Reading Ancient Roman Coins

Reading Ancient Roman Coins
By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek … ..
ANCIENT ROMANS WERE practical-minded people ; they didn ’ thymine like waste effort. Every letter on an ancient Roman coin die was painstakingly engraved by hand, so inscriptions on Roman coins are much heavily abbreviated. Generations of classical music scholars have toiled to unravel the meaning of these cryptic abbreviations, so we can normally understand what the coins are trying to tell us .
even, modern collectors are accustomed to a bunch of specific data on a coin : the name of the area or issuing authority, the coin ’ s denomination, the date of publish, the mintmark, and possibly a motto ( such as E PLURIBUS UNUM – “ out of many, one ” – on american coins ).

Reading Ancient Roman Coins such information is normally missing on ancient coins. And, to complicate things, Roman inscriptions were normally written without spaces between words .
This article will consider a twelve coins issued across the long span of Roman history, to sample the enormous diverseness of inscriptions .


The Latin alphabet is much like ours. Romans wrote the letter “ U ” as V. Some modern letters are missing ( “ J ”, “ W ” ), while others ( “ K ”, “ Y ”, “ Z ” ) appear chiefly in words borrowed from Greek. All educated Romans could read Greek .
Reading Ancient Roman Coins The Romans besides borrowed the estimate of neologism from their neighbors, the greek cities of southern Italy. Like many ancient greek coins, one of the earliest roman silver coins bears a unmarried word, ROMANO, on a raised tablet below a cavalry head on the invert, abbreviating the Latin ROMANORUM ( literally, “ of the Romans ” ). The “ N ” in the dedication is back, suggesting that the engraver might have been unfamiliar with letters. The obverse shows a helmeted head of the war god, Mars .
This mint, a didrachm of about seven grams, dates from about 300-276 BCE. It was possibly struck at Neapolis ( modern Naples ). It brought $ 5,000 USD in a holocene US auction [ 1 ]. On many examples of this type, the word ROMANO is closely worn off .

Sulla the Lucky

Faustus Cornelius Sulla ( c. 86-46 BCE ) was the only surviving son of one of the most colored and enigmatic figures in the history of the Roman democracy, the authoritarian Lucius Cornelius Sulla ( 138-78 BCE ) [ 2 ]. In 56 BCE, Faustus was appointed as one of the “ moneyers ”, the officials responsible for managing Rome ’ s mint. Moneyers, who were normally energetic youthful aristocrats, often glorified their lineage on the coins that they issued in order to promote their own political careers .
Reading Ancient Roman Coins male Romans typically digest three names. The praenomen was a personal name chosen from a short tilt ( less than 20 were common ; it was much abbreviated to a single letter in inscriptions ). The nomen identified the gens ( the “ kin ” or extended family to which he belonged ). The nickname was alike to our family appoint. An elite roman might besides acquire an agnomen or “ nickname ” based on personal accomplishment .
The elder Sulla gained fame by capturing King Jugurtha of Numidia ( now part of western Tunisia and eastern Algeria ) in 106 BCE, earning the dub FELIX ( “ Lucky ” ) ; the word appears on the rearward of a coin strike by the younger Sulla [ 3 ]. The coin shows the elder Sulla seated on a raised platform being offered a laurel wreath by a Roman ally, King Bocchus of Mauretania, while Jugurtha, his hands bound, sits in despair below. The coiner placed his own praenomen, FAUSTUS, on the obverse, beside a break of the syndicate ’ randomness patron goddess Diana. In effect, Faustus is saying, “ My syndicate is so celebrated, I can just inscribe my first name, and my former founder ’ s nickname on this coin and everyone will recognize us. ”


Born in 14 BCE, Agrippina “the Elder” was the daughter of Marcus Agrippa. Her mother was Julia, daughter of the beginning Roman emperor, Augustus. Agrippina married Germanicus, the adopt son of Augustus ’ successor Tiberius, and in 12 CE bore the future emperor butterfly Gaius, nicknamed “ Caligula ”. Tiberius turned against her, and she died in exile ( 33 CE ), either from suicide or starvation .
Agrippina I (mother of Caligula) however, when Caligula became emperor, he honored his mother with a cover girl bronze portrayal sestertius [ 4 ]. The obverse inscription is a full exercise of abbreviation on Roman coinage :
Agrippina, daughter of Marcus, Mother of Gaius Caesar Augustus
On the invert, SPQR abbreviates the formal list of the country : Senatus Populusque Romanus ( “ The Senate and the Roman People ” ), and MEMORIAE AGRIPPINAE ( “ To the Memory of Agrippina ” ) appears beside the adorned funerary mule cart that bore the urn containing her ashes to the Mausoleum of Augustus [ 5 ] .


Q. Servilius Caepio (M. Junius) Brutus AV Aureus The most celebrated Roman mint of all was struck by a military mint moving with the united states army of Brutus in the summer of fall of 42 BCE. About 80 examples are known in silver, and just three in aureate. On Harlan J. Berk’s tilt of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is listed as # 1 ( Berk, 86 ). One of the gold aurei set a fresh price record for a Roman coin on 29 October 2020 when it was sold for £2,700,000 ( about $ 3,484,321 USD ) .
The obverse bears a portrait of Brutus with the dedication :
Brutus, Commander, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus ( coiner )
The abbreviation IMP for Imperator at this period simply means “ military air force officer in headman ” – it late became a style of all Roman emperors. Plaetorius was an army finance official, possibly the paymaster – he is differently unknown to history. The austere change by reversal inscription EID MAR abbreviates Eidibus Martiae ( “ on the Ides of March ” ). It refers to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. Eidibus is a preferably rare Latin grammatical human body, “ ablative of time when ”, but the imagination would have been immediately understand even by ignorant Romans : two daggers beside a pileus, the conic felt hat worn by release slaves .
Brutus is saying, rather graphically : “ With these daggers, we regained our freedom from a authoritarian. ”

Burning the Tax Debt Records

The largest number always spelled out on a Roman mint appears on a rare bronze sestertius of Hadrian issued c. 119-121 CE. One of hadrian ’ mho foremost official acts when he arrived in Rome from Syria, about a year after he was proclaimed emperor, was a general amnesty for delinquent taxes. To mark this, the coin depicts an official with a blowtorch setting fire to a heap of scrolls while a group of citizens rejoices .
Hadrian Sestertius circa 119-121 The dedication states :
Nine times a hundred thousand sestertii of outstanding debts canceled
A cataloger writes :
HS is a standard abbreviation for sestertii in Roman inscriptions, and, depending upon how it is referenced, it can refer to a single sestertius, a unit of one thousand sestertii, or a unit of one hundred thousand sestertii. In this event, novies is an adverb meaning ‘ nine times ’, and thus it applies to the sestertius as a unit of measurement of one thousand sestertii. Some have logically suggested that in the context of this dedication the HS would have been an adjective with the thousand, or mille, being understood in terms of empire-wide taxes. If so, it would increase the name calculate to ‘ nine times a hundred thousand units of one thousand sestertii ’, therefore equating it to the trope of 900 million sestertii… [ 6 ]
It was a Roman quirk to reckon large sums of money in sestertii ( four tan sestertii equaled one silver denarius ). It would be like Americans expressing boastfully sums in quarters rather than dollars .

The Year 874

HADRIAN. 117-138 CE. AV Aureus (7.34 gm) Romans dated the fabulous foundation of their city by Romulus to April 21, 753 BCE. To celebrate the anniversary in 121 CE, emperor butterfly Hadrian decreed a round of chariot races to entertain the masses. A rare gold aureus commemorates the consequence [ 7 ]. The obverse dedication around the emperor ’ s portrait on the obverse spells out his name and titles :
Emperor Caesar Hadrian Augustus, Consul three times
The extraordinary reverse shows a lean back figure of the Spirit of the Games, holding a chariot bicycle, with his arm wrapped around one of the tall conic stone turning posts ( metae ) of the Circus Maximus .
The inscription is one of lone two cases of a date reckoned from the basis of the city on a Roman coin ( the other is a identical rare mint of the usurper Pacatian from 248 CE citing class 1001 of Rome ). hadrian ’ randomness coin reads :
year 874 Since the Birth of the City ; First Circus Games Established
On Berk ’ sulfur tilt of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is # 66 ( Berk, 103 ). About 15 examples are known.

Virtus & Pietas

Reading Ancient Roman Coins Some of the most coarse latin words on Roman coins have meanings that differ greatly from what you might expect from knowing exchangeable english words .
These “ personified abstractions ” are concepts depicted as elegant female figures. Chief among these is PIETAS, frequently represented as a woman put up forfeit at an altar. The english noun “ piety ” and the refer adjectival “ pious ” now connote a quite holier-than-thou religiosity, but for the Romans, pietas meant a feel of duty, province, and obedience for tradition ( Traupman, 320 ) .
On coin inscriptions, PIETAS AVG ( or alike ) means that this attribute is ascribed to the emperor butterfly ( or empress ). An case is a denarius of Maximus Caesar ( 235-238 CE. ) On the reverse, PIETAS AVG is inscribed above a set of “ priestly implements ”, to emphasize the ruler ’ s role a high priest of the state religion [ 8 ] .
Gordian II AR Denarius. Rome, March-April 238 CE Another word often seen on Roman coins is VIRTUS. This doesn ’ thyroxine mean quite what the english equivalent “ merit ” suggests, but it covers a range of meanings including manhood, manfulness, heroism, excellence, and deserving ( Traupman, 451 ). On coins, virtu is normally ascribed to the ruler ( VIRTUS AVG ) or to the united states army ( VIRTUS EXERCITUM ) Virtus is often personified as a helmeted standing warrior, for exemplar on a denarius of the brief reign of Gordianus II ( March-April 238 CE ) [ 9 ] .


Julian II, 360-363 CE. AR Siliqua struck at Lugdunum The word VOTA ( or VOTIS, frequently abbreviated to VOT ) is very coarse on late Roman imperial coins, normally associated with Roman numerals. This has nothing to do with vote but rather refers to a custom of populace vows for the health of the emperor, accompanied by sacrifices, performed on important anniversaries .
very much, vows were anticipated for a much longer period than were always fulfilled ; for case, Valens entirely reigned for fourteen years, and we find on the coins vows for twenty and thirty years — VOT XX MULT XXX ( Stevenson, 902 ) .
On a flatware siliqua of Emperor Julian ( ruled 360-363 ) the change by reversal inscription is VOT X MULT XX. A Roman would read this as : “ Votis decennalibus Multis vicennalibus ” – an interpretation might be “ May the 10-year vows be repeated for 20 years. ”

East & West

When Emperor Theodosius I “the Great” died in 395, the empire was divided between his young sons Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. Hopes of reuniting the conglomerate rested on the betrothal of child princess Licinia Eudoxia to Valentinian III, heir of the Western empire .
Licinia ’ second forwarding to the championship of Augusta ( “ empress ” ) is celebrated on a identical rare gold solidus issued at Constantinople in 429 [ 10 ]. The seven-year-old princess is shown as an adult, with the Hand of God crowning her from above. The dedication names her AEL EUDOXIA AUG, “ Aelia ” being the official first list assigned to Imperial women .
Licinia Eudoxia (Augusta, 425-450 CE). AV solidus The overrule inscription surrounding the Chi-Rho symbol ( the “ monogram of Christ ” ) is extraordinary :
salvation ( or Health ) of the East, Happiness of the West
At 32 letters, the inscription is signally long, and the bold characters are cut with great wish .

Happily Married

The marry of Valentinian III ( senesce 18 ) and Licinia Eudoxia ( age 15 ) on October 29, 437, was commemorated on a rare amber solidus of the bride ’ s founder Theodosius II [ 11 ]. The groom was the son of the ephemeral western emperor Constantius III ( ruled 421 ) and the empress Galla Placidia. On the rearward, the emperor joins the hands of the match in marriage, and the inscription proclaims FELICITER NUBTIIS ( “ Happily Married ” ). All three figures have halos around their heads, indicating their sacred Imperial condition .
Theodosius II AV Solidus. The mintmark below combines two abbreviations : CON for Constantinopolis, the Eastern capital, and OB for obryzum, a technical term for pure refined gold. Confusingly, some coins of this publish were struck at the batch of Thessalonica and bear the mint grade COMOB for Comes Obryzii, the title of the mint official responsible for quality control .
The pair had two daughters. Valentinian III was assassinated in 455. Licinia was forced to marry his successor, Petronius Maximus, who himself was killed after a reign of barely 75 days .

Reading the Romans

The standard address for Roman coin inscriptions is A Dictionary of Roman Coins by Seth Stevenson ( 1784-1853 ), a massive influence of Victorian-era eruditeness. Stevenson died before it could be completed, and the massive 929-page reserve was finally published in 1889 ( reprinted in 1964 ) ; a searchable digital version is available on-line. Klawans ( 1995 ) has a detail chapter on reading and understand Roman coins. An cheap Latin-English dictionary, such as Traupman ( 2007 ), is a handy accessory for any dangerous collector of Roman coins .
There are besides some excellent on-line resources for researching ancient Roman mint inscriptions–these include CoinArchives, ACSearch, Wildwinds, and OCRE. We hope to explore these, and others, in a future article .
* * *


[ 1 ] CNG Auction 112, September 11, 2019, Lot 465. Realized $ 5,000 USD ( estimate $ 1,000 ) .
[ 2 ] hypertext transfer protocol : //
[ 3 ] NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 445. Realized CHF 2,500 ( about $ 2,490 USD ; estimate CHF 1,500 ) .
[ 4 ] Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 541. Realized £5,000 ( about $ 6,452 USD ; estimate £4,000 ) .
[ 5 ] It nowadays rests in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums in Rome .
[ 6 ] NAC Auction 25, June 25, 2003, Lot 452. Realized CHF 13,000 ( about $ 9,795 USD ; estimate CHF 10,000 ) .
[ 7 ] CNG Triton VII, January 12, 2004, Lot 932. Realized $ 39,000 USD ( estimate $ 20,000 ) .
[ 8 ] Leu Numismatik Auction 7, October 24, 2020, Lot 1653. Realized CHF 700 ( about $ 772 USD ; calculate CHF 350 ) .
[ 9 ] Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 651. Realized £2,800 ( about $ 3,613 USD ; estimate £3,500 ) .
[ 10 ] Heritage New York Sale, January 4, 2015, Lot 30986. Realized $ 38,000 USD ( estimate $ 40,000 – 65,000 ) .
[ 11 ] Roma Numismatics Auction XI, April 7, 2016, Lot 897. Realized £13,000 ( about $ 18,323 USD ; estimate £10,000 ).


Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL ( 2019 )
Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA ( 1989 )
Kent, J. P. C. Roman Coins. New York ( 1978 )
Klawans, Zander. Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins. Racine, WI ( 1995 )

Morwood, James. A latin Grammar. Oxford ( 1999 )
Stevenson, Seth. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London ( 1964 ; offprint of 1889 version )
Traupman, John. The New College Latin and English Dictionary. New York ( 2007 )

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