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Part II: Roman Coins
The Roman Republic [289 bc - 27 bc]
Until the 3rd century bc, the Romans did not use coins; their needs for money were satisfied by exchanging cast bronze ingots (the Aes Signatum), but as Roman influence and trade expanded, more portable forms of currency were needed.
The first Republican issues were cast bronze coins for domestic use, and silver didrachms to pay and supply the army. The large bronze As, or unit, weighed a full Roman pound (320 g) and this series is referred to as the Aes Grave.
The first two Punic Wars made immense demands on Rome's supply of bronze, and the cast coinage declined in weight until, at the height of Hannibal's invasion of Italy, the coins weighed only a sixth of the original standard.
At that point the cast coinage was abandoned for a new struck coinage,
based on a silver denarius worth ten bronze units. The denarius remained the standard
Roman monetary unit for the next 450 years, though it was revalued at sixteen bronze units
in 140 bc. Stylistically this period is not one of great artistic interest, but the
historic content of the coinage is very substantial, as it chronicles the rise of Roman
power and the great families whose sons became moneyers in their quest for higher office.
Despite the limited scope of the denarius flan, the ingenuity of the moneyers found many
ways to devise types that would celebrate their ancestors and their political
The growth of Roman military power became too much for the political institutions of the Republic, badly strained by the Social War with Rome's Italian allies [90 bc] and by the dictatorships of Marius and Sulla.
The Republic collapsed during the Imperatorial period, when after his brilliant conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar refused to submit to his political enemies, and led his army into Italy [49 bc]. Historic events were then recorded on the coinage, as Caesar defeated Pompey's faction, became Dictator for life, and displayed royal ambition by placing his portrait on coins.
Caesar's assassination [44 bc] started another round of civil wars, from which his great-nephew Octavian finally emerged as master of the Roman world.
In 27 bc the Senate awarded Octavian the title "Augustus," recognizing his preeminent position as Princeps of Rome, an event regarded as the start of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire [27 bc - 498 ad]
The Principate inaugurated the Pax Romana, the first extended period of
peace the classical world knew. For 250 years the Mediterranean world enjoyed tranquility,
good government, safety and economic growth.
The Julio-Claudian dynasty developed the coin types of the Empire,
continuing to issue denarii, adding gold aurei, and fractional coinage in bronze and
brass. Sestertii were issued with fine medallic portraits reminiscent of the best coins of
the Hellenistic kings. Some authorities regard the reign of Nero as the artistic high
point of Roman coinage, however coins of fine style continued to be issued long after his
demise . To exploit coins for propaganda, interesting varieties such as that showing
the port at Ostia were struck.
Under the subsequent Flavian regime and its Antonine successors, Rome
enjoyed a long Golden Age. It ended when Marcus Aurelius was followed by his dissolute son
Commodus, who fought in the arena and was portrayed as Hercules on his coins.
His assassination  inaugurated a period of strife from which Septimius
Severus emerged as the founder of a new dynasty. Numismatically this period was one of
slow debasement; under the Severans the denarius declined to 50% silver content.
In 214 Caracalla introduced a new silver denomination, the antoninianus,
featuring a bust with a radiate crown and valued at 2 denarii. Within thirty years this
supplanted the denarius (thereafter rarely issued on ceremonial occasions).
The overthrow of Severus Alexander  began a half century of great turmoil for the Empire. After several short reigns, Valerian restored some political stability, but was captured by the Persians  and perished miserably.
The reign of his son Gallienus marked the nadir numismatically, as the
antoninianus shrank and its silver content declined to less than 5%. These small debased
coins were hastily struck in great numbers, often from worn dies, and issues of bronze
denominations ceased, while mint marks were introduced to combat counterfeiting.
Gallienus could not hold the disintegrating Empire together, and after Gaul, Spain, Britain and the East broke away he was overthrown. His able successors Claudius II, Aurelian and Probus reunited the empire and regularized the coinage, but there was no real stability until the accession of Diocletian . During this period of woe, the economy of the Empire was severely damaged by barbarian incursions, and its population declined.
Diocletian divided the empire into four zones (the Tetrarchy) each commanded by an Augustus or Caesar with an independent field army, and barbarian incursions were soon controlled. Economic reforms included restructuring the coinage with new denominations and regular issues in gold and silver.
The antoninianus was replaced by a handsome large follis of silver-washed
bronze, whose style marks the transition from the Principate into an absolute monarchy.
These reforms gave the empire a generation of peace and economic recovery, but
Diocletian's wisdom did not pass to his successors, who fought each other for supremacy
and devalued the new currency. Eventually Constantine I emerged as master of the Empire.
Constantine (who disliked Rome) then built a new capital, Constantinople
[founded 330] on the site of Byzantium, which cost so much that the follis declined to a
tenth of the original weight and coins of this reign are the most common of the Roman
series. Christianization of the empire began, and a new gold coin, the solidus, was
On Constantine's death  his sons divided the empire, but it was shortly reunited under Constantius II, who introduced the centenionalis to replace the devalued follis. His turbulent reign ended in his death on campaign  against his cousin Julian II, the Apostate.
Julian's plans to reinstate polytheism might have succeeded, had he not in turn fallen in battle against the Persians ; his short reign is numismatically interesting for reappearance of pagan types and the reintroduction of large bronze coins.
Valentinian I and his brother Valens succeeded, and ruled effectively until Valens, with almost all of the Roman field army, perished in battle against the Goths at Adrianople .
Theodosius then raised a new army, suppressed the Goths and reunited the empire, but on his death  it was again divided between his sons Arcadius and Honorius. They proved to be weak rulers, controlled by their Germanic generals.
Honorius eventually broke with Stilicho, giving the Goths a chance to besiege and sack Rome . The Romans, now too weak to expel the barbarians, then retreated to fortified cities and protected enclaves such as Ravenna, where Honorius expired in 423. Under his ineffectual successor Valentinian III, Germanic tribes repeatedly plundered Gaul and Spain, and Africa was conquered by the Vandals.
During these disastrous years the rural economy of the West was largely
destroyed, bronze coins became very small, and the gold solidus and its fractions became
the principal currency. By the time an energetic emperor, Majorian, came to the Western
throne  the situation was irretrievable. After initial successes in Gaul, Majorian's
great expedition to recover Africa was betrayed, the Roman fleet was destroyed and
Majorian was overthrown by his general Ricimer .
That was the end, though fifteen more years of puppet emperors ensued before Italy fell to the Goths . Although coins of Honorius and Valentinian are fairly common, those of the other Western emperors and usurpers of this period are not, and many rarities in the Roman series date from these troubled times.
While the West slowly collapsed, the wealthier and more populous Eastern empire, though not without its own troubles, enjoyed comparative peace. Arcadius died prematurely  and was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II, whose long reign was mostly uneventful. After Theodosius died in an accident  his successors Marcian, Leo, Zeno and Anastasius ruled wisely. During the last days of the Roman empire the bronze nummus (c. 0.7 g) declined in value to the point that ordinary people found "making change" for their purchases very inconvenient, and in 498 Anastasius began a major currency reform which is taken as the line of demarcation between the Eastern Roman Empire and its successor.
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