An Introduction to the Most Common Roman Coin Denominations

Currency was introduced in Rome during the 3rd century BC, and extended through the years of the Republic and into Imperial times. Roman Imperial coins are double-faced, and bore the name and portrait of the issuing Emperor, as well as a variation of other motifs. This is evidence of the wide cultural and religious range of the Empire. These coins were constantly being changed and updated, most often due to the debasement of their base metals. This decreased the inherent value of the coins, and consequently led to inflation. Due to the economic and military prowess of the Roman State, coins were used, and can now be found, throughout the Empire, stretching from Western Europe to North Africa. Find below a list of the most common coins found today.

Denarius

The denarius was the standard Roman silver coin, and was the most commonly used denomination in the Roman world. It circulated in various forms for almost 500 years, from the overhaul of Roman coinage in 211 BC under the Republic, until it was last struck under the Emperor Diocletian. The denarius was initially worth 10 bronze asses– hence its name, which means ‘containing ten’. However, its value was debased over the years as it was struck containing gradually less and less silver; a process which began slowly in the Late Republic and continued under the reign of successive emperors from Nero onwards (causing significant problems with inflation, as the imperial mint would issue coins decreasing percentages of precious metals, whilst still insisting that taxes be paid in gold and silver). The New Testament of the Bible refers to the denarius several times as being approximately a day’s wage for a common labourer under the Empire.

roman denarius
roman antoninianus

Antoninianus

The antoninianus was a silver coin that is thought to have been valued at 2 denarii, or 20 asses, and is an extremely common find today. It was introduced by Emperor Caracalla in early 215 A.D, and was slightly larger than the denarius. One side depicted the emperor wearing a radiate crown, indicating double denomination, or, if female, the emperor’s wife sitting on a crescent moon. Even when the antoninianus was first introduced in the early 3rd century, the silver equivalent only equalled 1.5 denarii. This led to inflation, with people hoarding coins and sellers rising the prices of their goods. In the Roman Empire at this time, silver supplies were running low, and every new issue of the antoninianus had less and less silver in it until the majority of the coin was made from bronze in the late 3rd century. This created a period of hyperinflation that led to coins being practically worthless, and led to the use of the coin being stopped.

Aureus

The aureus was a gold coin, which was originally worth 25 denarii, although this number increased drastically over the centuries as the denarius was debased. The aureus was very rarely struck during the Republic before the days of Julius Caesar, as its use was seen as an excessive display of luxury. This was not in keeping with the culture of the Republic, which condemned luxury as un-Roman and morally corrosive, as is shown by the evidence of the Lex Oppia (laws initially introduced during the Punic Wars which limited the use and displays of wealth by Romans). Whilst the value of the aureus also decreased with inflation during antiquity, this was generally in line with a decrease in the size and weight of the coin itself; unlike the denarius, the purity level of the precious metal was usually unchanged at around 24 karat gold.

roman aureus
roman aureus

Solidus

The solidus was a gold coin, which was introduced in the Late Roman Empire to replace the aureus. It was first struck under Diocletian in 301 AD, but entered far more widespread circulation from 312 AD onwards under Constantine the Great. The solidus was worth vastly more than the aureus it replaced; comparing the value of the aureus at its highest point of being around £200 in modern sterling with the value of the solidus as £110,000, the latter was worth around 550 times more. The weight and value of the solidus remained relatively unchanged until the 10th century AD. Yet despite its relatively far greater contemporary value compared to the aureus, these coins are often far more affordable for modern day collectors, which may be due to its success and resultant longevity as a denomination

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