Imitation coins abound in Roman provinces under Julio-Claudians

Ancients Today: Issues filled need brought about by coin shortages in the west
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 08/19/16
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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

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