HomeAncient CoinsFrom Republic to Empire: The Story of the Roman Denarius, Part II

From Republic to Empire: The Story of the Roman Denarius, Part II

By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
 

Roman citizens enrolling to vote, detail from the altar of Ahenobarbus. Image courtesy Alamy.com; colorized by CoinWeek.
Roman citizens enrolling to vote, detail from the altar of Ahenobarbus. Image courtesy Alamy.com; colorized by CoinWeek.

Link to Part I

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The Age of the Oligarchs: 154 BCE – 105 BCE

The Romans overthrew their last king around 509 BCE and created an oligarchic government ruled by elected magistrates who almost invariably came from a few great families. Beginning in 154 BCE and continuing down to 105, the symbols of the Roman Republic on the denarius became less and less prominent. In contrast, references to the great families that ruled Rome became increasingly prominent.

Rome: Republic. Q. Marcius Libo. 148 BCE. AR Denarius (21 mm, 4.07 g, 6 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; X below chin, LIBO down left field. Reverse: Dioscuri on horseback riding right. Q • (MA)RC below; ROMA in exergue.
Rome: Republic. Q. Marcius Libo. 148 BCE. AR Denarius (21 mm, 4.07 g, 6 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; X below chin, LIBO down left field. Reverse: Dioscuri on horseback riding right. Q • (MA)RC below; ROMA in exergue. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

In 148 BCE, each of the moneyers modified the obverse of his denarii by moving the mark of value X from behind Roma’s head to a position below her chin, and each moneyer placed his cognomen or clan name in the space formerly occupied by the mark of value. The coin above sold for $650 against a $300 estimate at an auction in January 2011.

Rome: Republic. L. Atilius Nomentanus. 141 BCE. AR Denarius (3.86 g, 11 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; XVI behind. Reverse: Victory driving a biga (two-horse chariot) right; L • (AT)ILI below, NOM in exergue.
Rome: Republic. L. Atilius Nomentanus. 141 BCE. AR Denarius (3.86 g, 11 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; XVI behind. Reverse: Victory driving a biga (two-horse chariot) right; L • (AT)ILI below, NOM in exergue. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

The name of the denarius came from the Latin word deni– meaning “containing ten” or “by tens” (it is also sometimes translated as “tenner”). The name was based on the value of the coin: it was equal in value to 10 bronze asses, the coin on which the Romans established their economy before the Second Punic War. The name no longer applied by c. 141 BCE, when the weight of the bronze as was reduced and the denarius was retariffed at 16 asses. The Romans noted the change on the obverse by changing the mark of value X (the Roman numeral “10”) to XVI (the Roman numeral “16”). The mark of value returned to its original position behind Roma’s head.

Although the denarius continued to be valued at 16 asses, the X returned as the mark of value in 140 BCE. In 136, the mark of value was changed once again, although the XVI was now written in monogram form.

The denarius shown above, which sold for $1,500 against a $2,000 estimate at an auction in September 2009, represented another major change: the moneyer Lucius Atilius Nomentanus replaced ROMA in the exergue with his cognomen. This was the first denarius to omit the name of Rome entirely.

Rome: Republic. Ti. Veturius. 137 BCE. AR Denarius (20.5 mm, 4.06 g, 12 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted and draped bust of Mars right; X between end of crest and back of Mars’s neck; TI. VET at left. Reverse: Oath-taking scene with youth holding a pig while kneeling between two soldiers; ROMA above.
Rome: Republic. Ti. Veturius. 137 BCE. AR Denarius (20.5 mm, 4.06 g, 12 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted and draped bust of Mars right; X between end of crest and back of Mars’s neck; TI. VET at left. Reverse: Oath-taking scene with youth holding a pig while kneeling between two soldiers; ROMA above. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

In 137 BCE, the moneyer Tiberius Veturius authorized a denarius that portrayed Mars, the Roman god of war, on the obverse, while the reverse depicted an oath-taking scene. This was the first denarius whose obverse did not portray Roma, the personification of Rome, and just the second whose reverse did not depict one or another of the Dioscuri (the twins Castor and Pollux), the moon goddess Luna, or Victory. The coin above sold for $1,200 against a $750 estimate at an auction in May 2020.

The obverse design most likely refers to Tiberius Veturius’ ancestor, Tiberius Veturius Philo, who in 204 BCE became Flamen Martialis, the high priest of the Roman cult of Mars. The reverse probably refers to the ratification of treaties in which members of the Veturii were closely involved. Veturius broke with tradition by glorifying his family on both the obverse and reverse of his coins.

Rome: Republic. M. Caecilius Q.f. Q.n. Metellus. 127 BCE. AR Denarius (18 mm, 3.87 g, 8 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right, XVI monogram below chin, ROMA behind. Reverse: Macedonian shield with elephant’s head in central boss; M. METULLUS QF surrounding the shield.
Rome: Republic. M. Caecilius Q.f. Q.n. Metellus. 127 BCE. AR Denarius (18 mm, 3.87 g, 8 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right, XVI monogram below chin, ROMA behind. Reverse: Macedonian shield with elephant’s head in central boss; M. METULLUS QF surrounding the shield. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

In 127 BCE, Marcus Caecilius Q.F. Metullus issued a denarius whose reverse featured a Macedonian. This honored his father, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, who in 148 BCE won a huge victory in the Fourth Macedonian War. This moneyer would become Consul in 115 BCE, following in the footsteps of his father and his two older brothers, who had all previously served as Consuls (his younger brother became Consul two years later). The coin above sold in a private sale for $465.

Rome: Republic. Numerius Fabius Pictor. 126 BCE. AR Denarius (17 mm, 3.95 g, 12 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; XVI monogram to left, B (control letter l) below chin. Reverse: The flamen Quirinalis Q. Fabius Pictor, seated left, holding apex and spear; shield at side inscribed QVI RIN in two lines, A to upper right, PICTOR to left, N • FABI to right, ROMA in exergue.
Rome: Republic. Numerius Fabius Pictor. 126 BCE. AR Denarius (17 mm, 3.95 g, 12 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted head of Roma right; XVI monogram to left, B (control letter l) below chin. Reverse: The flamen Quirinalis Q. Fabius Pictor, seated left, holding apex and spear; shield at side inscribed QVI RIN in two lines, A to upper right, PICTOR to left, N • FABI to right, ROMA in exergue. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

In 126 BCE, Numerius Fabius Pictor portrayed his grandfather, Quintus Fabius Pictor, on the reverse of a denarius. This was the first Roman coin to depict a real person, albeit one who was already deceased. This was also the first denarius to display a control letter. In later years, the Roman mint’s control system would expand to include numerals and symbols in addition to letters. The coin above sold for $1,575 in a private sale.

Rome: Republic. P. Nerva. 113-112 BCE. AR Denarius (18 mm, 3.91 g, 9 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted bust of Roma left, holding shield and spear; crescent above, XVI monogram to left, ROMA at right. Reverse: Two citizens voting in the presence of an election attendant; P on tablet above bar, NERVA below.
Rome: Republic. P. Nerva. 113-112 BCE. AR Denarius (18 mm, 3.91 g, 9 h). Rome mint. Obverse: Helmeted bust of Roma left, holding shield and spear; crescent above, XVI monogram to left, ROMA at right. Reverse: Two citizens voting in the presence of an election attendant; P on tablet above bar, NERVA below. Images courtesy and copyright Classical Numismatic Group LLC.

From the earliest days of the Republic, the Romans voted for their magistrates orally, for all the world to see (or hear, rather). This changed in 139 BCE with the lex Gabinia, which provided for Roman magistrates to be elected by secret ballot. The lex Gabinia was designed to make bribery more difficult–or at least less useful; with a secret ballot, a candidate who paid a voter for his vote could not be certain that the voter stayed bought. The secret ballot forced candidates for public office to find means other than (or in addition to) bribery to make their names known and get the vote out. The moneyers found that the coins they minted could serve as effective campaign materials; even better, the state provided the silver they needed to produce the coins they used for their own elections.

In 113 or 112 BCE, Publius Licinius Nerva struck a denarius whose reverse depicts the secret ballot voting process. It shows a voter on the left picking up a ballot from an attendant while the voter on the right drops his ballot into a basket. Nerva cleverly placed his name directly above the voting scene, no doubt as a hint. This coin sold for $850 against a $300 estimate at an auction in May 2020.

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Sources

Albarède, F., Blichert-Toft, J., Rivoal, M. and Telouk, P. “A Glimpse into the Roman Finances of the Second Punic War Through Silver Isotopes”, Geochemical Perspectives Letters 2, 2. (April 2016)

Crawford, Michael H. Roman Republican Coinage. 2 Volumes. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. (1974)

Harl, K.W. Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. Johns Hopkins University Press. (1996)

Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values: Volume I: The Republic and The Twelve Caesars 280 BC-AD 96. London. Spink. (2000)

Woytek, B.E. “The Denarius Coinage of the Roman Republic”, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (W.E. Metcalf, Ed.). pp. 315-334. Oxford University Press. (2012)

Images of coins are all courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) LLCwww.cngcoins.com.

Image of detail from the altar of Ahenobarbus showing citizens enrolling to vote licensed through Alamy.com.

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Michael Shutterly
Michael Shutterly
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.

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