This ancient coin was struck by Marc Antony at Patrae (modern day Patras, Greece) circa 32-31 BC. Antony produced millions of similar coins, all bearing the obverse image of a galley, and the reverse image of two military standards (signa or vexilla) on either side of an aquila military standard. The aquila, or eagle, represented the specific military standard representing each Roman legion. The reverse inscription on this particular denarius reads LEG II, in honor of the second Roman legion. Also produced were more than a score of other variants (honoring different legions, praetorian cohorts and speculatores), collectively referred to as Antony’s “legionary denarii,” along with a very limited volume of related gold coinage.
Antony produced these coins to pay his legions and his fleet. To support such a large volume of production, Antony had to resort to lowering his coin’s silver content by the addition of copper (apparently foreshadowing a trend that the Romans would follow for the next several centuries). Due to their debasement, these coins tended to circulate constantly (as opposed to being hoarded), and many survive only in highly worn state. This legionary denarius, though among the more common variants, is relatively scarce since it retains an uncommonly high state of preservation of almost uncirculated. Also due to their debasement, many legionary denarii bear bankers’ assay marks. For example, this particular specimen bears test cuts on its edge.
It is interesting to note that the obverse inscription reads ANT AVG, denoting that Antony held the title of augur, one who interpreted the will of the gods. The same title was previous held by Julius Caesar; Antony’s advertisement of the title was perhaps an attempt to associate himself with Rome’s murdered dictator. Ironically, AVG later became associated with Augustus, Octavian’s new title upon defeating Antony and becoming Rome’s supreme ruler. The obverse also bears the inscription III VIR R P C, denoting triumvir rei publicae constituendae, i.e., “one of three men for the restoration of the Republic." The three men referenced Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, even though by the time this coin was struck, their triumvirate had been dissolved.
Antony struck his legionary denarii in preparation for what turned out to be his last campaign against Octavian. The epic Battle of Actium took place on September 1, 31 BC. Emerging victorious was Octavian, with assistance from his trusted general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. In the aftermath, Antony committed suicide, and, shortly thereafter, so did his famous lover, Cleopatra.
Surviving Antony were his highly recognizable legionary denarii, although they were probably unpopular at the time due to their debasement. They circulated for centuries; meanwhile, the silver content of Rome’s denarii declined to the point they came to equal the intrinsic value of Antony’s legionary coinage. Thus the legionary denarii became more famous over time. Elements of Antony’s design were replicated by many future Roman Emperors such as Nero, Galba, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian. In 169 AD, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Actium with a re-issue honoring Legio VI (interestingly, they decided to change AVG to AVGVR so as avoid any confusion between their title and Anthony's).
Today, Antony’s legionary denarii are arguably the most recognizable and collectible group of ancient coinage, Roman or otherwise.
Additional Reading: D Vagi, “Marc Antony legionary denarii iconic. Plentiful and historic coins highly collectible today,” Coin World, 01/27/12.
Coin Details: ROMAN IMPERATORIAL, The Triumvirs, Mark Antony, Autumn 32-spring 31 BC, AR Denarius (16mm, 3.75 g, 6h), Legionary type, Patrae(?) mint, NGC Grade: AU, Strike: 5/5, Surface: 4/5, Obverse: Galley right, Reverse: LEG II, legionary aquila between two signa, References: Crawford 544/14; CRI 349; Sydenham 1216; RSC 27.