This month, NGC Ancients examines the evolution of Roman gold coins from the end of the Republic to the fourth century.
One thing that has remained constant throughout history is the value placed on gold. In ancient as well as modern times, gold coinage was used for both ceremonial and economic purposes. As the world’s leading civilization for the better part of a millennium, it is only natural that the Roman Empire would have issued an array of gold coinage that evolved along with the fortunes of the empire.
The first standard gold coin of the Roman Empire was the aureus, valued at 25 silver denarii. This example issued by the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) bears a fine-style portrait so typical of Roman gold of the 2nd Century A.D. Struck on rare occasions in the late Republican period, it became a standard part of the economy under Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14). About the size and thickness of a present-day US nickel, they were first struck at 40 to the Roman pound, though this weight gradually declined over time. For instance, aurei tended to weigh about 7.6-8.0 grams for the Julio-Claudian period, until the weight was slightly reduced under Nero (A.D. 54-68). It had declined to about 7.1-7.4 grams by the reign of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211); thereafter weight declined drastically (to below 4 grams) following a succession of crises.
This aureus of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) is typical of the heavier, attractive early Julio-Claudian issues. The obverse features a pleasing small bust of the emperor, while the reverse depicts his mother Livia (the deified wife of Augustus) as the goddess Pax. It contains 7.75 grams of high purity gold.
Also struck at this time, though infrequently, was the gold quinarius, a half-denomination aureus. This example, again issued under Tiberius, was struck in about A.D. 18. It depicts the emperor on the obverse and Victory seated on a globe on the reverse.
Production of the aureus continued through the first and second centuries A.D., with very little change besides a gradual and slight reduction in weight. By the time of the Severan Dynasty (A.D. 193-235), the average aureus weighed in at the low end of the 7.0-gram range. This superb piece, struck in about A.D. 201, weighs only 7.07 grams (compare this to the Tiberius aureus featured above, which is almost 7/10th of a gram heavier). Septimius Severus, the founder of the Severan Dynasty, is featured on the obverse while his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, occupy the reverse.
Following this trend, this aureus of A.D. 217 of the emperor Caracalla (AD 198-217) (which displays the fine artistic style for which early and middle-period Roman gold is renowned) weighs just 6.34g, significantly less than its predecessors.
The third century A.D. bore witness to the increasingly rapid decline of the Empire due to a series of military, political, and economical crises. Unsurprisingly, these upheavals took their toll on the coinage of the realm, which became increasingly debased amid rampant inflation. Such was the decline of the aureus in particular, that by the middle of the century the denomination did not even remotely resemble anything issued by the first post-Severan emperors just a decade or so before. This is an example of a so-called “light aureus” of the ill-fated emperor Valerian I (A.D. 253-260) in the initial year of his reign. Featuring the emperor on the obverse and the war-god Mars on the reverse, this piece weighs a mere 2.32 grams, or less than a third of the standard weight of two centuries earlier. Note, too, that the style has suffered in comparison to issues of earlier emperors.
An even more striking example of the degradation is this gold coin of Gallienus (A.D. 253-268), issued late in his reign. It has an especially crude portrait of this emperor, and appears to have been struck with dies intended to strike base metal coins, rather than gold. It weighs just 2.23 grams.
After pulling back from the brink of total collapse in the 260s A.D., subsequent emperors made efforts to issue gold coins that at least approximated the coinage of the early Empire. The emperor Probus (A.D. 276-282), for instance, issued this heavy aureus or “Binio” in A.D. 280. Weighing a healthy 6.91 grams, it was likely intended to circulate as a 1½ aureus, as the basic unit of this denomination was now being struck at about 70 to the pound (as compared with the 40/pound of the Julio-Claudian era).
Ultimately, though, as the 4th century began it became increasingly clear that a drastic overhaul was needed if the Roman monetary system was to remain viable. For this, the Empire awaited the legendary reformer Diocletian (AD 284-305), who tried his hand at preserving the gold coinage that had so functionally served Rome for most of the previous three centuries.
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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.