A 4th Century Bronze of Constans




Flavius Julius Constans was the youngest of four brothers to call Constantine I the Great father. Constans was born in 320 (or 323 by some accounts) in Constantinople and received his education there. However, Constans does not receive good reviews from historians such as Eutropius and Aurelius Victor, who list depravity, avarice and contempt among his less vulgar qualities.

In 333 Constans was hailed as Caesar and in 335 received Italy and the Illyrian provinces as his domains. His brother Constantine II ruled the western provinces and Constantius II, the eldest brother since the murder of Crispus, ruled Asia Minor. The three brothers became co-Augusti in 337 with the death of the senior Constantine and quickly removed their cousins Delmatius and Hanniballianus, dividing up their territories among themselves. Feeling slighted by this division of territory, Constantine II demanded that Constans relinquish Italy and North Africa to him. Constans, though technically the junior Augustus due to his youth, refused.

Constans bribed his brother Constantius II with territory inherited from the purge to gain his support. War could no longer be avoided and in the spring of 340 Constantine II invaded Italy only to be killed in an ambush outside Aquileia. Constans was away in the Balkans recruiting for Constantius II, gaining total victory without even being present for the battle.

Constans continued military operations, waging war against the Franks in 341-342 and becoming the last legitimate Roman emperor to visit Britain in 343. Unfortunately, his caustic personality and disdain for his army would soon be his downfall.

In 350 Constans was deposed by his own field commander, Magnentius. The uprising took place at a party hosted by Marcellinus, Constans’ finance minister. Magnentius declared himself emperor and was hailed as such by his troops. Word spread quickly and Constans fled for Spain. He was overtaken near the Pyrenees and put to death.


This particular bronze was struck about 347 or 348 A.D. at the mint of Treviri, now Trier in northwest Germany. Ironically, Trier was the headquarters of the defeated Constantine II. Bronzes of this size and late date are commonly called “half-Centenionalis” though this term is not contemporary.

On the obverse is the diademed, draped and cuirassed bust of Constans with name and title abbreviations around. The reverse depicts two confronting victories, each holding a wreath, with “D” in the field between them. An interesting feature of the surrounding legend is “AVGG”. Not a misspelling, this indicates there were two Augusti at the time of this coin’s manufacture, which we know was Constantius II and Constans.

Bronzes of this era were used as small change. Inflation was rampant and nothing sold at a fixed price. Depending on the region and time period, the value of a handful of small bronzes such as this could fluctuate widely. As the Roman era waned, the only medium of exchange that continued to hold real value was gold.

Descriptive vs. Numerical Grading

Mexico gold

Ambiguity in grading can be the bane of your existence when perusing coin ads, whether it be a print ad, eBay description or a dealer’s scribbled notation on a 2×2 coin holder. Among the most misleading grading terms are Select, Choice and Gem. These terms usually refer to some degree of the Uncirculated grade and have been in use for decades. For this reason, we can safely say with a bit of certainty that not all dealers who use these terms are intentionally trying to mislead. But it is up to you, the collector, to determine for yourself the level of comfort with which you can transact business.

The above terms are examples of descriptive grading. Numerical grading is much more precise. Rather than describing a coin as Select Brilliant Uncirculated (or Select BU), numerical grading should represent the same coin as Mint State 62 (MS62) or so. Descriptive grading allows for much more leeway in the range of a grade. Numerical grading is specific.

So what can you expect when an ad reads “Choice BU Morgan Dollars, grades our choice”? In a perfect world you should receive a nice mix of MS63 to MS64 common date Morgan dollars at a fair price. However, the term “Choice” has no definitive grade range and so a disreputable dealer can be less than honest when selecting your “Choice” purchase. “Select”, “Gem”, High End” and all those other descriptive terms we run into have no specific numerical equivalent either.

Because these descriptive terms have been in use at least since the beginning of modern coin collecting (some of the earliest American auction catalogs from the 1850’s contain them), you can reasonably expect a certain level of quality when these terms are used. Generally:

“BU” or “Select BU” would indicate a range of MS60 to MS62.

“Choice BU” in the range of MS63 to 64.

“Gem BU” in the range of MS65 or higher.

Again, by no means is any equivalency between  numerical and descriptive grading written in stone. When you accept an offer involving descriptive grading, you need to be aware that the level of quality you receive is open to the dealer’s interpretation of that term and it may differ greatly from your own. The best investment you can make to avoid ugly surprises when purchasing coins sight unseen is to educate yourself and learn how to grade. Below are three excellent guides to help you!

MAKING THE GRADE: Comprehensive Grading Guide for U.S. Coins

ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins: American Numismati Association (Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins)

Photograde: Official Photographic Grading Guide for United States Coins, 19th Edition


And Now A Word From John Kraljevich…

1834 Half Cent obvMany of you are probably already familiar with John Kraljevich. John is a professional numismatist, researcher, and cataloger specializing in early American coinage and ephemera. In addition he is a very entertaining individual. If you haven’t visited John’s website, http://jkamericana.com, you are truly missing out on an excellent place to land for an afternoon.

In the April 28, 2008 issue of CoinWorld John wrote an article entitled “Understanding Context”. I can remember thinking how much this article mirrored my own philosophy of coin collecting, and how much more eloquently John explained it than I could. John has graciously allowed me to reprint that article here, a perfect fit for Numistories. Thanks John!

“Archaeologists are obsessive about context. While an object may be interesting, when divorced from its context even the best object is but a stepchild. In archaeological terms, context means all the stuff that surrounds an object – where in the ground it was found, what that patch of ground has to do with the patches of ground around it, the depth of the find and thus the approximate era of its deposit, and more.

Collectors tend to be of a different mind – it’s all about the object. A coin is to be enjoyed because of, for lack of a better term, its “coinness” – its condition and designs and legends and metal and color and everything else collectors might enjoy about a coin. A story is nice, but the vast majority of collectible coins  – even those from the historically rich early American era – tell only a brief story.

Through my own collecting and interaction with collectors, I’ve found that placing a bit of context with the coins immeasurably enriches the objects.

The most obvious context is the broad historical narrative surrounding them. Knowing about the provisions in the Articles of Confederation allowing Connecticut to coin its own coppers, knowing about the proportion of British halfpence in circulation, and understanding the profit-center economics of coining underweight coppers all add to the story. Having a “hook” with a human connection makes the story even better, such as knowing that the Connecticut copper may well have been struck with copper misappropriated from the federal government and originally intended for the production of Fugio coppers.

Such stories make the coin a bit more alive, make it into a genuine historical bookmark allowing the owner to open the correct page in the long saga of American history.

What kind of stuff can collectors of early American numismatic items place with their coins to further provide historical context?

Some collectors are fond of collecting almanacs, particularly those that state the value of one type of coin in reference to another. While we seek to uplift our coins, sometimes returning our coins to their natural habitats as low-down, dirty pocket change make their history come truly alive. If you can, read Colonial-era newspapers and other contemporary documents. Seek out other objects that may further shed light on the world your coins inhabited.

Seeing the context can make your coin collecting become much more fun and rewarding.

A Tetradrachm of Philip “the Arab”

Philip I tetradrachmMarcus Julius Verus Philippus had a checkered past. According to Edward Gibbon (“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”), Philip was “an Arab by birth, and…a robber by profession.” Whether robber or no, his Arabic background is factual, as he was the son of an Arab chieftain named Marinus, and hailed from the provincial Arab town of Trachonitis.

As a deputy praetorian prefect in the army of Gordian III, in 243 he purposely roused the army against Gordian by blaming him for a scarcity of food. Gordian’s death followed these allegations and Philip was promptly hailed as the next emperor by the eastern troops. Questions quickly arose as to Philip’s role in Gordian’s demise, but Philip’s insistence to the Roman Senate that Gordian died of natural causes, as well as his proposal that Gordian be deified, established a friendly relationship with the Senate which proceeded to recognize his claim to the throne.

After concluding a hasty peace with Shapur I of Persia, Philip quickly proceeded to Rome where he was well received by the Senate and the populous. He wasted no time in establishing his legitimacy. His son Philip II was declared Caesar, his wife Otacilia Severa was granted the title of Augusta, and Philip’s late father Marinus was venerated on a series of coinage.

For the next three years (245-247) Philip was occupied by numerous invasions by the Carpi and German tribes on the Danubian frontier. At about the time the above coin was minted, Philip celebrated a crushing victory over the Dacian Carpi and began preparations for the 1000th anniversary celebration of the founding of Rome.

The glory was short lived. Philip’s empire was besieged by pretenders to the throne. On the Danube, Pacatian arose to claim the purple, and in the east, Jotapian had won the hearts of the army. Philip became deeply alarmed, lost confidence in his own ability to rule, and called the Senate to offer his resignation. Though both Pacatian and Jotapian were soon murdered by their own men, Philip remained unable to act.

To restore order, Philip promoted the city prefect Trajanus Decius to commander in chief of the forces of Moesia and Pannonia. Decius established control over the frontier by the end of 248. As a result his troops demanded his accession to the throne. Decius protested but Philip was soon on the march to put him down. In poor health, Philip fell in battle at Verona along with his son in June of 249.


This coin is a nice representation of the principal denomination in the eastern Roman provinces of the third century, the tetradrachm. This denomination originally contained a small percentage of silver, enough to give it the appearance of a silver coin. However, all traces of precious metal had long since disappeared by the time this coin was produced and was now composed mainly of copper with some tin or even lead present.

Notice that the inscriptions surrounding the obverse and reverse devices are in Greek rather than Latin. It was common practice for the Roman provinces to retain their native language and customs, including their own local religious practices. Provincial Roman coins frequently depict Greek, Syrian, and other local deities. The subject matter on Roman provincial coinage is very diverse and can provide years of challenge and enjoyment for little cost!

Roman Coins Unearthed In Farmer’s Field

CC Image courtesy of AJoStone on Flickr

Claire Cavanagh is a writer for The Royal Mint in the UK. Recently, she submitted this article and has graciously allowed us to share. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of discovering treasure hidden for hundreds or even thousands of years? It’s easier said than done over here in the States, but the long numismatic history of Western Europe affords the metal detectorist far more opportunity. Claire provides us with this exciting example!

Trudging around in muddy fields come rain or shine may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, but everybody in the coin collecting community owes a lot to those with a passion for metal detecting. Without them, we wouldn’t have half of the amazing ancient coin discoveries that we all love to hear about. The latest great finding comes from the English county of Yorkshire, where Edward Bailey made the sort of finding that every metal detecting enthusiast dreams of.

In a farmer’s field in Sheffield, Yorkshire, Edward unearthed five silver coins from the Roman era. After handing the coins over to the British Museum, they have been identified as silver denarii from the Roman republic. Experts state that the oldest of the coins dates from somewhere between 211BC and 120BC, and are thought to have been lost or perhaps hidden in the field at some point after 74AD. This means that the coins have been in the ground for a staggering 1,939 years.

Denarii were the main coins of the Roman Empire during the republic. The word for a singular coin, denarius comes from the Latin dēnī, which means ‘containing ten’. This is because the denarius had a value equal to ten asses (the lesser value coins of the Roman era, made first from bronze and later from copper). Allegedly, the need for a silver coin came following Roman contact with the Ancient Greeks, and the denarius was styled in a similar way to the Greek coins of the time. Early versions of the coins, struck around 269BC, weighed around 6.8 grams and were not commonly used in Rome. Following an overhaul of the coin system in 211BC however, the new denarii became the most important coins of the empire. The coins struck during this period had their silver content and weight gradually lowered, but on average weighed around 4.5 grams. The coins found in the farmer’s field are thought to be from this post-211BC period.

To put the value of the five coins into contemporary perspective, historians claim that one denarius would be the average daily wage for an unskilled worker or a soldier in the first century AD. The five coins discovered therefore were not a great fortune at the time when they settled into the ground; yet their value today is a very different story. In February of this year, the coins were officially declared treasure by the British Museum. Under the Treasure Act of 1996, which outlines what is to be done to any treasure discovered in Britain, the coins are now the property of the Crown. The Act also states that the finder of the treasure, as well as the owner of the land on which said treasure is found are both entitled to a reward. In compliance with this, a financial reward has been awarded both to Edward Bailey and the farmer, Raymond Woolley.

The coins’ discovery, in June of last year, came just months after another exciting excavation in the UK. In March 2012, over 30,000 silver coins were unearthed by archaeologists in the historic city of Bath. The hoard, discovered on the site of a new hotel, was the largest found from a Roman settlement in Britain – and was the fifth largest ever found in the country. However, these coins were dated from the third century AD and so were not quite as impressive in terms of age as those found in Sheffield. 


This article was written by Claire Cavanagh on behalf of The Royal Mint.


Twitter: ClaireCavanagh



Roman or Greek? Yes!

How best to broach the subject of provincial coinage? It’s a topic with no real clear cut distinctions that creates a lot of confusion among ancient coin collectors (collectors of ancient coins, not ancient collectors of coins!). Let’s tackle the question by starting with the above coin. This bronze was minted sometime between 196 and 146 B.C. by a federation of cities in the Roman province of Achaea, which closely approximates modern day Greece. This group of cities was known as the Thessalian League. Though a Roman province, the iconography of this bronze is all Greek: the obverse features a diademed head of Apollo while the reverse depicts Athena advancing to the right holding a shield and brandishing a spear. Even the legends of the coin are in Greek, denoting the issuing magistrate, Philokrates, and the region, Thessaly.

So why is a Roman coin from a Roman province covered in Greek letters and gods? The simple answer: the Romans were not dummies.

First, some history. In Michael Grant’s “A Guide to the Ancient World” he explains how the Thessalian League existed long before the Roman conquest. Around 400 B.C. a powerful state was created through the cooperation of several separate cities. This league of cities fell quickly under the conquest of Alexander the Great but was reorganized by the Romans around 196 B.C. This Thessalian League was empowered to issue its own federal currency. And, like I said, the Romans were not dummies. They knew that you don’t create productive citizens by crushing their culture and imposing your own.

Provincial coinage illustrates this. The diversity of subjects on provincial coins mirrors the cultural diversity of the people they served. Rather than bury the people living in their outlying territories with Roman gods and Roman language, the empire slowly integrated the colonies while allowing them to maintain their own history.

Provincial coinage is a very interesting subject and can be extremely rewarding to study and collect. See Wayne G. Sayles’ book “Ancient Coin Collecting IV” for more info!

Constantine II- A Question of Seniority

It was definitely a bad idea for the older brother to pick on his younger siblings in the case of Constantine II. But before we discuss the hapless case of the eldest son of Constantine the Great and his second wife, Fausta, let’s turn our attention to the coin.

This particular follis was struck in 332 A.D. at the Lugdunum mint, known today as Lyons, France. The portrait shows a young Constantine II facing right in military cuirass and crowned with a laurel wreath denoting his rank as Caesar. His name surrounds, followed by his rank in abbreviate form. On the reverse, two soldiers face each other holding shields and spears with two military standards between. The Latin inscription around translates to the “Glory of the Army” with the mint and symbol for the fifth officina appearing below.

Constantine II was embarking on his illustrious military career at the ripe age of 16 when this coin was manufactured. Having been allotted the territories of Gaul, Britain, and Spain, Constantine II was installed at Trevirorum (Trier) in 328 to guard the Rhine frontier. In 332 the Sarmatians appealed to his father, Constantine I the Great, for assistance against the invading Visigoths, led by Alaric I. Constantine II was victorious in the ensuing engagements that continued into 334, earning himself the title “Germanicus”.

His younger brother Constans had been declared Caesar in 333, assuming control of the territories of Italy, Pannonia, and North Africa. However, Constantine II was named regent over Constans due to Constans’ minority (he was only 12 or 13 at the time of his ascension). Upon their father’s death in 337, a looming rivalry for the imperial throne began to make itself evident.

338 saw the three surviving sons of Constantine I the Great, now co-Emperors of the Roman empire, at the center of a growing territorial dispute. A meeting was held to finalize their respective borders resulting in additional territory coming under Constans’ control, while Constantine II’s holdings remained the same. It is said that Constans ceded Constantinople to his brother Constantius II in return for his support against Constantine II. Whatever the case, in 340 Constantine II took advantage of the absence of Constans from Italy and decided to invade. He was defeated by the combined forces of Constantius II and Constans at Aquileia, losing his life in an ambush by a group of Constans’ Illyrian troops.

The Money of King Arthur II: Mercenary Gold


In last week’s post we learned of a 5th century Briton, Riotimus, who was recruited to help defend Roman Gaul from the Visigoths by the Western Roman emperor Anthemius. We have to assume that this arrangement was looked upon by Anthemius as a business agreement between the empire and an army of mercenaries. To think that the emperor of  Western Rome viewed a regional barbarian “King” as an equal, and thus an ally worthy of trade agreements, defense pacts, and other benefits between independent nations, would be hard to justify even though Rome hadn’t had a presence in Britain for almost 50 years.

So what did the payoff consist of? Well, you don’t entice a warlord with 12,000 men at his disposal to cross the ocean with small change. The most likely answer: gold.

Anthemius was fresh to his new post in 468. The worsening situation in Gaul prompted the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I to appoint him emperor of the West in 467, a post that had been vacant since the murder of  Severus III in November of 465. The mints were sure to have begun commemorating  Anthemius’ reign almost immediately after his appointment but this coinage certainly would not have been the most likely to be doled out in payment.

Severus III

In contrast, the gold coinage of Anthemius’ predecessor was relatively plentiful and easily at hand in 468. Severus III was merely a puppet ruler of Ricimer, Master of Soldiers, whose power didn’t extend much past the borders of Italy during his brief tenure of 461 to 465.  Although his legitimacy was never recognized by Leo, Severus did manage to produce coinage at the western mints of Milan and Ravenna during his almost 4 year reign and it is here that we find our first likely candidate for the gold paid to Riotimus and his troops.

Majorian preceded Severus, ruling from April of 457 to August of 461. He was very successful in his dealings with the Visigoths and Burgundians, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout his reign. Unfortunately he was another puppet ruler of Ricimer’s design and, once he had shown a backbone, was eliminated in favor of someone more controllable. Most of Majorian’s surviving coinage are small bronzes, definitely not a respectable payment for an army.

Valentinian III

Now we come to Valentinian III. A ruler over a span of 30 years (425-455) who produced gold coinage at the mints of Rome, Ravenna, and Milan to name but a few. During his reign the Vandals arose as a power in Spain, the Visigoths and Franks were successfully defeated, and the capital of the western empire was moved from Rome to Ravenna. Like most late emperors, he was murdered in what the perpetrators might call a “hunting accident”.

 Years later when it became necessary to pay the British warlord for his services, I speculate that the chest of gold he received contained an abundance of the coinage of Valentinian III from the local western mints. There would be a few from the reign of Severus, Anthemius, and the eastern emperor Leo I. But there is one problem. Jordanes, writing in 551, tells us that Riotimus suffered a humiliating defeat (due to treachery, maybe Mordred?) at the hands of the Visigoths and retreated, never to be heard from again, to the land of the Burgundians. Did he ever return for his chest of gold? You decide.

All photos courtesy of  Wildwinds.com

The Money of King Arthur Pt. I: A Numismatic Prologue

To begin, I should probably define what (or who) I mean by “King Arthur”. Let’s forget about the standard English form of the Arthurian legends. This popular collection of romances was completed by Sir Thomas Malory around 1469 but has nothing to contribute to our quest for the coinage that would have been familiar to the historical “Arthur”.

To make the case for this historical figure, we can start with one of Malory’s earlier sources, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sometime around 1136 Geoffrey finished his “History of the Kings of Britain”. Now the word “history” in the title should be taken lightly since this History includes early Britain being populated by giants, Trojans, and Saxon eating dragons. But once again we are led to an even earlier source, and here is where things get very interesting.

His name was Sidonius Apollinaris, an aristocrat who lived in south-central Gaul in the 5th century A.D. As luck would have it, Sidonius wrote many letters to prominent Britons and much of his correspondence has survived. It is from these letters that we discover the historical source of Malory’s Arthur.

Remember that Sidonius was alive during the time period he was writing about, unlike Geoffrey or Malory who were writing 700 to 1000 years after the events had occurred. With that in mind, Sidonius tells us that in 467 the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, Leo I, appointed Anthemius the Roman Emperor of the West.  After Valentinian III was murdered in 455, western rulers tended to have short life spans and turnover was frequent. Avitus ruled less than a year. Majorian was assassinated 3 years into his reign. And Majorian’s successor Severus III was poisoned 4 years later in 465.

Euric, king of the Visigoths in Spain, took note of this instability and set his sights on the western Roman territory of Gaul.

In 468 Anthemius sought a British alliance to thwart Euric’s plans of conquest. We have an account from a book by Jordanes, who was writing in 551, less than 100 years after these events. Here is a portion of his account, which I am quoting from Geoffrey Ashe’s 1987 book “The Discovery of King Arthur”:

“Now Euric, King of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent changes of Roman emperors and strove to hold Gaul in his own right. The emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Britons for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships.”

Here is our Arthur, not in name but in title. Many scholars, past and present, feel that this man is the source. 1000 years of elaboration resulted in the ultimate publication of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”. And if this is so, we need only look to the Western Roman coinage of the period, roughly 425 to 470 A.D., to imagine what the High King of the Britons carried in his pockets.

See the results of my imagination in my next post!

The Abduction of Europa

Mythology has always played an important role in the iconography portrayed on coinage. One very enduring myth that saw widespread representation on the coins of many eras and cultures was the story of  Europa and her abduction by Zeus.

According to Greek myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of King Agenor of Tyre. One day as she was gathering flowers by the sea, the god Zeus looked down upon her and became enamored with her beauty. Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and descended to mix in with King Agenor’s herds. When Europa saw him, she approached and, seeing that the bull was tame, climbed onto its back. Zeus then leaped into the sea and swam to the island of Crete. Upon arrival, Zeus revealed himself to Europa in his true form and eventually fathered three sons with her.

The first mention of Europa in literature can be found in Homer’s “Iliad” which is generally dated to about the 8th century B.C. The myth is mentioned by numerous sources throughout history including  Herodotus, and the Roman poet Ovid.

With regard to coins, the depiction of Europa being carried away on the back of a bull has been a popular motif almost since the advent of coinage as a medium of exchange. Beginning around the 4th century B.C., this scene has been reproduced on coins of Greece, Rome, and Cyprus just to name a few. And being a native of Phoenicia, Europa of course figured most prominently on the coins of that ancient nation.

The above coin is a bronze from the city of Sidon, Phoenicia dating from the 1st century B.C. On the obverse is the Phoenician god Melqart facing right, possibly the Phoenician equivalent of the Greek Heracles according to Herodotus. On the reverse is the famous scene of Europa in a divine halo seated on the back of Zeus in the form of a bull. Below is the name of the mint city, Sidon, written in Greek. There is another line of text below the mint name and a possible date to the left of the bull but I have yet to decipher them.

Geographically, ancient Phoenicia corresponded approximately to the modern day country of Lebanon. It was a powerful seafaring nation in its heyday, famous for its navy, wine, and purple dye. Sidon was known for its skillful metalworkers as early as the 7th or 8th century B.C. Sidon fell under the sovereignty of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians in antiquity and was conquered by Alexander III the Great in 333 B.C. The Ptolemies and Seleucids followed as Sidon’s overlords until self government was achieved around 250 B.C.

Around the time this little piece of small change was minted, Pompey the Great of Rome recognized Sidon as a sovereign city-state. Representations of the abduction of Europa continued on Sidon’s coins even after it was assimilated into the Roman Empire under the emperor Elagabalus c.218-222 A.D.

You can still find this myth portrayed on modern day coins, such as the 50 cent coin of 1994 from Cyprus. The Abduction of Europa has endured on coinage for over 2500 years and I’m thinking a collection from ancient to modern times would be a very rewarding endeavor!

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

It’s interesting to reflect back on how your collecting interests have changed over time. You would assume that, as your income grows, so might the average amount you spend on new acquisitions. Looking back I’ve found this hasn’t always been the case. Like most coin collectors, for me it all started with pennies…

My grandad got me started. We would sit for hours at his kitchen table going through mountains of wheat pennies, ever on the lookout for a 1909-S VDB. After he passed in 1975 I continued to fill those blue cardboard Whitman folders with pennies from circulation. Back then wheat pennies were still plentiful and it took no time to fill a 1941-1974 book, each one a significant accomplishment for an 8 year old.

Jefferson nickels were next. It hurt a little more to part with a nickel than a penny, but it was still easy to fill that blue Whitman folder. Even that tough 1950-D could be found in pocket change with some searching.

At some point I discovered “Coins” magazine. All the different designs from the past 200 years were suddenly at my fingertips. I had no idea there was so much variety! No longer did I have to limit myself to what I could pull from change. My first mail order purchase followed shortly after, a well worn 1864 two cent piece and an 1868 three cent piece from Littleton Coin Company. I think the pair cost me seven dollars. That was a month’s worth of candy and comic books but those two coins were my pride and joy.

After a couple of years randomly accumulating silver dimes, quarters, and halfs I got a summer job doing road repair. A steady paycheck expanded my collecting horizons significantly! I joined the Liberty Seated Coin Collectors Club and began receiving Seated dimes and quarters on approval. For the then extravagant sum of twenty dollars a month I became the caretaker of about 20 or 25 different dates and mintmarks before the money ran out. At today’s prices I really wish I’d held on to those!

Life intervened. College, work, and family became the top priorities and my coin collection was pushed aside. The occasional AU Indian Head cent or Morgan dollar sufficed to keep my interest but there was no specific direction.To say that I was active in the numismatic world at that particular time would be a huge exaggeration.

Once the job turned into a career, my longtime habit again moved to the forefront. I was able to own coins that had always been out of reach. Third party certification had arrived and with it more confidence to collect unfamiliar coin series’. I tried my hand at high grade coins for the first time. A set of MS63 to 65 1878 Morgan dollars with all the mintmarks and different reverses (7 tail feathers, 8 tail feathers, reverse of ’78, etc.) was the first accomplishment. Then I tackled a short set of mint state Buffalo nickels from 1934 to 1938.

Mint state coins were beautiful sets to put together though very expensive. But when I put them next to my old Whitman penny books, those perfect shiny coins had no soul. They hadn’t passed from hand to hand over the years. They had no history, no character.

So I went back to circulated coins. First the early 20th century coins, the Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, and Walking Liberty halves. No high grades, just very fine circulated coins that saw some mileage. A group of circulated Standing Liberty quarters can tell a lot of stories.

Now my collecting is all about the stories. My 1804 Half Cent, my 1787 New Jersey coppers, the ancient coins from Rome and Greece, they have stories. Some of those coins aren’t very pretty but that doesn’t matter. Like the ghosts of the boys in the old football photo from the movie “Dead Poet’s Society”, each one whispers of a different time, an exotic place, a life all their own.

Coin Auction Catalogs

CatalogsI had anticipated a nice coin purchase upon receiving my tax refund this year but, as you can tell from my silence this past week or so, my laptop decided to take its own life and so my coin purchase turned into a new computer purchase. Despite the lack of funds, my local second hand book store did turn up an interesting and inexpensive find.

Some of you may recall a few posts back when I mentioned that picking up a reference book or auction catalog is a great way to keep your hobby interest burning when you find yourself low on cash.Well, after being all bummed out from losing my coin money, I went down to a little hole in the wall book store that let’s you trade in your used paperbacks. After some digging I came up with an old auction catalog from the ’80s. It was from a series of four sales conducted by Bowers and Ruddy Galleries featuring the incredible Garrett collection.

This catalog is the fourth in the series and contains photographs and in depth descriptions of some of Garrett’s more esoteric holdings, including a huge collection of Washington related coins and medals, 1792 dated coinage, Confederate States coinage, and early Indian Peace medals, just to name a few. Pair that with all the great historical background information and I’d say I clearly got my $5 worth!

Auction catalogs are usually overlooked as a reference option. But many catalogs are a great read. They allow you to have access to some of the greatest collections ever assembled, often illustrating the best examples known of rare and not so rare coins. Specialized collections have even produced catalogs that become THE photographic reference for their particular series.

Look into putting together a reference library of great auction catalogs. They can be had for little money for the most part and can provide for hours of interesting reading. Check out this website to get you started.

A 4th Century Tragedy, Part III


To understand the death of Valentinian II in 392 A.D. we have to look at the events leading up to the pivotal year of 387. Remember that Gratian, Valentinian’s older brother, had elevated Theodosius to Augustus of the eastern empire in 379 in order to quell the Gothic rebellion in Thrace. Theodosius restored order quickly by providing the disenchanted Goths with food, shelter and land within the borders of the empire. By November of 380 vast numbers of Goths were also being recruited into Theodosius’ legions.

Gratian showed favoritism toward the barbarian element in his armies as well, going so far as to hand pick his personal guard from members of the Alani tribes. Openly favoring these barbarians at the expense of his Roman colleagues lay behind a crisis that emerged in 383 when an imperial general serving in Britain by the name of Magnus Maximus was suddenly acclaimed Augustus by his fed up legions. Maximus promptly landed his troops in Gaul and defeated Gratian near Paris. Gratian was captured and murdered. Nothing stood between the 12 year old Valentinian and Maximus’ invading army.

With Theodosius occupied with the Persians in the east, it was fortunate for the boy that Maximus was content to be acknowledged as co-emperor of the West for the time being. Too bad Valentinian’s mother, Justina, hadn’t brought up her son in the accepted state religion. Sixty years earlier Constantine the Great had assembled a large group of bishops to Nicaea to come to an agreement on the nature of God and the Christ. Through this assembly the branch of christianity known as Arianism was declared heresy and what became known as the Nicene creed was proclaimed the official Roman religious belief system.

In 387, after repeated failures by the bishop Ambrose to convert the young emperor to the Nicene faith (failures due largely to the efforts of Justina), Maximus crossed the Alps to deliver the Empire from heresy. Justina and Valentinian fled to Thessalonica where they were joined by Theodosius who by this time was free of the Persian threat. In June of 388 Theodosius and Valentinian (now a man of 17) pursued Maximus to Aquileia where he was forced to surrender and put to death.

The appointment of the Frankish general Arbogast to govern Gaul during the interim of Valentinian’s return to Milan was the final nail in the young emperor’s coffin. Theodosius and Valentinian traveled to Rome and then on to Milan. Early in 391 Theodosius returned to Constantinople and Valentinian traveled to Vienne to accept the transference of power in Gaul from Arbogast, the barbarian Frankish general. When it became clear that Arbogast had no intention of relinquishing power, Valentinian asserted his authority by issuing a written order demanding Arbogast’s immediate resignation. Arbogast refused, war was declared, and just days later Valentinian was found dead in his apartment.

This ends the story of one of the most tragic figures in Roman history. Valentinian’s coinage, however, offers great variety despite his brief reign. His coinage and the coinage of Theodosius are the last bronze issues before artistry and legibility pass into miserable shadows of what Roman coinage once was. Take advantage of the affordability of these fascinating relics that predate the fall of Rome by only a few years.

A 4th Century Tragedy,Part II

Before we set the stage for our story, here’s a $12.00 purchase  I made a year ago that illustrates the central figure of the western Roman Empire from 375 to 392 A.D.

This bronze follis of Valentinian II was struck sometime between 383 and 392 A.D. The bust of Valentinian appears on the obverse wearing a pearl diadem, imperial drapery, and a military cuirass. The legend around translates to “Our Lord Valentinian, Dutiful Emperor”. The reverse portrays the emperor dragging a captive to the right while holding a labarum inscribed with the christian “chi-rho” symbol. The surrounding inscription celebrates the “Glory of the Romans” with the mintmark for the 1st officina (workshop) of Siscia, a town in what was once Yugoslavia, below.

Until 383, Valentinian ruled the western empire jointly with his older brother Gratian. Because of Valentinian’s age, his mother Justina ruled in his name. Back in 379 a huge uprising of Visigoths in the east, along with the ever present threat of the Persian empire, prompted Gratian to elevate Theodosius, a successful general, to emperor of the eastern empire. Theodosius was replacing the former eastern emperor, Valens, who had caused the Gothic unrest and lost his life in an attempt to restore order.

Unfortunately, Gratian would institute a very unpopular military policy that would contribute to Valentinian’s fate. Theodosius would perpetuate that policy while cleaning up the mess created by Valens, inadvertently putting into motion the events that would lead to the sack of Rome in 408 A.D. and the downfall of the empire. Justina would provide the final excuse an usurper would need to get the ball rolling: religion.

A 4th Century Tragedy, Part I

The fall of the Roman Empire has always held a great fascination for me. If you’ve ever read any Roman history, you know everyone has their own idea of when this began. In my opinion the empire began to rapidly decay after the death of Constantine I, the Great when his three surviving sons split the empire between them. Less than 40 years later, the decline was past the point of no return.

We as coin collectors are very fortunate that the economy of the late empire was so inflationary. The study of economics was 1,400 years in the future so the Romans’ answer to poverty was to mint more coins. Today there is an abundance of surviving coinage from the time period between 307 to 395 A.D., to the point that one can acquire a monetary record of Rome’s downfall for less than $50 per coin.

In this post I would like to set the stage for an interesting, though somewhat lengthy, series of upcoming posts that will illustrate what I feel are the true causes of the collapse of the Roman empire. The main character, Valentinian II, is possibly the most tragic figure in Roman history. In 375 A.D., at the age of 4, he became co-Augustus of the western empire. By the age of 21, he would be dead.

Top 10 Christmas Gift Ideas for the Coin Collector

christmas-tree-giftsChristmas is just about upon us and everywhere you look someone has a “Top 10 Hottest Gifts for 2009” list. A quick search will yield up Top 10 Toys for Boys, Toys for Girls, Top 10 Electronics, Movies, CDs, etc. but what about Top 10 Gifts for the Numismatist?

In the world of coin collecting, knowledge of your subject is key. Trying to buy a coin collector a coin probably isn’t the best idea. Every collector has their own set of standards. To avoid disappointment, a book is the best gift for the beginner up to the most advanced collector. Here are my picks and, best of all, every one is under $20!

1. A Guide Book of United States Coins

Otherwise known as the Red Book, this is the the U.S. coin collector’s bible. Published annually since 1947, the Red Book contains photos,historical information, and average retail price listings for every U.S. issue from colonial times through the modern age. Recently sections on patterns, tokens, and Philppine coinage have been added. The Red Book is an essential volume in every numismatists library and for $16.95 in hardback it’s a huge bang for the buck.

2. Photograde: Official Photographic Grading Guide for United States Coins by James F. Ruddy

The coin collector on your Christmas list will use this book to the point where it falls apart. My own current copy is in rags. Descriptions of both the obverse and reverse of all U.S. coin series from 1793 to present in all grades from About Good to Uncirculated along with illustrations of each make this book the best tool for every coin purchase. There are also chapters on detecting cleaned or counterfeit coins. If your collector doesn’t have a copy he (or she) needs one.

3. The Expert’s Guide to Collecting and Investing in Rare Coins by Q. David Bowers

If your collector enjoys a good read then this book will probably be number one on their list. In 650 pages Bowers gives in-depth collecting & investing information on every U.S. series along with market analysis, coin collecting history, purchasing tips and every other aspect of the hobby you can think of. This book truly is the authoritative resource that it claims to be.

4-9. Whitman’s “A Guide Book of…” series

A few years ago Whitman Publishing tapped several well known numismatic authors to create reference books on specific U.S. coin series’. The books in this series are extremely comprehensive. They contain date by date analysis of rarity in different grades, strike characteristics, and a wealth of historical information that places the reader in the time period in which these coins were produced. If you know what series of coinage your collector is interested in these will make a great gift. Here are just some of the volumes available in order of collecting popularity:

10. Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander Klawans

This is a great introductory reference book on the fascinating field of ancient coin collecting. It provides information on reading coin inscriptions, identifying the emperors and dates on Roman coins, and other methods of attributing coins of this era. If you’ve got a budding ancient coin collector on your Christmas list, this will give them a great foundation on the topic.

That is my Top 10 list for the coin geek. Every one of these books can be purchased for less than $20 and is guaranteed to get a lot of use. Where else can you get so many hours of enjoyment at that price?

Happy holidays!

An Ancient Soap Opera

crispus crispusrev

Here we have another follis struck during the reign of the emperor Constantine I, the Great around 321 to 324 A.D. The portrait here is of Constantine’s eldest son Crispus with the legend IUL CRISPUS NOB C, or Julius Crispus Nobillisimus Caesar. Note that he wears a laurel wreath rather than a pearl diadem, denoting his position of Caesar rather than Augustus. On the reverse we have the legend CAESARUM NOSTRORUM, meaning “our Caesar”, surrounding a wreath with VOT X in the center. This signifies that he has ruled by the grace of the people for the last 10 years (loosely). The mint and officina are denoted by A SIS, or Siscia, a city in modern day Yugoslavia and officina 1 with a sun afterwards (?).

321-324 A.D.

The period btween 321 and 324 A.D. would encompass a civil war, a drastic change in the religious outlook of the empire, and events leading to the execution of the eldest Caesar, Crispus himself.

In 321 Crispus’ father Constantine I, the Great passed a law proclaiming Sunday, “the venerable day of the Sun”, as a day of rest. Events were also set in motion for the Nicaean Council of 325 in which Arius, Archbishop of Alexandria, whose beliefs that Jesus Christ was subordinate to God and used as an instrument for salvation rather than as one substance with God, was branded as a heretic, erupting the Eastern empire into riots and chaos.

During the years 322-323 the Empire was thrown into a civil war when Licinius, co-emperor with Constantine, used an incursion of Constantine’s troops into his territories to put down a Gothic invasion as a stepping stone toward furthering his ambitions toward imperial domination. Crispus was instrumental in crushing Licinius’ navy, preventing reinforcements from reaching land and paving the way for Constantine’s victory.

Unfortunately for Crispus, these events sowed the seed of jealousy in his father. Crispus was popular with the army and the citizenry. Suddenly, in 326, Crispus was arrested and put to death. Rumors flew that he was having an affair with his stepmother, Fausta, who was executed shortly afterward. At least four ancient historians associate her with  the fate of the Crispus. See John Julius Norwich’s  A Short History of Byzantium for more on this ancient soap opera.

The City

Siscia became a Roman colony in the time of the emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) under the name of Colonia Flavia. The city became a part of Trajan’s new province of Upper Pannonia around 103 A.D. and became an important military headquarters and center for arms manufacture. Around 262 A.D. during the reign of Gallienus, Siscia became one of the greatest inperial mints, continuing to issue extensive coinage until it fell into the hands of the Ostrogoths early in the fifth century.

It would have been a fascinating time to be alive. Your day might consist of a trip to the forum where you would receive the news of the day from a town crier. Two of this particular coin might purchase a loaf of bread or a couple of portions of watered down wine for you and a friend. Chances are you would be scandalized by the news that the Archbishop had been branded a heretic and exiled to a backwater town overrun by barbarians. You might worry for the safety of your own soul, being a follower since before you could remember. Political strife and uncertainty would have been the order of the day during this tumultuous time.

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!