Coinage came late to the Roman Republic compared with the rest of the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Asia Minor where coins were invented in the 7th century BC. The currency of central Italy was influenced by its natural resources, with bronze ore being abundant (the Etruscans were famous metal workers in bronze and iron) and silver ore being scarce. The coinage of the Roman Republic started with a few silver coins apparently devised for trade with the Greek colonies in Southern Italy, and heavy cast bronze pieces for use in Central Italy.
During the Second Punic war a flexible system of coins in bronze, silver and (occasionally) gold was created. This system was dominated by the silver denarius, a denomination which remained in circulation for 450 years. The coins of the republic (especially the denarii) are of particular interest because they were produced by "mint magistrates", junior officials who choose the designs and legends. This resulted in the production of coins advertising the official's families for political purposes; many of the messages on these coins can still be understood today.
A system of heavy cast leaded bronze coinage was introduced; these issues are known as aes grave (heavy bronze) by numismatists. Stylistically the coins were distinctly Roman and, due to both their size and their being cast rather than struck, crude compared to the coinage elsewhere around the Mediterranean at the time. The standard coin was the as; the word as referred to a coin and also to a unit of weight - in fact, as could also mean any unit - of length, area, and sometimes just the number one.
The bronze coinage was initially a fiduciary currency rather than a token currency, based on the "libral" standard where the as weighed one Roman pound (libra) with fractions in units of Roman ounces (unciae), with 12 unciae in a libra. The "uncia" was thus also both a weight and a coin of the weight. This changed when the weight of the aes grave was decreased to approximately 10 unciae ca 270 BC (the "light libral standard", remaining at that level until 225 BC, then suddenly to 5 unciae (the "semi-libral standard") ca. the start of the second Punic war in 218 BC, finally falling to 1.5 - 1 unciae around 211 BC.
In addition to the as and its fractions, multiples of the as were also produced. Fractions were much more common than asses and their multiples during the period of aes grave. By the time of the semi-libral standard, the smaller denominations such as the uncia and semuncia were struck rather than cast. A variety of less common denominations were minted over time; those found in Crawford (1974) are listed here.
|Bronze Denominations in Crawford (1974)|
|Coin||Mark||Earliest Example||Date||Value (Asses)||Value (Unciae)|
Rome entered into a war against Tarentum in 281 B.C.; the Tarentines enlisted the support of Pyrrhus of Epirus. It was in this context that Rome produced its first Greek-style silver didrachm (Crawford 13/1) with the head of Mars wearing a Corinthian helmet on one side and the head of a horse with the inscription ROMANO (worn off on the example shown) and a grain ear behind. This coinage may have predated the aes grave discussed above, but was minted and used largely in Magna Graecia and Campania. It was clearly part of a broader trend; payment of Roman and allied troops fighting in the Pyrrhic war appears to have been crucial in spreading the use of Greek-style coinage throughout the southern Apennine areas of Italy. This issue is today thought to have been minted in Neapolis because it was minted on that weight standard (7.3 g), not that of Metapontum, Tarentum, and other South Italian cities (which was 7.9 g at the start of the war but fell to 6.6 g during its course). This issue was thought earlier to have been minted in Metapontum because the grain-ear is the most common type on Metapontine coins and the Mars head is very similar to the head of Leucippus (a local hero, the Messenian king who re-founded Metapontum, not the philosopher) on an earlier coin produced there.
A number of different coins were minted in increasing volumes over the next few years, but the first silver coin now thought to have been minted in Rome itself is the Hercules/She-wolf didrachm (Crawford 20/1). The date of this issue is likely 269 BC, as the devices on this coin refer to that year's consuls Q. Ogulnius L.f A.n. Gallus and C. Fabius C.f. M.n. Pictor. Hercules, shown on the obverse with the lion skin tied around is neck and his club (shown undersized above his shoulder), was the divine patron of the Fabii. Quintus and his brother Cnaeus Ogulnius had, as curule aediles, prosecuted moneylenders; part of the proceeds were used to set up near the Ficus Ruminalis a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf as shown on the reverse. Some historians believe that these coins were valued at 10 asses making them denarii, this assertion is based on the account of Pliny in the 1st century AD, where he states that the denarius was introduced in 269 BC. Most historians today, however, do not see this as a denarius, but another didrachm.
This last and most other Roman coins were produced in small numbers until the introduction of the didrachm we refer to as the quadrigatus. The quadrigatus, produced in large quantity starting around 235 BC, was named after the reverse image of Victory driving a quadriga and was produced for about 2 decades, becoming more and more debased (to as little as 30% silver) during the second Punic war.
Bronze asses and their fractions (all now struck rather than cast) continued to be produced to a standard of about 55 grams; this was very quickly reduced to a sextantal standard and finally an uncial standard of roughly 32 gms. By this time, asses outnumbered their fractions, perhaps because legionary pay was increased to the point where the as could become the principle component.
In gold, there were three pieces worth 60 asses (Crawford 44/2, marked ↓X), 40 asses (Crawford 44/3, marked XXXX) and 20 asses (Crawford 44/4, marked XX). All featured Mars' head on the obverse and an eagle with outspread wings standing on a thunderbolt on the reverse. The eagle is somewhat reminiscent of the eagle that had consistently been a symbol on Ptolemaic coinage since the very beginning of the century, and it has been suggested that Ptolemy IV Philopator may have provided gold for this issue to act as a counterweight to the involvement of Philip V of Macedon on the side of Carthage.
The victoriatus, another silver coin (Crawford 44/1), was also introduced in large quantity at the same time. It seems to have been quite separate from the denarius system proper as X-ray fluorescence spectrometry has shown that these were produced to entirely different standards. While an analysis of 52 early denarii, quinarii, and sestertii showed a silver concentration of 96.2 ± 1.09%, 19 victoriati from the same period have highly variable fineness ranging from 72 to 93%. Early finds of victoriati are primarily in Southern Italy and Sicily and it is thought that the victoriati with a weight of 3/4 of a denarius were used to pay non-citizens with experience of the Greek coinage system in the drachm format to which they were accustomed but with debased/overvalued coins. The quadrigatus didrachm, which had been retariffed to 15 asses (1.5 denarii), was removed from circulation almost immediately.
The victoriatus continued to circulate well into the 2nd century BC. Victoriati were later popular in places such as Cisalpine Gaul where they circulated alongside drachmae of Massalia (Marseille).
Eventually a new reverse appeared, first Luna driving a biga (two horse chariot) in 194-190 B.C., and then Victory driving a biga in 157 B.C. - thought to refer to the final defeat of Perseus of Macedon at the battle of Pydna by Lucius Aemilius Paulus in 168 B.C. These Victory "bigati" became the most common type of denarius. Denarii were marked with special symbols (such as a star or an anchor) from very shortly after their introduction and soon monograms indicating the tresviri monetales (mint masters, often called moneyers, that were responsible for the issue) were on the coins. In some cases the symbols are "punning". The example reverse shown to the left (Crawford 187/1 showing Luna driving a biga) is one such; a shell symbol appears above the horses along with the letters "PVR" below. The shell is thought to be a murex shell; this was the source of Tyrian purple (in Latin: purpureo) and this, along with the letters, is thought to refer to a Furius Purpureo. This type of reference to the moneyers became more and more explicit, and eventually developed into self-advertising to further the political career of the moneyers.
Families who had already had members in the Senate were more likely to have further family members elected to political office (and thus become senators). This was so much more likely that only a few consular novi homines (new men) are known to history. Advertising on coins was thus often about the moneyer's family. In the coin reverse shown on the right (Crawford 268/1b), the legend around the outside indicates that moneyer was N. Fabius Pictor. The seated individual is wearing a cuirass, holding a spear in his left hand and an apex, the characteristic hat worn by the flamines, in his right. At his side there is a shield enscribed QUIRIN. This is taken to refer to Q. Fabius Pictor (probably the son of Quintus Fabius Pictor the annalist) who was elected praetor in 189 B.C. and assigned the province of Sardinia by lot (Livy 37.50.8). He was also the flamen Quirinalis and because of this, P. Licinius Crassus, the pontifex maximus of the day did not allow him to take the Sardinian office because of various taboos surrounding the flamen's person, and the need for the flamen to perform certain rites in Rome (Livy 37.51.3-7). The Sardinian praetorship was exchanged for both the urban and peregrine praetorships, and N. Fabius Pictor remained in Rome. The entire incident was part of the political manoeuvering of Scipio Africanus against his attackers, which included the Fabii.
Over time, the politics of the day became more and more visible in the coinage. In 54 B.C., the first triumvirate had control of Rome, and Pompey was its preeminent member. There were rumours that Pompey was to be made dictator. In this context, the coin on the left (Crawford 433/2) was a powerful political message. The moneyer, Marcus Junius Brutus, placed on the coin two figures from Roman history that he claimed as ancestors:
In the face of famine in 57 B.C. Pompey had been made a special commissioner to control the supply of grain; this included the control of all ports and trading centres for five years. There was earlier bad blood between them; Pompey had put down an earlier insurrection by Marcus Aurelius Lepidus in which Brutus's father had been involved; Pompey had had him executed. It was the opposition of Cato the Younger, Brutus's half brother on his adopted family's side, to Pompey's requests for land for his veterans of the war against Mithradates that gave Pompey the incentive to be part of the triumvirate. M. Brutus was clearly making a pointed, uncompromising statement of opposition to Pompey and the triumvirate while praising his ancestors.
In 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was preparing for war with Parthia to avenge the defeat inflicted by the Parthians on Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae. To this end, an enormous variety of denarii and aureii were being minted in large numbers. The coin on the right is from January-February 44 B.C. The Venus holding Victory and a sceptre on the reverse was a reference to the claim of the gens Julia to descend from Aeneas and thus Anchises and the goddess Venus. This was innocuous to Romans, but the obverse showing Caesar himself wearing the gold laurel wreath that the Senate had voted for him was an enormous departure from tradition and deeply offensive. While the coinage had been used to show ancestors, this is the first time that the head of a living Roman had been displayed on Roman coinage. It was widely perceived as part of a larger series of moves by Caesar to make himself king - and kings were anathema in Rome ever since the foundation of the republic. Other coins minted at the same time bore the text "DICT QVART", indicating that Caesar had been dictator for four years running. A later version (Crawford 480/10, February-March 1944) showed "DICT PERPET"; Caesar had been made dictator for life. He was assassinated, by Brutus among others, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.
The assassination could not revive the republic. Two years later, just prior to the Battle of Philippi, Brutus produced a coin (Crawford 508/3, modern forgery shown to the left) celebrating the freeing of the republic from Caesar's tyranny. The reverse showed two daggers flanking a pileus (a cap used in the ceremony freeing slaves) and the legend "EID MAR". On the obverse, Brutus, the "noblest Roman", had placed his own head. The republic survived, by convention more than reality, until Octavian, Caesar's nephew and heir was declared Augustus in 27 B.C.
The dates on all the coins mentioned above can not be known with absolute certainty. Sometimes particular coins can be linked to a well defined event in history, eg. the "dict perpet" denarii of Caesar can be dated very closely to his assassination, but this is rarely the case. Much dating of the coinage is based on evidence from coin hoards. The hoarding of coins, especially by burial, was a "banking system" often used in ancient times, particularly in times of crisis; hoarding during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey was so extensive that it resulted in a liquidity crisis. Hoards can present evidence in several ways
Despite all of this, the evidence remains unclear. In this case, numismatic scholars attempt to make their best estimate of the absolute and relative chronology. In English, the current standard work is Crawford 1974 which built on and superseded the work of Sydenham 1952, Grueber 1910, Babelon 1886, and Mommsen 1850. The chronology used by this article and the identification of coins by the label Crawford xx/yy (or Crxx/yy) identifies a particular item in that catalogue. There is however newer evidence, particularly in the period 170-149 B.C., where analysis of the recently discovered Mesagne hoard has led to the alternate chronologies of Hersh & Walker 1984, and Harlan 1995. An alternate naming of the coinage of the form "gens ##" (eg. "Fabia 11" for the 11th coin minted by a moneyer of the gens Fabia; ie. Cr268/1) is also sometimes still used. This was devised by Babelon and used by Grueber, Sydenham, and many newer books.