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

2. The denarius coinage

From about 211 BC, the denarius was the main unit of silver coinage. The standard design of this coin features the helmeted head of the goddess Roma on the obverse and the Dioscuri (the mythical twins, Castor and Pollux) galloping on horseback on the reverse. In the early 2nd century BC, a new design was introduced, with Luna the moon goddess (and later Victory) in a chariot on the reverse. Gradually, increasing innovation occurred in the design of the denarius, which reflected the influence of the moneyer.

At the beginning of the denarius coinage, one denarius was equivalent to 10 asses, and was therefore marked with the numeral X. Smaller silver denominations were also introduced; the quinarius (5 asses, marked V) and sestertius (2.5 asses, marked IIS). After the Second Punic War, these denominations were only intermittently issued during the Republican period, generally at times of crisis. From the late 3rd century to c. 170 BC another silver denomination now known as the ‘victoriatus’ was issued. This is distinguished by the image of Victory crowning a trophy of arms on the reverse and was made of less pure silver, possibly a response to the financial pressures on Rome at the time. In 141 BC, the denarius was re-valued at 16 asses (for a short time coins were marked XVI), but the use of X was retained as a denominational mark and still occurs (along with the use of a barred form of IIS) on inscriptions in the Roman Imperial period.

The bronze denominations remained the same as those in the earlier period, with a standard design of a ship’s prow on the reverse, and continued to be issued until around 80 BC, although there were reductions in the weight standard. The Roman use of the phrase ‘capita aut navia’ (‘heads or ships’), to accompany the tossing of a coin, derives from this design (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7). The obverse designs sometimes varied but those listed below occur most commonly:

Denomination Obverse design
As Head of Janus
Semis Laureate head of Saturn
Triens Head of Minerva wearing helmet
Quadrans Head of Hercules wearing lion’s skin
Sextans Head of Mercury wearing winged cap (petasus)
Uncia Head of Roma wearing helmet

The Social War of 90–89 BC increased demand for silver coinage for military expenditure. Coins were produced both by Rome and by the Italian confederacy. Traditionally, the latter have also been housed with the Republican Roman collection at the British Museum and are therefore included in this catalogue [1].

In the 80s BC, during the civil war between followers of Sulla and Marius, a gold denomination (the aureus) was re-introduced, although it was not regularly issued until 47 BC, under Julius Caesar. The aureus was worth 25 denarii.

A further innovation from the late second century BC was the denarius serratus. These coins had serrated flans, supposedly to deter forgeries, although in practice this did not work. There may also have been a decorative function to this design.


  • ^ [1] - For further details of this coinage see Rutter 2001 and Campana 1987