Ancient Roman and Greek Coins, page 2

Here is a large (27 mm diameter) Roman copper coin (with some silver on the surface, a nummus also called a follis) of Severus II, Caesar from 305 - 306 AD and Augustus (= emperor) from 306 - 307 AD.
Severus II

The legend, FL VAL SEVERVS NOB CAES, tells us his name, "FLavius VALerius SEVERUS"
and that he was "NOBilis CAESar" = "Noble Caesar" at the time and not yet emperor (Augustus).
The reverse says "PERPETVITAS AVGG" ("immortality of the emperors" [like the word "perpetual"]) and shows Roma (the city, personified) seated left holding a tiny Victory with a wreath, and a sceptre. An oval shield is below. The coin was minted at ALE(xandria), Egypt.

Designs. Unlike modern coins, there is a huge number of different designs. Roman coins usually have a head in profile on one side (the obverse, the "head" side). It could picture a Roman or Greek god

Apollo / chariot

Apollo / Chariot on a Roman Republican silver denarius (20mm diameter) struck 86 BC. Jupiter drives the "quadriga" (four-horse chariot). Apollo wears an oak-wreath. Just below his neck is a thunderbolt.

Ancient coins depict many animals.
Caracalla / lion

Lion, radiate, holding a thunderbolt in its mouth, on a silver coin of the Roman emperor Caracalla (sole emperor 211-217 AD). His portrait and some of his titles are on the obverse. This denomination, introduced in 215 AD, is technically called an antoninianus, but also (more simply!) called a "radiate" because of the radiate crown on the emperor's head which distinguishes it from the silver denarius which had been minted for hundreds of years.

The next reverse shows a goddess.

Macrinus / Diana

Diana, the huntress, known to the Greeks as Artemis, depicted in a short hunting skirt, with her bow and arrow and her hound. The coin is a "Roman provincial" copper piece (28mm diameter, substantially larger than a quarter, and with a lovely green patina) struck for Macrinus, Roman emperor 217-218AD, at Nicopolis ad Istrum (Bulgaria). The legend is in Greek and names Macrinus (2:00 - 5:00) on the obverse.

Roman and Greek coins often show battle scenes.

battle scene 

This is a quarter-sized copper coin of Constantius II, Roman emperor from 337 to 361 AD. On the obverse Roman imperial coins have legends which name the emperor and give some of his titles, like this one that says "DN CONSTANTIVS PF AVG". Legends on the reverse usually relate to the reverse design. On this reverse is a battle scene with a large foot soldier thrusting his spear downward into a smaller (Persian) horseman who turns back to ward off the spear as his tiny horse falls and begins to tumble over its head. The reverse legend


translates to "Happy times are restored!" or "Happy times are here again!

The "ANH" below the ground line is a mint mark of Antioch, one of the largest cities in the empire.
This is a common coin, available for $25 -50 in excellent condition, and $10 is lesser grade, but still okay.

Could the rider be using a stirrup? If so, it would be remarkable evidence for the arrival of the stirrup to western civilization.

There are a huge number of other designs.  

Greek coins are beautiful (see images later on this page) and often have a head of a god or goddess on one side, but animals and birds such as lions, horses, stags, snakesdolphins, and eagles are common too (You can even find an octopus!). After Alexander the Great (who died in 323 BC) many Greek coins depict the ruling king. But there are hundreds of unusual and interesting types -- too many to be mentioned here.

You say they are common. What do you mean by "common"?

There are many tens of thousands of genuine ancient coins on the market as you read this. Coins of some Roman emperors are in substantial oversupply, so that there are far more coins than collectors, keeping the price of those coins down. Coins of some emperors are occasionally available by the hundreds at a time at major wholesaler's shows because people keep digging up large hoards of those coins. Those types of coins are available every week (almost every day!) on eBay. The coin of Severus II at the top of this page is a rare type and in high grade, but many other issues are so common in middle and low grades that dealers have more than they know what to do with. Low grade Roman coins can be bought by the thousands. Some types are common in excellent condition.Such coins are priced low and serve as great ways to start the hobby of collecting. However, you would eventually find that some of the types you desire are scarce or rare -- and then they cost more, of course.

Copper. 20 mm diameter. This is a very common coin type minted in 333-334 AD near the end of the reign of Constantine the Great. It is worn and costs about $10-$25 and is very frequently offered on sale sites and eBay.
It celebrates the foundation of a new capital city named in his honor, CONSTANTINOPOLI[S], "Constantine's city." [This is the obverse legend. You can see the suffix "POLIS" in English words referring to cities, such as metropolis."] The city is now the largest city in Turkey, named Istanbul. The obverse bust is not of Constantine, but of the city herself, personified as a helmeted warrior with a scepter (denoting power) over her shoulder.
The reverse shows Victory with her foot on a tiny ship's prow. It commemorates a naval battle which secured the site of the city for Constantine. This type has a fascinating story and is of historical importance, but you can buy one cheaply because many were minted and many are still available today.

Greek coins are not as common as late Roman coins, but some attractive Greek silver types are occasionally found in hoards of over a hundred pieces and it is fair to say that many attractive ancient Greek coin types are common. For more comon types, see here.

I won't be able to read the legends.

Yes, you will. Roman legends are in Latin which uses our usual A, B, C, ... alphabet. Many of the words will remind you of English, and all you have to do is learn the most common names, titles, words and abbreviations that appear on coins. There are not that many.
Greek coins generally have very short legends naming the city, in Greek. Greek has many letters like ours, but some have different letter shapes (for example Δ (delta) for D). You get used to it quickly. Or, you can stick to Roman coins.

They are metal, right?

Right. They were minted in silver, copper, or gold. Of course, the lower denominations in copper and silver are more common. Most are from the size of a dime to the size of a half dollar, but thicker.

Some don't look perfectly round.

That is the result of the ancient minting technique. Coins were made by using a heavy hammer to strike coin blanks between two dies. Like squeezing clay between your fingers, the pressure often caused the blank to elongate or even split at the edges. (Now, modern coins are forced to become round by striking them inside a round collar.) For example, look at the top edge of the silver denarius (Septimius Severus, 193-211 AD, 18 mm diameter) you saw on the previous page and again here.

What were they worth?

Small coins were pretty valuable then. Silver and gold were rare and valuable metals and the coins were valued for the metal they contained. In Greek and Roman times, silver coins the size of a dime (that are common today) were worth a full day's pay for a laborer (and most workers were laborers). So, that might be, say, $40 in today's money. You could support yourself and a small family on that. You could buy enough wheat for 25 pounds of bread or 10 pounds of olive oil (28,000 calories of nutrition!) with one small silver coin (a denarius).

Where do they come from?

They are found all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The Roman Empire was huge and covered all those areas for hundreds of years. Millions of people used ancient coins for a thousand years. They lost some coins, and buried many in back-yard savings hoards for safe-keeping. Hoards not recovered then are being found now by farmers plowing and metal detectors.

Aren't they very expensive?

No, they're not. Well, some are. You can spend $100 or $500 on a great coin if you want, but very many interesting low-grade ancient coins are available for about $5-$15 each. Some of the most common ones can be found in very attractive condition for $10 to $40.

There can't be many around -- why aren't they all in museums?

Actually, there are many around. Those of us who live in the United States cannot realize how common it is to dig up really old archeological artifacts in England, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and a dozen other countries where ancient coins are found. If you were a collector in England, you would see ancient coins for sale in every coin shop because they find them in the ground. In the US, metal detector hobbyists cannot hope to find ancient coins, but they do in England -- sometime in hoards of thousands together. Museums get first pick (and pay market value in England, but not other countries), but most finds are duplicates of types already in the museums, so they go on the market.

If they are found over there, how can I buy them here in the US?

There are coin dealers in the US who specialize in ancients, and lots of other coin dealers who specialize in US coins nevertheless have some ancients for sale. After all, coins are small and easy to carry across the Atlantic! Lots of collectors and dealers buy coins over there and bring them back here. 

How can I find a dealer who sells ancients?

I recommend the "ancient-coin mall,"  At this writing it has over 100 separate private dealers under one roof and a very good search engine. If you want to buy fixed price coins, try it. Of the web auction sites, the best is eBay (go to "Coins" and then "Ancient").  Be aware that some eBay coins are fakes and many are mis-described. You need to be careful. Later on page 3 I will give some links, and my page on how to buy ancient coins has lots of information. If you want higher-quality coins from a major dealer, I recommend . There are also numerous excellent European dealers on the web. 

What do people collect?

Most ancient coin collectors collect Roman coins, and maybe a quarter collect Greek coins. Many start out buying one or two because they are so old, and then they delve into the history. Roman coin collectors like the stories of the emperors and often try to get one of each emperor. You can find excellent portraits of over 30 different emperors and Caesars (and some of their wives and mothers) for less than $50 each, some for much less.

By the way, from Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) to the "fall" of Rome in the fifth century AD there were about 70 emperors acknowledged at Rome, all with portrait coins, and another 100 or so sons, wives, mothers, and usurpers with portrait coins.

Of course, many collectors settle on a more limited time period. I have a friend who concentrates on the second century, another who concentrates on the fourth, one who collects Roman Republican, one who collects Byzantine coins, one who collects Greek silver coins, one who emphasizes coins of the ancient Near East, one who prefers Roman coins of the "middle bronze" denominations, and I know of a collector who concentrates on coins of a single emperor! I know one who collects coins from each city that St. Paul visted on his travels. There are many possible themes (Republican coins, Christian reference coins, military types, gods and goddesses, mythological types, animals, etc., etc.) -- and no one will tell you what you are "supposed" to like!  

If you want to get a set, consider getting portraits of each of the "12 Caesars" (Julius Caesar through Domitian). My first long-range goal was to get a set of the 70 rulers from Augustus to the fifth century who were recognized at Rome (minus a few that were too expensive). A set of five coins of the "Five good emperors" of the second century would be easy to complete. The group could be supplemented later with coins of the wives and relatives for whom they minted coins.

Probus, 276-282 ADMany collectors like to emphasize a particular denomination, for example, the radiate silver coins introduced by Caracalla in 215 and issued by numerous emperors and Caesars until 296 (A high-grade $30-$60 coin of Probus, 276-282 AD, to the right. 23 mm diameter).

Collectors like the history. Roman coins are government documents that often combine history with portraits. Reverses may refer to victories (VIC GER, Marcus Aurelius), the emperor's travels, the emperor's family, governmental policies, donatives, or other contemporary events.

Copper coins of the Roman emperors from AD 364-450 are particularly common and affordable. Here is a link to a major site listing those late Roman AE coins. Most of the illustrated coins can be bought for under $20 each.  There are, of course, rarities, but you can make a good start on a representative collection of the emperors and types in a short amount of time for a very limited amount of money. I could say the same thing about coins of Constantine and his relatives (AD 307-364) but I don't have such a nice website to point you to.

Greek coin collectors like the fabulous art in high relief on lovely Greek coins:


A silver drachma of the city of Larissa in Greece, minted c. 340 - 320 BC.
The obverse shows a 3/4 facing bust of "Larissa." The reverse shows a horse about to roll, with (weakly) "of Larissa" in Greek above.  (19 mm in diameter.)


Pegasus of Corinth

A common (but not cheap) silver coin of of the Greek city Corinth, minted 350 - 300 BC. Pegasus (the winged horse) / head of the goddess Athena in a Corinthian helmet (tipped back to expose the face). A cornucopia is behind. It is the size of a nickle, but thicker. Cost, about $350.  (21 mm in diameter.)

They also like the history of the famous cities (such as Athens) that minted the coins until Alexander the Great, and the history of the Greek kings who ruled after him.

Alexander the Great

A silver coin of Alexander the Great. The obverse is a bust of Hercules in a lion-skin headdress. The reverse shows Zeus (Jupiter) seated, holding an eagle. The legend "King Alexander" in Greek begins at 8:00. This example is more worn than most -- it should cost about $175.  26 mm in diameter and quite thick.

Greek coins do not lend themselves so easily to completing sets. I have heard of people wanting one coin from each city St. Paul visited. You could collect one beautiful coin from each mint city in Sicily. There are many potential sets, but no particular set is well-known and heavily collected like the run of Lincoln cents or Morgan dollars. You could make your own list of coins and aim to complete it. But, if your strongest desire is to collect something where you can "fill that last hole" in the collection, I don't think Greek coins are for you.

Many collectors answered this question on an e-mail list. I have assembled the fascinating answers here.

How can I find out more? (And see more photos!)

 Continue on the next page (page 3) of Ancient Roman and Greek Coins.

books, ancient coin websites, lists, shows, Julius Caesar, Nero, prices,
inexpensive coins, women, grading, fakes, buying, proper prices, selling, buying at auctions,
eBay buying and selling, e-mail lists, how to value coins, books to buy, favorite educational links

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