Interesting Facts about Ancient Roman Coins

The Roman Empire lasted over a period of about five centuries. Besides keeping back a number of historic wars and other important political events, Rome experienced great economic prosperity under various Emperors. This is evident from the variety of coins they issued throughout the lifespan of the Empire. We have gathered some important facts about the coins of Ancient Rome which you should know.

  1. Roman coins were issued in all the three principal metals- bronze, gold and silver.
  2. These coins were of various sizes. These coins were valued on the basis of their weight. The earliest of the Roman coins discovered was made of bronze and it was issued around 269 BC.
  3. These coins were minted in over 40 different cities. The name of the mint in Rome was Juno Monet and it is from here, that the term ‘money’ came into being.
  4. Similarly, the term ‘coin’ came from the word ‘consecratio’ which was issued by the Emperor in order to pay homage or tribute to their deceased family members.
  5. The ancient Roman gold coins were called Aurei which contained about 95% of pure gold. The silver coins were called Denarius, which consisted of 85% silver.
  6. The copper coins were known as As which was stamped on one side carrying the image of the beak of a ship. Two types of silver coins were Denarius Sestertius and Denarius Victoriatus. Some other notable silver coins were Smebella, Teruncius and Libella. Libella has the same value as that of the As. The principal gold coin was Aureus Denarius.
  7. Roman coins bear the name of the issuing emperor. We find a lot of emperors issuing coins in their names. Some of the famous emperors were Constantine, Marcus Antonius, Septimius Severus. Some of the Roman coins also included women in the impressions. These were of Antonia, Valeria Messalina, Cleopatra Selene and also many of the daughters of the ancient Roman leaders.
  8. At first, the portraits of Pagan Gods and Goddesses were used by the Romans in their coins. This idea was copied from the Greeks. Later on, they started to put impressions of buildings on the coins. Symbols like stars and eagles were also used in the coins. In order to make an emperor popular, the images of the kings were also used in the coins.
  9. Rome was one of the most powerful political as well as economic powers of the ancient world. Romans had trading connections with ancient India, Iran, Mediterranean world and northern Africa. Thus, in the archaeological excavations a large number of Roman coins have been unearthed from various parts of the aforementioned areas.
  10. The ancient Roman coins are prized possessions for the modern collectors. Thus, a large number of forged coins are circulated in the market. You can only differentiate between a fake and real ancient Roman coin with the help of a test kit. Some of the important fake symbols of the coins include incorrect marks of the mint, wrong lettering on the coins and variation on the thickness in the coins. You can also detect the fake coins from the original one collected from a reliable source.

The Coins of Menander

Menander was a king of the Indo-Greek line who ruled in the north western India during the Mid-2nd century BCE. King Menander is the most famous of the Indo-Greek kings due to a number of reasons although the exact date of his reign and realm could not be ascertained. First and foremost among them is various stories about his patronage of Buddhism recorded in the various Buddhist religious books. One such famous book is Milindapanha which is actually a conversation between the king and the Buddhist sage Nagasena about different philosophical problems. Apart from the literary sources, Menander is also famous for his coins which are found in large numbers in various parts of northern and western India.

Menander was quite popular among his subjects as has been evidenced by the writings of several contemporary chroniclers including Plutarch. His reign saw the growing trade between India and Europe via west Asia. To facilitate trade and commerce Menander issued a large number of coins. These coins were struck in the well established Indo-Greek fashion with elaborate details. Menander was also influenced by the Indian tradition and accommodated the Indian cultural and social elements in his coins. The silver coins of Menander were known as Drachms.

The coins of Menander carried legends in both Greek and Kharosthi. The legends on his coins read the following: ‘Maharaja Tratarasa Menadrasa’. The earlier silver coins of Menander carried a portrait of goddess Athena on the obverse and the figure of an owl on the reverse.

In the later issues of Menander, the coins also carried the portrait of the king on the obverse. The reverse of these later coins carried the figure of Athena Alkidemos throwing a thunderbolt. After this, Athena Alkidemos became the royal standard emblem of several other Indo-Greek kings and rulers.

These above mentioned silver coins of Menander were very light weight. They weigh a little more than 1 gram to a little less than 2.5 gram.

Another series of Menander’s coins were struck in Attic weight standard carrying the portrait of King Menander wearing a helmet and depicting him as throwing a spear in the obverse. The reverse depicted the portrait of goddess Athena. The legend of these coins read ‘Of King Menander, the Saviour’. These coins weighed 13.03 gram each. Probably, these coins were special issues to mark some significant event during the King’s reign. But in our present state of historical knowledge it is not possible to find out the exact reasons or events for the issue of these coins.

There were also a number of bronze coins recovered of Menander. These Bronze coins were of relatively inferior value. But they are important for different reason. These bronze coins of Menander carried the images of several deities of both Greek and Indian pantheon.

The coins of Menander are a rich source of Indian socio-economic as well as political history. The number of Menander’s coins found was greater than any other Indo-Greek rulers. They have been found in widely varied geographical regions such as modern day Afghanistan, Indian state of Kashmir, Punjab, and Gujarat. Even centuries after the conclusion of Menander’s reign, his coins were in much use among the traders of Gujarat. This is evident from the narrative of the ancient text, ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ where the unknown author of the stated that coins of Menander were largely used in the trading activities in the great port of Barigaza or modern day Broach situated in the Gujarat coast by the traders hailing from different regions.

The Decline of Coins in the Early Medieval India

Have you ever thought of life without money? Can you imagine a society where no one uses coins and currency in economic transactions? Though it may sound weird, it was the case in India at a certain point of time. After the fall of the mighty Gupta dynasty in the mid-6th century CE, several smaller states came into existence in India. The big cities of the earlier age were all in decline. With them declined trade and commerce. The prosperous days of Indo-Roman trade were gone. Under these circumstances, the economy of India became more agrarian and land-centric.

Based on these evidences several scholars has argued that the period between the fall of the Gupta dynasty (mid-6th century CE) and the commencement of the Muslim Sultanate rule in Delhi in the 13th century was marked by the emergence of an Indian variety of feudalism. This same period is known among the historians of India as early medieval period. The scarcity of money, in the form of coins of course, was another major feature of this age.

So, how did the people buy goods or services in the absence of hard cash? The proponents of feudalism theory argued that the cowrie shells became the principal medium of exchange during this period. The cowrie shells had definite market value. They were used by merchants and ordinary people for small scale local transactions. Though long distance trading activities were in decline, some merchants still managed to export rice from the eastern part of India to Maldives. In exchange they brought cowrie shells from Maldives to use in the local market. The Indian Ocean trade was the main source of cowrie shells in the Indian market.

However, foreign merchants refused to accept cowrie shells in exchange of their products. Thus, the states were compelled to issue some debased and devalued copper and silver coins. Thus, there was not any absolute absence of coins. There were certainly some coins in circulation in the market. But these coins were no match with the coins of the Guptas. Gold coins became very rare in this period as they were not essential for an economy based on declining trade. The coins of this period also lacked the aesthetic quality and precision of the earlier period. They remained mere imitation of the earlier age.

Nevertheless, there are some scholars who countered the hypothesis of scarcity of coins in the early medieval India. John S. Deyell is one the champion of this counter-argument to the theory of shortage of coin. He suggested that the number of coins in circulation did not decline in this period. What was in decline was the value of the coins. As trade was in decline, people needed very little amount of hard cash for their sustenance. Moreover, the circulation of cowrie shells solved their problem of acquiring metal coins as there was a scarcity of silver supply in early medieval India. This shortage of silver came to known as the ‘Silver famine’. The opponent of the feudalism theory further argued that a human society could not exist completely abandoning trade and commerce. Salt and iron are two essential commodities for sustenance and they are not available everywhere. Thus, people had to engage in some sort of economic transaction to procure these products.

Well, now-a-days our economy is again leading towards a system where carrying and transacting via hard cash is becoming obscure day by day. Digital and plastic money is becoming more convenient. It is interesting to note that the idea of inventing the alternatives to hard cash is not at all new. People in the early medieval age, too, look for the alternatives and they found cowrie shells.