Collecting coins, or numismatics, is a fascinating hobby, and ancient Roman coins are perhaps among the more exciting examples. Thousands of bronze, silver, and gold coins were exchanged between citizen and slave alike in every remote region of the vast Roman Empire. Fortunately these beautiful and history-steeped coins are being rediscovered and appreciated by collectors today.
It’s easy to start a collection with the more common types of ancient Roman coins, as they are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, especially if they are classed as “unclean.” The only tools a new collector needs are a magnifying glass, wooden toothpicks, simple cleaning agents such as distilled water and olive oil, and a coin album to display your finds. Once the coins are cleaned and ready to catalog, you can begin to decipher their origins with the help of a number of books and online sites specializing in coin identification.
Ancient Roman coins were often buried underground in clay pots for safekeeping, and many of these hiding places were abandoned or forgotten over time. There have been numerous discoveries of unearthed hoards containing coins ranging in age from 200 AD to nearly 500 AD. Most of these coins are made of bronze or a bronze/copper alloy commonly used in the late Roman Empire. They can be bought singly or in lots (look for unclean roman coins lots on eBay), either in clean or unclean condition. Unclean coins from buried hoards are usually much cheaper to buy than clean coins, and are ideal for the beginner to start their collection with. Like a lucky dip, there’s no way of determining a dirty coin’s identity until the layers of clay and deposits acquired over hundreds of years are removed.
The process of cleaning dirty coins can be time-consuming, but it is important to be patient to get the best possible result. Old bronze coins need careful handling, as they are often thin and quite fragile. The easiest and least-damaging cleaning method is to soak them in good quality olive oil to loosen grime and crusty deposits on the coins. If the oil becomes dirty during this time, it can be replaced with fresh oil. After a few weeks, you can remove the coins and rinse them clean in distilled water. By carefully using a wooden toothpick, you should be able to scrape off much of the loosened layers until details of each coin are revealed. Occasionally a coin will be no more than a “slug,” and impossible to identify; but most coins will demonstrate some lettering, and hopefully, an identifiable portrait.
When you’ve cleaned up your dirty coin, you can start looking closely at its details. On the “heads,” or obverse side, will be the depiction of a Roman emperor ringed by lettering, called a legend, which describes his name and status. As an example, the legend might read DNCONSTANTIVSPFAVG, which translates as “Our Lord Constantius, Dutiful and Fortunate Augustus.”
The “tails,” or reverse side, usually displays a picture involving gods, soldiers, or vanquished enemies. It’s also ringed by a legend; for example, FEL TEMP REPARATIO, translates as “Happy Times are Restored.” The exergue, or mint mark, consists of a few letters located below the picture. One example might be ANH, which denotes Antioch, the frontier city where the coin was originally struck.
By reading the legends on the coin’s obverse and reverse sides, and noting the portrait, reverse depiction, and mint mark, it is now possible to identify this particular emperor: Constantius ll, who ruled Rome from 337 to 361 AD. Sometimes it may be hard to read all the letters in the legends or see the portraits or pictures clearly because coins are often worn down over time. Luckily, there are many online coin sites that have pages dedicated to classifying ancient Roman coins, including forumancientcoins.com, romancoins.info, and wildwinds.com, to name just a few. By careful observation and with their assistance, most coins can be identified.
The art of collecting and identifying old coins can lead to some experienced hobbyists specializing in expensive and rare gold and silver coins in mint condition. However, this rewarding pastime can be started with just a handful of unclean bronze hoard coins bought from a coin show or an online auction site. With a little patience and some help from one of the many websites dedicated to ancient coins, your dusty specimens will eventually transform into the beginnings of a great collection. Whether they’re made of precious metal or simply a lowly alloy, these age-old coins — once legal tender decreed by the emperor of the day and exchanged throughout the Roman Empire — are history come alive for anyone wanting to learn more about ancient times. They are guaranteed to provide the collector, both new and experienced, many years of interest and pleasure.