Eight Hundred Years of Roman Coinage

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Eight Hundred Years of Roman Coinage


The subject of Roman numismatics spans almost eight hundred years, from early in the 3rd century B.C. to the Anastasian currency reform at the very end of the 5th century A.D. Although it began as the coinage of a relatively obscure central Italian city state, it quickly grew to become a large scale international currency. This was a result of Rome's military and political expansion, first to a position of dominance in Italy, then to supremacy in the western Mediterranean area following the defeat of Carthage, and finally to control over the entire Mediterranean basin with the decline and collapse of the great Hellenistic monarchies of the east.

Throughout the later Republican period, and during Imperial times up to the end of the 4th century A.D., Roman coinage was produced on a vast scale, making it a rich source of material for the present-day collector. The types are remarkably diverse, and during Imperial times there is the added interest of portraiture. At quite modest cost, comparing favorably with modern coin issues, it is possible to acquire portrait pieces of such famous (and infamous) historical personalities as Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Hadrian and Constantine, as well as many others. My aim in this chapter is to trace the development of this coinage from its obscure central Italian origins through to its partial collapse in the 5th century A.D. The recovery from this collapse was to lead to an entirely new episode in the numismatic story - the Byzantine coinage.

At the beginning of the 3rd century B.C., about a quarter of a century after the death of Alexander the Great, the region of central Italy was still very much of a backwater in the political and economic life of the Mediterranean world. That world was dominated by the mighty Hellenistic monarchies, successor states to Alexander's empire, in the east, and by the Carthaginians in the west. The primitive level of the economic life of central Italy contrasted sharply with the Greek colonies of the south, where a sophisticated currency system, based on a silver didrachm-stater, had already been in use for two and a half centuries. The normal medium of exchange amongst the Italian tribes to the north was bronze, the ores of which were abundant in central Italy. However, the form which this currency took over a period of many years was shapeless lumps of metal (aes rude) of widely varying weight and with no official stamp of guarantee. For each transaction the pieces of bronze had to be weighed out in the scales, a laborious process indicative of the largely pastoral way of life prevailing in the area at that time. It is scarcely surprising that in a community consisting primarily of farmers and herdsmen, the word for money (pecunia) should have derived from that meaning cattle (pecus).


Rome achieved political supremacy in Italy in the early years of the 3rd century B.C. In consequence of this expansion the Romans came to be better acquainted with the customs and practices of their southern neighbors. As early as 326 B.C. an alliance between Rome and the Campanian city of Neapolis had been celebrated by an issue of bronze coins of Neopolitan type but bearing the inscription PΩMAIUN instead of the usual NEOΠO&Lamda;ITΩN. These small die-struck pieces were obviously the product of the Neapolis mint, as no such establishment as yet existed in Rome itself. However, the Romans were sufficiently influenced by their contact with the Greek south to start producing bronze bars (aes signatum) with designs on both faces. These comparatively crude castings may have been preceded by the issue of bronze artifacts (aes formatum), such as axeheads, of a guaranteed weight. But none of these early attempts at currency can be said to meet the definition of coinage proper.

Pieces of aes signatum are often found broken cleanly into fragments, representing subdivisions of the full value of the bar, so it is obvious that even at this early stage the need was being felt for a more flexible currency system. The logical development was the production of a full range of values in the form of circular bronze pieces of differing weight, further distinguished by the designs appearing on their two sides (obverse and reverse types). Such a currency system, known as aes grave, made its appearance at Rome in the second decade of the 3rd century B.C. This was the outcome of the appointment, in circa 289 B.C., of the tresviri monetales, the college of moneyers, whose function was to oversee the establishment of a mint, in the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline hill. Thereafter, three moneyers were appointed annually to be responsible for coin production. They were selected from the junior aristocracy of Rome, and this office marked for many the beginning of an illustrious senatorial career. In the closing years of the 3rd century B.C. moneyers' names, in monogrammatic form, began appearing on the products of the Roman mint. But during the period of the cast aes grave coinage, extending down to about 212 B.C., no such development took place and the pieces are all anonymous.

The initial issue of aes grave coins from the mint of Rome comprised a series of seven denominations, ranging from the basic unit of the as, weighing about 322 grams, to its twentyfourth, the semuncia. The intermediate values represented in this, the first true Roman bronze coinage, were the half unit (semis), the third (triens), the quarter (quadrans), the sixth (sextans), and the twelfth (uncia). These were to remain the basic denominations of the Republican bronze coinage, though with inflation and the reduction of the weight standard multiples of the as were occasionally to appear, such as the decussis (ten asses), the quincussis (five asses), the tressis (three asses), and the dupondius (two asses). Initially, the as represented a full Roman pound of about 324 grams, though as time went by, there were successive reductions in the weight of the basic unit and, in consequence, of its fractions and multiples also. By circa 269 B.C. the as weighed approximately 270 grams, a level maintained until about 217 B.C., when there was a drastic reduction to half the former standard, with an as of only 130 grams (semilibral). Rome's continuing misfortunes in the early stages of the Second Punic War brought about an ever further decline, with a steady reduction in the weight of the as to the triental standard (about 88 grams) and even, circa 214 B.C., to the quandrantal standard (66 grams). This sudden decline in the size and weight of the aes grave coinage, in the ninth decade of the 3rd century B.C., saw the introduction of the first struck fractions of the as. From circa 217 B.C. many of the lower denominations were issued as struck coins, instead of the traditional cast pieces. Finally, with the reduction of the as to the sextantal standard of about 44 grams (circa 211 B.C.) the basic unit itself appeared for the first time as a struck coin, bringing to an end seven decades of aes grave coinage and an even longer tradition of cast bronze currency in central Italy.

The types appearing on the earlier aes grave coinage are quite varied. A youthful Janiform head, perhaps representing the Dioscuri, appears on the obverse of the earliest as, whilst the reverse shows Mercury wearing his winged petasus. Other denominations in this series have a head of Minerva (semis), a thunderbolt and a dolphin (triens), corn grains and a hand (quadrans), scallop shell and caduceus (sextans), knuckle bone (uncia), and acorn (semuncia). Later series exhibit many other types, including head of Apollo, horse's head, running boar, prancing bull, horse, dog, and tortoise. About 225 B.C. there was a standardization of aes grave types, and from this time onwards the as always bears the bearded head of Janus on its obverse; the semis has the head of Saturn; the triens the head of Minerva; the quadrans the head of Hercules; the sextans the head of Mercury; and the uncia the head of Roma. The reverse is the same for all denominations - the prow of a war galley, symbolic of Rome's newly acquired naval power developed during the recent conflict with Carthage (First Punic War). These types were also adopted for the struck bronze coinage which superseded the aes grave. Marks of value were a regular feature of the bronze coinage from its inception. The basic unit, the as, bears the designation "I," whilst the semis is marked with an "S." The lesser denominations were marked according to their values as multiples of the uncia: the triens has four pellets; the quadrans has three; the sextans has two pellets; whilst the uncia itself bears a single pellet.

Rome was by no means the only mint engaged in the production of aes grave. A number of Etruscan communities were also involved, with Volaterrae (Velathri) enjoying particular prominence. The cities of Tuder in Umbria, Hatria in Picenum, and Luceria and Venusia in Apulia all contributed a substantial output of cast bronze coins, in addition to other centers not all of which have yet been identified. The types are varied and often of considerable interest. Sometimes they bear an inscription giving the name of the issuing authority - a feature very seldom encountered on the cast products of Rome herself.

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