Ancient Roman coins were minted first in the 4th century BCE; that is, towards the end of that century. The first set of Roman coins was produced internally but later spread to other parts of the known world where the Roman popularity has spread. The minting of the ancient Roman coins persisted for up to eight centuries and was the only means of exchange in all the areas where the Roman Empire extended.
Examples of Roman Coins
- Aureus: 200 to 305 CE. It weighed 7g and measured 20 mm in diameter
- Solidus: 310 to 693 CE. It weighed 4 to 5 g and measured 20 mm in diameter
- AE3: 315 to 400 CE. It weighed 2 to 4g and measured 18mm in diameter
- AE4: 383 to 400 CE. It weighed 0.5 to 1.5g and measured 14mm.
- Denarius: 211 BCE to 241 CE. It weighed 3g and measured 19mm in diameter
- Tremissis: 380 to 367 CE. It weighed 1 to 5 g and has a diameter of 14mm
- Antoninianus: 215 to 295 CE. It weighed 3 to 5g and has a diameter of 21mm
- Siliqua: 310 to 650 CE. It weighed 1 to 3g and has a diameter of 18mm
- Sestertius: 23 BCE to 250 CE. It weighed 20 to 30 g and has a diameter of 35mm
- As: 280 BCE to 250 CE. It weighed 9 to 12 g and had a diameter of 27 mm
- Follis: 294 to 310 CE. It weighed 5 to 12 g and had a diameter of 26 mm
- Dupondius: 23 BCE to 250 CE. It weighed 11 to 15 g and had a diameter of 29mm
Denominations and values
All the ancient Roman coins were divided into various values and denominations. These denominations and values were changed from time to time all through their histories. Over time, the denarius and the sestertii persisted for a long period and also were renamed as one of the most famous ancient Roman coins in global history.
The ancient Roman coins were perfect representations of widely recognized and guaranteed value permitting easy exchange of values in many societies and this helped and is still helping in promoting technological development and commerce.
The ancient Roman coins gave the modern world an idea of currency and how to use it as means of exchange and the world is greatly benefiting from the idea today so that the exchange of goods and services could go smoothly.
Today also, one can make identical and large payments easily and this has made possible an entirely new scale of commercial activity. The coins, both in the past and present, have been used as a means to propagate the image of the ruling class in the ancient Roman Empire.
Most of them bore the images and likeness of famous imperial monuments and emperors; most Romans of those days and the present day had and have to depend on the images on the coins for any knowledge of the monuments and emperors.
Coins of the Roman Republic
Coins were not used in the early Roman Republic. Instead, they used a system of bronze weights called the as rude. These were very large units; one unit was equivalent to 11 ½ oz or 324g in weight. They were very heavy, but the weight never discouraged their production until 218 BCE.
The expansion of the Roman Army over the central part of Italy gave them more access to precious metals obtained from war booty. As a result, they had adequate bronze, silver, and gold to produce the ancient Roman coins. This led to the production of the first set of coins. The very first Roman coins were very small in size and were first produced in 326 BCE at Neapolis.
The first silver ancient Roman coins ever produced came up on the 3rd century BCE. It looked similar to the modern day Greek coins. The coin had the same value as two Greek drachmas and also bored the symbol of the legend ROMANO, which was later changed to ROMA. The weight of the coin was later reduced as a result of the financial excesses that occurred during the Punic Wars; the metal content of the bronze bars was also reduced. Gold coins were minted as a result of financial necessity. His event was rare and it was never repeated until the first century BCE.
An entirely new coinage system came up in the ancient Roman Empire in the 211 BCE. This new coinage system appeared for the first time in the form of the silver denarius and the plural form is denarii.
This coin later became the primary silver coin of Rome and persisted until the 3rd century CE. Initially, the coin was funded by taxing the property of Romans and through war booty, especially because the Romans were having the upper hand in the wars against Carthage. The denarius has the same value as 10 bronze asses and each of the asses weighed 2 oz. or 54 g. The silver Victoriatus is yet another example of the coins developed during this period; this coin had the same value as a three-quarter of a denarius called the quinarii, which is also worth half of a denarius. Other gold and bronze coins were also created during this period, but they were not constantly or widely used.
The only city producing coins in Italy was Rome as from 200 BCE. The popularity of Roman coinage spread like wildfire even further due to the place to place movement of the Roman Army. The largest quantity of Roman gold coins was minted by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE.
Bronze was later replaced with silver for making coins following the ability of the Roman Army to overrun several cities and capture treasures from their enemies. The Romans captured the silver mines at Macedonia and this further promoted the availability of silver from 167 BCE; 157 BCE especially saw a boom in silver coin minting. The bronze as got devalued in 141 BCE and 16 ass had the same value as one denarius. The Romans had no need to mark coins anymore because there were none other of such coins in Italy anymore. By the first century BCE, Roman coins were widely used all over the Mediterranean.
The link between coinage and warfare became evident again in 84 BCE when new gold and silver coins were minted by Sulla to prepare payment for his armies; this became a necessity that was repeated by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE when he minted gold coins in large quantity, largest than any quantity ever seen in Rome. This large quantity produced more coins than the state mint. After Caesar died, various fighting parties started producing their own coins, with each party fighting hard to succeed Caesar. Octavia became victorious, however, and this brought about the production of a unified Roman coinage.
Coins of the emperor
The decision of Julius Caesar to use his imagery on ancient Roman coins started the trend of propaganda. Brutus also imprinted his own image on one side of the coins and two daggers on the other side, with the daggers indicating the role he played in the death of Julius Caesar.
When Augustus became an emperor, he also printed his image on ancient Roman coins. However, he later brought reformation to the denominations of all the smaller coins. The new system brought in place by Augustus formed the basis of ancient Roman coins for up to three centuries.
Augustus discontinued the silver coins that were below the denarius and replaced them with dupondius and sestertius orichalcum in 23 BCE, both of which are made of brass (an alloy of zinc and copper). Also, the quadrana and the as were not made from bronzes anymore, but from copper. The denarius was maintained in its silver form. And it was valued as 84 denarii to one pound. 25 denarii had the same value as one gold aureii. 41 denarii had the same value as a pound.
The lugdunum mint was first produced in the 16 BCE and was a combination of silver and gold coins. It also dominated the Oman commerce until the middle part of the first century CE. Some other notable mints were sporadically produced during this period and were made in places like Caesarea, Alexandria, Antioch, and Lyon, among several other cities. Local varieties of the coins were also produced in the eastern parts, with many of them being low-value bronze coinage.
After the Severan emperors, the empire experienced a huge proliferation of coin production. Different coins were being minted by hundreds of cities all across the Roman Empire. Be that as it may, all the coins produced by these cities could be converted easily to Roman coin values. Empire-wide circulation of the coins was not permitted and this confined the coins to the cities where they were minted. Many of the Romans provinces were also using the Roman coins as a means of exchange.
Hands were used to strike the coins to engrave images on pre-cut die placed above and below the blank coin. Four junior magistrates were responsible for controlling the state coinage. These magistrates initially favored Victory, Mars, Jupiter and Roma and such classic images. The magistrates carefully avoided the use of the images of rulers most probably because such images represented tyranny as depicted on Greek coins.
Threats to Roman coins
Taxation could only meet just 80% of the budget of the empire and there was, therefore, need to mint more coins to cover the shortfall, which makes it possible for the empire to put more coins into circulation. These coins were made from newly minted metals.
As a result, those emperors that were extravagant in spending could enter into very serious problems financially. To cater to this problem, the weight of the coins was reduced and the metal content was also reduced, which helped to increase the amount of money in supply and circulation. This was first carried out in 64 CE by Nero; he reduced the silver content by 11% and the gold content of ancient Roman coins by 4.5%.
Other emperors who towed this line were Caracalla, Septimius Severus, and Commodus. These emperors produced the coin named antoninianus, which had the value of two denarii but its real worth was about one and a half. After sometimes, silver coins gradually became 2% pure from its original 50% purity. In some instances, the surfaces of the low-content silver coins were painted with fine silver to make them look more valuable than their real worth.
The general population noticed the manipulation of the currency and decided to pay their taxes with the new coins in retaliation while reserving the older coins for melting down or even savings.
Forged money was also produced at some time. This was easier because the official coins were also of poor quality. The nummularii was a group of professionals appointed by the more to test the available coins for counterfeiting. However, the huge quantity of fake currencies overwhelmed their effort.
When the barbarians invaded Rome in the 3rd century CE, the situation got even worse. This placed serious financial pressure on the entire empire and culminated in the collapse of the silver currency; the economy depended almost exclusively on gold coinage as a result.
Attempts were made from Aurelian to bring about an improvement to the economic situation. The coins were stamped with the stamp indicating their metal content as follows:
- XXI or KA for 5% silver
- Xi or IA for 10%
Diocletian propagated the reforms in 293 CE; he did this by pegging the gold content of the aurei at 60 to a pound. The aurei were later renamed solidus and it outlived the Roman Empire. Diocletian equally minted the nummus, which is a coin made of a pure silver coin worth 1/7200 of the solidus.
Also, he reassessed the values of the currencies in 301 CE, restricting their production to 12 and 15 mints. He equally established a unified use of legends and designs on the currencies across the empire, irrespective of where they are minted.
The trend was, however, reversed by Constantine later. He devalued the solidus and 72 solidi had the same value as the pound. This change could not be sustained due to the poor economy. At a later time, bronze coins became the most important all through the empire with varying denominations. Ancient Roman coins production, however, came to a halt around 480 CE.