Identifying ancient Roman Imperial coins can be a
daunting task for novices and professionals alike. This guide was created to
help the novices to pick up on the basics of Roman coin identification. Having
personally identified tens of thousands of ancient coins in my time, it has
become a second nature to me, but I will admit that there are coins that defy
even the most skilled numismatist. To a novice, however, where to begin is
usually the hardest part. There are literally thousands of different reverse
designs, and add on top of this the well over 200 Roman emperors and empresses
possible on Roman coins, it can quickly become overwhelming. Identifying
ancient Roman coins is not as simple as reading the denomination, date and mint
directly from the coin and knowing everything there is to know about it (as
with modern coins). For instance, there are no Roman coins that directly state
the denomination of the coin. However, there are several clues to find the
denomination of the coin. Just as with denomination, there are other clues on
the coin that will eventually lead to a full attribution. The steps to
identifying ancient coins are listed below in the general order of how they are
done, but you certainly don’t have to follow the steps chronologically and some
of them can be skipped. If you need help, I can help you (NOT for free). Scroll
to the last step and click on the link for more information.
Step 1: Know the source of the coin
There are many places to get ancient coins. Sources include uncleaned coins, old
collections, and auctions. Most likely you have coins that you obtained from an
uncleaned lot (or that someone before you got from an uncleaned lot). Knowing
where this coin came from can be a huge help (especially if the coin is Greek
or Roman Provincial, covered in another guide). For Roman Imperial coins, such
information can help narrow down the mint mainly, but can sometimes help with identification
of the emperor. While we are on the subject of uncleaned coins, I would like to
extend the advice to clean your coins well enough so that you can see all
legends and images on the coin, but be careful not to overclean them.
Step 2: Identifying the Denomination
Below are the denominations possible in ancient coins, and tips to identifying which
you have. Gold coins have been excluded because, chances are if you have a
genuine gold Roman coin you won’t need to read this guide.
These will be silver (white metal) and range in size from about 18-19mm, but
some may be smaller to a slight degree. The emperor’s image on these coins will
always be laureate (no “spikes” in the hair, just leafy devices in a line that
extend from behind the ears to the top of the head).
These are nearly the same as denarii, except they are smaller, about 14-15mm.
These are much rarer than denarii.
3. SilverAntoninianus (or Silvered):
In the case of emperors, the portrait is always
radiate (with a spiked crown). Empresses can sometimes have a crescent under
their busts, but will not have a radiate crown. These generally range in size
from 20mm to 25mm, but they vary greatly.
& Milianrense: These don’t come by often. These were only struck during the
late Roman empire. Generally these have clips on the edge, and are thinner and
smaller than denarii or antoninianii.
Bronze (or Copper):
(Plural Asses), were the base unit in the Roman monetary system. These will
range in size from 25-28mm for early Roman specimens and sometimes smaller for
Severan era Asses. These will have laureate busts.
This is a large denomination generally measuring from 35-30mm (early Roman) to
25mm for Severan Era. These will be distinguishable from Asses by their sheer
size and weight. These will also have laureate busts.
This is like the As, but the metal is made of brass instead of bronze. Brass is
a yellow metal and is commonly confused by newbies as gold. However, it is
easier to just look at the bust as they will will feature a radiate bust. These
range in size from about 27-28mm in size
The smallest early Roman denomination. These are usually only 15-16mm in
diameter. A common device on these is the “SC” mark.
This is like the quadrans, but is slightly larger (usually 18-20mm). They are
still smaller than the As. It can be hard to distinguish the difference.
Antoninianus: The bronze version of the Silver coin listed above. Same sizes,
but are highly variable. These always have radiate crowns on the bust.
These replaced the As and began to be minted during the Tetrarchy. These are
generally 25-27mm, but will generally be thinner than Asses. Also, the reverse
type is commonly that of Genius (the Roman god).
The Following are late Roman Bronze Denominations
A large later Roman denomination about 25-28mm. These are scarce. Most minted
by Julian II and Jovian (with a bull reverse or the emperor standing with globe
A medium late Roman denomination about 21-24mm. These come around from time to
time, but aren’t scarce as scarce as AE1, but are scarcer than AE3 by far.
This is about the same size as the AE2, but was only minted during the reign of
the sons of Constantine I (Constantius II, Constans, Constantine II).
A common denomination about 15-20mm
Some debate the size limits here. I have seen some “AE4” designated coins at
about 16mm or larger. Generally though, an AE4 is only 11-15mm.
These are tiny coins measuring anywhere from 5mm to 10mm. These were minted only
during the very late Roman Empire (usually 5th century).
Step 3: Identifying the emperor
This is the second hardest thing to do when identifying Roman coins. Novice coin
collectors will want to study coins from all of the emperors to get a feel for
what each emperor is depicted like. For instance, Nero has characteristic
facial features that no other emperor has. Early Roman coins were engraved to
accurately reflect the emperor on the coin, but starting at about the Tetrarchy
there was a general trend to use the same “template” for each of the emperors.
When it remains unclear even after studying the bust, then you must attempt to
read the legends. With Roman coins, the emperor’s name is on the obverse.
However, the tricky part is that some emperors were not known by the names that
we know them today, and sometimes there is more than one emperor with the same
name. Here are a few tips to help:
1. Look at the denomination. Asses, Dupondii, Sestertii, quadrans, Semises, and denarii
were only minted in the first ~300 years of the Roman empire. Antoninianii were
only minted after Caracalla up until the tetrarchy. AE1-AE5 were only minted in
late Rome. This can help when you are attempting to identify Claudius I or II
(one is early, the other is later Roman), for example.
2. Early Roman coins included many of the emperors titles that late Roman coins did not.
Some examples include: TR P, COS, and Roman numerals (I, V, X, Etc). Late Roman
coins include the DN (usually at the beginning of the legends), which early
Roman coins did not.
3. Caesars (those promised to be given the title of Augustus) will almost never bare a
diadem (this was reserved for the Augustus, aka the emperor). The legends may
also include “CAES” “CAESAR” “NOBIL” “NOB” “IVN” “FL” “CL” and combinations and
abbreviations of these.
4. Late Roman legends always begin from the left and extend around the coin in a
clockwise fashion. Early Roman coins can go either direction, but in general they
were struck in the clockwise fashion as well.
Step 4: Identifying the Reverse
This is usually the most challenging step. I have seen many reverse types over and
over again and I can usually guess the legends of some, and can usually
determine the imagery as well. However, this is due to years of experience.
Here are some tips to identifying the reverses:
1. If there is a figure holding something, try to identify what they are holding.
This is the key to determining the god or goddess that is being represented.
For instance, a victory is almost always shown holding a wreath and palm frond.
2. SC is a common reverse type for Early Roman coins, but is never found on late
Roman coins. The SC stands for Senatus Consulto.
3. Late Roman coins tended to recycle the same reverse types across many emperors,
including a Roman soldier spearing a fallen horse rider (called a “FEL TEMP”
because of the legends “FEL TEMP REPARATIO”), two soldiers standing to the
sides of a standard(s). Another common theme prevailing only after Constantine
I The Great is the Chi-Rho Christogram.
4. Just like the obverses, the reverse of Early Roman coins will have titles that the
late Roman coins will not have (usually the same titles listed for the obverses).
5. Purchase a book or study online the various gods of goddesses of Rome. There is really
no easy way of doing this, and only practice will aid in improving this. A good
book for this is “The Handbook of Roman
Imperial Coins” by David Van Meter.
6. Roman Imperial coins NEVER have Greek characters
within the legends around the edge of the coin. There may be some in the fields
(called officina marks), as well as in the exergue (more on this later). If
your coin contains Greek legends around the edge, it is either a barbarous
imitation (coins minted unofficially by people outside, generally on the
fringes, of the Roman Empire), OR you have a Roman Provincial coin.
5: Identifying the Mint
Nearly all Early Roman coins were minted in Rome. There are some exceptions, but
without hoarde data and minute style differences, you will never know the
difference between a Sestertius minted in Rome and one minted in Lugdunum
(France). Unless you have an extensive library of books on Roman coins, you won’t
be able to find this information. Late Roman coins, though, were privy to
mintage marks. These mintage marks are almost always found in what is called the
exergue. This is the line near the bottom of the coin. Above this is the
imagery of the reverse, below it is the mintmark. There are many mints that
were open at varying times throughout late Rome, and again studying references
and practice is the only way to get better at this. Here are some tips on
identifying the mint:
1. A common adage to the beginning of the mintmark is the “SM” prefix (which is
usually present on Late Roman coins, but not always). Following this is usually
the mint label itself. Some common ones include “K”, which is that of Cyzicus, “TS”
which is that of Thessalonica, “N” which is that of Nicomedia, and probably the
most common of all mintmarks (with or without the “SM” prefix) is “SIS”, which
is Siscia. Following the mint itself is usually the officina letter (generally
in numerical or alphabetical order). Officina letters/numbers can be either in
Roman or Greek. Occasionally the officina mark is located before the mint label
as a prefix.
2. Knowing the location where your coin came from can help a lot. Listed above are common
mintmarks from coins found in and around Bulgaria and Turkey, the most common
sources of coins.
3. There are two mints which get confused all the time. These are Constantinople and
Arles. Usually the novice will assume that the “CONS” exergue is always
Constantinople, but it is not. Arles had an extensive mintage with this exergue
as well (particularly on the “GLORIA EXERCITVS Soldiers and standards” reverse
type). Generally, if the mintmark reads “CONST” it is Arles, and if “CONS” it
is Constantinople. But remember that Arles also minted coins with ARL in the
4. Purchase a book which lists these mintmarks and their associated mints. I recommend “The Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins” by
David Van Meter (located on page 9). I recommend this book to all novices and I
refer to it myself now and again.
5. Roman coins were struck by hand, and thus imperfectly. Sometimes the mintmark is off
of the flan (either most or all of the way). In this circumstance it is usually
impossible to identify the mint.
Part 6: Dating Roman Coins
Once you know the emperor, you can always get an approximate date of when the coin
was minted. Exact minting dates can only be found with extensive numismatic
literature (more about that in the next section).
Part 7: Finding References For Your Coin
The internet is full of resources here. However, I
am not allowed to list them due to ebay rules. The most comprehensive and novice friendly website
available can be found by typing “wildwinds” into your favorite search engine.
The “partial inscription search” can be extremely useful. Another option
(something you will most likely want to do) is to purchase a book on Roman
Imperial coins. The cheapest and most comprehensive of these books (in my
opinion) being “The Handbook of Roman
Imperial Coins” by David Van Meter. However, if you are wealthy (or want to
become a coin dealer) you will need to purchase the 10 volume book “The Roman
Imperial Coinage” by Spink & Son. This will set you back many thousands of
dollars, but represents THE reference for Roman Imperial Coins (something that
other types of coins do not have the privilege of having). A much less comprehensive, but still extremely good for the price (and suited to the beginner) is ERIC by Rasiel Suarez. It is currently on its second printing (A massive 1400 page book). I have not yet used the second edition, so I can't yet comment on it's worth (however, Rasiel is a great guy, so I'm sure it's a great book). The original (only 600 or so pages) is available online as a free download. I cannot link to pages outside of ebay here, so you'll either have to message me, or purchase something from me (I have an auto email that includes a link to this free book).
CLICK HERE TO BROWSE MY SELECTION OF HUNDREDS OF ROMAN IMPERIAL COINS!
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this guide helpful.
Thanks and God Bless, Ed ~Romae Aeternae Numismatics~
Beginners Guide To Identifying Ancient Roman Coins
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January 23, 2011
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