From Bronze Chunks to Imperial Currency: A Brief History of Roman Coins

Of all artefacts originating in Ancient Rome, coins are by far the most numerous, with hundreds of thousands of recorded examples in existence. Archaeologists, hobbyists and average citizens frequently discover examples in the former Roman territories.

The Development of Roman Currency

Throughout the duration of Ancient Roman civilisation, currency was mostly based on coins of precious and semiprecious metals, namely gold, silver, bronze and copper. Coinage began during the Republic with the minting of silver coins and heavy bronze pieces in order to trade with Greek colonies and other settlements on the Italian peninsula.

Before Rome minted coins, sheep and pieces of rough bronze (aes rude) were the dominant currencies, both being abundant local resources. Each piece of bronze was weighed in order to determine its value. Other Mediterranean cultures had already been using coins for hundreds of years. For instance, the Greek drachma dates to before 700 BC.

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Aes rude

The first actual coins were not far from aes rude as they were heavy with lead and cast as opposed to struck. These coins were given value due to government decree and were based on Roman pounds and ounces. In around 300 BC a small amount of Greek-style struck silver coins were produced, probably to facilitate trade after the construction of the Appian Way.

The Birth of the Dinarius

Several other coins, particularly Greek coins with Roman stamps, were produced before the introduction of the denarius in 211, but it was large amounts of silver taken during the sack of Syracuse that made a silver-based system viable.

It wasn’t until the Second Punic War at the end of the 3rd century BC that Rome developed a proper system of coinage, based on the silver dinarius and featuring bronze coins of lesser value. The dinarius denomination would remain in use for 450 years.

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Denarius with the head of the goddess Roma from 137 BC

Imagery on Roman Coins

The early standard denarius design had the image of the goddess Roma on one side with Castor and Pollux galloping on horseback on the reverse. Throughout the years the design altered, for example featuring the goddesses Luna and later Victoria. Bronze coins featured a ship on one side and the head of Mercury on the other. When tossing a coin to make a decision, Romans used the phrase capita aut navia or ‘heads or ships’.

While Roman coinage under the Republic featured images taken from the myths and symbols of the city, such as gods or Romulus and Remus nursing from their wolf stepmother, designs changed with the transition to Empire. Julius Caesar was the first to issue a coin with his own image and the emperors continued this tradition, though they also issued coins featuring customary deities and symbolism.

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Quadrans

Augustus, ever the reformer, introduced brass and copper coinage and lower denominations called sestertius, dupondius and quadrans (quarters).

Inflation and Coin Debasement

Over time the devaluation of the denarius was more or less constant, though it happened in varying degrees. What began is nearly pure silver in the original coins decreased significantly. Besides purity of silver, the coin’s size also diminished. By the second half of the 3rd century AD, the denarius was only about 2% silver.

The Emperor Diocletian responded during the years of 294 – 310 by instituting currency reform, including introducing a new system of coinage. The denarius was replaced by the argentus, which was comparable in weight and silver content to the denarius of Nero’s reign (54 – 68 AD).

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Argenteus with the image of Constantine Chlorus

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.