Roman Empire

Coins from the Roman Empire

Coins from the demise of Marc Antony in 31 BC, leaving Octavian as sole military dictator (imperator) and later acclaimed as Augustus (by which name he is better known), are counted as Roman imperial, rather than republican. This is the case for all Roman issues until the reforms of Anastasius I (491-518), however, the Barber’s collection treats the section from 363-491 as separate and ‘Late Roman’, so our Roman Imperial collection spans from 31 BC to 363 AD. Roman provincial coins – coins issued by the authority of cities, not by the imperial government in Rome – are also treated as separate, although, of these provincial coins, the Barber only holds significant numbers of issues from Alexandria in Egypt.

Coins of the Roman Empire, unsurprisingly, mainly bore the image of the emperor. There were, however, plentiful coins also issued in the names of relatives – wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, fathers, deceased predecessors, sons, brothers, etc. The Roman imperial coins, unlike the Byzantine, also have a tendency towards portraiture, hence a coin of Nero is very easily distinguishable from a coin of Augustus, without recourse to reading the inscription. Coins from the early empire – the Julio-Claudians, Flavians and ‘five good emperors’ – tend to be weightier, more confident issues with more denominations than for the later empire.

Caracalla (198-217) introduced the silver antoninianus into the monetary system, which, by 244, had completely replaced the old denarius. Moving into the political instability of the third century, however, debasement began to impact strongly on the Roman silver coinage. This debasement was only reversed by the reforms of Diocletian (284-305), who reintroduced the tri-metallic monetary system with the solidus, argentius and follis. Even after these reforms, however, the damage to the reputation of the Roman silver coinage had been done, and the gold solidus took over as the main measure and standard for the Roman economy.

The Barber’s collection is strongest in antoniniani of the third century. The collection also includes coins of revolts, usurpers and breakaway groups, such as the Gallic Empire.