Getting Started with Roman Coins

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Getting Started with Roman Coins
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The Republican Period (290 BC to 82BC)

Roman coins are the easiest type of ancient coins to collect because Roman history is relatively well documented and the Roman alphabet is recognisable to English speakers. There are a large number of books and online resources to help the collector.

This page will take you through the basics of Roman coinage from the start of the Republican period to the end of the Roman Empire. It covers all the major coin types in use, giving weights, sizes and relative values where they are known. It finishes up with some thoughts on where to look next based on the type of collecting you like to do, and with some recommended reading.

It might look a bit complicated at first, but this really is the simplified version. It covers a period of around 780 years, and as you’ll see later, they weren’t all smooth running years. Wars, inflation, and general poor management took their toll on the Romans and their coins.

Organising Roman Coins

Roman coins are generally broken down into four main areas:

Roman RepublicanFor the purposes of coin collecting, the Roman Republican era runs from around 290 BC to around 82 BC, although some would say it ran until 49BC (see below). The Roman Republic is older than this, but they didn’t use coins (well, not round ones anyway).

Coins in this period were minted by junior magistrates, and it is their names that appear on the coins. During the 1st century BC, generals on campaign started minting their own coins to pay their troops.

One notable feature of Republican coinage is that it didn’t feature portraits of living people (some provincial coins may have done this, but not those minted in Rome). That taboo wasn’t broken until the Roman Imperatorial era.

Roman ImperatorialThe Roman Imperatorial period was the transition period between the Republic and the Empire, and is the period where powerful generals vied for control of Rome. If you are interested in coins of Julius Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian, then this is the period for you.

The accepted start date of the Roman Imperatorial era varies, with the following contenders being used:

The only practical effect of this for the collector is that coins between 82BC and 49 BC may appear in either the Roman Republic or the Roman Imperatorial sections of shops and auctions.

Likewise, the end date is slightly flexible with both 31 BC and 27 BC being used (see below).

It is during this era that moneyers started putting their own portraits on coins. Julius Caesar was first to do so, an act that possibly contributed to his death, but the seal had been broken and even his assassin, Brutus, soon put his portrait on a coin he minted.

Roman ImperialThe Roman Imperial age is the age of the Emperors, and begins when either:

  • Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, or
  • 27 BC when Octavian took on the title Augustus

It is generally considered to end with the fall of Rome in 476 AD, or with the monetary reform of Anastasius in 498 AD. “RIC 10” uses 491 AD as the end date as that’s when Anastasius came to power.

The coins from the end of the Roman Empire tend to be in good condition and the bronze ones are cheap, so this is a good place for collectors on a budget.

Roman ProvincialRoman Provincial coins are those minted by local civic authorities, rather than the imperial authorities. They are generally continuations of the local currency that existed before the Romans took control. As a result, they can have greek legends and be of non-Roman denominations.

This page doesn’t consider Roman Provincial coins any further

Roman Imperial coins seem to be the most commonly collected ones.

The coins used by the Romans is a surprisingly complex subject due to the occasional monetary reforms and ongoing debasement that occurred. The following sections briefly cover the major denominations of the Republican, Imperatorial and Empire periods, with the following caveats:

  1. The monetary system became a bit unstable towards the end of the empire, with coins coming and going (and sometimes coming back again), and generally shrinking in size, weight and purity, but occasionally being improved. Minor changes are not documented here
  2. We don’t always know what the coins were called, or how they related to each other. Some of the names used are modern inventions
  3. Some denominations that came and went quickly aren’t mentioned here. For example, Trajan Decius (249-251 AD), introduced the double sestertius, which wasn’t popular and ceased almost immediately (although it was used in the breakaway Gallic Empire)
  4. Provincial denominations are not discussed

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