Alex Fallows MA


The study of Roman coinage involves several academic disciplines, namely: Ancient History, Economic History, Archaeology and Numismatics. The answer to why these disciplines vary in approach to what is ultimately one of the most familiar artefacts in our daily lives, is down to the origin of the studies of coins themselves and the various influences of archaeology and economics as our understanding of sociology and anthropology has developed.


Modern interest in the study of coinage came about in the wake of the renaissance of the 16th century with a desire to visualise the great individuals of the historical texts. This in turn incited the rich aristocracy of the day to collect ancient coins as highly desirable items. The relatively small pool of men that had means to collect what had hitherto been curiosities led to the creation of vast collections of coins, laying the foundations for the collections of the Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam museums (Arnold 2005; Haselgrove & Krmnicek 2012).

In these early times a method of organisation of Roman coinage developed that broadly holds true to this day: order by the Augustan monetary system: gold, then silver, brass or ‘orichalcum’ and finally copper followed by size. For the more learned coin collector, their arrangement could be influenced by their own knowledge of the Latin and the classics giving them the ability to decipher inscriptions beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person who found them (Arnold 2005). To the masses, roman coins were just an interesting form of gold or silver bullion that could be sold or compulsorily handed over to their landlord or jeweller for reward. Excerpts to this effect can be read in the wonderful Inventory of Romano-British Coin Hoards, where you can find numerous examples of farm workers or tradesmen finding masses of Roman coinage. (Robertson 2000).

In the lens of the ancient historian or art historian, coins could be seen as alternate form of text to be ‘read’ or a medium to express history aesthetically. The importance of coins in this sense was to identify the issuer or deity on the obverse of the coin and interpret the imagery of the reverse before matching them to known statues or historical events (Haselgrove & Krmniecek 2012).


Silver denarius of Caligula (AD 37-41) beside a marble bust of the emperor. Image: Baldwin’s, Public Domain.


This curiosity also drove the antiquarian method of thinking that can clearly be attested by the cataloguer of the Scarisbrick hoard in 1655:

‘…you have in others S P Q R in a wreath laurel, ye faces of sondry of ye first twelve caesars, no lesse discirnable than ye stamps of our modern coyne…’  (Robertson 2000)

The point of reference the recorder makes for this find was Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Reliance on inscriptions in the foundation of numismatics as a component of ancient history led to one of the principle reference texts of the 19th century, Cohen’s 8 Volumes written between 1857 and 1892 to be ordered alphabetically to aid in further identification. It was however the chronological-metallist way of structuring coin collections that still persists and separates numismatics from other historic disciplines.


From the 18th century onwards, the study of numismatics followed a wider enlightenment trend for cataloguing and compiling corpuses on all matter of subjects (Haselgrove & Krmnicek 2012). Evidence was collected in a more systematic fashion than the individual collections that came before. The attitude of the founding numismatists of the Royal Numismatic Society in the 1830s neatly summarises this approach to Roman coinage: study of coinage was ‘Numismatic Science’ (Carson 1986). The great catalogues of the 18th and 19th centuries are numerous but undoubtedly the one that remains the most influential was started in the 1923 by the great numismatists Mattingly and Sydenham - Roman Imperial Coinage

Any collector of Roman coins will instantly recognise the name and the reference that is littered through the many thousands of coin journals, auction catalogues and websites. The text followed earlier traditions by listing by metal, taking note of both size and weight and recording then of type by inscription. It also marks a new facet of coin studies by separating coins geographically by mint but a strong focus on ancient history is obvious, as was it in Sydenham’s other work on ‘Historic References’ (1917). RIC similarly contains biographical coin related excerpts for each emperor that influenced the authors’ interpretation of the coinages. A good example of this would be the closure of Lyon mint being due to the civil war of 68 to 69 A.D.

The next major influence on numismatics would be that of economic history. Formalist economic thought became a growing influence on numismatics in the late 19th and early 20th century based on the idea that the value of the metals in the Roman monetary system was intrinsic and that the decisions of the Roman government and where they placed their mints could be rationalised within modern economic theory (Aarts 2005). Entire sections of publications could be dedicated to exploring the metal content and economic policies of empire (Hill 1899).

Looking at the coinage of the time this may not be surprising. The empires of 18th to 20th century Europe had found an analogue that they could relate to in the form of the Roman and Greek civilisations. The influence ran deep and it is apparent in not only the architecture of the time on a large scale but also down to the minutiae of coinage. The currency system was very overtly based on the roman system. For example, British currency values: pounds (l); shillings (s) and pence (d) related directly to the Roman pound, solidus and denarius; and had done for centuries. By the 19th and early 20th centuries more than conceptually; the currency materially reflected this:


The modern British currency system mirrored that of ancient Rome. Image: Baldwin’s.


The gradual collapse of this modern tri-metallic system following the first world war from the 1920s-1970s enabled experts of the mid to late 20th century such as Bolin (1958) to move away from formalism and view coins in a distinct new light as separate from their own contemporary monetary systems whilst still holding on to an economically evolutionary sense of growth, decline and development. This movement was known as substantivism based on the work of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944/1957). Rather than solely intrinsic, the value of money was thought to be more socially subjective.

Evidently then, after the huge amount of early cataloguing of coin types was done, new questions about coins could be asked. The vast hoards found and collated warranted study whether that be archaeological, economic or historical in nature. So rather than catalogue coins themselves, academic numismatists such as Robertson (1956; 2000) began cataloguing hoards as entities. At the same time economic numismatists, namely the expert of Roman Republican Coinage, Crawford (1970; 1974) began concerning themselves with trying to model how many coins were produced and applying the general principles of economics.

However, a new approach focusing on how we in the modern day find and acquire coins driven by the principles of archaeology began to emerge in the 1960s onwards. Coins and the Archaeologist (Reece & Casey 1974/1988) is a must read for anyone interested in the archaeology of coins. Several key articles pointed out both the socio-political and economic factors that affect how we recover coins today and how they are influenced by archaeology. Richard Reece’s position for example still maintains the importance of coins as primarily economic objects but highlighted how denominations to different individuals in Roman society and across the vastly different provinces of the empire, could vary in value by citing sources such as the Satyricon and the New Testament of the Bible. He also, however, used the archaeological evidence of coin finds, whether on site, single finds or in hoards to begin to explore the nature of coin circulation in Britain: i.e. what kind of archaeological context; temple, town, fort or farm coins were found in, combining both the mindset of an ancient historian and archaeologist (Reece 1987; 2002).

More recent emphasis in numismatics in the last decade has shifted towards the social or anthropological role of coinage (Aarts 2005). This is drawing upon the post-modern archaeological movement and draws on 

important anthropological works of the late 20th century themselves influenced by the earlier substantivist thinkers such as Polanyi. The Social Lives of Things, by Appadurai (1986) outlines the idea that objects themselves have a kind of life story and taking a view that delves deeper into who actually owned coins is fascinating. A recommendation for the latest thoughts on numismatics would be Haselgrove and Krmnieck in The Archaeology of Money (2012; 2013) who drew attention to the hoards of Pompeii representing a cross section of Roman Society, the savings of individuals ranging from a few loose coins in ceramic vessels to a wooden casket with a fortune of gold auerii to name but one example.

There are many stakeholders in the world of numismatics whose roots follow a myriad of different 

traditions. To grossly simplify, it may be that the numismatist or collector is more likely to think of a coin as an individual specimen, to ancient historians, perhaps a form of historical document or illustration. A historical economist would think of a coin as part of the greater whole of the monetary supply of the wider Roman economy. An archaeologist may consider its value as an artefact within an archaeological context. Any coin literature or academic literature one reads will draw on more than one of these approaches. It is important to remember that coins are historical, economic, and archaeological objects that combine image, text, and material form (Casey 1986). All these disciplines have a shared appreciation of coins and modern numismatic research can pay heed to these approaches whilst moving numismatics forward, holistically, to the benefit of all.