By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
ANCIENT ROMANS WERE practical-minded people; they didn’t like wasted effort. Every letter on an ancient Roman coin die was painstakingly engraved by hand, so inscriptions on Roman coins are often heavily abbreviated. Generations of classical scholars have toiled to unravel the meaning of these cryptic abbreviations, so we can usually understand what the coins are trying to tell us.
Still, modern collectors are accustomed to a lot of specific information on a coin: the name of the country or issuing authority, the coin’s denomination, the date of issue, the mintmark, and perhaps a motto (such as E PLURIBUS UNUM – “out of many, one” – on American coins).
Such information is usually missing on ancient coins. And, to complicate things, Roman inscriptions were usually written without spaces between words.
This article will consider a dozen coins issued across the long span of Roman history, to sample the enormous diversity of inscriptions.
The Latin alphabet is much like ours. Romans wrote the letter “U” as V. Some modern letters are missing (“J”, “W”), while others (“K”, “Y”, “Z”) appear mainly in words borrowed from Greek. All educated Romans could read Greek.
The Romans also borrowed the idea of coinage from their neighbors, the Greek cities of southern Italy. Like many ancient Greek coins, one of the earliest Roman silver coins bears a single word, ROMANO, on a raised tablet below a horse head on the reverse, abbreviating the Latin ROMANORUM (literally, “of the Romans”). The “N” in the inscription is backward, suggesting that the engraver might have been unfamiliar with letters. The obverse shows a helmeted head of the war god, Mars.
This coin, a didrachm of about seven grams, dates from about 300-276 BCE. It was possibly struck at Neapolis (modern Naples). It brought $5,000 USD in a recent US auction. On many examples of this type, the word ROMANO is nearly worn off.
Sulla the Lucky
Faustus Cornelius Sulla (c. 86-46 BCE) was the only surviving son of one of the most colorful and enigmatic figures in the history of the Roman republic, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE). In 56 BCE, Faustus was appointed as one of the “moneyers”, the officials responsible for managing Rome’s mint. Moneyers, who were usually up-and-coming young aristocrats, often glorified their ancestry on the coins that they issued in order to promote their own political careers.
Male Romans typically bore three names. The praenomen was a personal name chosen from a short list (less than 20 were common; it was often abbreviated to a single letter in inscriptions). The nomen identified the gens (the “clan” or extended family to which he belonged). The cognomen was similar to our family name. An elite Roman might also acquire an agnomen or “nickname” based on personal achievement.
The elder Sulla gained fame by capturing King Jugurtha of Numidia (now part of western Tunisia and eastern Algeria) in 106 BCE, earning the nickname FELIX (“Lucky”); the word appears on the reverse of a coin struck by the younger Sulla. The coin shows the elder Sulla seated on a raised platform being offered a laurel wreath by a Roman ally, King Bocchus of Mauretania, while Jugurtha, his hands bound, sits in despair below. The moneyer placed his own praenomen, FAUSTUS, on the obverse, beside a bust of the family’s patron goddess Diana. In effect, Faustus is saying, “My family is so famous, I can just inscribe my first name, and my late father’s nickname on this coin and everyone will recognize us.”
Born in 14 BCE, Agrippina “the Elder” was the daughter of Marcus Agrippa. Her mother was Julia, daughter of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Agrippina married Germanicus, the adopted son of Augustus’ successor Tiberius, and in 12 CE bore the future emperor Gaius, nicknamed “Caligula”. Tiberius turned against her, and she died in exile (33 CE), either from suicide or starvation.
However, when Caligula became emperor, he honored his mother with a lovely bronze portrait sestertius. The obverse inscription is a good example of abbreviation on Roman coinage:
AGRIPPINA M F MAT C CAESARIS AVGVSTI
Agrippina, daughter of Marcus, Mother of Gaius Caesar Augustus
On the reverse, SPQR abbreviates the formal name of the state: Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and the Roman People”), and MEMORIAE AGRIPPINAE (“To the Memory of Agrippina”) appears beside the decorated funerary mule cart that bore the urn containing her ashes to the Mausoleum of Augustus.
The most famous Roman coin of all was struck by a military mint moving with the army of Brutus in the summer of autumn of 42 BCE. About 80 examples are known in silver, and just three in gold. On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is listed as #1 (Berk, 86). One of the gold aurei set a new price record for a Roman coin on 29 October 2020 when it was sold for £2,700,000 (about $3,484,321 USD).
The obverse bears a portrait of Brutus with the inscription:
BRUTUS IMP L PLAET CEST
Brutus, Commander, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus (moneyer)
The abbreviation IMP for Imperator at this period simply means “military commander in chief” – it later became a title of all Roman emperors. Plaetorius was an army finance official, perhaps the paymaster – he is otherwise unknown to history. The stark reverse inscription EID MAR abbreviates Eidibus Martiae (“on the Ides of March”). It refers to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. Eidibus is a rather rare Latin grammatical form, “ablative of time when”, but the imagery would have been immediately understood even by illiterate Romans: two daggers beside a pileus, the conical felt hat worn by freed slaves.
Brutus is saying, rather graphically: “With these daggers, we regained our freedom from a dictator.”
Burning the Tax Debt Records
The largest number ever spelled out on a Roman coin appears on a rare bronze sestertius of Hadrian issued c. 119-121 CE. One of Hadrian’s first official acts when he arrived in Rome from Syria, about a year after he was proclaimed emperor, was a general amnesty for delinquent taxes. To mark this, the coin depicts an official with a torch setting fire to a heap of scrolls while a group of citizens rejoices.
The inscription states:
RELIQVA VETERA HS NOVIES MILL ABOLITA
Nine times a hundred thousand sestertii of outstanding debts canceled
A cataloguer writes:
HS is a standard abbreviation for sestertii in Roman inscriptions, and, depending upon how it is referenced, it can refer to a single sestertius, a unit of one thousand sestertii, or a unit of one hundred thousand sestertii. In this case, novies is an adverb meaning ‘nine times’, and thus it applies to the sestertius as a unit of one thousand sestertii. Some have logically suggested that in the context of this inscription the HS would have been an adjective with the thousand, or mille, being understood in terms of empire-wide taxes. If so, it would increase the named figure to ‘nine times a hundred thousand units of one thousand sestertii’, thus equating it to the figure of 900 million sestertii…
It was a Roman quirk to reckon large sums of money in sestertii (four bronze sestertii equaled one silver denarius). It would be like Americans expressing large sums in quarters rather than dollars.
The Year 874
Romans dated the mythical foundation of their city by Romulus to April 21, 753 BCE. To celebrate the anniversary in 121 CE, emperor Hadrian decreed a round of chariot races to entertain the masses. A rare gold aureus commemorates the event. The obverse inscription around the emperor’s portrait on the obverse spells out his name and titles:
IMP CAES HADRIANVS AVG COS III
Emperor Caesar Hadrian Augustus, Consul three times
The extraordinary reverse shows a reclining figure of the Spirit of the Games, holding a chariot wheel, with his arm wrapped around one of the tall conical stone turning posts (metae) of the Circus Maximus.
The inscription is one of only two cases of a date reckoned from the foundation of the city on a Roman coin (the other is a very rare coin of the usurper Pacatian from 248 CE citing Year 1001 of Rome). Hadrian’s coin reads:
ANN.DCCC.LXXIIII NAT VRB.P.CIR CON.
Year 874 Since the Birth of the City; First Circus Games Established
On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #66 (Berk, 103). About 15 examples are known.
Virtus & Pietas
Some of the most common Latin words on Roman coins have meanings that differ greatly from what you might expect from knowing similar English words.
These “personified abstractions” are concepts depicted as elegant female figures. Chief among these is PIETAS, often represented as a woman offering sacrifice at an altar. The English noun “piety” and the related adjective “pious” now connote a rather sanctimonious religiosity, but for the Romans, pietas meant a sense of duty, responsibility, and respect for tradition (Traupman, 320).
On coin inscriptions, PIETAS AVG (or similar) means that this attribute is ascribed to the emperor (or empress). An example is a denarius of Maximus Caesar (235-238 CE.) On the reverse, PIETAS AVG is inscribed above a set of “priestly implements”, to emphasize the ruler’s role as high priest of the state religion.
Another word often seen on Roman coins is VIRTUS. This doesn’t mean quite what the English equivalent “virtue” suggests, but it covers a range of meanings including manhood, manliness, valor, excellence, and worth (Traupman, 451). On coins, virtus is usually ascribed to the ruler (VIRTUS AVG) or to the army (VIRTUS EXERCITUM) Virtus is often personified as a helmeted standing warrior, for example on a denarius of the brief reign of Gordianus II (March-April 238 CE).
The word VOTA (or VOTIS, often abbreviated to VOT) is very common on late Roman imperial coins, usually associated with Roman numerals. This has nothing to do with voting but rather refers to a custom of public vows for the health of the emperor, accompanied by sacrifices, performed on important anniversaries.
Very often, vows were anticipated for a much longer period than were ever fulfilled; for instance, Valens only reigned for fourteen years, and we find on the coins vows for twenty and thirty years — VOT XX MULT XXX (Stevenson, 902).
On a silver siliqua of Emperor Julian (ruled 360-363) the reverse inscription is VOT X MULT XX. A Roman would read this as: “Votis decennalibus Multis vicennalibus” – an interpretation might be “May the 10-year vows be repeated for 20 years.”
East & West
When Emperor Theodosius I “the Great” died in 395, the empire was divided between his young sons Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. Hopes of reuniting the empire rested on the betrothal of child princess Licinia Eudoxia to Valentinian III, heir of the Western empire.
Licinia’s promotion to the title of Augusta (“empress”) is celebrated on a very rare gold solidus issued at Constantinople in 429. The seven-year-old princess is shown as an adult, with the Hand of God crowning her from above. The inscription names her AEL EUDOXIA AUG, “Aelia” being the official first name assigned to Imperial women.
The reverse inscription surrounding the Chi-Rho symbol (the “monogram of Christ”) is extraordinary:
SALUS ORIENTIS FELICITAS OCCIDENTIS
Salvation (or Health) of the East, Happiness of the West
At 32 letters, the inscription is remarkably long, and the bold characters are cut with great care.
The wedding of Valentinian III (age 18) and Licinia Eudoxia (age 15) on October 29, 437, was commemorated on a rare gold solidus of the bride’s father Theodosius II. The groom was the son of the short-lived Western emperor Constantius III (ruled 421) and the empress Galla Placidia. On the reverse, the emperor joins the hands of the couple in marriage, and the inscription proclaims FELICITER NUBTIIS (“Happily Married”). All three figures have halos around their heads, indicating their sacred Imperial status.
The mintmark below combines two abbreviations: CON for Constantinopolis, the Eastern capital, and OB for obryzum, a technical term for pure refined gold. Confusingly, some coins of this issue were struck at the mint of Thessalonica and bear the mint mark COMOB for Comes Obryzii, the title of the mint official responsible for quality control.
The couple had two daughters. Valentinian III was assassinated in 455. Licinia was forced to marry his successor, Petronius Maximus, who himself was killed after a reign of just 75 days.
Reading the Romans
The standard reference for Roman coin inscriptions is A Dictionary of Roman Coins by Seth Stevenson (1784-1853), a monumental work of Victorian-era scholarship. Stevenson died before it could be completed, and the massive 929-page book was finally published in 1889 (reprinted in 1964); a searchable digital version is available online. Klawans (1995) has a detailed chapter on reading and understanding Roman coins. An inexpensive Latin-English dictionary, such as Traupman (2007), is a handy accessory for any serious collector of Roman coins.
There are also some excellent online resources for researching ancient Roman coin inscriptions–these include CoinArchives, ACSearch, Wildwinds, and OCRE. We hope to explore these, and others, in a future article.
Get Your Copy of Harlan J. Berk’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins: Second Edition from CoinWeek Supplies.
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 CNG Auction 112, September 11, 2019, Lot 465. Realized $5,000 USD (estimate $1,000).
 NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 445. Realized CHF 2,500 (about $2,490 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 541. Realized £5,000 (about $6,452 USD; estimate £4,000).
 It now rests in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
 NAC Auction 25, June 25, 2003, Lot 452. Realized CHF 13,000 (about $9,795 USD; estimate CHF 10,000).
 CNG Triton VII, January 12, 2004, Lot 932. Realized $39,000 USD (estimate $20,000).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 7, October 24, 2020, Lot 1653. Realized CHF 700 (about $772 USD; estimate CHF 350).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 651. Realized £2,800 (about $3,613 USD; estimate £3,500).
 Heritage New York Sale, January 4, 2015, Lot 30986. Realized $38,000 USD (estimate $40,000 – 65,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XI, April 7, 2016, Lot 897. Realized £13,000 (about $18,323 USD; estimate £10,000).
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL (2019)
Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA (1989)
Kent, J. P. C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)
Klawans, Zander. Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins. Racine, WI (1995)
Morwood, James. A Latin Grammar. Oxford (1999)
Stevenson, Seth. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1964; reprint of 1889 edition)
Traupman, John. The New College Latin and English Dictionary. New York (2007)