CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
ANCIENT ROME ISSUED coins for almost eight centuries. Among the bewildering variety of denominations that circulated during this long span of time, the quinarius stands out as one of the most obscure. Struck in both gold and silver, the type is so scarce that many experienced collectors have never even seen one. No book-length study of the quinarius appeared in English until 2007!
The origin of the silver quinarius is closely linked to Rome’s urgent need to pay troops with high-quality silver money in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), which also gave rise to its big brother, the denarius, and its diminutive, short-lived companion, the silver sestertius.
The superb collection of the American Numismatic Society in New York contains 355 silver quinarii, but just 11 examples in gold. Many of these coins came from the bequest of Edward T. Newell (1886-1941). Another large group came from the collection of Charles Hersh (1923-1999) a banker, and numismatic scholar.
The First Quinarii
When it was introduced around 212 BCE, the silver denarius was valued at 10 bronze asses. The coin’s obverse was prominently marked with a Roman numeral X, meaning “10”. The quinarius, weighing a bit over two grams, was valued at five asses and marked with the numeral V. Weighing under a gram, the tiny silver sestertius, whose name means “two and a half”, was marked IIS. The “S” in this case stood for semis, meaning one-half. Around 23 BCE, the silver sestertius was replaced by a large bronze coin. Ancient mints were often reluctant to produce small denominations in precious metal because it was more work for less profit.
All three silver denominations shared a common design; the obverse bore the head of Roma, the female personification of Rome. She wears a winged helmet, familiar to collectors of classic American coins as an attribute of Mercury. The reverse depicts the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux, galloping their horses to the right, with stars above their heads. According to legend, these supernatural brothers appeared at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BCE to fight on the Roman side. The single word ROMA appears below the twins.
The early “anonymous” quinarius was issued only for a few years before dropping out of production around 206 BCE. Collectible examples can be found for around $150 USD, with exceptional specimens going for $500 or more at auction.
Later Republican Quinarii
In 141 BCE, when the denarius was revalued upward to 16 bronze asses, its weight was cut to about 3.9 grams. When the Roman mint resumed issuing the silver quinarius around 101 BCE, the weight varied from a little less than 1.8 grams to as much as 2.2 grams, and the purity of the silver was only about 95%.
The surprising revival of the quinarius, more than a century after it had gone out of regular production, is clearly associated with Marius’ victories against the Germanic tribes … Perhaps the coins were struck for distribution to the populace at the time of Marius’ triumph, thus setting a precedent for the specialized role of this unusual denomination (Sear, 111).
Designs were highly varied, with the obverse bearing the head of a deity (typically Jupiter, Apollo, or Victoria) and the name of the “moneyer” (the annually appointed mint official responsible for the issue) spelled out prominently on the reverse.
Shortly before his assassination, Julius Caesar issued a small number of gold coins weighing about four grams and valued at one-half aureus. We don’t know what these rare pieces were actually called, but modern numismatists use the term gold quinarius.
The design copies one of Caesar’s aureus types, with the head of the goddess Victoria on the obverse, and an abbreviated inscription (C·CAES DIC·TER) noting Caesar’s third appointment as Dictator in 46 BCE. On the reverse, the name of the moneyer, Lucius Munatius Plancus, appears around a jug, which may refer to Caesar’s role as high priest of the Roman state religion (the jug was used for pouring ritual libations). In a 2018 Swiss auction, an example of this coin realized almost $22,000.
Civil War Quinarii
The civil wars that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic began in 49 BCE and ended with the final victory of Octavian (later called Augustus) in January 27 BCE. Coinage of this period is known to numismatists as “Imperatorial” because opposing warlords often adopted the title of Imperator (meaning “Commander in Chief”). Many of these commanders issued quinarii, notably M. Porcius Cato (great-grandson of the famous conservative senator, Cato the Elder).
Cato’s quinarius, issued from his base in North Africa, bears the image of Liber, a Roman god of wine, fertility, and freedom on the obverse, surrounded by Cato’s abbreviated name and title (Propraetor, meaning the “acting governor of a province”). The reverse bears a seated image of Victory.
A military mint moving with the army of Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius in the East issued a variety of rare quinarii, one type bearing an array of traditional Roman symbols, such as the sella, a portable chair reserved for high officials; a modius, which was a measuring bucket for grain; and a tripod. Another type bore the head of Libertas (the female personification of liberty, familiar to collectors of classic American coins), with an anchor and prow of a ship (symbolizing naval power) on the reverse.
Early Imperial Quinarii
In his reform of Roman coinage, Augustus restored the weight and purity of the precious metal coinage, issuing a silver denarius struck at 84 to the Roman pound, and a gold aureus at 40 to the pound. Sources differ on the exact standard of the Roman pound, which varied at different times and places from about 322 to 329 grams.
Most surviving examples of the gold quinarius valued at half an aureus (or 12.5 denarii) weigh a bit less than four grams, while high-grade examples of the silver quinarius weigh around 1.8 grams. These small coins tended to accumulate a lot of wear and tear in circulation, and are often found significantly underweight. A quinarius of Augustus issued c. 29-28 BCE celebrates the recapture of the province of Asia from the forces of Antony and Cleopatra. The inscription ASIA RECEPTA (“Asia regained”) surrounds an image of winged Victory standing on a cista mystica flanked by two serpents. The cista mystica was a wicker basket containing live snakes used in rituals of Greek mystery cults. For centuries it was so frequently depicted on local silver coinage of Greek cities in the East that the denomination became known as the cistophoros (“basket bearer”).
The gold quinarius of Augustus’ successor Tiberius (ruled 14 – 37 CE) bears an image of Victory seated on a globe. By the fifth century BCE, Greek philosophers had concluded that the Earth was spherical. Sadly, this knowledge was lost to most Europeans during the medieval era.
Middle Imperial Quinarii
Under the “Five Good Emperors” (96-180 CE) production of the quinarius in silver and gold continued on a limited basis.
A typical example is a coin of Hadrian from the mint of Rome, c. 119-122 CE, one of the most affordable types I found.
During the Severan dynasty (193-235), the issue of quinarii was very slight. A unique gold example of Septimius Severus dated to 205 CE sold for over $6,000 in a 2015 London auction. With a diameter of only 13 to 16 mm, the gold quinarius was convenient for mounting in a finger ring, and another type of Septimius Severus dated c. 201-210 in a heavy gold setting brought $20,000 in a 2020 New York auction.
The Last Quinarii
During the long crisis of the third century (235-284), gold coinage became very scarce and the weight of the aureus, which had previously been regulated within very tight tolerances, became highly variable. Whenever the mints got some bullion, it was haphazardly struck up into the required number of coins.
The quinarius, traditionally used as a presentation piece on occasions of public celebration, continued to be issued in the latter part of the third century, even though it had become an anachronism within the context of the modified monetary system. Now struck in debased metal it still resembled its silver prototype in size and overall appearance and doubtless continued to serve the same ceremonial purpose down to the time of its final abandonment under the Tetrarchy.
By the time of the Tetrarchy (c. 293-312 CE), the weight of the gold aureus had fallen to around 5.5 grams (it had been over eight grams at the time of Julius Caesar). Some very rare lightweight gold coins from this era are cataloged as quinarii. A handsome example is a coin of Galerius as Caesar (junior co-emperor) minted at Rome, c. 298-299. One of just two known examples, it sold for over $5,000 in a 2017 London auction.
In a major reform of the coinage about the year 312, Constantine I (“the Great”) introduced the solidus, a pure gold coin struck at 72 to the Roman pound. The gold quinarius was replaced for a few decades by a peculiar and inconvenient fraction, the rare “9 siliqua” or “1½ scripulum” piece, valued at three-eighths of a solidus and weighing about 1.7 grams. Later in the fourth century, a pair of more logical gold fractions, which remained in production for centuries, was introduced: the semissis, valued at one-half solidus; and the more common tremissis, valued at one-third. The standard pure silver coin of this era is known to modern numismatists as the siliqua, initially about 2.7 grams, eventually declining to less than two grams. Some very rare lighter pieces are cataloged as half siliquae.
But that is a story for another day.
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 King (2007), out of print; secondhand copies sell for about $150
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 78, December 17, 2020, Lot 996. Realized £400 (about $540 USD; estimate £150).
 NAC Auction 105, May 9, 2018, Lot 3. Realized CHF 22,000 (about $21,910 USD; estimate CHF 22,000).
 Gitbud & Naumann Auction 33,July 5, 2015, Lot 448. Realized €170 (about $189 USD; estimate €125).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XXi, March 24, 2021, Lot 467. Realized £1,400 (about $1,921 USD; estimate £2,000).
 CNG Auction 115, September 16, 2020, Lot 601. Realized $650 USD (estimate $750).
 Nomos obolos 11, December 8, 2018, Lot 486. Realized CHF 250 (about $252 USD; estimate CHF 70).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 537. Realized £11,000 (about $14,195 USD; estimate £10,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 28, July 2, 2016, Lot 499. Realized £120 (about $159 USD; estimate £100).
 Roma Numismatics Auction 10, September 27, 2015, Lot 818. Realized £4,000 (about $6,070 USD; estimate £5,000).
 CNG Triton, XXIII, January 14, 2020, Lot 787. Realized $20,000 USD (estimate $20,000).
 CNG Triton I, December 2, 1997, Lot 1673. Realized $720 USD (estimate $1,200).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIII, March 23, 2017, Lot 912. Realized £4,000 (about $5,011 USD; estimated £5,000).
Harl, Kenneth. Coinage in the Roman Economy. Baltimore (1996)
King, Cathy E. Roman Quinarii from the Republic to Diocletian and the Tetrarchy. Oxford (2007)
Molinari, Maria. “A rare gold quinarius of Augustus from the Treasure of Via Alessandrina (Rome). Observations on the meaning of coin types of the so called uncertain mint 1 and 2”, Tübinger Archäologische Forschungen 24. (2017)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Vol. 1. London (2000)
Stevenson, Seth. Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1964 reprint of 1889 edition)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, OH (1999)
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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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