NGC Ancients: Roman Coins Before the Denarius

Posted on 3/14/2023

The earliest coinage of the Roman Republic had a great amount of variety, beauty and "humor" (depending on your perspective).

The Roman Republic was late to mint and use coins as a main part of their economy. The Greeks in nearby South Italy had been making amazing coins for centuries while the Romans were still using bronze ingots and primitive cast bronze coins.

This all changed in 326/5 B.C., when Neapolis, a Greek city in the nearby region of Campania, struck coins in the name of Rome. This eventually led to Romans minting their own coins, at first mimicking the denominations of the Greek cities around them, but eventually settling on the denarius in about 211 B.C.

The above 17mm bronze is among the first coins struck for the Romans. Made during the late 4th Century B.C. at the city of Neapolis, it uses the same design that Naples used for its own coins: Apollo on the obverse and a man-headed bull on the reverse. The difference is the reverse Greek inscription PΩMAIΩN, which is dedicated to the Romans.

The Romans' use of coinage blossomed during three conflicts that raged in Italy and Sicily, the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 B.C.), the First Punic War (264 to 241 B.C.) and the Second Punic War (218 to 201 B.C.). The need to finance these wars had Rome making large numbers of coins, increasing the amount of physical money in their economy.

Their success in the Second Punic War sealed their need for a more continuous coinage as the Romans gained a prominent role in the politics of the Mediterranean.

Below we’ll review some of the coins issued by the Romans leading up to the introduction of the denarius.

The didrachm above is the first silver coin created specifically for the Romans. It is believed to have been made at Neapolis, perhaps in 326/5 B.C. as a reflection of a treaty between the Romans and the Neapolitans against a common enemy, the Samnites. The obverse shows the helmeted head of the god Mars. The reverse has a horse’s head and grain ear above a plinth bearing the Latin inscription ROMANO.

This silver didrachm of c.275 to 255 B.C. is believed to be the first silver coinage made at the mint in the city of Rome. The obverse shows the Greco-Roman hero Hercules wearing a lion skin with a club over his shoulder. The reverse harkens to one of the two foundation myths of the origins of Rome — the twins Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. The fine engraving and detail on this example are extraordinary.

The beautiful patina on this 15mm bronze really makes it stand out. Made c.241 to 235 B.C., this litra shows on the obverse the helmeted head of Mars, this time beardless. The reverse has a horse head and sickle with the legend ROMA.

This silver didrachm was made at about the same time, c.248 to 230 B.C., and has a similar head of Mars as on the previous coin, though with a club behind. The reverse shows a horse rearing above the inscription ROMA, with a club in the field above.

The 20mm bronze dilitra above was made at the mint in Rome c.230 to 226 B.C. The obverse shows the head of Hercules wearing a lion skin with a club at his shoulder. The reverse shows Pegasus in flight with a club above.

During the Second Punic War, the Romans greatly revised their ideas on coined money. First, they struck gold coins — something unimagined prior to Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. Made c.218 to 216 B.C., this half stater shows on its obverse a youthful janiform head often identified as Janus (the god of beginnings and endings), but more likely a depiction of the Dioscuri.

The reverse shows an oath-taking scene where two warriors representing Rome and her Italian allies touch swords to a sacrificial pig held by a youth. The design of this coin could have been used to help garner continued and strengthen bonds among allies.

During this war, the Romans adopted their own silver denomination, the ‘quadrigatus,’ which was a reduced weight didrachm. The obverse shows the laureate and janiform head of the Dioscuri. The reverse shows a stunning scene with the god Jupiter preparing to hurl a thunderbolt from a quadriga driven by Victory.

The remaining pieces highlight some bronze coinage of the Second Punic War era, when the Romans transitioned from casting to striking their bronzes.

The above 35mm bronze quadrans was struck at Rome c.217 to 215 B.C. The obverse has the bust of Hercules wearing a boar headdress instead of the more familiar lion skin. The reverse offers an equally intriguing design of a bull charging over a snake. The three pellets on each side of the coin identify the value as a quadrans.

The above bronze sextan was made c.217 to 215 B.C. and shows the familiar mythological scene of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The reverse has an eagle holding a flower in its beak. The two pellets on each side of the coin are marks of value.

Rounding out our review of pre-denarius Roman coinage is a bronze uncia made c.217 to 215 B.C. The obverse shows the radiate, facing head of the sun-god Sol with a single pellet marking the coin’s value. The reverse has two stars, a pellet and crescent above the legend ROMA.

We’ll end on a lighter note, as depending on your perspective this may be the “happiest” coin of the ancient world since the reverse ends up looking like a large smiley face.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here.

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