Eight Hundred Years of Roman Coinage

(c) copyright 1986 by Chicago Coin Club

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.


The earliest Roman coinage in silver closely resembles the Greek didrachm issues of the south Italian colonies, particularly those of Metapontum which may well have been the mint for the Mars/horse's head coinage commencing in the second decade of the 3rd century B.C. This issue seems to be contemporary with the initial production of aes grave coinage at Rome, but the first silver pieces to be struck at the Capitoline mint appear to be no earlier than circa 269 B.C. These are the well known Hercules/wolf and twins didrachms, the design being unmistakably Roman, in sharp contrast to the Greco-Punic types of previous issues. Thereafter, there were occasional changes in the types of the silver didrachm coinage, but all issues seem to have emanated from the Roman mint.

The next significant development was the introduction, in circa 225 B.C., of the quadrigatus-didrachm coinage. This coincided with the standardization of the types of the aes grave coinage, as previously described. This, the final didrachm coinage of Rome before the major currency reform of circa 211 B.C., bears the distinctively Roman types of Janiform head/Jupiter in quadriga. It was issued in unprecedented quantity, and represents the major war coinage of the Romans in the earlier stages of the epic struggle with Hannibal (Second Punic War). Associated with this series is Rome's first output of gold coinage, with a remarkable reverse type showing two warriors in an oath-taking scene. The symbolism is unmistakable, for at the very time these staters and half-staters were produced (circa 217 B.C.) Rome was reeling from the first impact of Hannibal's surprise descent on Italy, and was appealing for the loyalty of her allies.

The crisis of the Second Punic War was responsible for a complete restructuring of the Roman monetary system. The importance of bronze as a war commodity brought about a rapid appreciation in its value, leading to the series of drastic reductions in the weight standard of the aes grave coinage which have already been described. As bronze began to assume more of the role of a token currency, as it had already done at a much earlier date in the Greek coinage, struck pieces rapidly replaced the crude casts of the aes grave system. This process was completed by circa 211 B.C. with the issue of the first struck asses. At about the same time a fundamental change took place in the silver coinage, with the final abandonment of Rome's first precious-metal denomination, the Greek didrachm, and its replacement by a smaller and lighter coin. This, the silver denarius, was destined to become the cornerstone of the Roman currency system for centuries to come. The first issue of denarii was accompanied by two fractional denominations - its half, the quinarius, and its quarter, the sestertius. Yet another new silver coin to appear at this time was the victoriatus, a piece somewhat lighter than the denarius and, doubtless, intended to facilitate trade with the Greek communities in the south. The denarius was to have an illustrious history spanning four and a half centuries; the quinarius followed a parallel course, but was only issued intermittently for special purposes, and was never a regular element of the currency system; the sestertius was produced even less frequently, but under the Empire it became a denomination of great importance, though struck in brass instead of silver; the victoriatus was issued in quantity for a few years after which production suddenly ceased, its raison d'etre presumably having disappeared with the expansion of Rome's horizons following victory in the Second Punic War. One further innovation of the major currency reform of circa 211 B.C. was the temporary introduction of three gold denominations, with marks of value expressed in terms of the new "sextantal" as (60, 40 and 20). Like all issues of gold under the Roman Republic this coinage was intended to serve only special military needs, and production was soon discontinued. The types were the same for all three denominations and were of a suitably military nature, with helmeted head of Mars, god of war, on obverse, and eagle on thunderbolt on reverse.

The great victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War, at the close of the 3rd century B.C., was one of the major turning points in Roman history. Almost two decades of continuous warfare had refined the Roman army into a virtually invincible fighting machine. The 2nd century B.C. saw Rome advance in status from an important western Mediterranean state to a dominant world power. The once-mighty Macedonian kingdom and the state of Carthage were both crushed by Roman arms, and the proud Seleucid monarch Antiochus the Great was humbled at the famous battle of Magnesia in 190 B.C. Rome was forced into eastern territorial expansion when the kingdom of Pergamum, in Asia Minor, was bequeathed to the Roman people by the last of its rulers, Attalus III, in 133 B.C. Apart from the brief episode of the Social War, which raged in Italy from 90-88 B.C., and the more protracted opposition of Mithradates the Great of Pontus (120-63 B.C.), Rome now pursued her imperialist policy without serious challenge. With their conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., at the very end of the Republican period, the Romans became masters of virtually all the lands of the Mediterranean basin, either by direct rule or through client kings.

The Roman coinage of the 2nd century B.C. consists primarily of ever increasing numbers of silver denarii augmented by a diminishing output of bronze denominations. The standard type for the early denarii (Roma/Dioscuri) gradually gave way to other designs, such as Roma/Diana in biga and Roma/Victory in biga. Eventually, even the Roma head on obverse was replaced by other effigies, though the process was only gradual. Moneyers' names, at first shown only in an abbreviated form, came to be featured more prominently both on silver and bronze issues. The 2nd century B.C. was, without doubt, the most conservative period of the Republican coinage, just as the 2nd century A.D. was the most conservative of the Imperial. This was in marked contrast to the century which followed.


The 1st century B.C. witnessed the violent transition from a Republican to a monarchical form of government in the Roman state. The prelude to this change had been the rise to power of certain military commanders in the field, who began to challenge the authority of the elected magistrates in the capital. Rome's interests and possessions were now so far-flung that enormous power had to be delegated to generals over long periods of time. Such power, once exercised in distant lands with virtually no restraint, was not easily surrendered, and it was but a small step for the all-powerful imperator to begin thinking of his position in terms of monarchy. Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and Antony all dominated the political scene in their day, and at the time of his assassination in 44 B.C. Caesar had come closer to the crown than any man since the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, in 510 B.C. But, ironically, it was not one of the great imperators who finally succeeded in establishing a monarchical government in Rome. This was the achievement of Caesar's great-nephew, Octavian, a youth of only nineteen at the time of the dictator's death. At first dismissed by Antony as "the boy," Octavian quietly but methodically pursued his political ambitions, cleverly exploiting his one big advantage - his position as the adopted son and designated heir of the "Divine Julius." The story of his eventual triumph over Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium in 31 B.C. is well known, and marked another great turning-point in Roman history. Now undisputed master of the Roman world, Octavian set about the delicate task of establishing his constitutional position in the government of the state, attempting not to antagonize the many die-hard Republicans who still held high office. During his long reign spanning four decades Augustus, as Octavian was known from 27 B.C., laid the foundations of an imperial monarchy which was destined to endure for five centuries in the west, and for almost one and a half millennia in the east.

As might be expected, the turbulent 1st century B.C. has bequeathed a rich legacy of Roman coinage. The prerogatives of the military commanders in the field often included the right to strike coinage to meet emergency expenses, resulting in large scale decentralization of minting. Sulla also produced a gold coinage, and his aureus denarius was the forerunner of the denomination which was to occupy such an important place in the Roman Imperial monetary system. The silver denarius remained the principal denomination in the final period of the Republican coinage, its types becoming extremely diverse and often reflecting the ancestral history of the moneyer. Bronze coinage, which was officially reduced to the semuncial standard circa 90 B.C., continued to occupy a very subordinate position in the monetary system.


The final two decades of the Republic, often termed the Imperatorial period, were a time of almost incessant civil war and disruption of normal life, a state of affairs accurately reflected by the coinage. The various contenders for power made full use of the propaganda value of the currency to further their own ambitions, and the appearance of Caesar's portrait on denarii struck in the last months of his life was an important step towards the popular acceptance of the principle of monarchy. Ironically, Caesar's principal assassin, the staunch Republican M. Junius Brutus, also allowed his own effigy to appear on the remarkable denarius commemorating the dictator's murder on the Ides of March. Caesar had made the concept of contemporary portraiture acceptable, and the coinage of the post-Caesarian period abounds with the effigies of the principal contenders in the power struggle. Foremost, of course, are the portrait heads of the two great rivals, Antony and Octavian, but many others appear, such as the triumvir Lepidus; Antony's brother Lucius, and his son Marcus junior; Octavian's sister and wife of Antony, Octavia; Sextus, the son of Pompey the Great; and the general Labienus who sought foreign aid in Parthia for the Republican cause. Most famous of all is the series of portrait coins coupling Antony with his last wife, Egyptian queen Cleopatra. These clearly show that fascinating as she may have been, the last of the Ptolemaic line was no great beauty. The Imperatorial period also saw an increase in the volume of the gold coinage, presumably to help defray the heavy military expenses. Low value bronze denominations played no part in the scheme of things in this chaotic period.

With the accession to supreme power of Rome's first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. - A.D. 14), a whole new chapter in the history of the Roman coinage is opened. The social and economic life of the Roman state had been so disrupted by decades of civil strife that Augustus had to introduce sweeping reforms in almost every aspect of governmental responsibility. The currency reform was a gradual process spanning many years, but Augustus' main achievements were as follows: the gold aureus was now issued as a regular part of the currency system; production of the silver denarius, at first shared by many mints in important centers all over the Empire, was ultimately concentrated at Lugdunum in Gaul, which also came to be responsible for all gold issues; aes coinage was produced in abundance, for the first time in many generations, a sure sign that the economic life of the state was returning to normal under the aegis of the Augustan peace. The highest denomination in the new base metal coinage was the sestertius, valued at one quarter of the denarius. This was struck in orichalcum (brass) as was its half, the dupondius. Another metal, copper, was used for the as (one-sixteenth denarius) and its quarter, the quadrans. A less frequent denomination was the semis (half as) which, like the sestertius and dupondius, was struck in orichalcum. Production of the aes coinage was eventually concentrated in Rome, though the Gallic mints of Lugdunum and Nemausus each had a substantial output during the Augustan period. Special arrangements were made for the wealthy and important province of Asia, where triple-denarii (cistophori) were struck at various centers, such as Ephesus and Pergamum, in continuation of the Pergamene tradition and for the convenience of the local population.

The reformed monetary system of Augustus set the pattern for the Roman Imperial coinage for centuries to come, until the economy of the state collapsed in the dark days of the mid-3rd century A.D. Augustus' successors made minor changes to the currency but the basic system was left unaltered, a tribute to the thoroughness of the reformer's work. Tiberius' remarkably conservative precious metal coinage was all produced at the Lugdunum mint. Many contemporary imitations of these issues exist, evidence of the extensive trade with the East at this time. It was probably during the reign of Caligula (A.D. 37-41) that the minting of gold and silver was resumed at Rome, for the first time since the earlier part of Augustus' reign. A feature of Caligula's coinage was the extent to which he honored his relatives, both living and dead. Claudius (A.D. 41-54) was responsible for the introduction of certain allegorical personifications, such as Spes (hope) and Libertas (liberty), a theme which was to be of immense importance on the coinage of the following two and a half centuries. Like his nephew before him, Claudius went to great lengths to commemorate and honor different members of the Imperial Julio-Claudian family. The last representative of the dynasty, Nero, whose reign ended with his suicide in A.D. 68, issued a fascinating and varied coinage. Imperial portraiture now reached a very high artistic level, especially in the case of Nero's splendid sestertii, which were all produced in the latter part of the reign. He did, however, reduce the weights of both the gold aureus and the silver denarius, the first stage in the slow but inexorable debasement of the Imperial coinage.


The Julio-Claudian dynasty ended as it had begun, in the flames of civil war. Three emperors - Galba, Otho and Vitellius - passed in rapid succession. Brief though their tenure of power was, they have left behind a remarkably extensive numismatic record. Stability was restored by the elderly general Vespasian, whose decade of rule (A.D. 69-79) saw an immense output of coinage in all metals and a remarkable proliferation of reverse types, a pattern which was to be followed by his successors. At the time of their bid for Imperial power Vespasian and his elder son Titus had been engaged in the quelling of the great Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70). Titus' ultimate success in this task was commemorated on an extensive series of coins issued in gold, silver and aes, most celebrated of which are the handsome sestertii with reverse IVDAEA CAPTA. The Flavian dynasty, founded by Vespasian, consisted merely of himself and his two sons, Titus (A.D. 79-81) and Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Titus' brief reign was notable for the completion and dedication of Rome's great Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, and the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The first of these events was commemorated on a very rare sestertius, with a bird's-eye view of the celebrated arena on the reverse. Dominating the coinage of Domitian, last of the Flavian emperors, are representations of Minerva, his patron deity. Also prominent are references to the German wars, though Agricola's spectacular successes in northern Britain in the opening years of the reign were totally ignored, doubtless due to imperial jealousy and fear of enhancing the victor's popularity. Assassination of the hated tyrant (September, A.D. 96) brought to a violent end to Rome's second Imperial dynasty.


The period which followed, generally known as the era of the Adoptive Emperors, was a time of comparative peace and prosperity such as the Empire had seldom known in the past and was certainly never to enjoy again. For eighty-four years (A.D. 96-180) the government was in the hands of a remarkable succession of wise and enlightened rulers, each selected by his predecessor on merit rather than for reasons of family ties. It was, perhaps, fortunate that none of the Emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian or Antoninus Pius had sons whom they would have been tempted to elevate in preference to more worthy candidates for the throne. Hadrian's adoption of the plainly unsuitable L. Aelius Caesar in A.D. 136 has given rise to speculation that the heir may have been his own natural son. Following Aelius' premature death, on New Year's Day A.D. 138, Hadrian then made the best possible choice on merit, Antoninus, but stipulated that the young son of Aelius Caesar, Lucius Verus, should be designated as joint heir of Antoninus, together with Marcus Aurelius. The adoptive system eventually broke down when Marcus Aurelius elevated his own worthless son, Commodus, to the rank of co-emperor. Commodus' assassination on New Year's Eve, A.D. 192, following a disgraceful reign filled with all kinds of excesses, brought to a sad end Rome's golden age of the 2nd century A.D.

The coinage of this remarkably settled period was, as might be expected, very uniform with no experimentation in the currency system and production almost totally monopolized by the mint of Rome. The content, however, was varied and often of considerable interest. Nerva's short reign (A.D. 96-98) saw many important propaganda types, including continual appeals to the armed forces, whose loyalty was in some doubt following the violent overthrow of the Flavian dynasty. The extensive coinage of Trajan (A.D. 98-117) contains numerous references to his Dacian wars, in commemoration of which the great column was erected which remains to this day a landmark of Rome. Concern for his lack of popularity at the beginning of his reign, due in part to the somewhat dubious circumstances of his adoption, led Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) to seek public approval through various acts of munificence. One of these, the cancellation of arrears of taxation totalling 900 million sestertii, was commemorated on coins issued in A.D. 119. Hadrian's empire-wide travels receive extensive coverage, with types honoring almost every province, from Britain to Syria and Egypt. Comparatively large issues were made in the name of Hadrian's wife, Vibia Sabina, the first empress to be so extensively commemorated on the Roman coinage. Another interesting feature of the coinage of this reign is the Greek Imperial series in the name of the deceased Bithynian youth Antinous, favorite of Hadrian, whose tragic drowning in the Nile (A.D. 130) embittered the emperor's final years. The stability and self-assurance of the Roman state during the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) is well reflected on the Imperial coinage. The high international prestige enjoyed by Rome's emperor is vividly illustrated by types showing Antoninus bestowing royal status on the kings of Armenia and of the Quadi, a Germanic tribe.

The reign of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) was historically significant as it witnessed the first division of Imperial authority. Aurelius shared his throne, first with Lucius Verus (A.D. 161-169), and later with his own son Commodus (from A.D. 177). The harmony of the joint Augusti was widely advertised on the coinage, notably by types depicting the Emperors Aurelius and Verus clasping hands. Of particular historical significance is the beautiful gold aureus type of Verus, showing in pictorial form his settlement of the Armenian problem in A.D. 163. The emperor sits atop a platform, flanked by his officers, with the Roman nominee for the Armenian throne, Sohaemus, standing before him at the foot of the platform. Commodus' coinage (A.D. 177-192), especially that produced towards the end of his reign, increasingly reflects the megalomaniac tendencies of this unworthy son of a noble father. Some types show him in the guise of the hero Hercules, of whom he considered himself the reincarnation, prompting him to give public displays of his prowess in the arena, combatting wild beasts. So ended in disgrace the celebrated Antonine dynasty which had done so much to enhance the prestige of the Imperial throne.


Half a decade of bloodshed and civil strife was the legacy of Commodus' reign of terror. Pertinax labored valiantly to turn back the clock and restore the fine tradition of Antonine government, but was assassinated by his own guards, who were resentful of stricter discipline, after a reign of less than three months. The death of Pertinax, and the disgraceful elevation by his murderers of the senator Didius Julianus, aroused such a furor in the provinces that three rival emperors were almost simultaneously proclaimed in widely separated areas of the Empire. One of these avengers of Pertinax, Septimius Severus, ultimately triumphed over his rivals, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. But the state had to pay a heavy price for this bloody episode of civil war. Severus (A.D. 193-211), the founder of a new dynasty, owed everything to his loyal troops, and showed his thanks by pampering the army, increasing their pay and granting them many additional privileges. His elder son and ultimate successor, Caracalla, followed the same principles thus sowing the seeds of future military anarchy which, ironically, was to bring about the downfall of the Severan dynasty itself in A.D. 235. The heavy cost of the civil wars, and of his liberality towards his soldiers, obliged Severus to debase the purity of the silver coinage, an evil expedient in which he was imitated by many of his successors, with catastrophic results. But the Severan coinage is, nevertheless, generally well struck from neatly engraved dies, and the types are full of interest. Strong emphasis is placed on the dynastic principle, to which end many precious metal types were produced combining the portraits of various members of the Imperial family. Of special architectural interest is a denarius issued in A.D. 206 depicting the famous triumphal arch of Severus, which still stands to this day in the Roman Forum. Not all of the earlier Severan precious metal coinage was produced in Rome. One result of the civil wars following the murder of Pertinax was the establishment of a mint, or mints, in the East which remained active for many years after the defeat and death of Pescennius Niger. Laodicea in Syria was probably the principal eastern mint for the earlier Severan coinage. Its products are not difficult to differentiate from those of Rome, purely on stylistic grounds. One major innovation in the currency system, made by Caracalla in A.D. 215, was the introduction of a silver double-denarius, usually termed an antoninianus after the emperor's official name of Antoninus.

The Severan dynasty was briefly interrupted, in A.D. 217-218, by the usurpation of Macrinus and his young son Diadumenian. Macrinus continued the issue of antoniniani initiated by his predecessor, though they were produced in much smaller numbers than the traditional denarii. Under the last two emperors of the Severan dynasty, Elagabalus (A.D. 218-222) and Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235), coin production remained at a high level in Rome, especially of the debased silver denarii, though sestertii were also struck in quantity under Alexander. Antoniniani were produced by Elagabalus, but their issue ceased after a short time, and sixteen years were to elapse before the denomination was reintroduced. A Syrian mint, probably Antioch, was operative for precious metal denominations under Elagabalus and for the early years of Alexander's reign. The latter was very much under the influence of his domineering mother, Julia Mamaea, whose issues of silver denarii and brass sestertii were on a large scale.

Severus Alexander and Julia Mamaea were murdered by mutinous soldiers in A.D. 235. With the downfall of the Severan dynasty the Roman Imperial coinage went into a rapid decline, a crisis which was only partially alleviated by Aurelian's currency reform in the early 270s. One of the first signs of impending trouble was a drastic reduction in the volume of gold issues. Production of the double-denarius (antoninianus), discontinued at or before the accession of Alexander, was resumed by the joint Emperors Balbinus and Pupienus in A.D. 238. Within a short space of time the antoninianus had driven the denarius out of circulation, thus bringing to an end four and a half centuries of continuous production of the most famous denomination of Roman coinage. The new standard denomination, the antoninianus, was issued in ever increasing quantities, from the reign of Gordian III (A.D. 238-244) through to Diocletian's great reform of the coinage in the final decade of the 3rd century. The weights of individual gold coins show a marked decline at this time, though the purity of the metal remains high. The aes, though still produced in some numbers, exhibit a tendency to be struck on small and irregular flans.

Although he reigned only briefly in the mid-3rd century, Trajan Decius (A.D 249-251) bravely attempted to make a stand against the rapid decline in the political and economic situation in the Roman state. By adopting the name of Trajan at the outset of his reign he clearly showed his intention to restore the old Roman virtues. Emphasis to this policy was given by the issue of a remarkable series of antoniniani honoring eleven of Decius' Imperial predecessors, from Augustus to Severus Alexander. These gave a fascinating insight into which past rulers were highly regarded in mid-3rd century Rome, and which were not. Notable by their absence were such names as Julius Caesar, Claudius and Pertinax, whilst surprising inclusions were Commodus and Severus Alexander, especially as the latter had never even been deified. A further innovation by Trajan Decius was the introduction of a handsome new aes denomination, the double sestertius, a coin of truly medallic appearance.

Following the death of the heroic Decius on the field of battle, fighting the Empire's dangerous new enemies the Goths (summer 251), there was a further rapid deterioration in the state of affairs, both military and economic. Trebonianus Gallus (A.D. 251-253) attempted to halt the decline in the weight of the gold coinage by the introduction of a double aureus (binio) closely resembling the antoninianus. The brief reign of Aemilian (A.D. 253) saw the issue of a number of interesting types, including extremely rare antoniniani in the name of his wife, Cornelia Supera. These troubled times also witnessed the usurpation at Emisa (Syria) of a certain Uranius Antoninus, about whom very little is known. His remarkable coinage consists of gold aurei, with highly distinctive reverse types, and provincial style billon tetradrachms and bronzes.


With the accession in A.D. 253 of Valerian and his son Gallienus the final chapter in the dissolution of the Augustan monetary system is opened. Following Valerian's capture by the Persians in 260 the Romans temporarily lost effective control of much of the East, the initiative ultimately passing to the rulers of the desert kingdom of Palmyra. Just prior to this catastrophe the western provinces of Gaul, Britain and Spain had been detached from the authority of the central government by the rebellion of Postumus, commander of the Rhine legions. He and his successors maintained an independent state for about fourteen years. In the midst of this chaos, with the Empire showing every sign of total and permanent disintegration, the Imperial coinage was suffering a disastrous decline. The silver antoniniani, already seriously debased by the early 250s, sank rapidly to the level of small bronze coins, seldom showing any trace of silver content. The state was virtually bankrupt, and with the collapse of the silver coinage the issue of aes denominations came to an almost complete stop. The extensive provincial bronze coinage in the East suffered a similar fate, and many Greek Imperial mints made their final issues in the names of Gallienus and his wife, the Empress Salonina. Although the purity of the gold was maintained, the weights of individual specimens vary widely, and there appears to have been little attempt to adhere to any particular standard. In the Gallic Empire of Postumus the monetary crisis was less severe. His attractive gold coinage was struck on a heavy weight standard whilst his antoniniani, though very debased, generally present an appearance far superior to those issued by Gallienus. Postumus even managed to produce a substantial output of aes coinage, including some unusually large pieces which probably circulated as double sestertii. His main mint establishment seems to have been situated at Colonia Agrippina (Cologne), only one of many new minting centers, the proliferation of which was a feature of the later 3rd century coinage. Rome was beginning to lose its pre-eminence, not just as the center of coin production but as the political and strategic heart of the Empire.

The dark days of the 260s were followed by a period of partial recovery, intitiated by Claudius II Gothicus (A.D. 268-270). The improvement was maintained and given further impetus by the vigorous action of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275). This elderly but energetic ruler not only recovered the lost western provinces from the successors of Postumus, but also defeated the forces of the remarkable Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Zenobia and her son Vabalathus had been issuing billon tetradrachms from the mint of Alexandria in Egypt, and antoniniani from Syrian Antioch. They adorned Aurelian's great triumph through the streets of Rome, together with the Tetrici, father and son, who were the last rulers of the Gallic Empire. Aurelian also found time to undertake a partial reform of the Imperial coinage, which had sunk to such a low level. It appears to have been beyond the resources of the state to reintroduce a pure silver coinage at this time, but the size and weight of the antoninianus were increased, and its silver content fixed at about 5%. Aes denominations reappeared but were produced only on a limited scale, and were issued even more sparingly by Aurelian's successors. Gold was now coined on a more regular basis and included some double aurei. The monetary system as restored by Aurelian lasted for about two decades, until Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) introduced his sweeping reforms commencing about 294. The intervening years saw many changes in government, for these were dangerous times, and even emperors of the valor and ability of Aurelian and Probus were not safe from the assassin's sword.

With Diocletian's currency reform the Imperial coinage takes on a whole new aspect. Silver coins of high quality, and corresponding in weight to the Neronian denarius, were reintroduced for the first time in many generations. The name usually given to this new denomination is argenteus. The debased antoninianus was gradually phased out and replaced by a new bronze coin usually referred to as the follis. This piece was of about the same size as the old copper as, but its value in circulation was considerably enhanced by its 5% silver content. Diocletian's arrangements had to be modified in the light of the realities of the economic situation: the silver argenteus did not long remain in circulation and its issue quickly ceased, the result of a serious official miscalculation of its relative value in circulation; whilst the follis underwent a rapid series of reductions in size and weight, a process which continued for almost half a century until the time of Constantius II and Constans. A few years after Diocletian's abdication in A.D. 305, Constantine the Great made a fundamental change in the gold coinage, abandoning the traditional aureus denomination, struck at the rate of 60 to the pound, in favor of a somewhat lighter coin, the solidus, weighing 1/72 of a pound. The solidus was ultimately destined to have a longer and more fascinating history than the aureus, or even the denarius, as it went on to become the principal coin of the late Roman state and subsequently of the Byzantine Empire.


The reign of Constantine the Great (A.D. 307-337) was another turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. Although quite different in their characters and methods, Diocletian and Constantine seem to have held similar views on what was required to reinvigorate the worn-out late Roman state. Decentralization of government and Rome's consequent loss of political supremacy, which first occurred under Diocletian's tetrarchy system, was brought to its logical conclusion with the establishment, by Constantine, of a new capital city. Constantinople, dedicated in A.D. 330, was built on the site of ancient Byzantium. At the meeting place of Europe and Asia, and relatively close to the troublesome Danubian frontier, the new capital occupied a position of great strategic importance. Rivalry between the old capital, Rome, and Constantine's city on the Bosphorus was to become a feature of late Roman and Byzantine history, though the religious aspect of the competition rapidly superseded the political. Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire made Constantinople an important religious center from the time of its foundation. But the authority of the patriarch was openly challenged by the pope in Rome who, as the occupant of the throne of St. Peter, claimed supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs.

The shift in political emphasis from west to east, beginning with Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century, was a major factor in the eventual downfall of the Western Empire in the second half of the 5th century. With very few exceptions, such as Constantine II in A.D. 337 and Valentinian I in 364, the senior emperor reserved for himself the government of the eastern provinces with his residence at Constantinople. The junior colleague occupied the western throne, and the division between the two halves of the Empire became increasingly marked. Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395) was the last emperor to wield undisputed authority over the entire Roman state.

Barbarian pressure on the frontiers increased markedly in the second half of the 4th century. The Emperor Valens lost his life in a great battle fought against the invading Goths at Hadrianopolis in Thrace (A.D. 378), and the growing influence of the Germanic element in the Roman army itself weakened the Empire's resolve to fight back. The disintegration of the West commenced early in the 5th century, with a Vandalic onslaught on Gaul in 406, and a Visigothic invasion of Italy, culminating in the capture and sack, by Alaric, of Rome itself in 410. The long and almost consecutive reigns of two weak and ineffective emperors in the West, Honorius (395-423) and Valentinian III (425-455), contributed to the rapid political decline. Many usurpers rose up to challenge the authority of Honorius, notably Constantine III (407-411) and Jovinus (411-413), but this only served to further weaken the state. In the time of Valentinian III the disintegration proceeded apace, the heaviest blow being the loss of North Africa to the Vandals under their powerful King Gaiseric. Following Valentinian's murder in A.D. 455, the Western Empire lingered for another two decades. Its rulers were, for the most part, shadowy figures with little real authority, the reins of power being firmly in the hands of their Germanic generals and chief ministers. The line ended with the deposition of Romulus Augustus in A.D. 476 whereupon Italy, like the remainder of the former western provinces, became a barbarian kingdom.

The Eastern Empire fared better in these troubled times. It successfully withstood a number of barbarian invasions, and thanks to the wise policies of the Emperor Leo I (457-474) it rid itself of the powerful and destructive Germanic element in the army. With the disappearance of the Empire in the West, the eastern provinces are now commonly referred to as the Byzantine state, though the Byzantines never ceased calling themselves 'Romans.' The Eastern Empire consolidated its position under a succession of effective, if not brilliant, rulers and laid the foundations for a further millennium of turbulent history, providing the important link between the classical world and the medieval.


A knowledge of the outline of Roman history in the 4th and 5th centuries is vital to an understanding of the complexities of the coinage during this period. As we have seen, Diocletian's reformed currency system already stood in disarray by the time Constantine made himself sole master of the Empire in 324. The gold aureus had been replaced by the lighter solidus, whilst the issue of silver coins had long since ceased. The bronze follis had declined to the size of the old denarius, and was to be reduced still further over the succeeding two decades. The number of active mints, however, remained high, in continuation of the expanded network set up by Diocletian as part of his program of reforms. Throughout most of the 4th century the operational mint establishment varied from approximately fifteen to twenty. This was a far cry from the virtual monopoly enjoyed by Rome for so long.

Constantine's new gold coin, the solidus, was accompanied by two fractional gold denominations, the semissis (half solidus), and a 9-siliqua piece weighing 9/24 of the solidus. Later in the century this enigmatic little piece was replaced by a more convenient fractional coin, the tremissis (1/3 solidus, or 8 siliquae). Silver was reintroduced by Constantine in the latter part of his reign, though on a very limited scale when compared with Diocletian's issues. The weight standard used was still that of the argenteus, though the coin now seems to have gone by the name of siliqua. At some point during the sole reign of Constantius II (A.D. 350-360) there was a drastic reduction in the weight of the siliqua to 2/3 of its former level, suggesting that silver had been retariffed at a much higher value in relation to gold. Thereafter, until the end of the 4th century, the siliqua was coined in great quantity, especially at mints in the western provinces. A double denomination, the miliarense, was also minted from time to time. The eventual demise of the silver coinage coincided with the political disintegration of the West.

The story of the bronze coinage is one of continual decline, with occasional short-lived attempts to halt the seemingly inevitable process. About 346 Constantius II and his brother Constans replaced the now tiny bronze follis with a larger piece, usually termed the centenionalis. The usurper Magnentius (350-353) and Julian II, the last emperor of the house of Constantine (360-363) both attempted to reintroduce a large bronze piece, the maiorina, but all such efforts seemed doomed to failure. Most bronze coins issued in the closing decades of the 4th century were either small or very small, and we have no information regarding what names they may originally have borne.

With the opening of the 5th century the stage was set for the final drama in the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. A marked change in the Imperial coinage can also be dated to this time. Gold solidi were issued in ever increasing numbers, symptomatic of the vast sums the Empire was now having to pay mercenary troops for the defense of its borders. Barbarian tribes also had to be bribed and tribute paid to successful invaders. All this depleted the treasury to such an extent that the government was no longer able to issue lower value silver and bronze coins to facilitate the normal economic life of the Empire. For everyday transactions the citizens must have resorted to barter, a state of affairs which existed throughout most of the 5th century. Silver was only coined in minute quantities, even in the East, and the only bronze coin in regular production was the tiny nummus. This piece was so small that there was scarcely space to place the emperor's name and titles on the obverse, so a monogram of the imperial name became the standard reverse type. On the gold solidi the ever widening gulf between the Eastern and Western Empires was made even more apparent by a division of types. The western solidi maintained the traditional profile effigy on the obverse, whilst the reverse was devoted to a standing figure of the emperor. In the East, however, the facing military bust with spear and shield, initiated by Constantius II in the mid-4th century, was the standard obverse type, with a standing figure of Victory holding a long cross on reverse. Only in the dying days of the Western Empire did its solidus types finally fall in line with the Constantinopolitan pattern. The number of mint establishments declined dramatically as the 5th century progressed, due both to the reduction in coin output and to the dislocation caused by barbarian invasion. Rome, Ravenna and Milan survived longest in the West, whilst Constantinople was the major producer of currency in the East, augmented by a limited output from Thessalonica.

In A.D. 498 the elderly Emperor Anastasius (491-518) carried out a sweeping reform of the bronze coinage. The tiny nummi were supplemented by a whole range of new multiple denominations, such as the follis (40 nummi), the half follis (20 nummi) and the quarter follis or decanummium (10 nummi). Later, a pentanummium (5 nummi) was added. Each of these new coins was clearly marked with its value as a multiple of the nummus, and their large scale issue from an expanding mint system meant a return to the more settled economic conditions of earlier times. Thus ended the eight hundred-year story of the Roman coinage, with the birth of a new tradition, the Byzantine, which was destined to endure for an even longer period of time.

Roman Republic

1. Silver didrachm, 241-235 B.C.

2. Aes Grave as, 225-217 B.C.

3. Struck bronze uncia, 217-235 B.C.

4. Silver denarius, 211 B.C.

5. Gold 20 asses, 211 B.C.

6. Silver victoriatus, 211 B.C.

7. Social War, silver denarius, 90-88 B.C.

8. L. Marcus Philippus, silver denarius, 56 B.C.

Roman Imperatorial

9. Julius Caesar, gold aureus, 46 B.C.

10. Julius Caesar, silver portrait denarius, 44 B.C.

11. Mark Antony, silver portrait denarius, 44 B.C.

12. Mark Antony and Octavian, silver denarius, 41 B.C.

13. Octavian, silver denarius, commemorating defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, 28 B.C.

Roman Imperial

14. Augustus, 27 B.C. - 14 A.D., silver cistophorus.

15. Marcus Agippa, died 12 B.C., copper as.

16. Tiberius, A.D. 14-37, copper as.

17. Caligula, A.D. 37-41, brass sestertius.

18. Claudius, A.D. 41-54, copper as.

19. Nero, A.D. 54-68, brass sestertius.

20. Galba, A.D. 68-69, brass sestertius.

21. Vespasian, A.D. 69-79, brass sestertius.

22. Titus, A.D.79-81, copper as (under Vespasian).

23. Nerva, A.D. 96-98, brass dupondius.

24. Trajan, A.D. 98-117, gold aureus.

25. Hadrian, A.D. 117-138, brass sestertius.

26. Antoninus Pius, A.D. 138-161, brass sestertius.

27. Faustina Senior, wife of Antoninus, gold aureus.

28. Marcus Aurelius, A.D. 161-180, brass sestertius.

29. Faustina Junior, wife of Aurelius, gold aureus.

30. Lucius Verus, A.D. 161-169, brass sestertius.

31. Commodus, A.D. 177-192, gold aureus.

32. Pertinax, A.D. 193, silver denarius.

33. Didius Julianus, A.D. 193, silver denarius.

34. Septimus Severus, A.D. 193-211, gold aureus.

35. Geta, A.D. 209-211, brass sestertius.

36. Caracalla, A.D. 198-217, silver antoninianus.

37. Julia Paula, first wife of Elagabalus, A.D. 219, silver denarius.

38. Severus Alexander, A.D. 222-235, brass sestertius.

39. Maximinus I, A.D. 235-238, brass sestertius.

40. Trajan Decius, A.D. 249-251, brass double-sestertius.

41. Trajan Decius, A.D. 249-251, silver 'restoration' antoniniani, with portraits of Titus, Nerva, and Trajan.

42. Gallienus, A.D. 253-268, gold aureus.

43. Florianus, A.D. 276, billon antoninianus.

44. Allectus, usurper in Britain, A.D. 293-296, billon antoninianus.

45. Diocletian, A.D. 284-305, gold aureus.

46. Diocletian, A.D. 284-305, silver argentus.

47. Domitus Domitianus, usurper in Egypt, A.D. 296-297, billon follis.

48. Constantine I, the Great, A.D. 307-337, gold solidus.

49. Thodosius I, the Great, A.D. 379-395, gold solidus.

50. Zeno, A.D. 474-491, gold solidus.

(Photographs by Andrew Daneman and Nancy Norsworthy.)

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