Collecting Ancient Roman Coins, Part 1: The Roman Republic September 19 2013
Ancient Roman coins hold a powerful attraction for many collectors—Roman coins make up the second largest market within numismatics, behind only U.S. coins. But to new collectors, the field of ancient coins can seem impossibly confusing, full of strange names and Latin words. In this article, I’m going to show you that collecting Roman coins is actually very simple, by revealing some of the basics that all new collectors should know.
At its peak, the Roman Empire was one of the most powerful civilizations this world has ever known, controlling the entire Mediterranean region, North Africa, and Europe as far north as England. The Roman Emperors effectively controlled the entire Western world, through a combination of administrative skill and military might. But before the Empire came the Republic, a republic that lasted from the 6th century B.C. until Julius Caesar effectively destroyed it 500 years later. Instead of a single Emperor, the Republic was controlled by the Senate, a powerful group of rich and privileged Roman citizens. This system survived more or less intact over the centuries until certain Romans began to openly covet more power. These Romans used their popularity with the common people and the Roman military to place pressure on the Senate. A series of brutal civil wars broke out, culminating in the triumph of Julius Caesar over the Senators and their allies. A conspiracy deprived Caesar of his life but it was already too late for the Republic to be saved. After Caesar’s assassination, his great-nephew Octavian destroyed any remaining republican threats and consolidated his power to declare himself Emperor Augustus and bring a permanent end to the Republic.
Just like modern coins, ancient Roman coins came in various denominations. Here are the most common ones:
As, the lowest denomination. First cast in bronze, later struck in copper.
Dupondius, a brass coin worth two asses.
Sestertius, a large brass coin worth two dupondi.
Follis, a bronze coin with a thin silver coating, struck until the late 3rd century AD.
Denarius, a small silver coin worth 4 sestertii. First struck in the 3rd century BC as an almost pure silver coin but gradually reduced in purity to less than 50% silver before being abandoned entirely in the 3rd century AD.
Antoninianus, a slightly larger silver coin worth two denarii. First struck in the 3rd century AD in 40% silver but gradually reduced in purity to a silver coating over bronze. Abandoned 4th century AD.
Aureus, a small high-purity gold coin worth 25 denarii. First struck regularly under Julius Caesar, last struck 4th century AD.
Solidus, Constantine’s replacement for the aureus. Used by the Byzantine Empire for seven centuries after the fall of Rome.
Generally, Roman coins are separated into three main categories—Republican Era, Imperial Era, and Provincials.
First came coins of the Roman Republic (509 B.C. - 27 B.C.). When the Roman Republic was in its infancy, coins from the many Greek city-states were the main means of commerce. The early Romans copied these coins, which were based on the drachma denomination. It wasn’t until the 3rd century B.C. that the denarius and other uniquely Roman coins started to be produced, mostly struck by wealthy individual moneyers. These Republic coins originally featured symbolic imagery of gods and mythology, but as time went on, more and more men began appearing on the coins. Powerful Romans added their own ancestors’ faces to the coins they struck. In the 1st century B.C., as the Republic was gradually crumbling, some of the Romans we consider most famous today appeared on coins. In many cases, these coins provide the only remaining evidence of what those famous men actually looked like. Julius Caesar was the first to break with tradition by placing his own portrait on denarii, the first time a living Roman had been displayed on Roman coinage (see picture at right). Coins struck by Julius Caesar are in extremely high demand today—those featuring his portrait go for thousands of dollars, while those only featuring his name go for hundreds.
Perhaps the most famous of the Republican era coins is the coin struck by Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar’s close friend and assassin. Brutus and his conspirators expected to be cheered as heroes for killing Caesar, but they underestimated the public’s love for him. The assassins were forced to flee Rome before their ultimate defeat by the combined forces of Marcus Antonius and Octavian. Before his defeat and suicide, Brutus paid his soldiers with this denarius. The obverse features a portrait of Brutus himself, while the reverse shows a “liberty” cap between two daggers with the words “EID MAR.” Brutus chose a design to boost his soldiers’ morale, by reminding them of the fateful blow for liberty and freedom that had been struck on the Ides of March. There are estimated to be only 60 “eid mar” denarii in existence. Because of their great scarcity and extraordinary historical significance, each one of these coins sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even excluding the coins of famous men, Republican era coins in general tend to demand higher prices than Imperial era coins. This is mainly a factor of their scarcity. The Roman Empire produced a much greater number of coins than did the individual moneyers in the Republican period. Nevertheless, many attractive silver denarii of the Republic can be found for around $50. Other base metal denominations are much cheaper. Won't settle for anything less than gold? Expect to pay thousands of dollars for a gold aureus. When buying a high-value coin, make sure the seller is reputable or buy only third-party authenticated coins. The ancient coin market has a very high number of counterfeits, especially on eBay.
More Helpful Links
"Collecting Ancient Roman Coins" - Coins-Auctioned.com
"Where to find Ancient Roman Coins" - Silver Dollar Scoop
"Roman Imperial Coin Denominations" - Doug Smith's Ancient Coins