World Coins

Imitations abound in provinces under Julio-Claudians

Ancients Today column from the Sep. 5, 2016, issue of Coin World Monthly:

The Julio-Claudian emperors struck large quantities of copper, bronze and brass coins, which circulated throughout the empire and even reached beyond Rome’s borders. 

In general, the Romans were able to distribute these coins in adequate numbers, no matter how distant the province. 

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Even so, occasional coin shortages occurred in Rome’s Western provinces, which incorporated areas of modern-day Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, Germany and the three nations of the Benelux Union (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg).

These shortages were caused by many factors, including economic problems, regime changes, political instability, and unanticipated difficulties in delivery. During those times old and worn Roman coins were liable to be countermarked by Roman officials to extend their use.

Alternatively, unofficial mints operated as private ventures would issue coins to fill in the gaps. This phenomenon was especially interesting in the Western provinces during the age of the Julio-Claudians (27 B.C. to A.D. 68). We must presume that the main goal of these forgers was to earn a profit from their minting (or casting) efforts.

Making money by faking money

Profits could be generated by forgers in a number of ways. Frequently a coin of precious metal would be imitated with a plated coin. The maker hoped the plated pieces would pass undetected into commerce at the full value of an official silver coin.

The imi­tative plated denarius of the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41 to 54) shown is a perfect example. This type is found in Britain and there is no reason to doubt it was struck on the island. 

The details of the designs and inscriptions are closely modeled after official Rome-mint denarii, yet the style and fabric are divergent enough to mark it as an unofficial issue (even if it hadn’t been merely silver plated).

In other cases people created coins of only marginally lesser value than their official counterparts — perhaps by striking them at a lower weight or by making them of debased metal.

It has often been suggested that some forgers — perhaps former mint-workers — created highly convincing coins of full weight and purity in the style of official issues. In that case, the forger would seek only to collect the small seigniorage or profit that the government normally earned from the difference in the cost of production and the circulation value of a coin.

Filling a need for coinage

Sometimes unofficial coin makers did not even try to produce convincing copies of the originals. Instead, they created coins that loosely resembled official issues, yet that had no chance of being mistaken for the real thing. These pieces circulated solely because there was a need for additional coinage.

A perfect example is the imitative copper as of the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54 to 68) shown here. It copies an official as of Nero, showing on its obverse his portrait and on its reverse Victory holding a shield inscribed SPQR. However, compared to the originals the artistry is crude and the lettering is imprecise.

Another example, much closer to the mark, imitates an as of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14). It copies an issue struck at the Rome Mint in about 15 B.C., and bears on its reverse the name and title of C. Plotius Rufus, one of the three moneyers of the Rome Mint at this stage of Augustus’ reign.

Here the production is of a much higher standard than with the as of Nero. Though the portrait is slightly cartoonish, it is well executed, and the inscriptions on both sides are convincing (even if two letters are missing). In this case a strong effort was made: only subtle aspects of style and composition distinguish it from a Rome Mint product.

While the Romans frowned upon most efforts to produce unofficial coinage within its realm, at times they turned a blind eye. Instead of objecting to the circulation of coins like this, the Romans sometimes encouraged their use, though, typically, only after assigning them a lower value.

An intriguing example of this circumstance is when Roman officials countermarked imitative bronzes, by which such items were made legal for circulation. Illustrated here is an imitative coin of Claudius, the style and fabric of which are uncharacteristic for an official issue. It copies a brass sestertius, the heaviest Roman coin of the era. 

The DV countermark on the obverse is thought to have been applied by a Roman official to authorize its circulation as a dupondius — a coin half the value of the sestertius it imitates.

Such measures were both practical and effective: Roman laws concerning the production of coinage were (on some level) honored and, at the same time, a solution was found to alleviate a temporary shortage of coinage in the West.

Imitations include derivatives

A final category of imitations is the derivative issue. Though the illustrated Nero as is fairly far removed from the Roman original, this seems to have been the result of the engraver’s inexperience or carelessness rather than any desire to create something distinctive.

The same cannot be said for the silver “denarius” made somewhere in Western Europe — perhaps in modern Germany, north of the Rhine. It imitates a denarius of Augustus, showing on its obverse the emperor’s portrait and on its reverse the standing figures of his grandsons Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, both of whom hold spears and shields.

The style of engraving is so far removed from the original that it could never have been intended to pass as an official coin of Rome. Instead, it can only be seen as a singular work of art in which Augustus’ designs have been completely — and purposefully — reworked. Indeed, it reminds us of the much older “Celtic” tradition in which the designs of Greek coins were re-envisioned by engravers with their own, distinctive, approach to art. 

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