This Dying Hobby

Once known as the “hobby of kings”, coin collecting is slowly becoming as passé as monarchy itself. From casual collectors to career professionals, and all levels of dedication in between, numismatics is experiencing a steady decline. Traditionally, the collective membership of those who study and/or collect coins had been fueled by younger generations being exposed to the discipline at home, school or the media. That pool, unfortunately, has rapidly dwindled in the face of competition from industries that did not exist a generation or two ago; namely, the irresistible pull of video gaming and social media.

In the “olden days” of our parent’s generation, there were far fewer entertainment avenues compared to today. The circle of interaction most people experienced on a day to day basis was largely limited to those in their immediate proximity and rare was the contact with distant friends or relatives (and then typically only through mail as even long distance calls were a costly luxury). We were more or less isolated as individuals and hobbies gave us solo entertainment to feed the introvert in us. Sure TV, then video games and finally the advent of the internet eroded that need but, in my opinion, it was social media that put the exclamation mark on the trend since now you could count on a far vaster number of people with whom you may be in contact virtually round the clock irrespective of their geographical distance. That isn't merely a distraction sapping away at the collector's drive. It fundamentally rewrites that wiring that edges out the need for something to do when the usual forms of engagement with others and entertainment are unavailable. Not only are these new forms of entertainment available 24/7 they also happen to be of far higher quality - at least in terms of their ability to thrill and amuse. Even reading, the ultimate me-time hobby, seems to be trending south according to research by Pew. Where does that leave collecting?

Finding relevant data seems tricky. There's certainly no shortage of rosy op ed pieces from auctioneers and trade analysts ( but this is doubly miselading because for one its demographic is largely made up of older and wealthier clients and, of course, there’s also the fact they have a vested interest in portraying the market they serve in the most bullish terms possible. But when you read more neutral sources the tone is much less enthusiastic. An article in the New York Times reported a year ago that interest in run of the mill antiques has tanked. Christie's mention that “There’s no denying that there’s been, in the last 10 to 15 years, something of a sea change in taste and collecting habits." has a defeatist tone that's barely disguised for a spokesman of the world's No. 1 auction house. Another NY Times article, this time on stamp collecting, our closest kin you could say, reads like an obituary.

The most accurate barometer in interest of ancient numismatics is eBay. Love it or hate it (and irrespective of the fact that a lot of us hate a lot about it) eBay is far and away the starting point for most collectors looking to add whatever to their collection - as well as to sell. For the ancient coin market in particular the numbers are despairing. This is excluding sales of fakes, which could be blamed for turning off buyers, and it also excludes data from multi-coin lots and low-value coins that can distort the picture. Privately, many dealers admit to seeing less business than even just a few years ago and more have left the field entirely than new ones entered the fray. The silver lining? Ebay's average price for sold lots is holding steady. This is significant. While the cream of the crop can always be counted on to appreciate in any art form, it's the Gordian III ants and Constantine AE3s that signal overall health in the buy-and-sell community.


However, if common coin prices are stable it could simply mean that the remaining active community is hungrily soaking up anything perceived as a bargain which, in turn, of course, keeps a check on supply. But if one considers that each passing year fewer new coins are found (given that the detectorists repeatedly scour over the same fixed number of archeologically fertile locations) the only logical conclusion is that the bulk of those new coins found on eBay comes from the holdings of recent retirees or their estates. This, obviously, creates an inverse bubble. When it bursts coin prices may well rise from the lower supply but it also has a depressive effect on demand. Newer collectors may abandon the hobby in despair over its poor affordability while established collectors may wait until the market cools - a period that may well be indefinite. The bottom line in this scenario is that fewer coins will trade hands both from price and lack of availability (and possibly also harsher global policies that could restrict the commerce in ancient collectibles) all of which results in a progressively less compelling proposition for newcomer and seasoned old-timer alike.

Uncleaned coins, the longtime gateway for many into ancient coin collecting, might well be the canary in the mine. From the heady days of twenty years ago, following the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc along with its stringent laws limiting personal freedoms (such as owning and using a metal detector, for example), when there was a positive oversupply of new coins entering the market, we see now only an anemic trickle. Quality, quantity and even average size per module have steadily decreased forcing many dealers out of business and newer hobbyists to gripe. A handful of uncleaned coins which may have yielded an interesting variety of copper coinage spanning several centuries is now largely restricted to a narrow selection of coins from the Constantinian, Valentinian and Theodosian dynasties from the 4th century. Fewer neat additions translate into a corresponding decrease in customers looking to place followup orders.

The outlook we are left with sees a bleak future for ancient numismatics with a much sparser field of dealers, auctioneers and scholars that serve an ever smaller community with a median age that ticks up year after year. If the trend were to continue unabated one could expect the eventual death of commercial numismatics altogether. If that’s a gloomy assessment there’s some respite in noting that the emerging economies in Asia and Latin America will serve to prop up the declining ranks of aficionados - for some time at least. While the lion’s share of their interest will naturally lie with local coinages, historically a fair number branch out and discover ancients. But - and this but is beyond debate - the number of countries still minting small metal discs meant for currency dwindles annually because it is truly an obsolescent practice out of step in the digital millennium. The day, therefore, will not be very far in coming when the very concept of coins will be history. We should all hope that there will be, at least, some competent custodians left to curate that history.

The Tribute Penny

Biblical coins are a popular segment in the ancient coin hobby. For many this proves to be a gateway into the wider world of ancient numismatics but most find just owning a coin mentioned in the bible, or even one merely contemporary, an end in itself as a way to connect with that distant but meaningful past. Among these classes may be counted the so-called "Widow's Mites" and the easily available Constantinian bronzes that form the bulk of what we sell right here on DOC. Another class of coins draws attention for being controversial. Among the many, many issues yet unresolved by ancient numismatists it is perhaps a little ironic that an ordinary and easily available coin should prove the most divisive.

All the controversy is due to a rather numismatically ambiguous passage in the bible. As written in the King James version, Matthew 22:17-21 reads:

Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

Right away those with even passing familiarity with the coinage of Jesus's time will point out that the penny must be an anachronism since that invention was yet several centuries into the future. But this is a minor quibble. The KJV translators were deliberately remaking the ancient language of the bible into a tongue familiar to a largely illiterate audience. The more correct translation of the Greek δηνάριον (denarion) or the Latin Vulgate's denarium would have yielded an incomprehensible technicism not in keeping with the mission. Understanding therefore that the word actually used refers to a denarius goes a long way in clarifying which coin was meant. However, whether Jesus literally specified a denarius, rather than "coin" or some less specific term is much less certain. True, this Gospel is generally regarded as having been authored during the reign of Domitian, when the coinage was indistinguishable from that of a half century before, but this is too simplistic a solution as it sidesteps the metaphor with an unnecessarily restrictive interpretation - to say nothing of the reliability of the oral hand-me-downs that recorded the incident in question prior to being committed to the written word.

The coin most people today associate with the term 'tribute penny' and sole design of the denarius for the reign of Tiberius, 14-37 CE

The coin most people today associate with the term 'tribute penny' and sole design of the denarius for the reign of Tiberius, 14-37 CE

The first point that conspires against an easy interpretation is that even a strictly fundamentalist reading in this instance will find mention of the coin is only incidental to the meaning of Jesus's lesson. His detractors had come before him hoping to show him up as a hypocrite for preaching to them about the one true God while at the same time he handles money inscribed with the name and image of a man many regarded as a living god. To them he rebukes by pointing out that the earthly and divine domains are separate so paying the taxman carries no moral implications.

Still, the issue is far from settled. If we assume that Jesus literally meant a denarius we would not be unsafe in making the further assumption that the denarius might well have been that of Tiberius which is known to have circulated in the region by the bucketfuls. But it would positively, certifiably not have been the only type available; in fact, the Tiberius denarius would have been a relatively new entry in a crowded field of other silver pieces bearing various portraits right alongside a milieu of local and foreign coinage. This is in very large part due to Jerusalem's fortunate geographical position which served as a nexus serving tradesmen from all corners of the known world.

Judaic law was very strict in proscribing any artistry that captured the likeness of any living being to whom man could fall victim to the sin of idolatry. The term extended the definition to include representations of animals lest admiration for the skill of the artist become dangerously similar to the adulation due the Lord God. But this was a self-imposed restriction that applied only to the industry of the observant Jew; dealing with the rest of the world happened on another, altogether much more pragmatic plane. Jesus, as all other Jews, was perfectly capable of dealing with the dichotomy.

Additionally, note that marrying tribute and penny into a phrase is a modern construct. Jews were required to pay annual taxes, the euphemistic 'tribute', irrespective of their profession. Even remote, sheep-herding communities with little chance of coming across foreign money were not spared the bill. The Roman agents were happy to receive local coin or in-kind payments wherever Rome-minted silver was scarce. Above all others, this is the reason there could not have been a singular type of coin reserved for tributary purposes.

The Holy Land was then as now a crossroads of global trade awash in the products of many different civilizations. In the end, Caesar was just as practical as Jesus and made few bones about the small details so long as the bottom line was met.

Common coins of the time of Jesus in the Holy Land: a Roman legionary denarius (left), a Parthian drachm (center) and a Pontius Pilate prutah (right)

Common coins of the time of Jesus in the Holy Land: a Roman legionary denarius (left), a Parthian drachm (center) and a Pontius Pilate prutah (right)





Coins of the Roman Emperors: Who's Rarest?

Any collector can tell you that the most often asked question is typically a variant of "what's the most expensive?" and "what's the rarest?" Answering the first is usually pretty easy because the results are widely published. In the realm of numismatics, at the moment it appears the most ever paid for any type of coin was a little over ten million dollars for a U.S. Dollar dating to 1794 sold by auctioneer Stack's. Auction house Baldwin's holds the record for Greek coins which in 2011 sold a Pantikapaion gold stater for $3.8 million while the current titleholder for Roman coins is Numismatica Ars Classica's 59th sale, also in 2011, of a heavy gold medallion of Maxentius realizing a hammer price of $1.4 million. Answering the second question though is considerably more difficult. The main problem is that with ancient coins we're missing a key part of the variable when we have no idea how many of any them were minted in the first place. We can thus never know an ancient coin's absolute rarity. However, using inferential statistics we can develop a sophisticated model that can predict the chances of finding a coin for sale at auction for any Roman emperor (or empress) . This is not the easiest of tasks because there are problems when looking at only one type of source. For example, go to a flea market, whether here in the states or in Europe, and it won't be hard to find Roman coins for sale. But your chances of finding a truly rare and valuable one whose importance has somehow escaped the notice of its owner is more or less equal with that of finding an overlooked Rembrandt right next to it. On the other end of the scale, the prestigious auction houses that sell the most expensive coins are going to skew the results in the other direction for they have no interest in selling ten buck Constantinian bronzes. Therefore, the only way to make the model accurate is to combine the results of the various markets into one big database. Having "the big picture" then gives us a snapshot of the marketplace for any given period that it records. I can say without hesitation that the biggest project I've ever undertaken is putting together such a database. It is not merely sufficient to gather the records for you also have to constantly classify and re-classify them ten different ways, prune out the bad stuff, plenty of old-fashioned manual data entry to get obscure datasets and on and on a tedious list of chores to arrive at a good distribution histogram capable of being tested against.

Now that that part is ready for action all we need is a working system. As noted in an earlier post, rarity as defined by market availability allows the collector to determine an at-a-glance estimate of the difficulty of locating any coin published with that metric. It attempts to shape an approximation of absolute rarity by correlation to polling instances of sales within a time bracket. As an arbitrary formula it makes no claim of passing scientific rigor but is nevertheless a viable system of reference standards using a simple, if informal, logarithm. But given the database work accomplished we now possess the added benefit of having a normally distributed dataset. In addition to estimating true rarity, it also allows us the opportunity to perform comparative analyses with a high degree of accuracy. Without getting bogged down in the abstruse language of statistics (and I barely qualify as more than a layman on the subject myself), the upshot is that when you have a sufficient number of records that can be said to be representative of a whole you can then use mathematical formulas to express probabilites; that is, the chances of finding any one of these records occurring again in a given amount of time. We gain a scientific "key" in the form of standard deviation to tell us what an average is and, so, a means by which to say how much more or less difficult it will be for the collector to get their hands on a very rare ruler.

For the purposes of this exercise, I tallied all the auction records from 1904 through 2014 belonging to the reigns from Augustus through Anastasius I in keeping with the most popular definition of what the coinage of the Roman Imperial covers. Over 800,000 auctions from literally hundreds of different sellers were returned from this query. This number isn't every Roman coin ever sold at auction, of course, but is easily the greater portion and, more importantly, is broadly representative of all types of coins, grades and prices available. Anyway, from this set were stripped out certain categories that we didn't want to measure including barbarous coins, error coins, coins of uncertain identification and so on to come to a "refined" set of 667,076. Of those auctions we now look at them categorized by ruler to get a total of 201, plus one grouping for anonymous, for a total of 202 imperial members whose coins were sold at any point during those 110 years (worth noting that 99% of those took place since 1990) from a total possible roster of 206 possibilities.

Next, we rank these rulers from most to least number of records. Constantine I takes the cake as most common with 37,428, or 5.6% of the total, down to the famously rare usurpers Saturninus and Proculus who are both recorded with but a single sale each representing an infinitesimally small share of just 0.000149908%. Everyone else falls somewhere in between with a mean value of 3,254; what one could call the average as far as Roman rulers go in terms of rarity and which most closely corresponds to the coins of Trebonianus Gallus if one were to plot this out on a graph. But we can't be content with merely dividing everything into just two groups (those being more and those being less rare than T. Gallus). As noted above, we have the benefit of accepted markers in the standard deviation nomenclature, abbreviated with the symbol σ, and which holds that in any given dataset that is normally distributed - meaning truly representative of the whole - about 68% of the records will be within one standard of deviation from the average. In other words, a little over two thirds of the coins sold were about as common as those of Trebonianus Gallus. A value of two standards of deviation account for 95% of the total and by the time we get to three standards of deviation it should encompass 99.7% of all auctions ever held.This way we can say that if we are lucky enough to own a σ3 coin, say a Hannibalianus or Quietus, you can say with confidence that it's offered at auction only about once in every 300 lots offered (or 3 out of 1,000=0.3%) and as such it is categorically rarer than any of the class σ1 and σ2 rulers by n standard of deviations. As the SDs go higher the rarity often tends to be exponentially larger. For example, that relatively rare Hanniballianus is still over ten times more common than a σ3.5 Clodius Macer which in turn is ten times more common than an ultra-rare σ4.5 Olybrius!

Someone much, much smarter than me came up with this formula to compute the mean standard of deviation within a normally distributed set.

The full spreadsheet is available here and you are welcome to use and redistribute it. The Rank column assigns a numerical value from 0 to 9 while Rarity does same but with the names commonly used in numismatics. These are Most Common (MC), Very Common (VC), Common (C), Less Common (LC), Scarce (S), Very Scarce (VS), Rare (R), Very Rare (VR), Extremely Rare (XR) and NA for the four rulers who are known to have coins minted in their name but which have never been offered for sale at auction. Both of these rankings are tied to σ0.5 intervals according to the mean deviation number class under which they fall. Enjoy!

Edit 12/17/2014: The findings have been met with some controversy. In particular, I'd like to stress that the results were a subset of data taken from which as of today counts a total of 1,447,137 records. Out of this total 800,720 have been identified as belonging to the Roman Imperial era. From this number were subtracted those records with an unknown sale price, lots that had more than one coin, records that are known to be Roman but not identified to a specific authority, fakes, barbarous coinage, coins with major damage, brockages and those with a sale price under $5. This left a total of 667,076 which was the number used for the results. Approximately 70% of the records came from eBay and the other 30% from printed and electronic auctions. The study did not take into consideration Roman provincial coinage.

The Avitus AE problem

The coinage of this brief-reigning emperor presents few problems for the gold issues legendary rarities though they may be. However, much controversy has been stirred in recent years due to the arrival on the market of a rather plentiful number of small coppers which, while in their entirety are missing the key part of the obverse legend needed to positively identify them, share in common several features which seem to leave no reasonable alternative. Some of the controversy is no doubt my own fault since I used the approach in my ERIC series and have provisionally helped others make this attribution. Nevertheless, over the last few years as more of these coins have shown up my doubts have grown in step. The main logic of my initial observations rested on a single coin, the RIC plate 2412 which Numismatik Lanz sold in 2000 shown below:

RIC 2412, reportedly one of the rarest of Roman bronzes

At first glance this piece seems to provide a firm foundation upon which to build the case for legend-less coins to be attributed to this reign assuming other details provide a close match. For one, the fifth century coinage from Rome is utterly miniscule compared to that of the previous century. Secondly, the arrangement of the legend on such a small coin leaves only emperors of short names as possibilities. This would rule out Valentinian III whose thirty year rule from 425-455 dominates Roman currency after Rome's first sacking in 410 CE. Based on name length alone it likewise rules out Avitus's own replacement Majorian. Finally, this particular issue very closely resembles the AE4s of Johannes and his colleague in Constantinople, Theodosius II. But while similar in every other respect, the legends here don't fit because those of the former are laid out in the format DNIOHANN [overhead break] ESPFAVG and those of the latter as DNTHEODOSIVSPFAVG without any spacing breaks so as to accommodate the larger number of letters. The RIC plate coin clearly shows the arrangement with a break to form a symmetrical DNAVIT [break] VSPFAVG. The sum of the contemporary coins that show the right-hand VSPFAVG would seem to be attributable therefore to Avitus by default.

Similar issues by Valentinian III (top) and Theodosius II required no-break spacing so that their names could fit.

What about Honorius and Arcadius? Here is where it starts to get interesting. Arcadius is disqualified right away because his death in 408 predates both the type and the degenerate style that will be introduced after the Visigoths pillaged the Roman capital in 410. Honorius, on the other hand, RIC seems to leave out in the cold. The closest match would be catalog number 1357 but this is specifically accorded to the larger AE3 denomination which Kent helpfully further annotates that an unusually heavy specimen weighs over 6 grams. Moreover, he inexplicably assigns this variant a "common" rarity and makes no serious effort at dating besides lumping this (phantom as far as I can tell) issue to the "later groups" which presumably brackets them only to within the 410-422 CE date range. The AE4 coins Kent does list are dated to no later than 395 based on AVGGG ending legends and their style as shown in the plates leaving no doubt that these do in fact belong to the earlier, finer engraving period.

So, taken together, one can be forgiven for gravitating toward Avitus as the likeliest candidate. However, let's begin a more focused analysis.

To start, it stands to reason that the coinage of any one ruler should fit in the overall style of his period; with few changes beyond the legend in the beginning and, perhaps, gradually progressing according to the fashions until his successor takes over who will in turn repeat the process. The easiest way to tell apart a counterfeit therefore is when you spot a coin that just doesn't match the period in some way. Starting with Johannes - for we have tentatively excluded Honorius as a possibility - and then through the reigns of Valentinian III and Petronius Maximus until we reach Avitus who will be followed by Majorian we should therefore expect an evolutionary progression with no odd intervals. But this isn't the case here. The engraving quality of Valentinian III's AE coinage is in the very best of cases crude and more typically downright wretched. By the time we get to Majorian the artistry is somewhere in the realm of surreal and the fabric of the coins themselves uniformly atrocious. Yet, tellingly, RIC 2412 as pictured above is holding it together with a rather fine style not seen since the days of Honorius and Arcadius nearly a half century before. Let's call that red flag number one.

Same type again but from a later period during Valentinian III's reign showing degraded style and workmanship.

Next, seeing the problem from a different angle, we can note that the one thing Valentinian III, Avitus and Majorian had in common was that the bulk of their coinage came from northern Italian and southern French mints. Rome, far to the south, had been gutted by barbarians and considered indefensible. Of the thirteen distinct varieties of all types that Kent recorded for Avitus only a single solidus is referenced to Rome and, in fact, of the dozen or so solidi of his to have come to market in the last twenty years every last one has been from Arles. Yet, every single "Avitus" AE4 that has come on the scene bears the mintmark and/or signature style of Rome rather than a provincial mint. That's strike two.

Less circumstantially, I think the most damning evidence is in Kent's own research. Of the scant three coins he noted in compiling the chapter for RIC only 2412 is unambiguous in design and state of preservation. 2411 is a peerless specimen with a troublingly clear legend also featuring good engraving style. For 2413 he notes that confirmation is required because a similar one in the Paris national cabinet is tooled from an Honorius yet fails to note that the very coin he does use for the plate as proof of its existence seemingly begins DNMAIORI...!!

While naturally this should not be considered a closed case, I am now solidly of the opinion that the whole of the lot of coins nominally attributed to this emperor are in fact misidentified AE4s belonging to the reign of Honorius. Kent erred twice; first by omitting entry of Rome-mint AE4s - or bungling the description - and then by not being sufficiently critical of the material presented in favor of a base coinage for Avitus.

Based on styling similarities to the Lanz coin pictured at top, this AE4 had been attributed as Avitus despite lacking the left side of the legend.

The real problem however pivots around 2412. If genuine, then all my arguments are without merit and though it would be an anomalous insertion into what is already the least understood era of Roman coinage suitable justifications could be arrived at. However, that is an increasingly loud 'if'. I understand that once you condemn an ancient coin as a forgery it takes a monumental effort to rehabilitate it and the damage done is particularly unfair if the one making the accusation is doing so based on a photograph rather than from personal examination. Still, consider the points already addressed. Consider also a couple of other technical aspects. Should a clever forger wish to make a piece to fool experts the most sensible approach would be to alter the legend from a contemporary piece because the rest of the coin would not raise undue suspicions the way a from-scratch approach might. However, therein lies the challenge for this particular emperor. The prospective forger could have chosen a bullet-proof Majorian but these are so rare and valuable that it presents too risky a venture for no potential monetary benefit (discounting the forger who fools for the ego kicks!) However, earlier AE4s are much more readily available. Interestingly, where any relatively common latter-date AE4 could have provided a suitable candidate, in this case a rarer Valentinian III may have been used. This I base on the mintmark which shows a star in left field; an arrangement only accounted for in a single issue (RIC 2122) and which mandates an officina in the right field. Look closely again at the first image and what initially resembled a sideways terminal G is probably an upright T instead. If this is in fact an officina that is a remarkable blunder because officinae markings were only useful for very large issues of similar design so as to keep closer accounting tabs. They were last employed during the early years of Valentinian III's reign.

The likeliest candidate for creating RIC 2412 would be this variant with star in reverse left field.

With this out of the way I will now propose a new arrangement. The Roman economy as a whole had been in steady decline since the third century but went into a quickening downward spiral after Theodosius I's death in 395. Even by this relatively early date the regional economy in Italy proper had flatlined as evidenced in the trickle of coins coming out of Rome for the whole of the latter half of the fourth century. After Honorius is left to his devices when his father died, however, the mint at Rome goes all but quiet. In the aftermath of the raid in Rome, a modest effort at coining to pay for expenses relating to easing the distress of the affected residents may have taken place. That the mint was operational and issuing copper coinage is proven by the meager output in the name of Priscus Attalus who was the nominal figurehead in Rome while Alaric tormented Romans elsewhere. After Alaric deposed Attalus he either continued minting now in the name of Honorius, in an effort to court his approval, or Honorius himself approved of the measure. Either way, these coins ceased to be manufactured once the crisis passed.

Another rare Honorius bronze, this AE3 dates to 410 and may have been actually issued by his rival, Visigothic king Alaric, in hopes of reaching a favorable deal.

Suddenly, at some point between the death of Honorius's hopeful heir Constantius III in 421 (who has no known coinage in bronze by the way) and his own death two years later there is a remarkable resumption of activity in Rome for the little AE4s. The reason is not clear. Perhaps it was simply the happy chance acquisition of a large amount of the metal (a knocked over statue? Tribute payment from afar?). The scrappy little coins were minted on blanks too little to support the entire design and it is because of this that one never finds them with a complete legend. When Johannes comes to power the mint continues the exact same VICTORIA AVGG issue with only the minor alteration of his name and little chin scratches to simulate a beard. He will pump out hundreds of thousands of these, or perhaps millions even, and is thoughtful enough to reserve a portion of the production to honor Theodosius who, as in the case with Alaric before him, is using the strategy as diplomatic outreach. Finally, Galla Placidia manages to oust Johannes with the help of Theodosius and place her son Valentinian III on the throne. The mint at Rome again retools but is soon asked to diversify and include new types. The years 423 to possibly as late as the early 430's remain active in the bronzes but the pace slows down dramatically and whatever quality control had been attained through the initial frenetic production went out the window to leave the awful looking pieces now extant. It is completely likely that by the time of his death in 455 the mint in Rome had not laid hammer to copper in years, or even decades, and this was not to change either during the brief interlude when Petronius Maximus got his chance to wear the purple outfit. Neither, I am guessing, did Avitus who never resided in Rome anyway nor had any close ties to the city.

Another AE4 many collectors would be tempted to call Avitus but now re-classified as a late-issue Honorius.

After Avitus falls, Majorian comes next - another noble whose homebase appears to have been somewhere in northern Italy. Luckily for him he also comes across a sizeable amount of copper at some point during his four year reign and begins coining it.... near home. We have no record to what degree of an insult may have been felt in the Eternal City by this snub but evidently no assignment is allotted to the capital. The task is split instead between Mediolanum (Milan) and Ravenna. The look and feel of these AE4s is similar to the ones issued by Valentinian III only in how utterly decrepit they were. At least the flans this time were marginally bigger, allowing some of them to have nearly wholly readable legends.

Although ineligible to give himself the title of emperor, the kingmaker Ricimer nevertheless took the unprecedented step of making coins with his monogrammed logo during a months-long interregnum. Even after allowing his appointee Libius Severus to play the role of pretend man-in-charge, the AE4 continued to bear his coded name until the last ounce of Majorian's copper was used up and the thousand year old mint of Rome last minted in this metal for the remainder of its days as an empire.

Again, I don't think this essay should be considered the final say on the matter but the way I see it the status of a copper coinage in the name of Avitus should be deferred until a more rigorous study can prove otherwise.

The Real Deal. While the true rarity of this issue is debatable there's no doubt that finding one with the left side of the legend is indeed a rare find. Had it only shown the other side it might well have sold for hundreds as an Avitus but when this one was sold on eBay it reached an absolutely pitiful $1!

Photos 1, 2, 5 & 10 courtesy Numismatik Lanz, 6 & 9 author and 7 & 8 unknown.

How Rare is Rare?

On the surface, this seems like a silly question. Everyone knows what rare is. Getting struck by lightning or winning the lotto would be tip-of-the-tongue examples anyone would cite as exemplifying rarity. But, as it turns out, asking to have rarity defined precisely in terms of a percentage is bound to be controversial. The chances of getting struck by lightning, for example, is estimated to be somewhere on the order of 1 in 700,000. A 0.0000007% chance of being hit by a bolt out of the sky hardly makes me or anyone I know worried enough to take precautionary actions. These, coincidentally, are about the same odds of dying in a plane crash or getting a royal flush while playing poker. So we could all agree that those things are definitely rare, right? Well, not so fast. Let's look at gold. If you were to ask anyone why gold is so expensive they'd say it's because it's rare. And the numbers would seem to back it up. If all gold were evenly distributed throughout the earth (rather than concentrated in a few mines) you would have to sift through over 300 million pounds of dirt to recover your first pound of the yellow metal. In a back of the envelope calculation that's roughly fifty pyramids worth! And yet... don't you have some gold laying around in your own home? In fact, if all the gold that's ever been mined were to be taken out of the vaults and off the fingers of the married, remelted and redistributed, each and every woman, man and child would get about 23 grams; almost an ounce for everyone!

So if every day you hear someone winning the lottery somewhere, a plane crashes somewhere every so often and there's enough gold out there that everyone could have their own four solidi worth of it are any of those things rare? The answer is it depends. It depends because rarity is an undefined concept that gains meaning only when compared to something else. It is, in fact, rare to hit the jackpot when you consider that millions of people play the lotto every day unsuccessfully or that much of the otherwise common gold out there is inaccessible which makes it seem so much rarer than it in fact is.

Ask a statistician to define rarity and he'll speak in this language.

Where it comes to ancient coins the definition of what constitutes rarity is muddied by the competing interests of dealers, scholars and collectors. A quick look on eBay reveals that out of some 50,000 ancient coins for sale fully 10% are listed with the word "rare" somewhere in their description. Rarity sells, of course, because whether we openly admit it or not a large part of the appeal of collecting is the bragging rights that come from showing off an item that is difficult to obtain. Rarity in and of itself is the easiest route to special whether we're talking about an Olybrius, a Van Gogh or a Mickey Mantle baseball card.

But still, when do we really know if we have a coin that is rare as opposed to merely common? A unique coin is most definitely rare. On the other hand a hundred coins of the same type could be either dirt common if there are only a dozen collectors interested or exceptionally rare if the whole world's after them. So, again, this question is meaningless until we have a point of reference. While no such reference is without controversy (as shown above) we can arrive at something of a consensus at least by analyzing the supply and demand in the marketplace. If we allow ourselves a chuckle over the 5,000 coins on eBay optimistically listed as rare it's only because intuitively we know that most of them aren't since they keep turning up over and over again. Wave a magic wand and overnight a million new ancient coin collectors are created worldwide and suddenly all 50,000 of those listings could be considered bona fide rarities as bidders drive up the price of even the most scrappy Constantines to dozens of times their former values. Yet, and this is the key, the coins did not actually become any rarer than they were a day before, right? Therefore it's not the absolute rarity of a given piece, or its condition, that is necessarily indicative of what we perceive as the "true rarity" because what we're really interested in is simply market availability.

So as a first step what we need is a realistic yard stick to come up with a definition we can all more or less agree on. The way to do this is by going back to the marketplace and gauging the frequency by which any given collectible turns up. If we arbitrarily say "let's call anything that turns up so often that we can buy it any time we want the most commonly available" then we have half of the equation - and so far I think few would disagree with that definition. On the other hand, what is the line in the sand by which we deem a collectible truly rare? One that turns up once in a lifetime? Ten years? Keeping in mind that it's an arbitrary answer no matter what, I've found that in the case of Roman coins a coin that is offered at auction only once in about 25 years - a generation - is a good working number. On the other end of the scale I've also found that once you can count 200 instances of a coin having been sold during that same span that we reach the point that it can be said to be so common that it's available pretty much "on demand".

Between the realms of the ultra rare and the utterly common lies the rich middle ground of the actively hunted pieces that drive the interest of the collector. The English language doesn't fail in giving us adjectives by which to label shades of gray. Between rare and common we find scarce and infrequent and seldom all of which can be further subdivided by as many adverbs as we care to employ. In a practical sense, a factor of 2 to 2.5 gives a rather neat stepping level as shown here in the diagram that will someday go into the next edition of my Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins book.

A table for defining the market rarity for ancient Roman coins

I do wonder though if the algorithm is portable across the various domains of collectibles. I have no idea if 200 Babe Ruth cards would constitute a market glut or an unbelievably rare commodity but suspect that the underlying principle is sound. To define rarity in meaningful terms for a collector all you need do is determine the frequency in which any one group of collectibles are most commonly traded to arrive at the commonest classification and work backwards from there. Once properly defined, rarity stops being vague and confusing and becomes a useful tool.

The Wrong Stuff

Cheats, of course, long precede the advent of the Greek invention of money six centuries before the birth of Christ. It is hard to imagine that there was ever an age when man did not yield to the temptation of taking a better deal than he should have merited when chimps - and far down the evolutionary line - will routinely steal from their community members. The Roman moral code was burned into the psyche of its people at an early age with a long list of desirable virtues. There was loyalty and honor of course. Self-sacrifice, duty, labor and a long list of macho qualities were expected of the boy while the virtuous Roman lady was to adhere to ideals of demureness, loyalty and modesty while simultaneously being expected to be fertile mothers committed to domestic servitude. But if there were any Thou Shalt Not Steal imperatives these were reserved to the hushed scolds of a family's confines yet altogether unworthy of being committed to the stone tablets that instilled the important values.

It is in this light perhaps not too surprising to find that Roman coins are peppered with evidence of cheating. While counterfeiting took many forms, in Roman coinage the most famous examples are the silver fourrées; a French term meaning "stuffed" which figuratively indicates the nature of a coin whose bulk is made up of scrap metal and only bearing a thin plating of actual silver. Clearly, the motive here was for the ancient bearer to stiff the seller much in the same way a phony $20 dollar bill made in Mexico may hopefully pass the scrutiny of a cash register manned by a teenager.

So far none of this is an eye-opener. What is controversial, and perhaps an idea so far not postulated, is that rather than the efforts of amateurs and freelance ne'er do wells it may have been the Roman government who was doing most of the cheating. Groupthink reflexively attributes the fourree to enterprising individuals whose skill at imitating official product must have been good enough to fool the watchdogs for personal profit. But there are several problems with this theory.

In the first case there was the powerful disincentive over the consequences of getting caught with a handful of bogus coins. Roman law, as you can imagine, had little in the way of "due process" when it came to these shenanigans. If justice was meted swiftly and harshly to noblemen and commoners alike - and whether actually guilty or innocent - then little mercy could be expected from getting caught red-handed with contraband of this kind. The sheer effort expended in producing these lookalike coins meant a huge investment in both time and money to get any sort of meaningful output going. And you needed top engravers too - the very sort that the official mints would have been seeking to employ. While there is no reason to suspect that it was out of the question for an individual to accomplish this feat successfully, the obstacles to overcome would scarcely make the project profitable. More likely, it would have required organized crime to pull it off. The Roman economy though was always the empire's Achilles' heel and the state could have been expected to have spent a disproportionate amount of its resources in combating efforts to undermine it - just as is the case in the U.S. today where counterfeiting dollars consistently ranks as among the most likely of crimes to land you in jail.

Not that counterfeiting in general was dangerous or uncommon in the Roman age and in its marketplaces. It was, in fact, teeming with fake stuff. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder frequently mentions the nature of the second-rate being passed off as the real thing with pained tips on how to spot the suspect. Those crafty Romans were good at manufacturing all manner of knockoff luxury goods from high-end food to jewelry to wall paint - and none of it apparently illegal as such. If you got less than you bargained for that was your problem. Caveat emptor indeed!

To dabble in a bit of Victorian sleuthing we are reminded that once you do away with the impossibles then we are left with the truth however unlikely it may be. If individuals would not likely have formed any great part of the black market in phony coins, and the Roman mob would have likely targeted far less risky money-making ventures, then the only extant conclusion is that it was the government itself who was likely in on the take.

Evidence towards this is subtle and circumstantial but compelling nonetheless. First of all there was constant pressing need, and endless temptation, to swell the treasury reserves to pay for grand building projects or make soldier payroll; this last example being notoriously dangerous to miss! While it's possible that a policy of swindling the public directly via executive mandate was the rule, as was the case with Nero's silver downgrade coinage in 64 AD, more likely the action typically happened farther downstream with mid-level functionaries who could have both the means and inclination to effect schemes whereby a die here and there could be procured at the mint and put to surreptitious use.

While fourrees are found with styling clues that differ from official guidelines, particularly evident in the sometimes corrupted legends of early imperial denarii, by and large the norm is that they are perfect copies of their contemporary prototypes and only evident to modern collectors when the surface is breached to show the cheap metal core underneath or a scale shows it to be too far outside of the normal weight range. On another aspect, I know of no fourree which is die linked to another coin known to be genuine - an indication that would clearly prove governmental involvement - but this can easily be explained as being the first rule of the savvy counterfeiter for to do otherwise, to mix the signature of his handiwork with bogus and legit product alike, would only implicate him into a speedy, summary execution once the link was found. Keeping the two lines of operation separate at a minimum gives the outfit a certain degree of plausible deniability.

In conclusion, there is little reason to believe that in ancient times government officials were any less corruptible than our modern counterparts. It seems they, and only they, had the means to fabricate superficially credible pieces on an industrial scale and, really, the mind can't even come close to numbering all the reasons why they would have chosen to do so.

Journey To The Center Of My Constantius

Photographing coins is often an unnerving process for those who need to sell one or just have an image to share. They're small and hard to photograph well because the camera has a hard time focusing so close or the light won't cooperate or the color looks awful or maybe all of those. It sure took me a long time to stop pulling my hair and get to the point where I could be proud of my efforts. And today I start all over again with my first dip into photomicrography; the art and science of imaging under the magnification of a microscope. The results I'm about to share below will to my own eyes someday, I'm sure, rank as an embarrassment but all the same I'm eager to explore virgin territory. And despite a lot of Googling I can't find any good photos of coins taken under a microscope. Sure, lots of pennies with big dates and so on but nothing you wouldn't see under a cheap magnifier yourself. Nothing to really show you what it's like down there at the level you can wave hello at a paramecium. That was my goal today.

So anyway, let's start off on our journey into making an old, ahem ancient, coin really big on screen! I've selected this siliqua of Constantius II mainly because it has low relief and being of shiny silver will pose fewer lighting headaches since as you increase magnification the available light at any given power reduces proportionally so that under high magnification you need a very strong light and/or long exposure times to properly expose the image. And, because it’s difficult to dampen micro vibrations, long exposures are the bane of a photographer looking for sharp detail.

Here for our first image is this coin at lifesize, 1x and our starting point for reference. Depending on your monitor it might look a little smaller than a coin should be but this is likely because we're accustomed to seeing coins on the internet blown up. At 20mm in circumference it's a smidge smaller than an American nickel. Overlay a coin of this size on your monitor to make sure we're all working with the same scale.

Now let's turn up the juice.

Here we see the coin now at about 15x, a big enlargement that has made this coin almost the size of a dinner plate. At this size we clearly begin to see the tortured topography of this ancient metal... but I've cheated. This magnification did not come from a microscope but from the raw resolving power of the camera and lens alone.

Here is our first bona fide picture under a microscope.

Blow up the coin forty times its normal size and the surface appears very rough and pitted but the lettering is still tidy and recognizable overall. At this scale a coin of this size would be bigger than a giant New York-style pizza. Let's make it bigger still.

The tiny letter V in the actual-size image at top, the one that is virile and elegant at 15x and faded at 40x, is now appearing like an angry metal jungle cratered nearly beyond recognition. At this scale you would need a 12ft-long screen to see the whole coin. Now for our last image...

Our final stop sees me crank the power up to about 200x. I can't be sure for certain given a number of different factors to consider but it's in the ballpark. And the valley of that V has now become a moonscape with deep craters and metallic glints blurred by cheap Chinese optics that in sum render an abstract image which brings to mind anything other than a coin!

And if you thought likening that image to the moon was accurate, this section below from a gold solidus should resemble a Martian landscape. What do you think?

Lessons from the silver debasement in Roman times

Rome, like any modern country, had its share of economic ups and downs. And unlike nowadays, they didn't have the option of printing their way out of fiscal troubles. At times like these, faced between the rock of increased labor and production costs and the hard place of needing to pay for essential services, the treasury had no recourse but to resort to the usual dirty tricks of increasing the official value of the coins while often decreasing their intrinsic worth simultaneously. It is the perfect equivalent of the Weimar years in post-World War II and, more recently, Zimbabwe when these governments resorted to printing ridiculously large numbers on paper notes in a hopeless bid to outpace inflation. An economist from the Middle Ages named Thomas Gresham famously noted that when a government issues new money whose face value is more than that which is circulating the resulting consequence is that the public will immediately hoard the old coins. This is now summed in the phrase "bad money drives out good money" and has the additional consequence of doubly undermining the government efforts by creating an acute shortage of circulating coins thus causing the treasury the added expense of ramping up production when they're least able to respond appropriately. If the crisis is overcome the exhausted public coffers will leave no choice but to consider a new devaluation which only threatens to drive the economy into a self-perpetuation cycle. Again, modern economies are able to buffer inflationary bouts more effectively than their metal-based counterparts of yore only in the sense that paper is much cheaper but, ultimately, the end phase remains invariable: if the economy can't recover by somehow acquiring wealth it implodes and becomes vulnerable to an internal or foreign takeover who do have the means. It is the underlying value of those means that then will determine the strength of the new economy and the "shares" that each of its coins or notes are worth.

Getting back to the coinage of the Romans, an emperor who had to witness the unsavory fact of a ledger sheet written in red ink was moved to quick action if he knew what was good for him. Any handy casus belli could be employed to take one's chances at warring with a rich neighbor when the odds of sitting it out on the sidelines hoping for a miracle was much worse. And in a pinch you could plunder your own people too with the wealthy but scandal-prone elites and the disempowered plebs alike making such tempting targets.

The first emperor to meet the long arm of the Gresham law was Nero who witnessed, fiddling or not, a large chunk of the empire's wealth go up in smoke when the capital so famously caught fire. Faced with the extraordinary expense of rebuilding, Nero hastily approved a measure to scale back the purity and weight of the sacrosanct denarius (and a bit off the weight of the aureus too). If he thought he'd actually get away with pulling the wool over the eyes of his citizens he really missed the mark. Word spread quickly and the old coins were yanked to be hoarded or melted down. It's important to note that it wasn't just the ordinary citizens and merchants who did this - the central exchequer would have naturally had first dibs to melt down their own stock and recoin it into an instant 10% or so profit. Except, well, now that the word was out prices shot up at least 10% (and almost assuredly more) instantly wiping out the advantage. In the end, Nero had to take it in the shorts and paid for the entire cost of the relief efforts and his building programs out of a combination of his own funds and new taxes. The important lesson learned was that the real cost of a devaluing economy can't be hidden or repaired with financial tricks.

Another lesson, this one not fully appreciated by anyone at the time, was that the slope had been greased so to speak. Once Nero had set this precedent an insidious virus was injected into the economy whereby with that first inflationary spasm that shook the once-sound system the negative momentum built into a never-ending cat-and-mouse game. The next emperor, thinking himself either clever or out of alternative resources, allowed the robbing of a little more of the silver out of the denarius only to witness the inexorable spike in prices afterwards. Done by slight degrees over the course of years, as opposed to Neronian double-digit shocks overnight, the populace at least would not rush to send yesterday's coins to the cooking pot. This policy would be a curious variant of the economic bubble we've come to experience in today's global world except the "pop" in their case happened when there was literally no more silver to take out.

It had been a fortunate set of circumstances that generations of imperial families could count on the fact that a little silver can make a lot of junk metal look acceptably silvery when coined thus sparing the worst of the public outrage. But the noble metal's property of visually hiding its inferior cousins gives out at around the 20% mark. The Gordians, then the Philips and finally the flurry of short-term emperors who followed had each eked out their share and now the next stable government under Valerian and Gallienus inherited a coin that was very nearly 80% scrap. They found themselves in that uncomfortable place between the rock and hard place for debasing the coin any further - while still attempting to pass it off as a bona fide "silver" coin - would not be possible and yet inflation still pressed ever forward.

At this point some hack genius came up with the idea of saving nearly all of that remaining 20% fineness per coin and blast-wash a few microns' worth of the metal onto the surface while the structural core was allowed to be made up of an unholy witch's brew of lead, copper, tin and whatever else was handy. Dressed in its beautiful if delicate veneer, the currency remained viable for another couple of decades until even this little silvery breath became too expensive a luxury.

The denarius had been phased out after first suffering the indignity of being whacked a little harder so as to appear bigger and sporting a slightly altered design than had been the convention then forced onto the public as worth two of the old. But its successor, the so-called antoninianus, now divorced even of that minimal silver content inspired little confidence and inflation's pace quickened to a scale that was sending large swathes of the population into poverty and the whole of the Roman world flirted with complete civil breakdown. At this point, late in the third century, the king of this world was a man named Diocletian and of his character we can say that he was far more ambitious than savvy but we can also charitably add the credit that he was a man of action who was willing to enact wholesale changes and hope for the best.

Primary among his economic reforms was a naive attempt at fixing the price of goods. The reasoning was just as compelling as had been Nero's: stopping inflation by decree would stabilize the economy and stave off revolution. How exactly he hoped this would work is unclear but perhaps his ace in the hole was a clause to revive the denarius. Not with a pinch of silver mind you but an honest-to-goodness hefty and nearly pure silver coin like had been in use back in the day. In principle, this was an awesome idea had it not been for the singular flaw that Diocletian simply didn't have anywhere near the amount necessary to prop the economy back to the Julio-Claudian rates. He made a paltry trickle of them which ended up trading at some obscene multiple of the olden-day denarius. And here's the kicker: what good is this perfectly rendered coin if no one can afford it? The average family had no access to these high-value jewels and thus became irrelevant to them and the marketplace. Meanwhile, the merchants now forced to sell their goods at the fixed prices set by Diocletian could no longer make a profit so trade plummeted and the middle class atrophied to join the level of the desperate crowd. Diocletian's experiment had failed.

In retrospect, it's easy to blame Nero for the emasculation of Rome's currency but this would be scapegoating. The fact, again, is that real wealth dictates the soundness of the economy and as the Romans spent more silver than they were able to rake in the fact is that they only had themselves to blame. Without meaning to go off on a tangent, it's difficult to miss the parallels with our modern economy where the West, anchored as they are onto the Dollar and Euro, are steadily losing value for the same reasons. The difference is as skin-deep as Gallienus's silver wash because much of the real worth of these two mega-currencies is bound in the shrinking economies they underwrite. The burgeoning national debts of the leading nations of the west reflect the same working principles as the Romans spending silver faster than they could replenish the stores. As our wealth dissipates to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and to China, the world's factory, we carry on in denial that we live in a house of cards simply because our modern money is still able to buy us the stuff we need. All because that metaphoric splash of silver lulls the buying world into the comfort of seeming permanence. Let's hope the silver doesn't run out then.

In retrospect again, we should consider that in the end civil war for Rome was inevitable and, collectively, the empire fractured into fiefdoms led by mutually hostile chieftains. The Roman people had now entered a strife-ridden era of decline that was to last hundreds of years and as it did so the wars and malnutrition that ensued decimated the population. Impoverished and depopulated, the far-flung provinces became easy targets to enemy nations and the ruling class hunched in the remaining urban corners and a new age quite unlike the one of Nero's time ushered in for the next thousand years.

Ode to a little Fel Temp

I've waited a long time to come out with a dirty little secret. In early 2008 I traveled on a six-week long European tour in preparation for my then nearing-completion ERIC II book on coins. One day while walking around the deserted grounds of what was once a minor Roman city called Grumentum, now turned historical park, my downwards gaze caught what I'd been longing to glimpse for years: my very own find of a Roman coin.

I had metal detected before back in the states when I was in college in the early 90's as a pastime. It was always a rush to find that one Mercury dime or even a wheat penny out of the dozens of trash pull tabs and rotten zinc pennies. This though was a rush of a higher order. I'd been anticipating the eventuality prior to the trip and to bolster these hopes I'd brought with me a new metal detector even though I was afraid to use it, or even get caught with it still boxed up, as it's outlawed in many European countries. And using it within the boundaries of an archaeological park was unthinkable. Which made that day's find all the more sweet considering I'd had the luck to find it while just walking around. It was just there, sitting on the ground a shade of green like a sliver of the Statue of Liberty against the earth and only a few inches off a sidewalk built by men who spoke Latin and whose great-great-great-grandchildren died many centuries ago. Who knows how many people had walked that same length of sidewalk since then, starting from the original owner whose careless slip may have cost him a reprimanding perhaps but whose next owner would so enthrall him?

Finding a Roman coin in Grumento, Italy

I did not want to spare the ultra-geekiness of the occasion. For a couple of minutes I savored, really relished, this feeling, ineffable to description, of knowing I at last held a man-made object whose direct line of ownership passed from one anonymous Roman to me with no intermediaries howsoever temporary. Wondrous though the experience had been of handling hundreds of thousands of other ancient coins prior to this moment that all really paled in the transcendence of the link I felt on that wintry day in Grumento. And then, after I exhausted that high, came an unexpected question from my conscience: "What do I do with it?"

I think that deep down I knew I was going to take it but at the moment my superego, that Freudian construct more familiar as the metaphor of the angel-on-the-shoulder counterweight to the devil on the other side, sure put up a respectable fight. A museum with a scrappy, low-budget display of finds from previous archeological digs within the park, should be told about this find. Maybe even left in situ while the staff dutifully took notes of the location and prepare records that in some small way help humanity understand itself. But in my fantasies no denouement figured in such a selfless act to martyr my desire for possessing this ratty little piece of metal. And it was so dirty, so thoroughly featureless under corrosion, that even in my professional capacity I would have been unable to say virtually anything about it. So into my pocket it went and eventually flew Continental from CDG to ORD and then to its new home halfway around the world in Washington state where it sits on the pedestal of my monitor and gets an appreciative rub or two every day.

In the grand scheme of things I justified my taking the little coin a million different ways including, most compellingly perhaps, that an act of publishing such as this would be an honor the coin would never have received in the otherwise unremarkable storage it would have gotten at the local museum. All the same, the fact that I struggled - am obviously *still* struggling - indicates my guilt at not sacrificing my selfish desire for the greater good of the public. But have I really done any wrong?

For now, I'm okay with leaving the question unanswered. In the meantime, I can say that after having rubbed it daily for a couple of years the coin has revealed the faintest outlines of a portrait and even the merest whisper of letters "IVS". The tails side still eludes complete certainty but am now fairly convinced it is an ordinary FEL TEMP REPARATIO soldier-spearing-horseman type; perhaps the most ordinary of all Roman coins minted by one its most prolific minters, Constantius II. Ordinary, yet so extraordinary!

The evolution of Roman lettering

The average person with a beginning interest in ancient coins will find Roman coins in particular the most accessible. As I’ve made the case in other venues, the coins of other major civilizations despite being intriguing in their history and haunting in their unique designs are unfortunately inscribed in glyphs that are difficult to comprehend to most Westerners. Of the many legacies Rome has handed down through the millennia none however matches the raw utility of their most fundamental contribution to our cultural infrastructure: the alphabet. It is truly an unheralded miracle that a handful of Etruscans on the dawn of history could have engineered a system with which to convey the most complex and nuanced human thought with a palette of but twenty graceful characters. They did so using the already long-established Greek alphabet as a starting point and, of course I can’t prove this, aimed at coming up with a new set that would be easier to write quickly by hand and chisel into marble. The more tortuously curvy and size-disparate of these they whipped into angular shapes consisting of generally equal-length strokes and minimal sloping that would be easily reproducible at speed yet maintain sufficient distinction between each other to avoid unnecessary confusion. If it sounds simple it is only because a lifetime of everyday usage clouds the significance. Yet, the naked fact that the alphabet from that point forward some 2,500 years ago has hardly changed to this day, and indeed has rapidly become globalized, is all the testament needed to validate the greatness of their innovation.

By the beginning of the imperial age the Romans had reached a level of consistency in their script that was unmatched until the invention of movable type over a millennium later and reached its apogee during the Julio-Claudian years. The way the letters were rendered was an elegant style so widely disseminated, so fussed over in execution, that it became the world’s first and most enduring font. While in commerce the serif-less Helvetica has largely replaced Times New Roman, the 20th century implementation of this legendary font, the elder script is still preferred in literature, law and particularly architecture where it would seem almost unnatural to carve into stone any style other than the granddaddy of all.

Despite their remarkable consistency in the core fundamentals the Roman era was nevertheless subject to evolution and, as elsewhere in art and fashion, stylistic flourishes migrated to the written word. Roman coins again are a very reliable record of these changes and, due to the ease with which they can be dated, provide an equally easy means with which to in turn date inscriptions in stone, metal and other media which would otherwise be of ambiguous chronology.

There are roughly five main epigraphic style groups. The nascent first period of the Republic is mainly distinguished in its overall freer hand that places emphasis on ease of execution for the writer and legibility. While greater care is of course invested in the careful engraving for monuments the coins do not yet show the same stickler spirit.

Then, rapidly, the Augustan age gives birth to master artisans who commit their labor into the sublimely finished works that are demanded by a burgeoning and sophisticated upper class. The Caesar likewise sees but liability in the sloppy execution of his name or a depicted god committed unto those millions of silvery ambassadors that will travel within and beyond the borders. They must be slick and must do their equal part in commanding the awe of the beholder so high-grade typography is mandated.

Not until the third century do we begin to see a decline that mirrors in kind the waning state of the empire’s fortunes. At first the degradation is just barely perceptible; a slight increase in typos here, a drop in spacing precision there… and before you know it in the mid-250’s there are unmistakable signs that the coins, at least, are no longer being as fastidiously designed (much less manufactured) as they once were. An ‘M’ that takes only slight care to assess the correct slope for its central strokes to touch at their ends now typically becomes just a sloppy IVI and likewise with the A’s that more resemble H’s and R’s which warp into ugly degenerates that seem to be a cross between a D and a Q.

The decline in lettering must have alarmed the more learned and artistically gifted future emperors, or perhaps we may credit a non-imperial source but either way the late 3rd century and into the fourth there is again a shift towards neoclassical forms even if never again achieving the initial level of detail and quality control. Notably, whereas the Julio-Claudian lettering tended to be tall and graceful, the letters of this age are more compact and with rather haphazard, stocky serifs but still given emphasis on maintaining correct leading (letter-to-letter spacing) and vertical evenness.

The fifth and final century sees a comparatively sudden and irreversible collapse in all care of design and workmanship. In the precious metal coinage the typography is still unmistakably Roman but the style is highly irregular, rushed and – horrors of horrors – liberally peppered with illiterate touches like reversed N’s and S’s and foreign letter-forms.

What part of the Roman soul of ancient survives 476 AD is scattered in different directions. In time, the lay Roman had forgotten his ancient skills and the people's Latin evolved into Italian. However, that rich lexicography and the art of the scribe had survived unharmed within the protected innards of monasteries. Here the vocal and written Latin, and in fact the whole body of Roman literature, was to be carefully - even obsessively - preserved. True, it would be continually nourished and molded into the service of promoting Christianity but it would be preserved all the same.

So who owns the past anyway?

I've been asked to provide an opinion on the ethics of collecting ancient artifacts. In my case it's not that I was turning a blind eye to the issue so much as that it's one that's already been covered to death in the press that serves this community. Rather than just predictably justifying the side of those in favor of preserving the rights of collectors (noting how after all I am heading a company that deals in ancient coins!) perhaps I can pose the question more broadly and make its answers both more informative and introspective. First, for the benefit of those new to the debate, the trade of antiquities is a business mired in controversy. There are two opposed camps and both have spokesmen making an effort to shape public opinion. On the one extreme there is a coalition of scholars and politicians who for differing reasons lump any and all those owning or otherwise doing business in antiquities as though they were the lowliest members of the seamy underbelly of society. At the other end is an equally vocal, equally intransigent, group who view any and all proposed revisions in the way antiquities are traded as stalinist encroachments on our constitutional freedoms and couch any dissent, from within even, in the language reserved to reproach the vilest of tyrants. And those with more moderate views are generally ignored or regarded with contempt or condescension by both sides alike.

So what fuels this rage anyway? The passion is rooted in a subject as ancient as the artifacts collectors crave: the rights of ownership. In the 18th century , a philosopher named John Locke first analyzed what it meant to "own" something and on what grounds he may claim this right in a moral sense. His thesis came to the conclusion that rightful ownership rested on the expenditure of labor. To use the model most accessible in his vision, an unclaimed plot of land begat an owner once it was farmed and tended. The work invested was by itself the action that conferred the deed. No outsider, and in pointed reference Locke includes a government, may strip the worker from his land without first compensating him for his investment. In everyday commerce you and I rarely run into problems since we buy and sell goods whose ownership is never in question. There is seldom the case, as it were, that we come across abandoned property which through our labor we may enhance its value because, unlike in ancient times or even the 18th century, pretty much everything out there either already has an owner or is quite inaccessible (outer space, the bottom of the ocean).

The accepted paradigm, of course, breaks down once we come across an ancient artifact. The typical artifact has been abandoned for hundreds or even thousands of years. The controversy springs from the lack of a framework with which we may comprehend this concept. Does it belong to the nation upon whose soil it was found, does it belong to the finder or does it belong to "everyone"? This is the real question to ponder and in each case the proponents have both flaws and merits to their position.

The nation may provide a compelling argument that its cultural identity belongs with the understanding and the caretaking of the possessions of its ancestors. But rarely is the case that the ancestral lands bear a tangible and exclusive link to the people that now occupy the lands and define this nation. A viking artifact recovered from Canada may belong as much to Canada as it might to Scandinavia - or even the Indian ancestral lands upon which it was first deposited. The detritus left behind by the Romans cannot be said to be the patrimony of Italy, the chief but still only one of many of its provinces. And so on.

Likewise, an archeologist may make a good case that despoiling a site of its treasures robs the collective of an important puzzle piece to decoding the past. Yes, this much may be true but does it constitute a legally valid argument in and of itself? We can, to use Locke's analogy, surely detest the farmer for razing a desirable structure on his lands to replace it with some tacky substitute but we stop at gritting our teeth for we recognize his prerogative. Artifacts pried from a protected site with ongoing excavations is one thing and a bunch of coins plowed up in a nondescript farm somewhere is quite another - yet the archeological community makes of the two no distinction.

The finder's case is as crass as it is unwavering: it's mine 'cause I found it and that's that. His selfishness aids no one but himself and through his act convincingly imperils our ability to understand the past. But on what weighty grounds may we contest his claim? Can we furthermore punch holes in his position if he has already invested the labor of conservation upon his recovered artifact? In the end it's often the law that steps in to redress the grievances laid out by groups representing the interests of the archeologists and those, of course, that represent the lawmakers (the nation again) but it should hardly be surprising that the law follows political lines and these respond better to the needs of the few than to the needs of the individual - especially so if an outsider! And so we find that the finder often doesn't get to keep but instead has his finds confiscated under any number of statutory faults and its reasonings need not even be airtight (that's for the courts to decide later) but let's be candid and remember that the law and ethics are two separate things that must not be equated.

And I did say, didn't I, that despite my personal leanings that there is more room left for introspection than there is benefit in just adding more partisan heat onto this powder keg. The subject should be interesting even to those who are not directly affected either way and, so, hopefully points like these can help form a more balanced opinion - and thinktank ways to overcome the impasse.

Whence Rome whither the U.S.?

Of all the endlessly fascinating questions we have about Rome one stands foremost. Why did the Roman empire fall anyway? We see today in that decrepit shell of what once was the legendary splendor and impressive achievements as admiringly reviewed by every civilization to follow. And we do it not without a trace of troubling introspection. I summarized in the introduction of my recently published book ERIC II what I believe to be a compelling  answer to this question. Rome, to put it simply, ran out of money. Yes yes... let's dutifully note the legendary wastefulness of the emperors and their palaces and banquets. Check on the list too for the deleterious effects of endless waves of marauding barbarians. Yeah, the lead in the pipes (right) and even the changes born of a quickly Christianizing proto-Europe. Say what you will but the bottom line is that the living heart of any empire, be it ancient, modern or future as long as homo sapiens is involved, is only as viable as its economy. And the economy, stupid, runs on money and nothing else.

Is this a bold statement? Well, before we take a look at the Romans why not browse over the demise of some more recent empires? The British empire, the first truly global one... did it not succumb because it had sucked the very life out of its many far-flung outposts and in so doing irremediably upset the locals into revolt in each case? Its crown jewel, the U.S., was not taxation without representation the seminal call to independence? What possible business does the crown have in establishing a presence in a place as inhospitable to your average pasty Englishman as, say, Rhodesia if not to drain its varied resources? The Spanish empire swallowed whole the Americas and siphoned god knows how many tons of gold and silver while giving but cranky missionaries and smallpox in return. The Soviet Union - do you really think it was sunk because of Reagan's appeals to embrace freedom and democracy? More like Reaganomics. The Iron Curtain had to shift such a high percentage of its GDP into military spending to keep up that the rest of the country and its satellites were left in disastrous shape. And herein leads my thesis: that irrespective of size or era a community, nation or empire subsists solely insofar as its monetary health is not compromised. Withdraw the money pool and political instability is the guaranteed result. In fact, I can't think of a single historically significant such community that did not thrive on the accumulation and trade of resources - or collapse when their availability was no more. And, before someone brings to point an example of a pre-coinage era (Egyptians, Mayans) no need to be pedantic: we may substitute the word money with capital or resources and maintain the strength of the argument.

Rome's resources were not limitless. The grain, the silver, slaves... all that kept Rome flourishing in the early years. However, those gilded conduits flowed primarily because of their success at expansionism. Their military engine was more sophisticated than that of their neighbors and when these were conquered the Romans, innovatively, did not seek to destroy the vanquished but keep them instead as confederates that could generate more income and pump air into an economic balloon. But a balloon it was. The empire grew too fast and each succeeding province won was more expensive to subdue and administer. A Roman commander may have stepped foot as far away as present-day Afghanistan only to look back on a supply line stretching thousands of miles to Rome. The maintenance tab on those long-distance tendrils sapped the profits down to zero. Pop goes the bubble.

The decline of the Roman empire began, if we must pin an exact date, precisely the day Trajan gave up his sieges in Arabia. He headed home on a caravan swollen with other peoples’ money; a store so wealthy that it easily suckled the lifestyles of generations of spoiled emperors to come. But the clock had started ticking. Without war - for its mines had given out - Rome had far less capacity to generate income than to consume it. The evidence is hard to miss from all that strewn marble. Each of those monuments, from the lowliest statue to the aqueducts and the coliseum, is testament to a people who dedicated themselves to building for the sake of no loftier reason than the good life with nary a care for saving for a rainy day. It was, through and through, a consumerist society. With the singular though notable exception of its state-of-the-art road system you may look hard at the Roman way of life and find little evidence of an infrastructure that made any real attempt at becoming self-sufficient. Its trade deficit was simply epic: those highways were one-way tentacles radiating in every direction and designed strictly for suction, not for export. Carthage and Egypt provided food, from the east came spices and other luxury goods, from the north timber and slaves. And Rome in turn sold just about nothing with which to balance the spreadsheet. On the archeological record, look for any Roman presence outside of its borders and just about all you find are its coins. The coins, of course, which were made for buying foreign goods!

The spigot ran dry as did Trajan's teat then crisis quickly ensued. Taxation, the laziest way to make money, is a worse than useless tool when used on an insolvent citizenry for it harvests but resentment. So with no money the fact that droves of Romans were trading their ancient gods for Jesus is largely irrelevant. That "moral decay" on which Rome's fall is blamed - the endless partying and orgies and gladiatin' and all that other showy opulence… is this in the least possible without a near-bottomless pit of money? That "depopulation" given as a contributing factor for the downfall, is this not a terminal symptom rather than a cause? What soldier risks life and limb for no pay when he is at the employ of a dissolute tyrant? Look at each of the traditional reasons given and see whether money, or rather the lack of it, is not the naked, ugly core of the problem. Of course the Romans were swept off the map by barbarians but they were the victors only to a golden crown on a rotted tooth.

And now comes that introspection part. Hasn't it occurred to anyone yet that the U.S., and probably Europe too, shares an uncomfortable number of parallels with our western ancestors? Is that old maxim about those who don't learn from history being condemned to repeat it not yet sinking in? Let's pick at this scab once more. Our economy, as everyone knows, is practically a mirror of Rome's old ways. Our own tentacles stretch from every zip code outwards, particularly to China, and disgorge their contents on the shelves at Walmart. We modern Romans send the modern-day Denarius to Shanghai and Stuttgart alike along with little else besides the next purchase order. Garbage, I kid you not, is our largest export and I think you will agree that garbage, as a commodity, is not very valuable. With each flatscreen tv we buy we sell back the cardboard and styrofoam it came in and by necessity a trade deficit grows on a par with that of old Rome. Each gallon of Arabian gas, each African diamond placed on a bride's finger and each call to a help desk in India is just a new puff into a stretching balloon.

To be fair, Rome's economy was vastly simpler than our own and the U.S. still creates a lot of wealth of its own accord. Exports and the global trade balance only tell part of the story. If the rest of the world were to be shut out from us somehow I envision an abysmal level of discomfort but we would somehow learn to cope and survive. However, the fundamental question remains: are we as a nation making more money than we're spending? The only candid answer is no. And the answer to ponder, if we fail to consider the fate of the Romans or that of every other once-successful empire, should be quite disconcerting. It is in our human nature to overconsume and move on but earth, we’re told, is a prune on its way to a raisin.

Collectively we pay lip service to a green movement or a charity or some other feel-good cause by some symbolic token of personal sacrifice while only an insignificantly small number of people will commit to major life changes necessary in order to reach a self-sustaining balance. Let's face it, we do this because it's only normal, from the human perspective, to maximize our well-being and security with only half-hearted nods to the future. I very much doubt that as Romans contemplated the ominous signs in their own not-to-distant futures they forsook the pleasures of their baths and attending plays or eating exotic animals because curtailing those activities in the name of hoarding resources in case of crises is just not a very fun lifestyle. And before I lift a hypocritical finger at their excess I grin and note that last week I was bathing in Panama, am looking forward to trying out my first Kobe steak tonight and going to next week's opening of Transformers with the kids. But what happens when the last coin is spent?

Spintriae for Strumpets

Roman coins come in all sizes and shapes, we know, and of these among the most controversial aren't really coins at all. Relatively rare, a minor of class of semi-anonymous coinage carries, on the one side, a large Roman numeral and on the other (often) couples making love in explicit poses seemingly plucked straight out of the pages of the Kama Sutra. Probably no civilization as a whole is identified with raw sexuality as much as that of the Romans with surviving art pieces freely illustrated with the business of the flesh. Historians, tabloid gossipers and pretty much anyone with the ability to write back then delighted in describing the prurient perversions of others be they highborn or commoner. Yet its coinage is largely chaste to a fault. So what gives then? Modern historians, often constrained within the bounds of propriety, have struggled to reconcile the significance of these naughty bits. Ignoring the elephant in the room, some have unconvincingly proffered their use as gaming tokens or event passes. Sooner or later the elephant has to be acknowleged and the baser use of facilitating the sex trade is given a chance.

Uh, I think they called this one Modus Canis
Uh, I think they called this one Modus Canis

Despite the halfhearted sanitizing attempt this much is hardly controversial. What's the deal with the numbers though? Common thinking, likely born of an inspired moment in a smoky bar attended by off-duty historians, is that the number must tie into the featured act so that, in effect, the number becomes its price.

While no one without a time machine can say for sure, just using logic it really strains the mind that the token pictorial had anything whatever to do with the service the client was paying for! Prostitution the world over is a simple business that changes very little in its basics and, lacking anything weighty to the contrary, one must assume that these basics remained more or less the same across the ages as well. It is not practical for a big, modern brothel to have its staff mediate transactions between the sex worker and the client. It kills the vibe to say the least. It is much more efficient for the house to leave the particulars up to the individuals and charge admission or charge the prostitute for use of the facilities - or both. While management has an easier time regulating income this still leaves the prostitute without an easy means to get paid for her services. If the john pays cash where does she put it without it becoming a security risk? Also, if the john must pay for services repeatedly with his hard-earned coin, will he spend as freely?

Casinos pondered the practical - and psychological - implications long ago and came up with the devilishly effective solution of tokenry. Useful only within the confines of its facility was both a strong disincentive to theft as well as providing a subtly uninhibiting  effect when it came time to part with them. A brothel, which like a casino sells vice as its product, is the perfect analogy model and the two share identical problems and goals regarding discretion, security control and the fostering of an artificial environment conducive to carefree spending. Viewed in this light the raison d'etre for the numbers becomes clear: since the brothel is unable to issue plastic chips of varying colors to identify their value the numbers are the most plausible alternative. They weren't the price, they were the value. And this value could have been arbitrary and non-linear. Numbers as high as XVI (16, for those of you unfamiliar with Latin number encoding) have been recorded but there is no indication whether that was the high- or low-mark or whether these values were preset at all. For all we know that VI in the image to left could have bought you a half hour of hanky panky with that new hottie slave just in from Persia. Maybe it was just the room number. In the end it's irrelevant for it could mean anything including, yes, even the literal cost for such and such act. But, supposing for the sake of simplicity the numerals represented increasing worth, the "big chips" could have been internally broken down into fractions as needed. To sum, there is no doubt that within the brothel some services cost more than others (in fact, food, accessories and non-sexual services and items likely were sold on the premises too) but my point is that it's incredibly naive to think that there was a direct and unyielding correlation between the scene depicted and its cost.

Seeing as how the spintriae were most likely brothel tokens, and additionally that the numbers did represent a value but not a specific cost, leaves us with a final question. Why if this system was so efficient did the spintriae seem to have been issued for only a few years? In other words, why was its implementation not widely institutionalized throughout the Roman age? This answer is troublingly elusive to me. Prostitution was by all reports an essential component of the economy and if the innovation of tokens made this particular business run so much smoother it stands to reason that it should have caught on. Certainly there is the possibility that the experiment failed for any number of reasons and it all reverted back to being handled in cash but when profits and security are at stake I resist such a facile explanation given what I know of human nature. Perhaps the business itself changed so that prostitution leaned ever more towards a back-to-basics "pimps and hoes" streetside tricking (cheaper, less overhead). Or perhaps there was some other as-yet unseen factor that made the innovation unsatisfactory in the end. Maybe the fickle hand of imperial policy played a part.

Personally, after dicing away at the problem with my trusty occam's razor, I've come to the conclusion that the most likely answer is not that the use of tokens went away at all but rather that it was taken to its next logical step in evolution. Couldn't it be the case that the tokens were simply abandoned as too costly when some other stand-in could have been employed just as well? A brothel need not have required the commissioning of expensive metal trinkets when, say, a dyed rabbit's foot or a wooden figurine of Pudicitia (har, har) could have done the job just as efficiently.

That's Roman ingenuity at work for ya.

Byzantine or Romaion?

Astronomy, physics and mathematics are three fields that come to mind where radical new theories are continually proposed only to find inevitable resistance to their widespread adoption. Despite the ostensibly objective nature of the scientific method it ends up being the case that the promoters of a new thesis often end up "emotionally attached" and seek to advance their position while those holding on to the status quo refuse them for the same - or even political - reasons. The community then polarizes along progressive/conservative fault lines only for time, and hopefully lots of testing, to eventually determine whether the new paradigm takes root. The world of numismatics, as elsewhere in the other sciences, often gets bogged down in controversies that to the outside world must seem utterly trivial. One such controversy divides a segment who call the post-Roman empire based out of Constantinople as the "Byzantines" from a spalling group who prefer a new moniker "Romaion". As far as I can tell the replacement name was suggested by Wayne Sayles, a prominent dealer and author of literature on ancient numismatics. With him being the founder and editor of the only monthly magazine on ancient coins, the Celator, editorial policy is such that instances of "Byzantine" in articles are replaced with "Romaion". Personal crusades spring from convictions, it's true, and having the right pulpit is a good way to grease the skids into your position being accepted. In some cases the technique worked so well that the editor's will alone was sufficient to reshape the literary landscape of an entire nation. Witness the success of the Chicago Tribune's insistence on re-spelling the British "programme" into "program". Then, as an example leading nowhere, contemplate the continued obstinacy of the New Yorker adorning diphthongs with diareses so that we get cutesy forms like coöperate.

Despite opposition, the power of media is sometimes enough to bring change. Now, by not accepting the new term in this instance, I find myself in a default "conservative" camp. I attribute my stubbornness to nothing more than the inertia of going along with what historians at large have been using for centuries for lack of any issue with the traditional name. Is there, I should ask, a compelling reason to adopt the new word? Am I finally an old fart?

To answer we should probably review why it was seen fit to suggest a replacement in the first place. There are a number of reasons why certain words fall into disuse. In medicine, for example, old terms like dropsy and apoplexy were replaced long ago with the newer edema and stroke on account of a greater understanding of these ailments. More commonly, and I suspect the case here as well, words fall out of favor when through colloquial usage they become profane. A hundred years ago calling someone a retard or negro (or worse, ahem!) carried far less negative baggage than does so today and so more neutral descriptives have been employed. The Romans' "gentium barbarum" initially referred to all non-Roman people without the added weight that barbarism brings to mind. The Vandals, likewise, irrespective of whatever achievements and innovations they may have attained, will regardless trigger an automatic connection to vandalism and thus malign the memory of an entire civilization. In this context perhaps it was felt the time was ripe to retire Byzantine as a noun since as an adjective it links with thesaurus-mates conniving, subterfuge and red tape. Whatever merit the politically correct find in this cause is to me eye-rollingly inconsequential - the last Byzantine having died around the time Colombus set sail and all - but even if it were seriously considered I would say the proposed Romaion is a worse substitute on several accounts.

For starters, the argument goes, "Byzantine" is not a word that anyone used contemporarily; the term only coming into use during the 19th century and was in any case named from Byzantium, a city name that long predated the very people it meant to describe. Why not the more appropriate "Constantinoplan" perhaps? I don't know. I wasn't around back then but evidently succeeding historians adopted it without considering alternatives and that was that. On the other hand, the neologism Romaion is simply the Greek word for "Roman". Any Roman who spoke Greek, whether an actual Greek person under Roman jurisdiction or an ordinary Roman living in Britain who happened to know Greek, would have called themselves as such across time and geography. It is thus too lexically imprecise to neatly rein in what we mean by Byzantine today. The argument that holds that it's inappropriate in light of it not having been used contemporarily must reconcile the irony that Romaion is the very word they would have used to convey the concept of belonging to the older civilization rather than the intended disassociation into separate eras!

To poke another hole into the argument, an ordinary Roman who lived in what is now Greece and Turkey would have been regarded as simply Greek even when additionally, as an abstract and political concept, they were also Roman. This in the same way that for us it's effortless to be considered, say, both a New Yorker and an American. Stripped of the pejorative concerns what other reason is there to fix that which ain't broken? Japan, and its derivative Japanese, are both examples of a people given a demonym with which they themselves never had any part of. Nobody knows where "Japan" came from but it stuck and no one is seriously campaigning for the more etymologically pure Nippon and Nihongo. If Germans demand we rid them of their Latin shackles will we accept to call them Deutscher? Unthinkable.

Romaion therefore so far proves only to be an awkward and inexact term with no added benefit except, as far as I can see, divorce the people and period it describes from add-on connotations the word picked up along the way. It doesn't work that way. Say Chinese or Mexican and perhaps less than desirable adjectives come to mind but the solution isn't, and can't be, a fresh coat of semantical paint. So the Vandals, bummer, will continue to be linked with rampaging riffraff and a Made in China tag will continue to inspire the dread of imminent malfunction. To the ghosts of ancient Greeks who lived in the Balkans and what is now Turkey during the approximate 400-1500 millenium, sorry, you are to us "Byzantine" and we mean no disrespect!

Spare a Dime(arius)?

  So how much were Roman coins worth in their day?

It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty but it comes up often enough. The main problem is in trying to equate the buying power of ancient Rome with modern money. A dollar that buys a song online can't be compared with coins used to buy slaves and rotting eels. Before we look at the available data there is another complicating factor in that inflation and the passage of time distorts the understanding of the purchasing power of the various denominations. Just, again, as a Civil War-era dollar doesn't have the same purchasing power as a dollar does now.

We can nevertheless come up with some approximations. Some things, and sevices, are more or less timeless. Buying a loaf of bread or a haircut now or two thousand years ago is more or less the same experience and can at least be roughly compared to in terms of cost and effort to "produce". If we knew the average Roman's paycheck and what some of these basic staples cost back then, all for a given point in time, we could extrapolate by referencing how many haircuts or bread loaves the average person can buy today given a typical salary now. We don't, unfortunately, have the full picture but we can come up with enough data to make some reasonable guesses.

The first century provides us with the most in-depth historical snapshots of Roman life thanks to Suetonius, Pliny and Cassius Dio. Suetonius writing around the year 100, for example, gives us some tantalizing tidbits. He notes that Domitian just a few years before had raised the annual salary of a common soldier by 25% from 9 to 12 Aurei. Since it's obvious that soldiers weren't paid nine (or twelve) coins in a year right there that tells us that he was talking the same way we would mention  an employee drawing fifty or a hundred thousand dollars: the yearly tally rather than the actual paycheck. Knowing that the Sestertius was valued at 1/100th the value of an Aureus it becomes much more likely that a soldier's pay was given out in this denomination which would have been far more useful in the everyday commerce a soldier would have engaged in and, at let's use the handy new payscale, 1200 Sesterces works out to an even 100 monthly.

Those soldiers however had to pay "taxes" in the form of deductions meant to offset the cost of room and board, training and their gear, none of which was free, so that the actual take-home amount was significantly less. How much their real pay, above and beyond the costs they were required to reimburse the state, is somewhat vague; perhaps half their gross had to be turned over for these off-the-top expenses. On the other hand though we can assume that they supplemented their income in any imaginable number of ways loosely controlled weaponized authority figures could get away with. So, for a working figure, let's assume that after all was said and done that this soldier managed a clean 100 Sesterces a month and this figure being good for a generation either side of the year 100 AD.

The non-commissioned soldier of Domitian's time was regarded as a blue collar earner. A state pension for successful retirement following a 25-year career, the statistical chances of whose completion must have been dismally small, could have been a distant dream new enrollees looked forward to since it was valued at a pound of gold. That works out to a little over $20,000 today... a figure that while seemingly very humble for such dedicated service must nevertheless be taken into the context that this ancient Roman likely had very humble expenses to begin with. Twenty g's buys a lot of cheap wine and wheat grain after all and you may consider that most people in the third world today, whose buying needs much more closely parallel those of an ordinary Roman, get by without ever seeing a similar lump sum payout.

So assuming this yardstick of 100 Sesterces a month were to be considered a decent salary for a typical worker of low- to medium-skill this works out to somewhere between three and four of these big coins with which to carry the day for a proverbial family of four - or we can round up to an even four, a Denarius, just for the sake of round numbers. With the average salary for someone in this skill-range in the U.S. hovering around $40,000 a year (let's assume a net of $32,000 after taxes or  around $90 a day) it's tempting to draw a quick analogy to conclude that a Denarius had back then the same buying power as $90 does today. But is this even roughly accurate?

In order to answer that I've taken some assumptions that may not hold true and, in any case, we have yet to list the costs of any goods during Roman times. Let's do a little stress testing and see how our figures are holding up. Fortunately, one missing piece of the puzzle is not only known but is also contemporary to this era: the Pompeii disaster locked in pricing tables for a number of generic commodities current to the Autumn of 79. In it we learn a particularly useful price for bread which, again, we can take as a good reference point of value across the ages since a handmade loaf must have been just about as hard and costly to make back then as it is now. That price was one As, a sixteenth of a Denarius. Does then a loaf of artisan (handmade) bread today run about $90/16=$5.60? I'd say this is spookily close to shopping in the Whole Foods bakery section. Really not a bad stab initial conclusion. It is even more impressive if we take that price and transpose it to a country like Zambia or Bolivia where it would run maybe a dollar and where the labor of a baker is likely much more commensurate with that of an ancient Roman. But, either way, this workup is perhaps a lucky strike and we really need some more numbers before we feel confident about these valuations.

A Denarius of Domitian

Just after Domitian comes Nerva who Suetonius tells us started a program to help orphaned children. A state stipend of 16 monthly Sesterces for boys and 12 for girls would be allotted by the state. Assuming that one of these kids would have depended entirely on this stipend that works out to a daily Dupondius for him and about an As-and-a-half for her which leaves them to fend for themselves with a pound of bread and a few pennies for other expenses on which to live off. Considering that they would in all likelihood supplement this with handouts, odd jobs and maybe a little thieving here and there, the way they would have gotten by just prior to Nerva's munificence, for an indigent's standards this does not sound bad at all. Taking our 5-and-change computation on the worth of an As this would work out to about a thousand dollars a year free from uncle Nerva. And that's surely more than kids in a Mexican slum make per annum.

In the end are we comfortable saying that a Denarius should be worth about $90? It has been estimated at less. Someone once came up with $20 using similar methods and while not very generous the figure still works (that artisan bread now costing a measly $1.25 which is still accurate if we shop for it at Costco (or a third world country!)). Pompeii also gives us that a tall glass of wine, the vintage 79 sort suitable for a not-too-discriminating lunch, also costs an As. Again, whether we use the lower or the higher figure this is still within the range of acceptable even if in either case we envision booze fit only for bums.

In the end, we can say that an As was very likely, at least during the time of the Flavians, the denomination that would have been most useful at the market while a Denarius - a good day's pay for a chunk of the workforce - certainly packed enough punch to put plenty of food on the table for a family's meal. It also means that a careful budget placed the average Roman in a bit of a bind since the choice of eating well and having little left over for other expenses would mean uncomfortable sacrifices. And when it comes down to it, whether you're supporting a family in the states on $90 a day (or $20 a day in South America) you're not going to exactly live large either.


A couple of weeks ago I was asked about officinae and their relationship to a mint. For those who have no idea what "officinae" are (let's hope you know at least about mints!) these are the working offices within a minting facility. In the ancient Roman empire a single mint might employ thousands of different workers in each of these coin-making factories. During the late Roman period it is, as far as I'm aware, a uniquely Roman feature that coin engravers were often ordered to note not just the mintmark but the "assembly team" as well on each coin going out the door. Specifically, the question was whether these officinae were spread out across several buildings or were they all under the same roof. Without the gift of a crystal ball I can't claim an absolutely authoritative answer but I can throw an educated guess or two.

Let's think for a moment why there was a need for officina markings in the first place, and by extension mint marks as a whole.

For a quick review let's go back to the early years of the late Roman age when the use of mintmarking really goes into the mainstream. Under Emperor Diocletian a radical monetary reform takes place which can best be summarized as a "scientific" approach to deal with inflation by means of trimming the costs associated with producing all this money. Since at this point there was no appreciable amount of silver to be sucked out of them anymore, and reducing the weight of the modules was clearly another deadend solution, the only meaningful recourse left in making cheaper coins was to streamline the process as much as possible.

To this end the effort expended in rendering individualized portraits was phased out and reverse designs pared down to a minimum. The initially diverse number of portrait styles was quickly scaled down to the standard "laureate head right". The military designs featuring quadrigae and emperor-shaking-hands-with-another-guy were ditched when found to be too complex to scale up for superproduction. Engraving techniques from one corner of the empire to the next became less distinct as a larger number of less-skilled engravers could be trained using standardized teaching methods then quickly put to work.

Early use of officina markingEmphasis was diverted to the singular purpose of maximizing output while retaining high quality control. That was the game plan. But the homogenizing effect created logistical problems for treasury accountants who now couldn't easily keep tabs on quota fulfillment and the transport/disbursement of so many millions of coins. It is also likely that other bean counters needed their own efficient models for back office operations, track currency distribution and tax assessment to minimize the economy imbalances that triggered civic riots and birthed usurpers. Parenthetically, let's also keep in mind that hyperinflation presents a fiat economy with an intractable problem: for whatever reason you just couldn't get away with printing more zeroes on coins the way a modern bankrupt country can do on notes. The cost of each and every coin had to by necessity be less than its face value.

It is doubtful in the extreme that Rome at this time could operate under prolonged budget deficits. There was, of course, no ancient International Monetary Fund ready with bailout money like today. It was simply sink or swim with hard currency. So, in order for them to get the reins on production and ensure maximum efficiency the only workable solution was to mark the coins with a finer level of manufacturing detail than simply noting the origin city allowed for. Enter the officinae. Now that this aim is understood it's only logical that the factories pumping out coins would operate in such a way as to minimize costs. Having physically separate officinae doesn't serve this purpose in any way.

I speculate that the mints themselves were likely garrison compounds with a guarded perimeter and several buildings of specialized functions like a repository for inbound metal, administrative offices, sleeping quarters, mess halls, etc. Most importantly, I think the core areas devoted to die making and coining were not the dungeon-like bunkers we tend to think of but rather made use of a semi-open plan that allowed for lots of daylight for the engravers and coin workers to do their job as well as facilitate ventilation of toxic fumes from furnaces and the chemical baths to process raw scrap metal into finished flans. Internally, it's likely that they were assembly lines with shared components and toiling close by to allow for the quick reassignment of work teams to regulate output as needed.

Well, that's my theory anyway :-)


A High-Quality Fake

Most Roman coin fakes are easy to spot once you are familiar with the right "look and feel" of the real thing. When created from scratch the counterfeits rarely have anywhere near a convincing style. Sometimes they get the emperor's portrait more or less on the money (ah, pun) but then pay no attention to the lettering, rendering it in a modern Helvetica when they should have used something more like Times New Roman. Sometimes their best efforts in getting the style down are betrayed by the rest of the coin looking very odd: too round, too perfect, too shiny, too this, too that. A masterly execution in one area is spoiled by an amateurish in another. But sometimes they get everything just right - more or less. From a glance this coin appears alright based on style (click to see it bigger). And for good reason: the style is spot on because the fake was made using an original. As far as I can sleuth out the counterfeit began as a mold being made from an original - and quite exceptional - Aureus of Hostilian. From this mold dies were prepared or, more likely, the mold itself used as a die with which was then driven into a golden blank to create the facsimile. The dies, or mold faces, were pressed using a vice rather than struck by hand - the weak link in the process.

Although from a photograph it's hard to tell in hand the play of light as the coin is moved around reveals lifeless, evenly frosted surfaces where the original would show areas of varying polish; from mirror smooth crevices to the duller shine of the devices. To create this lustrous appearance a coin blank has to sustain the enormous momentary psi pressures of the clash of blank being sandwiched between hammer and anvil. A vice may drive all the macroscopic details faithfully but leaves a soft-focus texture at the microscopic level that results in that frosty look.

When the dies are struck the blank deforms under the pressure and heat generated from the energy forming small ridges or "flow lines" which spread out radially from areas of higher pressure towards channels formed on the surface of the die. Because the relief of the ridges is generally very shallow in fresher dies the subsequent casting process is incapable of capturing these contours very well into the secondary die and when the fake is pressed this "third generation" surface loses even more of this detail. On this coin flow lines are nearly non-existent.

The perfect fake is, of course, the one every expert still regards as genuine so whether any, or even many, are in the marketplace trading with the tacit approval of dealers and collectors is unknowable but it should be encouraging to those on the buying end to know that even when a dedicated effort is expended in fooling us the results are still often too crude to be widely convincing.

Hello Roman coin fans!

January of 2011. On my to-do list since, oh, about five years or so was to start a blog about Roman coins with the aim of helping newcomers to the hobby. Here is one of those rare instances where I've come through on a new year's resolution. Better late than never! I'll call the blog "Vox Populi", Latin for "the voice of the people". I encourage all readers to comment and let me know what you think.