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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series – Mark Antony’s Legionary Denarius

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

Those very things that procured him ill repute bear witness to his greatness… Antony was thought disgraced by his marriage with Cleopatra, a queen superior in power and glory … to all who were kings in her time. Antony was so great as to be thought by others worthy of higher things than his own desires.


IT WOULD BE FAIR to say that the Roman people loved Mark Antony, and he broke their hearts. Our modern understanding of this historical figure has been shaped largely by the powerful dramatic performances of Richard Burton in the film Cleopatra (1963) and Marlon Brando in the film version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953).

Mark Antony (or Marcus Antonius) played a key role in the civil wars that led to the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire – a period numismatists often describe as the “Imperatorial” era. The Latin word imperator at this time meant “commander” or “warlord” rather than “ruler”.

Roman coinage in the name of Marcus Antonius extends from 44 to 31 BCE and the so-called legionary denarii issued in 32-31 BCE to pay his army are, by far, the most abundant Roman silver coins. The best estimate is that between 25 million and 35 million pieces were struck (Harl, 60), and tens of thousands survive today. There are two theories about where these coins were minted. Some believe there was a mobile workshop that moved with Antony’s army in northwestern Greece, while others argue the coins were struck at the town of Patras, which served as Antony’s winter headquarters.

The coin’s obverse shows a galley, sometimes described as Antony’s flagship. The ship has a single bank of eight to 12 oars (the number of oars was probably left to the whim or patience of the die cutter). Above the ship ANT AVG abbreviates the name Antonius along with one of his titles, Augur, a priest of the Roman state religion. Below the ship is his other title III VIR. R.P.C. (tresviri rei publicae constituendae), which loosely translates as “Triumvir for the Reorganization of the Republic”. A triumvir in this case was a member of the “Second Triumvirate” an informal power-sharing arrangement formed in 43 BCE between three men: Antony, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and designated heir,) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (c. 88 – 12 BCE), last high priest of the Republic and Caesar’s political ally.

The reverse shows a legionary eagle (aquila) between two standards (signa; singular signum), with an inscription identifying one of the units in Antony’s army. The gilded bronze eagle mounted on a pole was the legion’s sacred emblem – its loss in battle was the worst disgrace a unit could suffer. A standard bearer (signifer) in each of the legion’s 10 cohorts carried the signum, a pole adorned with metal discs and crescents. A full-strength legion in this era had about 4,800 men, and a foot soldier earned 225 denarii a year, paid in three installments.

A unique piece that appeared in a 2012 European auction[2] provides a clue as to how these coins were made. The space where the legion number would normally appear is blank.

The cataloguer writes:

[T]his coin supports the theory that dies were prepared in advance, and the legion numbers were engraved as needed

This may have been a trial strike, not intended for circulation, or perhaps an emergency issue, rushed into production with unfinished dies.

For the First Legion, rather than a simple Roman numeral “I,” part of the number is spelled out: LEG PRI for Legio Prima[3]. This is by far the rarest of all the coins in the series, with only three genuine examples recorded in the CoinArchives Pro database[4] at recent auction prices that ranged from $6,700 to $8,100 USD.

Roman numerals were not standardized in that era: “four” might be written as IIII or IV, “nine” might be written as IX or VIIII, and so on. The die engravers might have been Greeks unfamiliar with Rome’s awkward numerals (Greek numerals are much simpler and more logical). There are coins with obvious errors like “IIX” for “XII”.

Legion VI seems to be one of the most common types, with 175 examples in the CoinArchives Pro database. An exceptionally high-grade specimen brought over $3,000 in a recent European auction[5], but well-worn examples can be found for $100 or less.

Three of the legions had honorific names as well as numbers. Legion XII Antiquae (“The Old One,”) Legion XVII Classicae (“of the Fleet”) and Legion XVIII Lybicae (“The Lybian”; apparently in reference to a victory there, not where the troops were recruited). All of these coins are fairly scarce, with 38, 33 and 20 examples listed in the CoinArchives Pro database, respectively.

Antony’s army had two special units that were also honored on the legionary coinage.

The Praetorian Cohorts (COHORTIUM PRAETORIARUM, probably four in number) were elite units that served as the commander’s personal bodyguard, in camp as well as in battle. The Speculatores (COHORTIS SPECULATORUM) were reconnaissance troops who also manned the scout cruisers of the fleet.

The unusual reverse of the Speculatores’ denarius shows their three standards adorned with model ships and crowned with wreaths, indicating that they played a key role in some naval victory. Both of these types are scarce, with 25 and 27 examples listed in the CoinArchives Pro database, respectively.

Although there were just 23 numbered legions in Antony’s army, there are rare examples of coins with higher numbers. These have generally been dismissed as die engraver’s errors or forgeries, but some may be an early example of “operational deception” intended to exaggerate the army’s true size. A cataloguer writes:

The existence therefore of legions in the service of Antony with numbers greater than XXIII which have escaped the notice of history is entirely possible; many of his units were never at full strength, and some may have effectively marched only on paper. Certainly, it seems to be the case that the suppressed Republican legions in Antony’s service had their records completely erased after the war. It remains probable then that not all of these fleet denarii for legions over XXIII are false or errors as has been assumed, as is demonstrated by the present clearly genuine example unambiguously inscribed LEG XXXIII[6].

About a dozen gold aurei struck with the same dies as the silver denarii are known. Only four examples have appeared on the numismatic market in recent years. Unlike the debased silver (85 – 90% pure) used for the denarius, the gold is very pure and the surviving coins are full weight — about eight grams. A Legion II aureus, pedigreed to the famous Hunt Collection, sold for over $205,000[7]. A Legion XIII aureus brought almost $160,000 in 2015[8]; a Legion XIX realized over $67,000 in 2008[9]; and a Legion XXII example went for nearly $64,000 in 2009[10].

The legionary denarii remained in circulation for decades, probably trading at a discount as they wore down to slugs. Many were still in circulation at Pompeii when it was buried under volcanic ash a century after these coins were struck! They were extensively counterfeited in low-grade silver alloy, or silver-coated base metal blanks, and two iron forger’s dies found in the Balkans–one for Legion VI[11], the other for Legion XII[12]–appeared on the market in 2013.

In 169 CE, for the two-hundredth anniversary of Mark Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium, the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus issued a commemorative near-replica of the Legion VI denarius[13]. The obverse depicts a rather squashed warship, with the name ANTONIUS AUGUR spelled out in full. The reverse legend is ANTONINVS ET VERVS AVG REST LEG VI – “Antoninus[14] and Verus Restore Legion VI”.

Collect ‘em All

Considering the rarity of some of the issues, assembling a complete collection of the legionary denarii would be a serious challenge for even the wealthiest collector. The Mark Melcher Collection, sold in 2004 in the CNG 67 auction[15] was remarkably comprehensive, missing only the rare Legion I and Praetorian Cohort types.

* * *


[1] “The Comparison of Antony and Demetrius” in Plutarch (n.d.), page 1153

[2] NAC Auction 63, 17 May 2012, Lot 598. Realized $11,638 USD.

[3] Numismatik Lanz, Auction 161, 7 December 2015, Lot 214. Realized $6,781 USD.

[4] A fourth example was withdrawn, possibly because it was suspected as a modern fake.

[5] Roma Numismatics E-sale 36, 27 May 2017, Lot 508. Realized $3,071 USD.

[6] Roma Numismatics, Auction XIII, 23 March 2017, Lot 696. Realized $5,512 USD.

[7] NAC Auction 99, 29 May 2017, Lot 2. Realized $205,381 USD.

[8] NAC Auction 83, 20 May 2015, Lot 520. Realized $159,847 USD.

[9] UBS Auction 78, 9 September 2008, Lot 1211. Realized $67,322 USD.

[10] NAC Auction 51, 5 March 2009, Lot 130. Realized $63,824 USD.

[11] Gemini Auction X, 13 Jan 2013, Lot 473. Realized $4,500 USD.

[12] Gemini Auction X, 13 Jan 2013, Lot 467. Realized $4,250 USD.

[13] UBS Auction 78, 9 September 2008, Lot 1219. Realized $886 USD.

[14] Marcus Aurelius had adopted the name Antoninus in homage to his predecessor, Antoninus Pius.

[15] CNG Auction 67, 22 September 2004, Lots 1220 – 1251.


Fields, Nick. The Roman Army: The Civil Wars 88 – 31 BC. Osprey (2008)

Grueber, Herbert A. “Coinage of the Triumvirs, Antony, Lepidus and Octavian, Illustrative of the History of the Times”, Numismatic Chronicle (1911)

Harl, Kenneth. Coinage in the Roman Economy. Baltimore (1996)

Mattingly, Harold. Roman Coins. London (1967)

Paunov, Eugeni and Ilya Prokopov. “Actium and the Legionary Coinage of Mark Antony. Historical, Economic and Monetary Consequences in Thrace (The Coin Evidence)”, Proceedings of the 1st International Conference, Numismatics, History and Economy in Epirus During Antiquity. Athens (2013)

Plutarch. John Dryden, trans. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. New York (n.d.)

Sanchez, Fernando Lopez. “Military Units of Mark Antony and Lucius Verus: Numismatic Recognition of Distinction”, Israel Numismatic Research 5 (2010)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)

NGC-Certified Mark Antony Silver Denarius Coins Currently Available on eBay


Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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