An Introduction to Roman Coinage
by Hugh Smith

Although the systematic conquest of Britain by the Romans did not take place until 43 AD under the Emperor Claudius there had been increasing contact and trade between the two cultures since the expeditions carried out by Julius Caesar nearly 100 years earlier. This led to a certain Romanization of local Celtic coinage prior to the invasion of 43AD as can be seen in this Classic type gold stater of the British king Cunobelinus (AD 8-41). Rather than the crude, triple tailed horses of before, here you see a well styled, very lifelike depiction.




The introduction of Britain into the Roman Empire initiated a complete change of the currency which endured for the next 350 years. The main denominations of coinage, which could be used throughout the Roman Empire, initially were:

The gold Aureus = 25 denarius

Silver denarius = 4 Sestertius

Bronze sestertius = 2 dupondius

Copper dupondius = 4 as

Copper as

The typical wage for a Roman legionary soldier at this time was 1 denarius a day. The denarius also came to denote the silver penny which was later issued from the Anglo Saxon period.
In addition to the official coinage local copies of the Roman coinage began to appear due to initial shortages of currency and increased trade. One of the most popular was the copper as of Claudius depicting Minerva of the reverse. Some of these copies were well executed whilst others were very crude.

Roman coins typically had a portrait of the emperor on the obverse. This was important, as it is today, to show who was in charge. On the reverse a remarkable array of images are shown and is where much of their historical interest will be found. Typical depictions include deities and personifications, there being many pagan gods both male and female. There were also frequent appearances by the emperor and his family. Other popular themes include types of military conquest and victories. Animal and architecture types are also common. Coins were also used for propaganda. For instance depictions include the reform or lowering of taxes, distribution of the corn supply or feeding of the poor. One such depiction is shown here, this is Hadrian distributing to the citizens under the watchful eye of Liberalitas, Roman goddess of giving.

As the decades past the empire expanded further into Britain and by the time of Hadrian in the early 2nd Century his famous wall was constructed between the Solway and the Tyne. Further expeditions into Scotland were short lived and the wall became the official boundary between the Romans and the Picts for the next 250 years. The peace and security offered by the occupation brought a flood of Roman coinage into the country as trade flourished and considerable urban expansion also took place.

When the empire ceased to expand an increase in taxes, as well as a run of poor emperors, led to unrest and inflation as well as deepening political and economic crisis. The currency became increasingly devalued and the silver content in the denarius was reduced. By the middle of the 3rd Century silver coins were largely made of bronze.

The denarius was increasingly replaced by the antoninianus, nominally worth 2 denarius, but this too was debased and reduced in size.

The 3rd century saw a succession of short-lived emperors and as anarchy and unrest spread there were various uprisings throughout the empire. In Britain, and North West Gaul one of the uprisings was led by Carausius. Carausius was one of the most famous usurpers and defied Rome for 7 years before being assassinated and replaced by a rival Allectus. Both men issued their own coinage from local mints which were set up in London and Colchester. There was also a large increase in the issue of local and unofficial coins at around this time. These coins were often modelled on the official Roman bronze coinage and are usually classified as Barbarous Radiates.

Typically these radiates are smaller and more crudely made.

The empire was eventually stabilized under Diocletian. In 296AD Allectus was deposed, and Britain brought back under Roman rule. Diocletian brought in many reforms which included the division of the empire for administrative purposes. The currency was also stabilised and reformed. The new coins include:

The gold Aureus = 25 denarius

Silver siliqua

Billon Follis later to become the centenionalis

Again, these coins typically depict the emperor on the obverse together with a diverse array of reverses. The conversion of the empire to Christianity under Constantine the Great meant that the depiction of pagan gods was replaced by Christian symbols typically the Chi Rho. During the 4th Century the minting of coins was decentralised and for several decades coins were minted in provincial towns such as Trier, Lyon & London.

By the end of the 4th Century AD the Roman Empire, which had been divided into the East and the West, was again in decline. There was increasing unrest, particularly on the borders, which led to incursions into the empire by neighbouring barbarian tribes. These culminated in the eventual sacking of Rome in 476AD together with the fall of the western part of the empire. In the east however the empire, which was centred on Constantinople, continued under the Byzantines, for another 1000 years.

The Romans started to withdraw from Britain towards the end of the 4th Century AD and in 410AD the Roman province was told that it could no longer rely on the protection of the Roman army. Many Romans had by then settled in Britain and some of these chose to remain. Although there was an increasing number of incursions into the province during the 5th Century it would be several decades before the Anglo Saxons became dominant and the influence of Rome disappeared. Indeed, some of the coins from the early Anglo Saxon period retained a distinctly Romanic appearance.

Below we see a late Roman solidus (AD367-383) to the left, closely copied by the Saxon’s to the right (AD655-675). The near 300 year gap accounts for the Dark Ages when no coins were produced in Britain.

A Roman coin provides a direct link to Roman culture. When a coin and its inscription has been identified an insight is provided not only on the emperor under whose reign the coin was struck but also often some of the important historical and cultural events of the time. Due to the large number of coins found through metal detecting, especially where hoards have been discovered, acquiring a collection of Roman coinage is relatively easy. Whilst museums often retain some of the rarer or more unusual finds. Roman coin hoards, particularly from the later Roman period, have produced a vast array of high-quality bronze and silver coinage available to the private collector. Coinage minted under Constantine the Great and his descendants for instance are usually available and are often relatively inexpensive (under £100). Some of these hoard coins were almost uncirculated when they were buried. Not only does this provide some insight as to when the coins were buried but the high quality of workmanship of many of these coins can now be enjoyed by their new owners.

As with coins from all periods there are many forgeries, both contemporary and modern, also available for sale. It is therefore important, particularly when inexperienced, to acquire coins from reputable sources. Silbury Coins offer a wide selection of Roman coinage, all covered by their authenticity guarantee and with a Certificate of Authenticity available at no extra charge upon request. For further reading on the subject try David R Sears ‘Roman Coins and their Values’ (Vol 1-5).

Enquire about this coin

    I consent to Silbury Coins collecting my details, inline with the privacy policy.

    Sell a coin

      Please use the option below to upload a photo of the coin or item.

      Image one:

      Image two:

      Image three:

      Image Four:

      I consent to Silbury Coins collecting my details, inline with the privacy policy.