World Coins

Ancient coin with sailing ship an affordable type

A bronze antoninanius coin of the usurper ruler Allectus depicts a navis lusoria, a type of ship used in third century Roman troop transport.

Coin images courtesy of Fritz Rudolf Künker.

Ancient coins can serve as windows into the past like no other objects.

Roman coins reflect ancient people and politics, and are sometimes the only record of objects, events or rulers until archaeological or historical evidence is uncovered in modern times.

A bronze antoninianus coin of Allectus, a Roman-Britannic usurper-emperor in Britain and northern Gaul from 293 to 296, is notable for the history it reflects.

State Historical Museum of IowaInside Coin World: How museums can use numismatic items to enhance exhibits: Features and columns exclusive to the April 29 issue of “Coin World” discuss the gold $3 coin, bronze 2-cent coin and museum exhibits featuring coins and medals.

The coin was offered during Fritz Rudolf Künker’s March 11 auction in Osnabrück, Germany, where it realized a hammer price of €550 ($618 U.S.) against a pre-sale estimate of €200 ($225 U.S.). 

The auction firm graded the coin Extremely Fine. 

Deciphering the design

A draped, radiate bust of a ruler appears on the coin’s obverse. The man was a treasurer to Carausius before having him killed.

On the reverse is a sailing vessel known as a navis lusoria, a type of ship introduced in the middle of the third century.

Antoniniani were originally silver and worth two denars. Over time, the amount of silver was reduced or debased, so later examples contained little if any silver, like the example here.

Because of the Q on the reverse, researchers have occasionally taken the view that this coin was actually a denomination known as a quinarius.

Other research suggests that the Q may refer to the Quinquennalia (public games held in Rome every five years) that was planned for 298. Objects issued for the games happen to depict a Navis lusoria, according to the auction house. 

The very slender and shallow ships were used in Roman rivers until late antiquity and played a significant military role. The ship was easy to navigate and thus sailors could be trained quickly, the auction house said. Each carried 50 men (and they were men), with 30 of them rowing. 

Though written about in ancient history, it wasn’t until examples of these ships were discovered in the early 1980s in Mainz, Germany, that scholars learned much about the ships. 

Allectus’ coins often featured images of this and other vessels as a show of his strength. 

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