Introduction to Ancient Numismatics

Introduction to Ancient Numismatics

Coin from Poseidonia showing Poseidon and ketos on obverse, with bull on reverse | © ACANS SNG Gale 716o Coin from Poseidonia showing Poseidon and ketos on obverse, with bull on reverse | © ACANS SNG Gale 716r

Numismatics can be tricky. It's hard to know where to begin - the terminology and concepts are rather esoteric. Nonetheless, coins are hugely valuable for the study of ancient history. With this in mind, the following resource has been designed. It consolidates a number of essential concepts into one place so you have a point of reference as you begin to explore Greek and Roman coins.

Terminology

Numismatists use a specific vocabulary to describe coins:

  • Obverse refers to the side of the coin struck with the obverse die (see the following section).
  • Reverse refers to the side of the coin struck with the reverse die.
  • Type refers to the image on a coin.
  • Legend refers to the writing (this might also be known as an inscription).
  • Exergue is a space on the coin below the central design, usually delineated by a line.
  • The field is the blank space surrounding the type.
  • Dies are the tools used for stamping an image on a coin (see the following section). 
  • The flan/blank is the piece of metal placed between the dies for striking.

Coin features | © ACANS RRC447

How to mint an ancient coin

How to strike a coinThe image on the left shows how an ancient coin was struck. The hammer strikes the reverse die, leaving an impression on the heretofore blank flan. As the flan is depressed into the obverse die, an impression is left on the other side of the flan. 

The hammer exerts more force on the reverse die. It will degrade quicker than the obverse die, which absorbs comparatively less force. The two dies do not degrade at the same rate. Thus, more reverse dies are required to produce large issues of coins. A practical side effect of this process is that, when complex imagery is shown, it will appear on the obverse die. This is because the obverse die will not need to be re-engraved as frequently as the reverse die.

Hoards

Roman coin hoard | PAS-DUR-16C89F | CC BY | Portable Antiquities SchemeYou would already be aware that coins, like any historical artefact, may be found on an archaeological site. Large quantities of coins are, however, found in uncontrolled circumstances. While a collection of coins buried together remains together, it is of extreme value for numismatists, and is often referred to for research purposes. Such collections can be found by amateur enthusiasts or dog walkers. They are referred to as hoards.

For practical purposes the minimum size for a hoard is just two coins and the qualifying factor which creates a hoard is that the coins should have been brought together in a deliberate manner. Of course, most hoards consist of more than two coins, but size alone is not an important qualification for a collection of coins to comprise a hoard.

Hoarding seems to be endemic and can be associated with every strata of society and with every sort of coin-using community. Within this wide spectrum, coin hoards consisting of what might properly be called treasures coexist with trivial sums of low denomination coins. But the value of these hoards to their original owners may, of course, have been in inverse proportion to their apparent intrinsic value: the loss of a fortune to a rich man may be nothing compared to the loss of the price of the next meal to a starving one. The images on this page show how one might find coin hoards. They can be in large or small hoards, buried in soft bags which have disintegrated over time, or clay pots. All the hoards pictured here contain Roman coins found in England - the images are from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which catalogues all sorts of finds in England and Wales.

Coin Hoard: Seaton Down being excavated | PAS-D7EA4C | CC BY-SA 2.0 | The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the British MuseumNearly everyone has formed a hoard at some time or other. Maybe you don't know what to do with 5c pieces, so you keep them in a jar; perhaps you throw in some coins for every expletive you utter; maybe you're collecting for charity; maybe you just like collecting interesting coins. The ancients operated in exactly the same way. Not every hoard was buried as a form of 'savings' deposit, nor were they kept secret. Two of the most famous hoards were foundation deposits beneath the Apadana at Persepolis. There Darius the Great intentionally buried gold and silver coins as representations of the western boundaries of his empire and of his political and economic control of the regions.

The proportion of coin denominations in a hoard can inform us about the economic climate at the time it was buried. The composition of the hoard can enable us to establish a chronology for an archaeological site. The origins and find spot of the hoard may tell us about the trade power of certain cities whose coins journeyed vast distances before being buried. Hoards are incredibly important to our understanding of coins and wider history.

- The above is adapted from P.J. Casey, Understanding Ancient Coins. London: Batsford, 1986. pp. 51-52

Coin hoard when first found | PAS-SOM-8DC133 | CC BY-SA | Portable Antiquities Scheme and Somerset County Council

Athenian denominations

In Classical Athens, the following were some common denominations and their relative value

6 obols= 1 drachma
4 drachmae= 1 tetradrachm
600 obols / 100 drachmae= 1 mina
6000 drachmae / 60 minae= 1 talent

ACANS 10A5 | Plated Athenian tetradrachm | © ACANSACANS 10A5 | Plated Athenian tetradrachm | © ACANS

Buying power in Classical Athens

Wages

  
Rower in the fleet (415 BCE)1 dr. per dayThuc. 6.31.3, cf. 3.17.4, 6.8.1
Erechtheion workmen (409-407 BCE)Unskilled: 3 obols per day
Skilled: 1 dr. per day
IG I373-374
Eleusis workmen (329 BCE)Casual labourers: 1.5 dr. per day
Carpenters, stone polishers: 2 dr. per day
Bricklayers, stone masons: 2.5 dr. per day
IG II1672

Prices

  
Wheat5 dr. per medimnos (52 litres)IG II360.9, 1672.287; Dem. 34.39
Shoes8 dr. Aristoph. Ploutos, 982-83
Tunic20 dr.Aristoph. Ploutos, 982-83
Book1 dr.Plato, Apology, 26D
Private grave monument5000 drLys. 32.21
Slaves72 dr. (Carian child) to 301 (Syrian man)IG I3 421

Roman Republican denominations

The bronze as was the basic unit of currency in the Roman Republic. NB: The weight of the metal could change. Ca. 140 BCE the relative value of the denarius and as was retariffed. These were the most common denominations:

Bronze Coins
 
Sestertius= 4 asses
Dupondius= 2 asses
As= the basic unit of currency
Semis= 1/2 as
Triens= 1/3 as
Quadrans= 1/4 as
Sextans= 1/6 as
Uncia= 1/12 as
Semuncia= 1/24 as
Silver Coins
 
Denarius= 16 asses
Quinarius= 8 asses
Gold Coins
 
Aureus= 25 denarii/400 asses

Buying power in Republican Rome

Gale RIC 574 | © ACANSIt's all well and good to know the various denominations of Roman Republican coins, but what was their value?

Our sources provide some hints of what could be purchased with your sestertii.

  • In value for purchasing food, the grain-laws seem to have allowed each recipient 5 modii of wheat per month. Wheat cost (unsubsidized) about 3 sestertii per modius so that the cost of a month's wheat would be 15 sestertii, or just under 4 denarii; barley cost about 1/2 to 2/3 as much as wheat.

- Lacey & Wilson, Res Publica. London: OUP, 1970. p. 328.

  • The daily wage for an unskilled worker in Cicero's day was reportedly 3 sestertii (Cic. For the actor Roscius, 28)
  • In the 40s BC there was a prolonged agitation about urban rents. In 48 the praetor, Marcus Caelius, who proposed a year's remission, was driven out of the city by the consul, but only after bloodshed. Caesar, however, granted the remission in the same year, and perhaps extended it in 47, after further tumults, when barricades were raised, soldiers called in and eight hundred rioters killed. It applied to rents up to 2,000 sestertii in Rome, and 500 elsewhere, an indication that the cost of living in Rome was exceptionally high.

- Brunt, "The Roman Mob," in Studies in Ancient Society, edited by M.I. Finley. London: Routledge, 1974. p. 86 (see n36 for sources!)

Common Roman abbreviations

Coins often carry their own abbreviations - especially Roman ones of the imperial period. In Republican Rome, coin legends were often simple. The following list compiles some standard titles and abbreviations as they appear on Republican coinage.

Praenomina (first, personal name)
 
AAulus
ApAppius
DDecimus
CGaius
CnGnaeus
LLucius
MMarcus
PPublius
QQuintus
SerServius
SexSextus
TiTiberius
TTitus
Legends and their Abbreviations
 
C or CAESCaesar
COSConsul
DICTDictator
ETAnd
F or FILFilius - son; Filia - Daughter
FELFelicitas
FELIXhappy/successful
IMPImperator
MAXMaximus - the greatest
MILIT or MILITUMof the soldiers
P F or P FELPius Felix - dutiful and successful
P M or PONT M or PONT MAXPontifex Maximus
P PPater Patriae
PAXPeace
POPULI ROMANIof the Roman people
ROMAPersonification of Rome
S CSenatus Consulto - by decree of the senate of Rome
SPQR

Senatus Populusque Romanus - the senate and people of Rome

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