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Roman coin studies: A brief history

Modern interest in the study of coins arose with the desire to visualise the rulers and deities of historical texts. Since the wake of the 16th-century renaissance, the study of Roman coinage is influenced by three main disciplines. 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.

Art History

In the lens of the ancient historian, coins are seen as an alternate medium of aesthetic historical expression. The importance of coins in this sense was to identify the issuer or deity on the obverse, interpret the imagery on the reverse, and match them to known statues or historical events.

Silver denarius of Caligula (AD 37-41) beside a marble bust of the emperor.

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.

Any collector of Roman coins will instantly recognise The Roman Imperial Coinage text by the great numismatists Mattingly and Sydenham 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 with a strong focus on ancient history.

Economic History

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. Entire sections of publications could be dedicated to exploring the metal content and economic policies of the empire.

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.

The modern British currency system mirrored that of ancient Rome.


How we find and acquire coins using principles of archaeology came into focus in the 1960s. The book Coins and the Archaeologist argued that highlighted how the importance of coins varied across vastly different provinces of an empire, citing sources such as the Satyricon and the New Testament of the Bible.

The most recent emphasis in numismatics in the last decade has shifted towards the social or anthropological role of coinage. The Social Lives of Things by Appadurai outlines the idea that objects themselves have a kind of life story and taking a view that delves deeper into who actually owned the coins.

There are many stakeholders in the world of numismatics. While numismatists may think of a coin as an individual specimen, they are seen as historical documents, artefacts and as a greater whole of the monetary supply.

This blog is an abridged version of an article by Alex Fallows MA, published in Baldwin’s Fixed Price List, Summer 2018, p. 4-7.

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