Kya deLongchamps looks at a collection of Roman coins and says they provide an easy entry level for beginners while being a fascinating marker for history buffs and scholars alike.
I am on a campaign — a Roman campaign. We rediscovered (after an unauthorised excavation in the familial man-drawer) the 4th century Imperial ‘portrait coin’ I bought for my beloved about eight years ago.
As it was well struck from a sharp die, just once, right at the centre of the metal, it was graded NVF (nearly very fine) and cost a princely €12 on Ebay from a known dealer.
Having established that the image on the obverse (front) represents the laurelled head of Emperor Licinius I (ruled 308-324) and the reverse shows his patron deity, Juno, we researched its place in Roman expansionist economics and the social and political life of the time for my daughter’s history class.
The magic of the tiny pinch of bronze came to vivid new life.
So, stepping into the world of numismatics, it turns out you can start a collection of ancient coinage for the modern spend of under a tenner.
Imagine owning something designed, made and exchanged repeatedly in human hands before the birth of Jesus Christ — something with a clear image of Roma (largely pre 27BC) or an emperor who single-handedly changed the known world?
Rolling a coin with high relief over under your eye, something illustrated on the reverse with anything from a deity to a scene of Roman mythology, a dramatic moment in politics, a religious rite, a charioteer — surely that’s thrilling to just about anyone — reaching through ages as far back as 1,500 years.
Coins have a special place in archaeology, as they are a perfect means to give at least an idea of human activity at asite (when it might have been occupied, when a market might have been popular).
The site or place in return gives historical context to the coin. Twenty-five, 4th century gold Roman coins of Emperor Constantine I and II were found at the tomb of Newgrange.
Given the site was abandoned 3,500 years earlier we can speculate these were votive offerings. Were they left by Roman pilgrims, not soured by the damp weather in Hibernia?
Apart from poaching slaves to serve in Roman Britain and some cultural exchanges including Christianity, Roman generals appear to have just toed the stony sands of the Irish coast.
Ancient coins have been collected for centuries. Several popes had important collections, and books covering identification have been found dating back to the 1500s. To start collecting Roman coins, you will also need a reference book, not 800 words of wonder from Ms deLongchamps.
In broad strokes, ancient Roman coins can be split chronologically into coins of the Republic before the reign of Augustus (also called Octavian) in 27BC and later Imperial (or Imperator) coins.
The latter is all the coins showing the heads of emperors or their wives, on the front/obverse, for a span of about 500 years.
They were struck with a hammer from a blank, not moulded from hot metal, a practice that died out in the 3rd century BC. Julius Caesar, who was splattered all over the Senate floor in 44BC, took the bold step of putting his head on a coin during his lifetime.
Previously, Rome herself was represented as a goddess on coins, named the moneyer, or illustrated the names and deities of a patrician family of the city.
This iconography by a conquering general — the clear dictatorial intent by Julius, really upset the political apple cart.
Some leaders brought their mints with them on military campaigns or to new lands. Caesar’s assassin Marcus Junius Brutus (85BC-42AD) struck coins on the march to pay his armies.
These coins, made during a special time, or over the rule of a shortlived usurper are generally highly sought after and expensive.
Still, given the size of the Roman Empire and the length of time we’re covering, there are millions of coins out there — millions. Finds of hoards by working tractors in Europe, and single examples plucked out by metal detector hobbyists in the UK and elsewhere, infrequently rate a mention in the media.
Not all coins are legally acquired, so source yours where possible from a specialist dealer rather than a private individual. Coins can be re-engraved and faked, so for a major spend, contact a dealer with a terrestrial address and good reputation.
Condition and rarity winnow out the best to museums and rich investors, and the remaining clean and uncleaned, is picked over by dealers and amateur collectors.
Coin types and themes to follow, offer fascinating choices, and include mighty early Follis with silver content, precious Aureus of gold and tiny coins in bronze, brass and copper of little intrinsic value.
The most common size you will find in silver coins will be a Denarius. It’s taken from ‘containing 10’ as when it was first minted in 211BC, it was worth 10 asses – an ‘as’ was a tiny, lower denomination of bronze or copper coin.
Another collectable type, the Sestertius, a brass coin was worth four asses by 23BC in the reign of Augustus.
Inflation took values up and down in real terms and the denarius disappeared into an acceptable exchange rate of goods and services known as the ‘denari commune’ laid out in 301AD in the Edict of Maximum Prices.
The Antoninianus, equivalent to two denarii, was introduced in 215AD first in silver and later in bronze (as bullion supplies fell), and most collectors with my budget start here.
Reading a coin to identify the emperor, the deities and others symbols, especially one with nibbles or struck off centre is no easy feat but I’m not going to tell you how it’s done. Go out there and get started — Va!
The internet is full of clubs, features and dealers offering information to new collectors. David Sear’s book, Roman Coins & their Values is a favourite with passionate newbies, Spink & Son, €70 (2 volumes).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved