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Part II: Roman Coins

The Roman Republic [289 bc - 27 bc]

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Cast bronze As (300 g)

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.

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Didrachm of the Pyrrhic War

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.

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Denarius (Standard types)

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.

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Struck bronze As

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 achievements.

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Pompey the Great

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.

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Julius Caesar

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.

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Caesar's Assassin Brutus

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.

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Mark Antony and Octavian

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]

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Sestertius of Nero

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.

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Sestertius of Hadrian

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 [68]. To exploit coins for propaganda, interesting varieties such as that showing the port at Ostia were struck.

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Sestertius of Antoninus Pius
and Marcus Aurelius as Caesar

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.

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"The Roman Hercules"
Aureus of Commodus

His assassination [192] 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.

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Antoninianus of Caracalla

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).

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Denarius of Severus Alexander

The overthrow of Severus Alexander [235] 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 [260] and perished miserably.

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Antoninianus of Valerian

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.

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Debased Antoninianus of Gallienus

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 [284]. During this period of woe, the economy of the Empire was severely damaged by barbarian incursions, and its population declined.

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Follis of Diocletian

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.

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Reduced Follis of Constantine I

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.

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Founding of Constantinople
Commemorative Folles

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 introduced.

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Centenionalis of Constantius II

On Constantine's death [337] 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 [361] against his cousin Julian II, the Apostate.

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AE 1 of Julian the Apostate

Julian's plans to reinstate polytheism might have succeeded, had he not in turn fallen in battle against the Persians [363]; his short reign is numismatically interesting for reappearance of pagan types and the reintroduction of large bronze coins.

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Solidus of Valens

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 [378].

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Solidus of Honorius

Theodosius then raised a new army, suppressed the Goths and reunited the empire, but on his death [395] it was again divided between his sons Arcadius and Honorius. They proved to be weak rulers, controlled by their Germanic generals.

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Solidus of Majorian

Honorius eventually broke with Stilicho, giving the Goths a chance to besiege and sack Rome [410]. 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.

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Nummus of
Valentinian III

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 [457] 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 [461].

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Solidus of Romulus Augustus
Last Emperor of the West

That was the end, though fifteen more years of puppet emperors ensued before Italy fell to the Goths [476]. 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.

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Follis of Anastasius

While the West slowly collapsed, the wealthier and more populous Eastern empire, though not without its own troubles, enjoyed comparative peace. Arcadius died prematurely [408] and was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II, whose long reign was mostly uneventful. After Theodosius died in an accident [450] 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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