Brad's Introduction to Ancient Coins

Introduction Brief History Roman Coins Buying and Storage
Fakes and Authentification Identification Roman Coin Denominations Grading
Coin of the Month

I mostly collect ancient Roman coinage because it is more common and inexpensive. The earlier Greek coins are often more beautiful, but many of them start at two-hundred dollars and it goes up from there. So I stick to Roman coins and find plenty to interest me there. This and the remaining pages will discuss Roman coins exclusively, except when otherwise indicated.

The coinage of Rome can be broken roughly into four periods: early and late Republican, and early and late Imperial. Again, mostly due to cost, I concentrate on coins of the Empire, which began with Octavian being proclaimed Augustus in 27 BC.

Sestertius By the time of Augustus, the silver denarius has been in use for about 180 years. To this, Augustus added a large bronze coin, the sestertius, which was one-quarter of a denarius in value, and other lesser coins. The reverse of a poor example of a sestertius can be seen to the right. This coin is from Severus Alexander, who was Emperor from 222 to 235 AD. As has always been the case, coins received considerable wear from circulation, and today, a very worn coin is worth much less than a "mint state" coin.

These larger coins allowed Emperors such as Augustus to put more titles for themselves on the inscriptions of the coins. For example, one read CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE !

Faustina Senior Emperors also put their wives and other family members on their coins. Shown at left is a denarius of Faustina Senior, the wife of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161. After her death early in his reign, Pius had many different coins struck in her honor, including this one. The inscription reads DIVA FAVSTINA ("diva" translates to "divine" or "deified") which indicates that she had died before this coin was struck. Coins of the various empresses are one of my interests, as they are more varied, showing in elaborate detail, the hair styles of the different eras. Some things never change!

In the early Imperial period, coins were either minted in Rome, and had Latin inscriptions, or minted in Greek provincial cities, with inscriptions in Greek. The later Imperial period begins with the Emperor Diocletian's reforms of the coinage soon after he became the sole Emperor in 285 AD. In this period, inscriptions are always in Latin, and coins often have a mint mark indicating where they were produced.

By the third century, Rome was starting a long decline that would culminate with the fall of Rome in the late fifth century. This decline can be seen in its coins, as less and less silver was used, and inflation increased in the empire. The denarius began to be replaced in the middle of the third century by a double-denarius. Today, this is often referred to by the difficult name antoninianus, after the family name of the emperor Caracalla, who first issued it. While it was set or "tariffed" at two denarii, it did not have the equivalent of two denarii in silver. As time went on, new antoninianii had less and less silver until by the late third century, it was a bronze coin with a wash of silver over the two sides. Most of the coins found from the Late Roman Empire are bronze, but a number of emperors tried to make reforms in the coinage, most of which had little success, at least in the long run.

As the Empire declined, so did the size of its coins, and eventually, the quality of the artwork became quite poor. As these changes occurred, many new denominations were created, and we do not have names for some of these, so we just refer to them by their metal type, Æ (bronze), and size, with Æ 1 being the largest and Æ 4 being the smallest -- sometime barely larger than half the size of today's penny.

Mint Mark As power in the empire during this period was more distributed, often with multiple emperors dividing control of the Empire into separate geographical areas, coins were minted at a larger number of cities, and starting in the middle of the third century, a mint mark ("RS" on the coin at right) was placed on many coins in the "exergue" (pronounced "ECK-surge") area below the design on the reverse of the coins. The mint marks, and letters and symbols added to them, and on other places on these coins, allow us to determine which city a coin was minted in, and sometimes date its production to within a year or two.

Continue to Buying Ancient Roman Coins.

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Last updated January 25, 2001.