Identifying Roman Coins: Deciphering Inscriptions

Inscriptions on coins can contain a vast array of information, and although ancient coins may not have the year so kindly marked upon them as modern coins do, they do provide some excellent dating criteria.  Roman inscriptions are very formulaic featuring an array of titles and name segments so without further ado  I shall explore them using the categories created last week.

1st & 2nd Century Coins

The inscriptions here are the most exact to the point that if whole and legible they will usually allow you to date your coin to the year  through the naming of their government titles.  A typical coin might read
IMP CAES [name] AVG PM TRP [number] PP COS [number]

Image

Coin of Vespasian, showing where the emperor’s name starts

IMP CAES AVG are all titles abbreviated from Emperor Caesar Augustus,  from the reign of the great Augustus himself all emperors use AVG as a sign of their power to either demonstrate lineage from or  demonstrate themselves as a ruler. If AVG does not appear on it at all then it is likely to be the heir being promoted on the coin instead. The emperor’s name or the abbreviation of it will usually be inserted between CAES and AVG or around it.  It is here that an encyclopaedic memory of the emperors of Rome will be useful, or failing that a good resource website.

http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/i.html  I find this site  quite useful,  laid out alphabetically rather than chronologically so can be particularly useful when searching by spelling.

PM TRP PP COS are all titles of prestige and government and it is from these that we can construct much more narrow dates.
PM = PONTIFEX MAXIMVS =  High priest
TRP = TRIBUNICIA  POTESTATE = of Tribunian power
PP = PATER PATRIAE = Father of the State
COS = Consul = The highest position within government something akin to a prime minister or president, there would be two consuls holding power together each year.
The COS & TRP are often marked with a number next to them to mark how many times they held that position, this is important because we have listings of what men fulfilled this positions and when so by comparing these numbers to the lists can provide us with dates for when that coin could have been minted.   An example of this list  http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-024.html
Most good Roman coin handbooks should have such a list in their index.

Finally there are additional titles bestowed for specific feats of conquest or supreme amazingness these crop up in forms such as GERM,  BRITANNICVS, PARTHICVS, ARABICVS, ARMENIACVS all for conquest.  and OPTIMUS for the greatest.

Although they look a lot it is not vastly important to memorise every single title that may have existed, its possible combinations and translations. But rather to remain aware of what these titles look like so you distinguish from a name so as to help you read your coin and attribute it, and of course date it more securely that that emperors reign if you wish to do so.

Image

Roman Coins on display in Dorset County Museum

Later 3rd century and 4th century coins

The above system stays in use through the third century however  by AD260’s different inscription formulas become common as the ‘radiate’ coins become increasingly more debased.  Now many coins will often read:
IMP [name] AVG

In Britain, information about how many consulships have been held tend to disappear reflecting the unstable nature of authority and Britain’s short lifted independence from central Roman power at this point as well as changing fashions.  In the late third and into the 4th century one sees a few variations of these inscriptions:

IMP  [name] P F AVG = IMPERATOR PIVS FELIX AVGVSTVS = Emperor […] the Pious and Blessed Augustus’

DN [name] PF AVG = DOMINVS NOSTER [name] PIVS FELIX AVGVSTVS = ‘Our Lord […] the Pious and Blessed Augustus’

It is also commonplace for an emperor to promote the imperial family by minting coins showing his heirs, wife or mother. One can tell if the figure is an heir as it will read CAES instead of AVG at the end.  This often occurs as NOB C or N C meaning ‘most noble caesar’  Such inscriptions are particularly prevalent for the Constantinian dynasty AD 307-364.

4th century coins also have one other distinguishing marks on them which occur on the reverse underneath the image.   Here is often a mint mark,  normally 3 letters but no means limited to three letters they show where the coin was minted.  In Britain the most common ones are
TR for Trier (Northern Germany)
LG for Lyon (France)
CON for Arles (France)
LON for London (Britain

This is by no means a comprehensive list and they will have other letters around to signify what workshop at the mint it came from,  P – prima/1st  S – Secunda – 2nd however for a more comprehensive guide see  http://www.tesorillo.com/aes/home.htm

This is by no means a comprehensive guide however an introduction to how to understand inscriptions , identify the different segments and with that find the names so that one can begin to understand Roman numismatics.

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