have been found, inscriptions, papyri, scratched woods - you may search these in the various editions of shorter or less literatory texts. I never studied this, but I'm sure you may find these in scientific editions. There I would expect to find names of currencies.
  7. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    It may mean just that. There is an article put out by Kevin Wilkinson. "Some Neologisms in the Epigrams of Palladas" put out by the GRBS Library wherein he thinks the author of the epigram cited above is using the term follis in just that manner.
    +VGO.DVCKS and hotwheelsearl like this.
  8. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Good point. Now if i can just find some.
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  9. akeady

    akeady Well-Known Member

    For Greek coins, there's "Testimonia Numaria" in two volumes by Melville Jones.
    Volume I has the inscriptions on various topics, plus translations, while volume II has some further inscriptions and commentary on the inscriptions of volume I.
    I must admit, I haven't done much with it, but it seems interesting.


    Contents of vol. I:

    The original texts for the first page of "Various Weights and Coin Denominations":

    Translations of that page:

    And the commentary in volume II on the text 586:

    I'm not sure if the answers are within, but there's some interesting reading :D

  10. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Thanks. I had no idea that this book was out there. As it turns out I just finished the Richard Duncan-Jones Jones book on Money and Government in the Roman Empire (1994). I wonder if these two guys were related.
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