World Coins

Silver denarius was centerpiece of Rome’s currency

Editor's note: this is the second part of a story exploring some of the various coins that have "something" special about them. The original feature appears in the September monthly issue of Coin World.

Just as the Greeks had a signature silver coin, the Roman denarius (plural: denarii) was the centerpiece of the Roman currency system.

The small silver coin was first minted about 211 B.C. during the Second Punic War, and became the most common coin produced for circulation, remaining useful long after memories of the war had faded. 

Over centuries, the coin’s weight and silver content diminished until being replaced by the double denarius, called the antoninianus, early in the third century A.D.

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Originally worth 10 bronze asses, the denarius coins were redenominated to 16 asses in 145 B.C., a value that was fixed until the final denarii were struck in the 240s A.D. 

Early denarii feature the head of Roma, patroness of the city, on the obverse. The reverse features the Dioscuri, known individually as Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda. These young gods became widely popular as protectors in a moment of crisis, and a temple was built in their honor. 

As the decades passed, designs for the denomination made way for the political realities of a world where the moneyers (those who struck the coins) and later the rulers themselves, highlighted their own achievements, relationships, or both.

Eid Mar

The pinnacle of self-promotion via numismatic means in ancient Roman times, however, was the Eid Mar silver denarius.

The circa late autumn 42 B.C. silver denarius is known as the Eid Mar or “Ides of March” coin for the Latin legend EID MAR on the reverse. The reference is to the assassination of the megalomaniacal dictator Julius Caesar two years earlier, on March 15, 44 B.C. 

The dime-sized coin is famous for the image of its issuer, one of the assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus, on the obverse.

The coin is ranked No. 1 in a survey of experts for the book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins by Harlan J. Berk. 

Brutus was one of two chief co-conspirators leading a cabal of Roman senators that surrounded and stabbed Caesar during a Senate proceeding. The conspirators, fearful of a tyranny ushered in by Caesar, expected to be hailed as liberators, but the Roman populace was horrified by Caesar’s murder and wanted the assassins punished. Brutus fled and soon waged war against Caesar’s successors. 

After being proclaimed imperator, Brutus began issuing coins to pay his army. The Eid Mar coins of mid-42 B.C., with the pileus or cap of liberty between the daggers that executed Caesar, is Brutus’ final coinage type. The design is notable for the irony of its use of a portrait of Brutus. 

“Caesar, a mere two years earlier, had been the first Roman to place his own portrait on Roman coins, and that was just the sort of monarchial innovation for which he had been assassinated,” Berk wrote. 

Eid Mar denarii were deliberately recalled and melted down by the victors of the second battle of Philippi on Oct. 23, 42 B.C., Mark Antony and Octavian. 

Today these coins regularly trade for hundreds of thousands of dollars. An estimated population of some 80 examples was known in 2008 when Berk’s book was published, “but many more than 80 people want one of these coins and can afford the $100,000-plus price tag.”

The size, weight and silver purity of the denarius declined from the reign of Nero (54 to 68 A.D.) until its content was about 50 percent circa 193 to 211 during the reign of Septimius Severus.

The antoninianus was introduced in 215 to spark more interest in the silver coinage of Rome, but it didn’t work, and the last true denarii were struck in the 240s, “and attempts to reestablish the coin later in the third century met with no success,” according to Richard Doty in The MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics.

The name, however, survived, inspiring the medieval coinage known as the denier, denar, denaro and so on, including the medieval silver penny of Britain. 

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