By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
An interesting group of Roman Republican coins, serrati (saw-edged) denarii have proved to be an enigma for numismatists for hundreds of years. As H. Mattingly states in his seminal 1924 piece on serrati, these Roman coins are completely different than Macedonian, Syrian, and Carthaginian serrati.
Firstly, the Roman host coins are all hand-struck silver denarii, and while Carthaginian serrati are found in electrum and silver denominations, their eastern cousins are all cast bronze coins of various denominations. Additionally, the irregular style of serrations on Roman denarii and Carthaginian denominations were cut into a coin blank, while the Macedonian and Syrian versions were “undoubtedly” created as part of the casting process (Mattingly, 31).
But despite the differing appearances of and motivations behind the creation of their serrati coins, these societies all produced them roughly contemporaneously.
Appearing slightly earlier than other types, Roman serrati were first struck during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), in either 209 or 201 until the early first century BCE, between 106 and 105 and again between 83 and 79 BCE, with several examples continuing to be struck towards the end of the Republican era. This anonymous Roman serrate denarius struck in either 209 or 208 BCE, at an unknown Sicilian mint, is an example of one of the earliest Roman serrati.
Most likely using their “knowledge” of Roman serrati, Carthaginian serrati were struck mainly during the Third Punic War from 149 to 146 BCE or during the interbellum from 200 to 149 BCE. These coins were struck for the most part either in Carthage itself or in Carthaginian Spain. Generally, the serrations on Carthaginian coins were much shallower than those on Roman denarii, which can be seen when comparing this billon double shekel of Carthage struck circa 149-146 BCE and this denarius struck in 118 BCE.
Macedonian examples were struck most frequently under Philip V (r. 179 – 168 BCE). There were, however, examples struck later, especially under Philip VI Andriskos, who reigned from 149 to 148 BCE. Seleucid examples were produced under a string of emperors from 187 to 141 BCE, from Seleucus IV (r. 187 – 175) to Antiochus VI (r. 145/4 – 142/1).
Since the first Seleucid serrated coins, also known colloquially as “bottle cap” coins, were cast by Seleucus IV in his capital Antioch as part of currency reform, it is probable that the serrated edge was employed to differentiate these coins from other varieties produced in other Seleucid cities. Later Seleucid serrati were most likely cast as tools of dynastic continuity and royal legitimacy. This theory, put forth by Princeton University Research Assistant Ilia Curto Pelle, is quite interesting and is based on an analysis of which rulers produced serrated coins and what branch of Seleucus IV’s family they belonged to.
In a similar vein, the cast serrati of Macedon and other Greek kingdoms were most likely minted for visual effect. This is probably due to the fact that their serrati coins were cast entirely from base metals. Since their value was so small, it would not have been very important to use a serrated edge to demonstrate the metal’s purity.
Likewise, there are several theories surrounding the reasoning behind why the Romans produced serrati. Firstly, the serrated edges were used as a visual enhancement of the coins. But, due to the laborious and time-consuming nature of producing the serrations, and their irregularity, this theory has been mostly discounted by numismatists. This denarius stuck by C. Poblicius Q.F in 80 BCE is an extreme example of the possible irregularity of serrations on Roman denarii.
The next theory, posed by Mattingly, was that these coins were intended to be “used to trade with the Germans”. While there is some evidence of this, especially recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, it has mostly been discarded as a viable theory.
It has also been posited that the serrations were used to help prevent the planchet from cracking during the striking process by “reliev[ing] the tensions induced by the minting by distributing them radially”.
However, the most probable theory was that the serrations were employed as an anti-counterfeiting measure by the Roman authorities. The Romans thought that by cutting serrations into their fourées, counterfeiters would be exposing the core of base metal. However, the Romans were proven wrong. While rare, these contemporary forgeries do exist, as evidenced by this fourée serratus of Tiberius Claudius Nero, struck in 79 BCE.
In another version of this anti-counterfeiting theory, it is thought that the serrations were intended to act as pre-made test cuts to help authenticate that the coin was struck from a solid planchet of high-quality metal. This theory makes sense, especially when the first issuance dates of the Roman and Carthaginian serrati coins are considered. Not only was the first Roman serrate issued during the Second Punic War, but it was also one of the first denarii struck by the Republic. Similarly, Carthaginian serrati were issued mostly during a time of war or of economic turmoil. Both are examples of times when a government may wish to increase confidence in its coinage.
In their 2006 scientific analysis of serrate coins, Kraft et al. used scanning electron microscopy, electron probe micro-analysis, and secondary ion mass spectrometry to study how the serrations were produced. Their study revealed “remaining traces of processing” or cut marks demonstrating that the serrations could not have been “produced by filing or sawing,” but instead by holding the coin perpendicular to the striking surface and striking it with a form of knife (Kraft et al., 607 & 609). These marks prove that the coin was not laid flat on a surface and hit with a chisel to form the serrations, because if so, then these cut marks would be orientated in the direction of striking and not parallel to the surfaces.
Also, by studying a fourée serratus, this study also proved that its serrations were formed in the same fashion as authentic coins. The silver foil coating was “drawn” down into the cut when struck, and while its thickness was decreased to nearly 10% of the foil on the faces, it still covered the copper core. Additionally, Kraft et al. found that the serrations were cut into the coin prior to striking. They came to this conclusion by observing “an overlapping of silver from the obverses into the notches” that would have been smoothed out if the serrations were cut after striking (Kraft et al., 609).
One enterprising numismatist fascinated by serrate coins, Alexandru Marian, even conducted an experiment that reproduced the process of creating a serrated coin. In a report he posted to forumancientcoins.com, Marian describes how the cuts are not truly perpendicular. But when looking at the coin edge-on, the cuts “fell from right (on the bottom) to left (on the top)”. From this, he hypothesized that the serrations were struck by hand with a sharp knife-like tool. Marian then took a modern coin of similar thickness to a Republican denarius and proceeded to cut serrations into the coin. After hammering the coin flat in a simulation of the striking process, Marian found that his serrations were “almost identical” to the ones on a genuine serrate denarius. Such a practical demonstration of this process is invaluable, and when coupled with scientific analysis of authentic coins, as was done by Kraft et al., can help numismatists understand the extensive efforts used to produce such a coin.
Postproduction serrations also appear in ancient coins and can be just as interesting as those produced at the mint. As these modifications were made after production, the coins could be considered as having post-mint damage. However, they were altered in antiquity. And, while not original, they still hold numismatic value. For example, this serrate bronze coin of Valentinian II, struck in Siscia between 378 and 383 CE, hammered for 95$ in CNG’s December 2015 Electronic Auction. The same type in comparable condition, only without the serrations, only sold for just under $40 in Gorny & Mosch Giessener Münzhandlung’s auction that ended on March 29, 2022.
This AE semis of Hadrian struck between 119 and 138 CE in Rome for circulation in Syria sold for $215 in CNG’s Electronic Auction 390 in 2017. Examples of this type in comparable without serrations have auctioned for between $230 and 625.
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Mattingly – https://www.jstor.org/stable/42664000
Kraft et al., 2006 – https://www.mawi.tu-darmstadt.de/media/ca/pdf_1/arch_275.pdf
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).