By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The Second Punic War began when the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 BCE.
Hannibal ravaged Italy with impunity for 14 years, defeating every Roman army sent out to meet him. His greatest victory was at Cannae on August 2, 216 BCE, when, according to the Roman historian Livy, Hannibal’s army of 50,000 men destroyed a Roman army of 86,400 – the largest Roman army ever assembled up to that time. Livy reports that the Romans lost 48,200 men killed (including both Roman consuls who were serving that year) and 19,300 men captured; Hannibal lost 8,000.
The Roman temperament did not allow for surrender; the Romans would not even negotiate with an enemy so long as a single enemy soldier stood on Roman soil. Every time Hannibal defeated a Roman army, the Romans responded by raising another. And while the Romans seemed unable to find a general capable of defeating Hannibal in Italy, their armies did enjoy great success against Carthaginian commanders in Spain and Sicily.
Waging war is expensive, and the Romans had to debase their currency in order to have enough coins to pay the costs of the Second Punic War; within a few years of Hannibal’s invasion, Roman currency was nearly worthless. But in 212 BCE, when Rome’s economic situation bottomed out, Roman armies outside of Italy began capturing enormous amounts of booty which could be used to replenish the empty treasury.
In 211 BCE, the Romans used their new-found wealth to launch an entirely new precious metal monetary system, based on a denarius that would be struck in good quality silver. The new coinage system was enormously successful and financed Rome’s ongoing military efforts – when the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio marched against the Carthaginian armies in Spain in 210 BCE, he did so with a war chest that included 2,400,000 denari.
The Second Punic War ended in October 202 BCE when Scipio defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama (in modern Tunisia, southwest of the site of ancient Carthage). The ensuing peace treaty bankrupted Carthage and destroyed its military power forever, leaving Rome the master of the Western Mediterranean. The Roman denarius would go on to serve as the primary currency in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia for the next 450 years.
The First Roman Denarius
The heart of the new system was the denarius. Its name comes from a Latin word meaning “containing ten” and refers to the coin being worth 10 bronze asses: the as had been the basis of Rome’s earlier monetary system. The denarius was the world’s first decimal currency, but in 141 BCE it was re-tariffed at 16 asses and the mark of value changed from X to XVI.
The obverse design of the denarius originally featured a helmeted head of Roma, the personification of Rome. She continued as the primary obverse feature until 137 BCE, when Mars, the Roman god of war, briefly replaced her. Apart from that interlude, Roma would continue to be featured on the obverse of the denarius for generations, but different Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes gradually began appearing on the coins, eventually supplanting Roma entirely.
The First Roman Quinarius
The new denarius was accompanied by its half, the quinarius. The name comes from a Latin word meaning “containing five” and refers to the coin’s valuation at five asses. Its design follows that of the denarius.
The original quinarius was minted only until about 208 BCE. It was revived in 101 BCE, with a completely different design featuring Jupiter on the obverse and the goddess Victory on the reverse: this series was probably originally struck to celebrate the victories of the Roman consul Gaius Marius against several Germanic tribes in Gaul.
The quinarius again ceased production c. 81 BCE but was revived in 47 BCE during the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. The quinarius continued in production into the Imperial period, but it was minted only sporadically and never played a major role in the Roman economy.
The First Roman Sestertius
The new denarius was also accompanied by its quarter, the sestertius. The name is a contraction of the Latin semis (meaning “half”, but also the name of a coin equal to half of an as) and tertius (“third”), which taken together somehow meant “two-and-a-half”. The coin was valued at two-and-a-half asses or one-quarter of a denarius. The mark of value on the reverse is IIS, combining the Roman numeral “II” and the “S” for semis, signifying that the coin was valued at two asses and one semis.
As with the quinarius, the design of the sestertius follows that of the denarius. Also like the quinarius, the original sestertius was minted only until about 208 BCE. It was revived in 91 BCE but remained in production for only two years. Julius Caesar revived the silver sestertius for the final time in 48 BCE, but production ended with his assassination in 44 BCE.
Augustus, the first Roman emperor (reigned 27 BCE – 14 CE), began minting sestertii in 18 BCE, but his sestertii, and those of his successors, were struck in brass, not silver.
Although the Romans often calculated sums in sestertii (Roman Senators under the Republic were required to have property worth at least 400,000 sestertii), the silver sestertius never played a significant role in the Roman monetary economy.
Golden Asses of the Second Punic War
When the Romans launched the denarius, they minted the coin in almost pure silver, at .980 fine or better.
They further supported the coin by backing it with gold, striking a small series of gold coins in three different denominations. These coins were only issued for about three years, from 211 BCE to about 208 BCE, and they likely never actually circulated as coins.
The largest of the gold coins was worth 60 asses. The obverse portrayed the bearded head of Mars facing right, wearing a crested Corinthian helmet. The mark of value LX for “60” appears behind his head; the L is written in a ligature. The reverse depicts a bold eagle standing on a bundle of thunderbolts, with ROMA below. The coins measure about 15 millimeters and weigh about 3.36 grams. The 60 as is regularly found in the marketplace and can usually be obtained for a mid-four-figure price, but truly nice specimens can run up to $20,000 USD or more. The coins are usually found well-preserved, and pricing is largely dependent upon the quality of the strike and the centering of the images.
Next in size is the 40 asses. Its design follows that of the 60 asses, but the mark of value is XXXX for “40”. These coins measure about 13 millimeters and weigh about 2.28 grams.
They are NOT easily found in the market: there are only 11 known specimens, and no more than four are in private hands. When they come up for auction they typically sell for more than $100,000; the coin shown here sold at a November 2018 auction for £82,500, the equivalent of $107,795 at the time.
The smallest of the gold coins is the 20 asses. Its design follows that of the 40 asses and the 60 asses, but the mark of value is XX for “20”. These coins measure about 10 millimeters and weigh about 1.13 grams. The 20 asses coin is somewhat less common than the 60 asses but specimens sell for prices comparable to those for the 60 asses – the tiny size of these coins probably impacts demand for them.
Commemorating Victories in the War Against Hannibal
The victoriatus falls somewhat outside the denarial coinage system, but it was launched at the same time as the denarius and its fractions.
The victoriatus takes its name from its reverse, which depicts the goddess Victory crowning a trophy (in the Greek-speaking areas of the Roman world, the coin was known as a tropaikon, from the Greek word for “trophy”). The victoriatus, made of less pure silver than the denarius and its fractions, was valued at about three-quarters of a denarius and bears no mark of value.
The victoriatus seems to have served a very different purpose than the denarius and its fractions and was as much a propaganda piece as a unit of currency.
After Rome’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Cannae, several of the towns in southern Italy that had been allies of Rome began to fall away. Most of these towns were originally founded as Greek settlements, and their citizens were still largely Greek-speaking and accustomed to Greek currency. The victoriatus was equivalent in size and weight to the Greek drachm then in common use in southern Italy, and the Romans struck the victoriatus for use in those areas. The image of Jupiter on the coin’s obverse would have been similar enough to the image of Zeus for the coin to gain acceptance with the people of southern Italy; the image of Victory on the reverse would have been intended to show Rome’s strength in the face of adversity, and a boast about the victories Rome had won.
The Romans stopped minting the victoriatus in about 170 BCE. When the quinarius was reintroduced in 101 BCE, the law which authorized it provided that the victoriatus would be valued at one-half of a denarius: this suggests that the victoriatus was still circulating decades after the last ones were minted and that the coins had been worn to such an extent that their silver content was only two-thirds of what it had been when the coin was valued at three-quarters of a denarius.
The denarius served as the primary silver coin of the Romans for over 400 years. The military and political chaos of the mid-third century led to the severe debasement of the coin and by the end of that century, the denarius was nothing more than a bronze token.
While the Roman denarius lost its importance as a circulating coin more than 17 centuries ago, it continued to inspire later currencies, some of which endure to this day. Every denar, dinar, dinero, denaro, dinheiero, or denier ever minted can trace its ancestry to the little silver coins that helped Rome win the Second Punic War.
Collecting the Coins of the War Against Hannibal
The Roman silver coins from the time of the Second Punic War are readily available in the market. Nice specimens of the denarius can be obtained for less than $200, although exceptional coins can cost much more.
The sestertius and quinarius are a bit more expensive, with prices for nice examples running in the $300 – $600 range.
The victoriatus is a very common coin, but many of the examples that are seen are heavily worn or damaged; the “bad” ones can easily be obtained for less than $100, while very nice specimens will typically sell for $350 or more.
Crawford (1974) is the best treatment on the subject, putting these coins in context, and providing a great deal of useful background information. Sear (2000) is the best catalog for collectors, providing a good overview and a well-laid out listing of the coins. Jones (1990) is a good handbook for general information about Roman coins.
And Livy, originally written between 27 and 9 BCE, is an enjoyable read covering the entire Second Punic War.
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Crawford, Michael H. Roman Republican Coinage, Volume I and Volume II. Cambridge University Press. 1974.
Jones, John Melville. A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins. London. Spink. 1990.
Livius, Titus. The War with Hannibal (Books XXI – XXX of Ab Urbe Condita). Aubrey de Selincourt, transl. London. Penguin Books. 1965.
Sear, David R. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume One: The Republic and the Twelve Caesars 280 BC – AD 96. London. Spink. 2000.