It is not very difficult to get a grasp on the various common denominations used in theRoman Empire. Different periods used different coins, which can be distinguished by their sizes or appearance, as discussed below. The main metals, just like today, were gold, silver and copper or bronze. It should be understood that this is a very complicated subject though, and it gives many people a headache; just like in our times we go through periods of recession, depression and inflation, so did the Romans (sometimes at an accelerated pace!). Hence, the coins varied in sizes, metals and values during the long history of the Empire. A discussion of gold coins, as well as 4th century AD silver coins will be omitted in what follows, as they are not common and are quite expensive.
First, of confusion to beginners, are the letters AV, AR and AE which are often found in the description of a coin, or in a catalog. They simply refer to the metal used in the manner shown in Table 1 below.
Table 1: AV, AR and AE : Metal Designations
Hence, an “AE Antoninianus” means a bronze Antoninianus (often abbreviated to just AE Ant). An “AR Denarius” is a silver denarius.
Many beginner collectors will start with the common 4th century bronze pieces, both the follis and AE denominations, but sooner or later will end up getting the pretty silver and/or the large copper/bronze pieces from early 3rd century AD and before. The most common denominations are listed in Table 2 below, along with the metal from which they were made and approximate dates of most common use. Simple descriptions can be
Table 2: Coin Denominations
|Denomination||Metal Used||In Circulation|
|As, Dupondius, Sestertius||Bronze/Copper/Orichalcum||c.300 AD|
|Follis, AE1-4||Bronze (silver wash)||c.400 AD|
Table 3 below summarizes the relation of the coin denominations to one another, during the period of the Empire up to the beginning of the 4th century. As will be seen from the below descriptions, the values changed over time, however, this table will be valid for most of the Empire’s history (some changes occurred during the period of the Republic). The fractions of As are not very common and will not be discussed.
Table 3: Relative Coin Values
|Aureus [gold]||25 silver denarii|
|Antoninianus [silver]||2 silver denarii|
|Denarius [silver]||16 copper asses|
|Quinarius [silver]||8 copper asses|
|Follis, AE1-4||Bronze (silver wash)|
|Sestertius [orichalcum]||4 copper asses|
|Dupondius [orichalcum]||2 copper asses|
|Semis [brass]||1/2 as|
|Quadrans [copper]||1/4 copper as|