NGC Ancients: Barbarous Imitations of Roman Coins

Posted on 5/12/2020

Romanized areas in short supply of coins created their own imitations.

Ancient Roman coins were struck in immense quantities and served an important commercial purpose in the Mediterranean world and beyond. They circulated in the most remote parts of the Roman world and flowed far outside of Rome’s borders.

The Romans were eager merchants who sought raw materials and finished goods from foreign lands as far as Africa, China, India and Arabia. This meant Roman coins were sent to these regions as payment for the goods they desired.

A barbarous imitation of a cententionalis of Constantius Gallus (Caesar, A.D. 351-354)

Furthermore, some areas within the Roman world were under-served with coinage and suffered frequent shortages. Because the inhabitants of these Romanized areas had grown accustomed to coinage, in times of dire need they resorted to making their own. Typically, they would look to official Roman coins for their design inspirations.

In this column we’ll examine a variety of ancient imitations of Roman coins by comparing them with the Roman originals upon which they were based.

First is an imitative silver denarius that is a hybrid to two different Roman Republican denarii. The obverse copies the Roma head from a L. Julius L. f. Caesar denarius of c.103 B.C.; the reverse copies a three-horse chariot (triga) from a denarius of the moneyer C. Naevius Balbus, c.79 B.C. Official examples of both prototype issues are shown beneath the imitation.

The next imitative denarius inspired by Roman Republican coinage also pairs the obverse of one issue with the reverse of another. The obverse is copied from a denarius of L. Flaminius Chilo (c.109/8 B.C.), the reverse from a denarius of L. Rutilius Flaccus (c.77 B.C.). Again, both prototypes are illustrated beneath the copy.

Shown above are four silver denarii – three imitations, which are followed by their prototype, an official issue of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), which bears his portrait and the figures of his grandsons Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar. The three imitations are ‘Germanic’ issues of Western Europe, all of which are truly remarkable for their design interpretations.

Illustrated above are two other imitations of the Augustus denarius type just described. This time, however, the copies originate in India, where Roman coins frequently circulated and were imitated locally.

Other coins of Rome’s first emperor were copied, including issues produced for use in the provinces. Above are three coins of interest: two ‘local’ copies, followed by an official example of their prototype, a bronze struck in about 25 B.C. for use in Asia Minor.

Above, a crude imitation from an unofficial mint in Britain, Spain, Gaul or Germany is paired with its prototype, a brass sestertius of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) from the Rome mint. The copy is much lighter than the Roman original (14.00 grams vs. 24.37 grams), yet because of a dearth of coinage in the Western provinces it was allowed to circulate at a lower value. This was achieved by applying a DV countermark, which re-valued it as a dupondius, a Roman brass coin worth half of a sestertius.

Also representing the emperor Claudius are the two coins shown above. As with the previous two, the first is an imitation from an unofficial mint in the West, the next its official prototype – in this case a copper as of the Rome mint. Both feature a portrait of Claudius and the striding figure of the goddess Minerva.

Shown above is a hybrid imitation of Claudius bronzes, also from an unofficial western mint. It mules the obverse of a portrait bronze of Claudius and the reverse of another type he struck, a Rome-mint dupondius honoring his deceased mother, Antonia. An example of an Antonia dupondius appears beneath it for comparison.

The emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68) issued a wide variety of imperial bronzes, which sometimes were copied in remote regions. Illustrated above is an imitative issue from an unofficial European mint, followed by an example of its prototype, a copper as showing the bust of Nero and the emperor playing a lyre.

We now move onto Roman gold coins imitated in India. Below are five examples, each paired with official Roman coins of a type that might have served as a prototype for at least one of the sides. Most Indian copies were not derived from single coin types, but combined elements from different issues. In each case, the sense of local artistry is clear.

An aureus of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) appears beneath an Indian imitation with a similar obverse format, but an unrelated reverse type.

The same applies to the two gold coins above – an Indian copy and an aureus of Faustina Senior (A.D. 138-140/1), the deified wife of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161).

Above is an Indian imitation and its prototype issue, an aureus of the emperor Lucius Verus (A.D. 161-169). Unlike the previous two pairs, in which the weights of the Indian pieces were reasonably close to the Roman originals, this imitation is about half the weight of the Roman aureus it copies. It has two holes in it, a diagnostic feature of many Indian imitations of Roman aurei.

Coins of the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211) and his family were frequently copied in India. Above is one such copy, followed by an original aureus of Septimius Severus. The reverse design of the imitative issue is unrelated to the Roman coin shown. Though the reverse of the imitation no doubt is based on a familiar Roman type, its execution is quite original, showing an impressive figure wearing Kushan-style attire.

Above is an Indian imitative aureus, for which the prototype actually may have been a silver denarius. A close match is shown beneath – a denarius of Septimius Severus’ eldest son, Caracalla (A.D. 198-217), though it featues a younger portrait of Caracalla. Like many Indian copies, it has two large holes in it, and in this case adds a gold plug, presumably to increase the weight of the piece.

Another category of imitations is the ‘limes denarius’. These are base-metal copies of official Roman silver denarii. Since they typically are found along the borders (limes) of the empire, they have acquired their distinctive name. Above is a pair to illustrate: a limes copy followed by an original denarius of Geta (Caesar, A.D. 198-209) of the prototype issue, produced at the imperial mint in Laodicea, Syria.

A second pair: a cast limes denarius and a silver denarius of Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) of the issue which served as the prototype.

Above is an imitative sestertius of the emperor Gordian III (A.D. 238-244), followed by an example of the official issue it copies – a Rome mint sestertius depicting the emperor and the god Apollo.

Above are four imitations of a type commonly called ‘barbarous radiates’ because the radiate crown that adorns the portrait becomes the dominant feature on the most degenerative examples. Beneath them is an example of the type of coin after which they would have been modeled: a billon double-denarius of the Romano-Gallic emperor Victorinus (A.D. 269-271).

Barbarous radiates typically were produced in Britain, Gaul or Germany in the late 3rd Century A.D. when official coinage was scarce. The four depicted here are far enough removed from their Roman originals that their prototypes cannot be identified.

As we move into the 4th Century A.D., we encounter a new crop of imitative bronzes from the ‘Constantinian Era’. Above are two imitative issues that could have originated in a wide swath of European territories. They’re followed by two examples of the kinds that presumably served as prototypes – an AE3 of Crispus (Caesar, A.D. 316-326), and one of his father, the emperor Constantine I ‘the Great’ (A.D. 307-337).

From the same era are two coins above. First is the imitative issue from a ‘barbarous’ mint, likely in the Balkans; next is a close prototype, issued for Constantine II (Caesar, A.D. 316-337), another son of Constantine I ‘the Great’.

Also produced in the Constantinian Era were ‘anonymous’ commemoratives of c.A.D. 330-340 honoring the twin-capitals Rome and Constantinople. Above are two pieces: an imitation and an official AE3 of Lugdunum, both honoring Rome with a helmeted head of the goddess Roma and a scene of the she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus. The imitation weighs less than half the original.

We’ll end this survey with two gold solidi of essentially identical weight. A ‘Germanic’ imitation is followed by an example of the prototype, an official solidus of the Western Roman emperor Valentinian I (A.D. 364-375) produced at the Nicomedia mint. There are minor differences throughout the designs and inscriptions, but the most glaring distinction is in the style of engraving, which is less refined – though by no means less interesting – on the Germanic imitation.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC.

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