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Starting a Collection of Ancient Coins

Starting a Collection of Ancient Coins

Charles Calkins, WINS#47


When I've shown ancient coins to non-coin collectors, or even collectors of modern coins, I often receive looks of amazement, or reactions like "That is almost two thousand years old! It must be valuable! It should be in a museum!" As with any coin series, for a given issue that may be true, but ancient coins are much more accessible than one may think.

What is an "ancient coin?"

One can imagine ancient coins belonging to civilizations such as Greece at the time of Socrates, or Rome when Julius Caesar ruled, but they are much more wide-ranging. A number of cultures issued coinage — the Chinese, various kindgoms in India, the Parthians, the Sasanians, the Kushan, the Nabateans, the Judeans and the Axumites, just to name a few. While coinage began in Lydia in the 7th century B.C., exactly when a coin is no longer considered "ancient" is somewhat open for debate. The end of the western Roman Empire in A.D. 476? The end of the eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) at the fall of Constantinople in 1453? The beginning of the First Crusade in 1096? The answer may even be regional — for example, "medieval" coins may begin in Britian with the migration into Britain of Anglo-Saxon tribes when their coinage filled the void left by the departure of the Romans, but China had the same "round with square hole in the middle" style of coin from 200 BC into the early 20th century. Here are a selection of coins from cultures mentioned above:

China, 1 Knife, ca. 255 B.C. (Chou dynasty) China, 10 Cash, A.D. 1851-1861
India, Lead Karshapana, A.D. 125-345 (Chutu dynasty) Parthia, Tetradrachm, A.D. 47
Sasanian Empire, Drachm, A.D. 241-272 (Shapur I) Nabateans, 9 B.C.-A.D. 40 (Aretas IV)
Axum, AD 340-425 Kushan Empire, AD 30-375

Which ancient coins should I collect?

As with any coin series, the question to ask in response is "What are you interested in?" There is no specfic way to collect ancient coins, although there are a few common themes that are often followed, including:

  • Famous people, places, or events. One may desire a coin from Athens when Socrates was in the city, or a coin of Alexander the Great, or one of Nero, or one from Judea at the time Jesus was had his earthly ministry. Coins exist that commemorate victories in battle, or an Emperor's visit. Coins of the first 12 Caesars can be collected, or coins of personages named in the Bible such as Pontius Pilate or Pius Felix.
  • Symbology. One may like to collect coins that depict animals, Christian symbols, mythological creatures, or personifications.
  • Location. Coins of a particular empire, or even mint, may be desired, such as Roman coins minted in London.
  • Type or material. A person could focus just on copper coins, or coins of a certain denomination. There are collectors who solely collect the silver dollar-sized copper coins of the Ptolemys, for example — the larger the better.

If someone does not have a specific interest, I suggest collecting 4th century Roman bronzes for a number of reasons:

  • They are inexpensive. For example, VCoins lists identifiable coins of Constantine, AD 307-337, for under $10, and very nice ones of common styles, for only twice that. The coins of his wife and children are also comparable, so a variety of coins of that era can be collected without incurring great expense. These types of coins are also sold by WINS member dealers, such as Civitas Galleries.
  • They really are common. Coins of this era were struck in the millions and are regularly found by metal detectorists and other lucky folks. Of course, certain types are more rare than others, but for the most part they are easy to find, which is why they are inexpensive.
  • They are readable. Roman coins are in Latin, and the Emperor's name is spelled out in the legend, so coins with clear legends are easy to attribute. There are Roman coins issued in Greek-speaking regions ("Roman Provincials") which have legends in Greek, but the mainstream issues are in Latin.
  • There are lots of varieties. By this time, mints added mintmarks to coins, so not only can coins be grouped by ruler and type, but mints from across the empire can be identified. Constantine, for instance, struck coins at 19 different mints.
  • They are accessible to the non-collector. These coins have the novelty factor of being 1700 years old, and represent people and places that non coin collectors have heard of before. These types can encourage someone to start a collection and enter the coin collecting hobby, or just be a curiosity. A coin with a Chi-Rho symbol on it can be a great gift for a church pastor, or one with a military soldier a good addition to a collector of militaria.

How do I read a Roman coin?

Here are a few examples showing the kinds of things that can be found on Roman coins.

Constantine Campgate

This is a coin of Constantine minted in A.D. 326-327 with a campgate reverse, and is one of the most common styles of his coinage:

The obverse of a Roman coin is almost always a portrait of the Emperor or Empress who issued the coin, here, the head of Constantine. On this one, his head is bare, but he is wearing a laurel wreath, and is facing to the right, so is described as "laureate head right." The legend is CONSTANTINVS AVG. CONSTANTINVS is his name, and AVG is an abbreviation for Augustus ("Emperor"). At this time, the letters U and J have not become part of the alphabet, so V will be in place of U, and I in place of J.

The reverse of a Roman coin can be any one of a multitude of types, and even amongst the campgate types the numbers of bricks can vary, the number of turrets can change, and the doors can be open or closed. This one has a pellet in the otherwise empty door. The inscription is PROVIDENTIAE AVGG ("In honor of the foresight of the Emperors."). The two G's of AVGG indicate two concurrently ruling Augusti. While Constantine was sole Augustus after the defeat of Licinius in A.D. 324, perhaps the second G refers to his wife Fausta, who was proclaimed Augusta in 323.

The bottom of the reverse is known as the exergue, and, at this time of the Roman empire, contains the mintmark. This one reads SMANTΓ, where SM is Sacra Moneta ("sacred money"), ANT indicates the mint of Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), and Γ the officina indicator. Mints were often divided into separate workshops (officina) and marks were added to each coin to identify which workshop produced the coin for tracking and quality purposes. On issues of eastern mints, Greek letters were used in alphabetic order to indicate the mint: Α = 1st officina, Β = 2nd officina, Γ = 3rd officina, etc.

With this information, the coin can be found in standard references. The two most popular are David Sear's Roman Coins and Their Values five volumne Millenium Edition (this coin is in volume 4 as #16268), and The Roman Imperial Coinage 13 volume set (with this coin in volume 7 as #71 under Antioch). Both are very useful references. RIC tends to be more expansive, where small differences between coins (such as an additional mark in a field) will elicit separate reference numbers, where Sear will group related types together. The organization is also different, in that Sear groups coins by ruler, denomination and then mint, while RIC differs from volume to volume, but often groups by mint, and then by denomination.

Licinus with Jupiter

This is a coin of Licinius minted in A.D. 313-317 with Jupiter on the reverse:

While this coin also is "laureate head right," the legend is more expansive, reading IMP C VAL LICIN LICINIVS P F AVG, where IMP is "Imperator" (head of the army), C is "Caesar" (in this case, as a member of the royal family), VAL LICIN LICINIVS is his name (in full, Gaius Valerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus), P is "Pius" (pious), F is "Felix" (happy), and AVG is again "Augustus."

The reverse shows Jupiter standing, facing left, holding Victory (the winged figure holding a wreath) on a globe in one hand, a scepter in the other, and an eagle at his feet holding a wreath in its beak. The inscription is IOVI CONSERVATORI, ("To Jupiter, the savior"). As mentioned previously, J had not entered into the alphabet, so IOVI = JOVI.

The exergue reads SMN, where SM is again Sacra Moneta, and N is the mintmark for the mint of Nicomedia (now Kocaeli, Turkey). The Z in the right field is the officina mark.

This coin is cataloged as RIC VII Nicomedia 13, and Sear #15216. Sear #15216 also includes the related type RIC VII Nicomedia 15, which has both an N and a Z in the right field.

Constantine VLPP

Returning to Constantine, this one minted A.D. 319-320 has an unusual exergue:

There are a number of possible obverse styles in addition to the laurate head seen previously. This one shows a full bust, where Constantine is both helmeted and cuirassed (wearing torso armor). The legend reads CONSTANTINVS AVG.

The reverse shows two Victories (the winged figure seen on the coin of Licinius) holding a shield inscribed VOT PR over an altar. VOT is Vota ("vows") and PR likely Primus, indicating a vow made by the Emperor. The legend is VICTORIAE LAET PRINC PERP ("Joyous (well-earned) victory to the eternal Prince").

The contents of the exergue is the most unusual feature of this coin. The P L indicates the first (prima) officina of the mint of Lugdunum (now Lyons, France). As this is a western mint, Latin letters are used to indicate the officina: P = Prima = 1st officina, S = Secunda = 2nd officina, T = Tertia = 3rd officina, etc. While non-alphabetic symbols are possible in the exergue, the captives between the letters are not commonly seen.

This coin is cataloged as RIC VII Lyons 79, but I haven't found it in Sear. While Sear has on the order of twenty thousand entries, each of which can represent multiple related coins, there are still ones in RIC which are not apparent in Sear.

Crispus Votive

Constantine's first son, Crispus, issued this coin in A.D. 320-321:

The obverse of this coin shows a laureate, cuirassed bust of Crispus, and has the legend CRISPVS NOB CAES. He never achieved the rank of Augustus, but was only Caesar, so this coin reads NOB CAES, Nobilitas Caesar ("Noble Caesar").

The reverse is a votive issue, with has VOT X (vow 10) in a wreath, surrounded by DOMINOR NOSTROR CAESS, Dominorum Nostrorum Caesarum ("Of our Caesars"). At the time, his brothers also held the rank of Caesar, hence the reference on the coin to multiple Caesars.

The exergue contains TT, one T to indicate the tertia officina, and the other as the mintmark for Ticinum (now Pavia, Italy).


Collecting ancient coins can be a fun hobby, and types abound. Roman coins in particular are historic and accessible, in the senses of both readability and obtainability, and make a nice addition to any coin collection.

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