Roman silver coins place ancient history in your pocket

A circa-294 B.C. first mintage silver argenteus realized $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Treasures Trader and LiveAuctioneers

The Roman Empire is the longest-lasting in history, spanning the ancient world of 753 B.C. to the Middle Ages of 1453. It influenced the course of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa for more than 2,200 years. Kings, consuls and emperors reigned and ruled as dictators, despots and enlightened heroes, leaving a legacy of language, art, architecture, religion, science, technology and laws that still shape daily life around the world.

All its stories are easily told through its silver coinage which, once touched, leaves a lasting memory of all of Rome’s achievements, failures and influences.

The Seven Kings of Rome, 753 B.C. to 509 B.C.

During the early period of Rome, from its founding in 753 B.C. to about 281 B.C., currency initially took the form of sheep for barter. Heavy bronze weights were later issued in different sizes, first as unformed lumps and later as ingots classified as aes rude that weighed nearly 12 ounces. There was no coinage of any kind during this period.

The Roman Republic, 509 B.C. to 27 B.C.

As the kings of early Rome were replaced by the Senate and elected consuls in 509 B.C., coinage was still unknown. Because of the perpetual warfare waged to increase the reach of Rome, it became clear that a more suitable trading system than bartered sheep or lumps of bronze was needed to pay Roman troops and drive economic development. By 326 B.C., the first bronze coin was introduced, followed by a silver coin nearly 50 years later.

This Roman Republic silver didrachm, showing the two-faced head of Janus on the obverse and Jupiter riding a quadriga (a four-horses vehicle) on the reverse, achieved $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. 
Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Around 269 B.C. the didrachm became the first silver coin issued by Rome, strictly as a tool to pay its troops and allies in its fight to expand the Republic by gaining the port in Greek-held Taranto in southwest Italy (aka the heel of the boot-shape country), known by the Romans as Magna Graecia. The coin’s design closely followed that of the Greek drachma, but it had uniquely Roman features. It only circulated within the colony itself. 

The didrachm was phased out around 211 B.C., but not before it was issued as a lighter silver coin known as the quadrigatus (for its image of a four-horse drawn chariot) as the first uniquely Roman silver coin. It was issued around 226 B.C. Both coins were removed from circulation during the monetary reforms of 211 B.C. 

A clear example of an early Roman Republic silver sestertius sold for £60 (about $72) plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Elstob & Elstob and LiveAuctioneers

The silver sestertius (meaning “two and a half,” for its value against the Roman bronze as) was issued only sporadically as a small silver coin replacing the didrachm and quadrigatus. Initial sestertii featured the figure of Roma wearing a helmet on the obverse and Dioscuri on horseback on the reverse. The sestertius eventually became a much larger bronze coin as part of a coinage reform under Consul Augustus in 23 B.C. It was phased out completely by 275 A.D.

Also included in the previously mentioned monetary reform of 211 B.C. was the introduction of a silver denarius (equal to 10 asses, the standard circulating bronze coin) containing 4.5 grams of silver. It would become the standard silver coin circulating throughout the Roman Republic and in the beginning of the Roman Empire. Its impact is reflected in the many national currencies that imitate or reference its name: the Iraqi dinar, the (now-defunct) Spanish dinero, the North Macedonian denar and the ‘d’ for denarius, which was used to identify the UK penny before 1970. The silver content of the denarius would be debased gradually from 90% at its introduction down to only 5% by 300 A.D.

A Roman Empire silver didrachm featuring the profile of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) realized $225 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Worthington Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

At the same time the denarius was introduced, a smaller silver coin called the victoriatus was also minted. It boasted 3.4 grams of silver and its value was half of a quadrigatus or three-quarters of a denarius until it was phased out in 170 B.C. The coin featured the Roman God Jupiter on the obverse and, on the reverse, Victory awarding a wreath to a trophy above the word ROMA. It circulated mostly in the Roman province of Gaul (present day France) and southern Italy to replace the Greek drachma there.

By 101 B.C., the victoriatus was replaced by the quinarius, which was valued at five asses, or half of a denarius, and circulated mainly in Gaul for only a few years (although the victoriatus continued to circulate until about 170 B.C.).

This Roman silver argenteus marked with the image of Emperor Galerius (circa 305-311 A.D.) attained $300 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers.

Though silver coins circulated during the early Republic, they were issued sparingly as the silver supply was limited. By 157 B.C., Rome had acquired the silver mines of Macedonia, after which silver coins became much more prevalent and circulated regularly, but possessed varying degrees of silver content. During the reign of the dictator Sulla in 84 B.C., the minting of silver coins increased again, making examples from this period more accessible.

One of the most sought-after silver coins of the Republic period is a denarius featuring a profile of Brutus on the obverse (the only known image) with a pileus, a cap of Liberty, on the reverse between two daggers. This silver coin commemorates Brutus’ participation in the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (aka March 15) in 44 B.C. It is considered the most important ancient coin by collectors and is scarce because Marc Antony ordered the coin removed from circulation and melted down. 

Western Roman Empire 27 B.C. to 395 A.D.

The Roman Empire period began with the Senate declaring Octavian as Caesar Augustus in early 27 B.C., ushering in Western Roman Emperors for the next 425 years and Eastern Roman Emperors for the next millennia.

A Roman Empire silver siliqua emblazoned with the profile of Emperor Gratian (367-383 A.D.) achieved $1,025 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Golden Gate Auctioneer and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout most of the early Roman Empire period, the silver denarius would remain the preeminent silver coin until about 214 A.D., a span of nearly 425 years. The antoninianus, a double denarius, was then issued by, and named for, Emperor Antonius Caracalla, whose profile shows him wearing a crown rather than the laurel wreath of the Roman Republic. The silver coin began with 40% silver content but was debased until it was only a thin covering before it ceased to be issued in 324 A.D.

After the year 250, fewer silver coins with significant silver content were issued until the introduction of the argenteus by Emperor Diocletian around 294 B.C., which had at least 3.4 grams of silver. The inflation of the period was extreme, and these silver coins were hoarded for their silver content and rarely circulated. A half-argenteus was minted by Emperor Constantine the Great in 308 A.D., but not in high numbers. They are usually found in mostly uncirculated condition at auction.

This example of a Western Roman Empire silver siliqua, featuring the profile of Magnus Maximus on the obverse and Roma seated on a throne on the reverse, sold for $250 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. 
Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

In 324 A.D., Emperor Constantine replaced the argenteus with the miliarense, which weighed between 3.9 and 5.7 grams of silver; and the siliqua, which weighed between 2.3 and 3.4 grams of silver (a half-siliqua was issued just before the collapse of the Western Empire and represents a rare find). Together, the miliarense and the siliqua were the last official Roman silver coins in circulation until the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.

Eastern Roman-Byzantine Empire 395 A.D. to 1453 A.D.

When Emperor Constantine split the Roman Empire into a Western and Eastern Empire around 330 A.D., it was his intention to stabilize its far-flung territories against the constantly-invading Hunnic armies from the steppes of Central Europe. He named the capital of the Eastern Empire Constantinople, for himself, but his actions only delayed the fall of the Western Empire to 476 A.D.

Issued in Constantinople circa 976, this miliaresion silver coin sports the cross crosslet of the Eastern Roman Empire and busts of Basil II. It earned £130 (about $156) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Timeline Auctions, Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

The Eastern Empire survived for nearly a millennium after the Western Empire collapsed, producing only two silver coins of note: the hexagram, issued in 615 A.D. and lasting until the end of the century; and the miliarense, the successor to the hexagram, which was in use until the 11th century. Most transactions were handled with gold or bronze coins throughout the Byzantine period until the Ottoman Empire supplanted the Roman period in 1453 A.D.

With nearly 2,200 years of Roman history to explore, the images of Emperors, conquests, historical events and day-to-day life depicted on its silver coins provide a unique understanding of the trials and tribulations of running a large, disparate empire. The silver content of the many coins, both large and small, was constantly in flux from the near purity of the didrachm to the thin veneer of the later argentius. In and of itself, that fact provides a lesson in the economics of running a vast empire.