By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
It is said that when Greece was building grand temples of white marble, the Romans were living in mud huts. While this is a sweeping generalization, there is some truth behind it as is demonstrated by the Republic’s earliest documented coinage, the Aes Rude or “Rough Bronze”. These proto-coins, used between the eighth century BCE and the late fourth century BCE, were basically rough ingots of cast bronze traded based on their base metal weight.
By the early fourth century BCE, as the Roman economy evolved and local metalworking technology became more sophisticated, the Aes Rude slowly transformed into the Aes Grave or “Heavy Bronze”. Like the Aes Rude series, the Aes Grave traded at the value of the metal. But unlike the rough bronze ingots, the Aes Grave can be considered true coinage that includes “distinctive types as well as marks of value and approximating to a definite weight standard” (Sydenham, 55). While the value of each Aes Grave was still based on weight, interestingly that weight fluctuated wildly. This was due to the fact that the Romans focused more on the total weight of metal and not on the individual coins. Since it was a fractional denomination system based on the roman pound, all the Roman mint was concerned with was casting the correct number of coins from each pound.
The Latin pound, or libra, was roughly equal to 329 modern grams. For comparison, the modern pound (lb) is equal to 453.6 grams, yet in homage to the Romans, we still use the abbreviation “lb”.
An As, the base denomination of these bronze coins, was equal to 12 roman ounces or one libra. As a duodecimal system, there are seven fractional denominations, with the smallest, the semuncia, weighing 1/24th of an As.
The denominations and their corresponding fractions of an As are as follows:
Over time, the weight standards of the Aes Grave series decreased significantly.
Initially, until approximately 270 BCE, the Libral standard weighed the aforementioned 12 roman ounces (329g). By 270 BCE, the Romans had shifted to a Light or “reduced” Libral standard, weighing an average of 10 Roman ounces (270 grams). Between 217 and 211 BCE, the weight was further reduced three separate times from the Semilibral to the Quadrantal, and finally to the Sextantal standard: 6 oz (137g), 3 oz (81g), and 2 oz (54g), respectively. Lastly, in 141 BCE, the weight of the Aes Grave system settled at one Roman ounce or 27g. This decrease was due almost entirely to a combination of general inflation and the First and Second Punic Wars, fought from 264-241 and 218-201 BCE, respectively.
The famous British numismatist and historian Edward A. Sydenham was the first scholar to truly delineate the As weight system in a clear and logical manner without, as he put it, creating a system of so “complex a character that, to an unmathematical people such as were the Romans of the fourth and third centuries BCE, they would have been utterly unthinkable” (Sydenham, 54).
As part of the Light libral standard, around 225 BCE, the Romans introduced the “Prow” type for the first time. Named for the ubiquitous reverse design on all denominations, these coins depicted a ship’s prow. Since this was introduced between the two Punic wars, it is likely that the “Prow” series was not a commemoration of a specific event but more a general assertion of mastery over the Mediterranean Sea and subsequent trade.
While the design changed over the years, each denomination had a distinct denomination mark. The As can be identified by an I, the Semis an S, the Triens four pellets, the Quadrans three pellets, the Sextans two pellets, the Uncia one pellet, and the Semuncia a Greek Sigma (Σ).
From the Aes Grave early series, the As usually depicted two godly busts. This example shows the head of Apollo on both obverse and reverse and gives its name to this early Apollo/Apollo series. It is uncertain if the denomination “I” was located on the portion of the design beneath the busts that is not visible on the flan. Additionally, it was common for the Gods’ Janus and Mercury to appear on early examples. Later as the design evolved, Janus became the most common god depicted on this denomination.
The Semis, meaning half, was worth half of one As. Commonly marked by an “S”, and less frequently by six pellets, early Semisses minted as part of the original Libral standard depicted the helmeted head of the goddess Minerva on the reverse. Interestingly, on the early series, it was common for the denomination to appear on both faces beneath the busts. This is a trend common across most of the denominations.
Other examples depict a roughly executed beardless bust of the war god Mars instead of Minerva. Later, most examples would shift from the representation of female goddesses to the male titan Saturn on the obverse, and the prow motif on the reverse. As Rome began to prepare for the Second Punic War, they shifted from cast to hammered coins for the first time, starting with the As.
In the Aes Grave series, Rome produced two main concurrent designs for their Triens.
First is an example depicting two horse heads, one on each side facing opposite directions. Under the horse heads are the four dots, representing the denomination. It is possible that the fledgling Roman state based this design on the relatively contemporaneous horse motif from its southern rival, the city-state of Carthage. This comparison can easily be seen between the shekel below, struck between 300 and 264 BCE, and the extremely similar anonymous Roman issue struck between 280 and 269.
The second common design of the Triens in the early Aes Grave Libral series depicts a stylized thunderbolt that bisects the denomination (four dots) on the obverse and a dolphin swimming to the right above the denomination on the reverse.
As with the rest of the denominations, once the Romans moved to the “reduced” series, the Triens underwent a complete design change. A helmeted bust of Minerva replaced the horse and dolphin motifs on the obverse and the standard prow design was placed on the reverse.
In the early series, the Quadrans depicted a series of different designs. These included running boars or dogs, open hands with all five fingers outstretched, spoked wheels with either four, five, or six spokes, and pairs of barley grains. The one constant element was the denomination which was denoted by three dots in a straight line. Later, however, once the Light Libral system was implemented, the design became more standardized, with the head of Hercules being depicted on the obverse.
Similarly, the Roman Sextans had several major designs before the introduction of the prow type.
On the obverse, the first main design depicted a scallop shell, and on the reverse a caduceus. The standard two pellet denomination was included on both sides. For the second design, the Romans employed a tortoise for the obverse and a six-spoked wheel on the reverse. Unlike the Romans, the other Italian city-states employed many different designs for the Sextans. After the introduction of the prow type, the obverse was shifted to a bust of Mercury facing left with the denomination beneath the bust.
For the penultimate denomination, the Uncia, the Romans used two main initial designs for the standard Libral series. Most commonly, the designs depicted the same image on both sides. They were not, however, always the same dies. The first image was an astragalus or animal knuckle bone used as dice either for gaming or as a tool for divination. The Uncia was denominated by a single pellet. Eventually, the design was changed to match the prow type standard and depicted a helmeted Roma (the divine personification of Rome) on the obverse and the right facing prow on the reverse.
Issued until approximately 210 BCE, Rome’s smallest denomination was the Semuncia or half Uncia. This small coin was subjected to only one major design change. Initially, the design was simple, with an acorn on the obverse and a sigma, the denomination, on the reverse. For the prow series, the design became more traditionally roman, with the god Mercury facing right wearing his traditional winged hat and the standard reverse prow design.
While the early types can be rare and hard to find, there are Aes Grave coins out there for every collector! Happy collecting.
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Crawford, Michael H. Roman Republican Coinage. Cambridge University Press. (1974)
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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).