The Romans excelled at many things, including the production of
coinage. They issued coins in large quantities at mints strewn across
their vast empire, often far from the capitals of Rome and Constantinople.
Sometimes their coins were products of “moving mints” or mobile
“military mints,” but most often they were struck at established mints
located in cities. Some of these were provincial mints that issued
coins for local or regional use, and others were imperial mints that
made coins for general use throughout the empire.
The provincial mints numbered in the hundreds, and represent a
field all their own. In this column, we’ll focus on the imperial mints
that produced the lion’s share of Roman coinage, including silver
denarii and double-denarii, gold aurei and solidi, and a variety of
base metal and billon coinages.
Early in imperial history the most significant imperial mints were
in the capital of Rome and in the city of Lugdunum (modern Lyons in
France). By 15 B.C., it seems Lugdunum had become the chief mint for
imperial gold and silver, replacing Rome, which at that time produced
only base metal coins. This arrangement persisted until some point
between A.D. 14 and 69, when Rome once again became the principal mint
for precious metal coins.
Precisely when this occurred is not known, but afterward the
Lugdunum Mint was largely inactive until its renaissance in the later
third century. In the interim, Rome resumed its traditional role as
the principal mint of the empire, and its importance did not begin to
fade until the mid-third century.
Interestingly, imperial-style bronzes were also issued at a mint
in Thrace or Bithynia with some regularity between the reigns of
Claudius (A.D. 41 to 54) and Titus (79 to 81). These coins tend to
mimic issues of Rome, yet the style and fabric are peculiar enough to
A great expansion in the number of active mints occurred during
the civil war of 68 to 69. Usurpers in Spain, Gaul, Germany and North
Africa produced coinage at mints principally in Italy and those
provinces. When the war ended, all of these temporary mints were closed.
The victor in the civil war, Vespasian (69 to 79), had come to
power in the East with the help of loyal soldiers in Asia Minor,
Syria, Judaea and Egypt. Thus, it is not surprising that mints in
these regions (which for centuries had produced Greek and Roman
provincial coins) began to strike imperial coins.
Ephesus in Asia Minor and Antioch in Syria turned out to be the
two most significant of these mints, expanding upon the legacy of
other Roman mints in the East that issued silver coins — notably
Pergamum and Caesarea. Though the silver coins of those two mints bore
Latin inscriptions, they were not strictly imperial since the types
were not patterned after those of Rome, and some of the denominations
were never produced in the capital.
The true proliferation of imperial mints, however, did not begin
until the mid-third century A.D. At this time, the focus of emperors
shifted from Rome to border regions in the West and population centers
in the East. As the number of imperial mints grew, provincial mints
gradually were phased out. After 276 the only provincial mint left was
Alexandria, Egypt, and even its production stopped by about 298, after
which it only struck imperial coins.
By the late third century, Mint marks began to appear on Roman
coins with increasing regularity, and by the early fourth century they
were a standard feature. This makes collecting Roman coins by mint a
more precise task, as most of the guesswork of earlier periods is
eliminated. The use of Mint marks on this scale reflects the
increasing complexity of the Roman bureaucracy, which worked hard to
control coin production.
By late in the reign of Constantine the Great (307 to 337) we can
draw a fairly good map of the empire based upon mint locations. In the
Western provinces these included London, Lugdunum, Arelate and Trier.
All were important mints of the era, with Lugdunum and Trier producing
especially large quantities of coinage.
In neighboring Italy, the mint of Rome was still very productive,
as were those based in Aquileia and Ticinum. For a brief period, circa
308 to 313, a mint was also in operation in Ostia, the port city for
Rome. In North Africa, a mint was also active at Carthage under
Constantine’s early co-rulers and rivals.
The Balkans and Northern Greece were important as recruiting
grounds for soldiers, buffers against barbarian invasion across the
Danube, and as regions for settling conflicts between rival emperors
reigning in the East and the West. Not surprisingly, four active mints
were located here: Siscia, Sirmium, Serdica and Thessalonica.
Four other mints — Heraclea, Constantinople, Cyzicus and Nicomedia
— were situated a little further East, where Europe and Asia are
separated by a body of water called the Propontis. All were major
mints in the later Roman period, with Constantinople serving as the
capital of the Roman and Byzantine world after its formal dedication
by Constantine the Great on May 11, 330.
Further south, two active mints remained: Antioch in Syria and
Alexandria in Egypt. Both cities were critical to the economic and
military needs of the empire, so it is not surprising that their mints
issued great quantities of coins.
The abundance of Roman mints, as illustrated in this brief survey,
not only demonstrates the breadth and sophistication of coin
production in the empire, but speaks volumes about the Romans
themselves. For numismatists, these coins and their distinctive mint
signatures are a perfect way to introduce any collector to the many
charms of ancient coinage. ■