2000 Years of History: $25

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The Coin

From a historical perspective, there is no greater bang for the buck than ancient Roman coinage. The bronze coin pictured here is usually referred to as a follis, or nummi. It was struck about 335 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Constantine I the Great in Antioch, a city in what is now Turkey.
The portrait on the obverse is actually that of Constantius II. He was the middle son of Constantine and his second wife, Fausta. The inscription on the obverse reads: FL IVL CONSTANTIVS NOB C which is the formal name (Flavius Julius Constantius) and his title (Noble Caesar).
The reverse portrays two soldiers facing one another, each holding reversed spears and resting their other hand on shields set on the ground, with two military standards between them. The inscription reads: GLORIA EXERCITVS, or Glory of the Army. Below are the letters SMANZ which stand for Sacra Moneta (SM, official or sacred money), the mint city of Antioch (AN), and the officina (the specific workshop, in this case Z, zeta, the 7th letter of the Latin alphabet, so Officina 7).

335 A.D.

Constantius was 18 at the time this coin was minted. In 335 A.D. he witnessed the elevation of his youngest brother, Constans, to the rank of Caesar. Constantius had received this honor 10 years earlier in 324, and stood to inherit the eastern provinces of the Empire. His father Constantine was 62 years old and celebrated the 30th year of his reign by consecrating the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Constantius may have been present for this ceremony, and if so, would have witnessed ambassadors from Ethiopia, Persia, and far off India arriving to congratulate his father on the peace and prosperity that had prevailed during his reign.

The City

Antioch had been the principal center of Northern Syria for centuries by 335 A.D. After Rome and Alexandria it was the third largest city of the Empire and became the capital of the province in the third century. It derived great wealth from its position on the commercial route from Asia to the Mediterranean. As a result, the economy of Antioch was far more stable than most of the Empire, which was suffering from rampant inflation.

Buying Power

This economic climate gave the follis real purchasing power, whereas the same coin in the Western provinces would only be useful as small change. An unskilled laborer might receive 2 or 3 folles a day, but a craftsman could earn around 8 to 12. Surviving prices for everyday items are scant but Doug Smith cites a source on his website that places baked bread at 2 nummi, meat between 4 and 8 nummi a pound, and wine at 6 to 14 nummi per sextarius (about a pint) depending on quality.

As a regular joe in 4th century Antioch, you would probably make a weekly trip to the market with a leather pouch containing your earnings tied to your belt by the drawstring. As a farm laborer you would have difficulty purchasing anything beyond raw materials (grain, unspun wool, etc.) and would have to rely on your ability to make your clothing and essentials by hand. However, as a blacksmith or an apprentice to a skilled profession you would have the means to purchase finished products, cloth, and items that would befit your higher social status.

I guess the best thing about ancient coins is that you can hold so much history in your hand for around 25 dollars. The collecting possibilities are endless and if you enjoy contemplating your coins in a historical context, there is a wealth of material available. Check out Doug Smith’s website and vcoins.com. Also, if you would like to read more about the Roman economy and the coinage involved, check out Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 (Ancient Society and History). You’ll be hooked!

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