NGC Ancients: Plated Greek and Roman Coins

Posted on 12/8/2020

Forgers have been active since the dawn of coinage.

Regardless of when or where counterfeits were made, they always reveal something about a monetary system – and ancient coins are no exception.

In this column we’ll take a quick 2,000-year tour of one category of ancient counterfeits: plated coins. Some plated counterfeits may actually have been made by legitimate authorities under duress, but the vast majority were made by crafty individuals looking to earn a profit at someone else’s expense by passing a forgery as legitimate coin.

There’s no better place to start than at the beginning. Shown above are three plated counterfeits that prove this criminal enterprise began very soon after the first legitimate coins were produced in about 650 B.C.

All three pieces are from the earliest phase of coinage, imitating issues of Ionia in western Asia Minor. They include a 1/24th stater flanked by two 1/12th staters. The types, with simple punches on the reverse and either no design or crude striations on the obverse, copy issues made of electrum, a mix of gold and silver.

Struck more than a century later and near the other end of the Mediterranean is the plated counterfeit shown above. Produced near the end of the 6th Century B.C., it copies a silver stater of Croton, a Greek colony in Southern Italy. Major breaks in its plating reveal its base metal core.

Above is a plated tetradrachm copying an official issue of Athens from the period c.440-404 B.C. Its unofficial nature was revealed by the test cut applied to the owl – a cut so deep that it obliterated some of the design on the obverse. The cut was applied in ancient times by a suspicious individual – very likely a merchant, civic official or money changer.

Suspicion perhaps was aroused by the low weight of this coin – 14.05g. – well below the expected weight of about 17.20g. of a legitimate piece. Even so, it was a good counterfeit since the plating was thick enough that the countermark applied before the owl’s body did not break through to the core.

An entirely different category of ancient plated coin is an “official” issue, which the plated drachm of Athens (above) may have been. The literary record shows that Athens issued plated silver coins at the height of its desperation during the Peloponnesian War, in 406/5 B.C. The above piece – on which at least half of the plating has eroded – may be one of them, or merely a private counterfeit from about that time.

For some enterprising individuals who made plated counterfeits, there were no lines that would not be crossed. An example is the plated stater of Olympia, above, which copies a legitimate issue of c.404 B.C. These coins were struck specifically for use at the Olympic Games and were issued by the temple mints of Zeus and Hera. If a person had any concern about tempting fate or offending the gods, Olympic staters would have been among the last coins they would dare to fake.

The above piece, which at 9.05g. is well under the probable weight of 11.50g. to 12.50g., was detected in ancient times with a heavy chisel cut.

Above are eleven plated silver drachms copying types issued in the mid- to late-4th Century B.C. at the Greek city of Larissa. The base metal cores are visible on all of them, with some bearing test cuts or punches that were applied in ancient times.

Sometimes the precious metal coating (or ‘jacket’) on plated counterfeits was rather thin. This likely was the case with the above item, which was made in imitation of an electrum stater struck in the Greek city of Cyzicus in the 5th or 4th Century B.C. At 10.16g. (rather than the expected weight of about 16.00g.) its weight is low – no doubt this was a giveaway to people at the time, and after about 2,400 years of burial, none of its original plating remains.

Not even the wrath of the Great King of Persia could deter some counterfeiters from plying their trade. Shown above is a plated silver siglos of the 5th Century B.C. bearing on its obverse the image of the Persian king (or a hero) holding a bow and a spear. The copper core is visible in several places through large breaks in the silver plating.

As with the stater of Cyzicus discussed earlier, the stater of Aspendus shown above also lacks any trace of its precious metal jacket (which in this case would have been silver). It copies an issue struck c.420-380 B.C. that shows on its obverse two wrestlers and on its reverse a slinger and a triskeles.

Above is an ancient counterfeit shekel of Tyre (in Phoenicia) from the mid-1st Century A.D. Only small traces of the original silver coating remain in protected areas. At 12.29g. it weighs about two grams less than might be expected.

It is often suggested that the serrated edge on some silver denarii of the Roman Republic was meant to discourage forgers since they revealed interior portions of the coin. While that may be why those cuts were applied at the mint, some forgers were not discouraged by the obstacle, as shown by the piece above.

Underweight and with breaks in its silver plating, this counterfeit of an issue of the moneyer L. Papius (c.79 B.C.) clearly circulated before it was interred in the earth. It may have been discarded as a counterfeit, but it’s also possible it was never detected in ancient times, only to have its true nature revealed in modern times after some of its silver jacket had eroded.

Forgers copied a wide variety of ancient coins and did not shy away from the more intriguing issues. Above is a plated counterfeit of the famous “Eid Mar” coinage that Brutus issued in 42 B.C. to celebrate his lead role in the murder of Julius Caesar. The plating has broken away in several places, perhaps aided by the application of ‘bankers marks’ in some of the largest areas of erosion.

The same may be said of the plated silver denarius above. It copies an issue produced in 42 B.C. for Brutus’ co-conspirator and military ally, Cassius.

Sometimes forgers were inventive (or careless) with their products. Here, for example, is a plated silver denarius with two portraits of the Roman emperor Caligula (A.D. 37-41) – a type that was never issued officially. However, we must give the forger credit since Caligula issued other silver denarii with portraits on both sides of the coin, though in those cases the second portrait was that of another member of the imperial family.

One well-known category of ancient counterfeits emanates from the Roman province of Britannia (Britain), where plated silver denarii of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) were produced at a ‘local’ mint. The piece above, on which the base metal core can be seen along the periphery of the obverse and reverse, is one example. In addition to being plated, its style and fabric are odd and its weight of 2.68g. is quite low compared to official issues.

During the horrific civil war of A.D. 68-69, which caused unimaginable damage throughout the Roman Empire, a variety of ‘anonymous’ gold aurei and silver denarii were issued by the commanders who vied for supreme power. Above is a plated counterfeit of a denarius issued during this difficult time, when profiteers may have found it easier than usual to pass plated coins as legitimate.

Two plated counterfeits with their base metal cores revealed are shown above. Both imitate large silver coins from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. The first copies a tetradrachm of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) issued at the mint of Tyre in Phoenicia (or Antioch in Syria); the second copies a cistophorus of Trajan’s successor, Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), issued at the mint of Sardes in Lydia.

Above is a silver-plated double-denarius of Philip I ‘the Arab’ (A.D. 244-249) imitating an issue of the Rome mint. Despite its high level of execution in both engraving style and production quality (indeed, at 4.50g. it is heavier than most legitimate issues), it nonetheless is a counterfeit. This is made clear by several breaks in the plating along its inscriptions.

The counterfeit solidus shown above, imitating an issue of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (A.D. 402-450), is odd in various aspects of its style and fabric, even though at 4.38g. its weight is in line with genuine examples. However, breaks in its gold jacket along the periphery reveal its base metal core.

Large patches of gold plating are detached from the base metal core on this counterfeit of a gold histamenon nomisma of the Byzantine emperors Nicephorus II and Basil II (A.D. 963-969), who appear opposite the facing bust of Christ. At merely 2.85g., it is far below the expected weight of about 4.40g. for an official coin.

Our final piece is at the far end of the chronological spectrum, for it copies a gold hyperpyron of a type issued c.A.D. 1341-1347 for the Byzantine emperor John V and his mother-regent Anna of Savoy. As with so many counterfeits that survive to the modern day, large areas of plating have broken away, revealing its base metal core.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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