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

This page will introduce you to the basics of identifying ancient Roman coins. This is a large subject, so if you want to learn more, you will have to read other web pages and/or books, and be patient, as it may take a couple years of spare-time study to get the hang of it.

Roman coins (at least those starting with the later Republican era about 200 BC) are identified primarily by six attributes.

  1. The primary consideration is the person who issued the coin. For coins of Republican Rome, this is the moneyer whose name is abbreviated on the coin, usually on the reverse. In the Imperial era, the person is usually the emperor, or a member of his family. With some emperors, you can construct a family tree of coins, as their children and parents are all pictured on various coins.

  2. Next is the type of metal. Most Roman coins are silver or bronze, but gold, and some copper alloys besides bronze were also used.

  3. The metal, size and often the design will inform you of the denomination of the coin. The denominations changed over time, but the most common ones that you will encounter if you are a low-budget collector are the denarius, antoninianus, follis, and assorted unnamed bronze coins of the later Empire. The denarius was mostly silver until the early third century, by which time it had declined to only about 40% silver. The antoninianus that replaced it soon became even more debased until it only had a wash of silver that often has worn off by the time it reaches the collector. New denominations of silver coins would be introduced at times be later emperors, but these coins are much less common.

  4. The inscription on the coin served two main purposes. First, it glorified the person the coin was meant to honor. For Imperial coinage, this person is almost always on the obverse of the coin, and the inscription there includes one or more titles, almost always containing abbreviations. On the reverse is most often a deity, and the inscription either honors them (which in some way was meant to be associated with the person issuing the coin) or commemorates a victory or other momentous occasion.

  5. The subjects pictured on the reverse of Roman coins vary widely. As mentioned, the most common is a Roman god, such as Jupiter ("IOVI" as seen in the inscription) or Victory ("VICTORIA"). The gods can be either standing or sitting, and often hold a variety of objects. Other subjects include military themes (most commonly the 4th c. "emperor spearing fallen horseman" and "camp gate" coins), animals, buildings, ships and some combination of these.

  6. The design on a coin can offer great variety. One Emperor's coins in the same denomination, and with the same inscription still can come in a large number of version with slight differences. For example, the emperor's bust on the obverse can point right or left, or have a laural headband or not. This is the point where identification can become obsessive, and each collector must decide what interests them. Different catalogs of coins will take this to different levels. Some would lump all coins for one Emperor of one denomination all together in one entry. Some may enumerate the most common inscriptions. And some may list all the slightest variations known.

  7. Finally, there is the mint mark on later Roman coins, together with other markings found on the reverse of some coins. The mint mark proper is always found at the bottom of the reverse in the area known as the exergue. It may be preceded by a letter or two, and often followed by a letter indicating what officina (workshop) the coin was minted in.
This page has only given a brief overview of identifying Roman coins. If you want to try to identify some coins that you purchase, you will need to have access to one or more reference books.

Continue to Roman Coin Denominations.

If you have any questions or comments, please send e-mail to me at .

Last updated January 28, 2001.