Brad's Introduction to Ancient Coins
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.
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.
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.
Next is the type of metal. Most Roman coins are silver or
bronze, but gold, and some copper alloys besides bronze were
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Klawans' Ancient Greek & Roman Coins is a
paperback still in print for about 15 dollars.
It is an identification guide, but neither a catalog
nor a price guide. But it does cover many areas well
including the gods and people seen on Greek and Roman
coins, the many cities where Greek coins were
minted, and some detail about deciphering the inscriptions
on Roman coins. For the money, it's a great book,
but don't expect to be able to read it from front to
back as a further introduction to the hobby. Consider
it more like a compilation of magazine articles, and
skip around in it to the areas that interest you.
Sear's Roman Coins and Their Values is the beginner's indispensible
catalog and price guide for Roman coins of both the Republican
and Imperatorial eras. The last complete edition was published in
the late 80's, and can be found through some ancient coin
dealers. Do not buy earlier versions as the number system
is slightly different, and the prices would be misleading.
About 4500 coins are listed, and each is priced in one grade
only in English pounds. The prices are still a good starting guide
to the current market, though the condition of a piece must
be taken into account. The first of two volumes for a
new and much revised edition was published in 2000. This
volume is available for 60 to 80 dollars, and covers the
Republican period, and the Imperial period through 96 AD.
The introduction has been expanded to about 70 pages,
coins are priced in two or three grades, and pictures of
some of the coins are interspersed throughout, instead of
in plates at the end. The numbering system has changed
entirely. As only the first volume is out at
present, the old Sear numbering system still prevails
in the marketplace, but this may change when the second
volume is published, which should be in 2001 or 2002.
Sear also has written a multi-volume
Greek Coins and Their Values, which is expected
to be revised in the coming years.
Vagi's Coinage and History of the Roman Empire has just
been printed in a two-volume hardbound set for about 80 dollars.
It has been hyped by some as a replacement to Sear's book, and while I don't
agree, it is a nice set, with some limitations. The first
volume is entirely biographies of the Emperors and their families
that appeared on coins of the Roman Empire. What I've read of
this is well written and interesting. The second volume contains
information on identifying coins and a price guide. I do not consider
this a catalog, however, as least as far as the beginning collector
is concerned. Most common coins are lumped together into one listing
for each emperor/denomination combination. As a price guide, though,
it does have the advantage that it lists the values in three grades
instead of just the one that the older version of Sear uses. Unfortunately, the prices
are given as wide ranges which leave a lot of room for opinion.
Get Klawans' and Sear's books first, and if you want the biographies
and other information, get this, too.
Finally, there is the ten-volume set called
Roman Imperial Coinage written by a variety of
authors of the course of the 20th century.
It is massive, and as complete of a catalog as you can find
for the Imperial coinage.
It takes about two-feet of shelf space, and costs at least
one-thousand dollars to find a complete used set!
I'm not sure if any volumes are currently in print.
The later volumes are somewhat complicated as identification
becomes more difficult with the wide variety of mints,
mint marks and other marks seen. If you have to know
exactly what coin you have, to the best of anyone's
knowledge, this is where you find out. For many coins,
the minting date can be narrowed to a year or two with
this reference. Hopefully, you are
as lucky as I to have a university library nearby that has
this on its shelves.
Continue to Roman Coin Denominations.
If you have any questions or comments, please
send e-mail to me at
Last updated January 28, 2001.