Roman Republican Coins in the British Museum

E Ghey, I Leins (eds) - descriptions and chronology after MH Crawford

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Roman Republican coinage

The series published here runs from the beginning of the 3rd century BC up until the Battle of Actium in 31 BC (when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and effectively brought an end to the Roman Republic). It contains coins issued under the Roman Republic in Rome but not coins struck by non-Roman issuers in Italy. The exceptions to this are Italian coins from the period of the Social War, fought between Rome and the Italian confederacy in 90 to 89 BC, which are included in the catalogue. The catalogue also includes some imitations and forgeries of Roman Republican types (although not the L.A. Lawrence collection of plated coins).

1. The pre-denarius coinage

The early years of Republican Roman coinage are characterised by apparently separate currency systems which were used simultaneously, all of which are represented in this catalogue. The so-called ‘aes signatum’ were large, rectangular, cast currency bars made to a specific weight standard. This form of currency was relatively short-lived. The so-called ‘aes grave’ are classed in this catalogue as coins, as opposed to currency bars. They are cast rather than struck, circular in shape (although not flat) and ran initially as a separate series from lighter, struck coins, eventually becoming integrated into the same currency system..

The denominations of the cast bronze coinage are based on the unit of the as (originally 1 Roman pound, about 324 grammes), with one as divided into 12 ounces (unciae). In the system used to mark denominations on bronze coinage, one uncia is represented by a raised dot. This marking system was retained for bronze coinage following changes in the weight standard.

Denomination Division of an as Denominational mark
As One I
Semis Half an as S
Triens Third of an as ••••
Quadrans Quarter of an as •••
Sextans Sixth of an as ••
Uncia Twelfth of an as

Coins were also struck in silver and bronze. The early struck silver coinage (consisting of two Greek denominations; didrachms and some rare drachms) was derived from the Greek coinage of southern Italy and appears to have had a more southerly circulation pattern than the struck bronze. However, the Roman identity of the coinage is clearly stated in the inscriptions ‘ROMANO’ (meaning ‘of the Romans’).

Eventually these separate elements of the coinage were integrated into a single system and the currency bars went out of use. A new standardised design was introduced, with a janiform head (having a face looking both ways, like the Roman god Janus) used on the obverse of the gold and silver denominations. The silver coins minted at the end of this period are sometimes referred to as quadrigati, as they always feature a quadriga (four-horse chariot) on the reverse. 

The Second Punic War of 218–201 BC (when Rome fought Hannibal’s Carthaginian army) was waged at great economic cost to Rome. This initially caused a period of successive devaluations and weight reductions of the coinage, followed by the adoption of a completely new system based on the denarius. The early gold denominations of the stater and half stater (based on the Greek model) were briefly replaced after 211 BC by the 60-, 40- and 20-as pieces, but this gold coinage appears to have been a short-lived emergency measure prompted by the problems of the war.