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