CLA260H1S – Lecture 24
Making money in Greece and Rome 1
In this session and the next we shall look at Greek and Roman coins. In
the textbook see, obviously, chapter 16 on ‘Numismatics’. To the
bibliography there you should now add W. E. Metcalf ed. The Oxford
Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (2012). Under ‘handbooks’
you may also find P. Grierson, Numismatics (1975) a useful introduction
to the subject in general, though it is dated in certain respects. Howgego
is fundamental; but there is also useful material in M. Crawford,
“Numismatics” in his Sources for Ancient History (Cambridge 1983) and
A. Burnett, Coins (London, 1991).
There are three key questions when thinking about any system of
o What was the theoretical system? (quite often this is easy to
answer; sometimes it is much less so...)
o What did the mint(s) actually produce?
o What did people actually use?
Greek coinage systems
• Greek cities commonly use coinage systems which are based on the
drachma and the obol weights – and multiples and fractions of both.
See the back of the handout for session 21 for some more details
on weight standards.
o At Athens the cornerstone of classical silver minting is the
tetradrachm (4-drachma, 17.28g, coin) – which represents a
substantial sum of money (roughly in the order of a week’s
wages for a typical person).
o Smaller transactions at Athens are dealt with by the obol and
its fractions, the hemiobol (half obol) and the tetartemorion
(quarter obol) – the last of which in practice usually weighs in
at a whole 0.16g.
• In some cities the basic unit is the stater. The weight of a stater
varied from city to city but it was usually in the 8g to 15g range; it
was often divided into two, three or four drachmas.
The Roman Denarius system • Early Roman coinages are particularly (horrifyingly in certain
respects) complex; Crawford 1974 provides a standard account, but
note that his chronology requires a whole system of cast bronze
coinage to be used only in 11 years, including several reductions of
the weight of an as. Burnett in Metcalf ed. 2012 provides a
bibliographic survey and commentary.
• The previously-existing Roman coinage system collapses under the
strain of the war with Hannibal; a new system, including the new
silver denarius is introduced probably in 211, which
incorporates gold, silver and bronze coinage.
• The new system is based on a pound (libra) weight of 288 ‘scruples’
(scripula) (327.45g), and the as (‘unit’) of 48 scruples, or 1/6 of a
• Although this is generally referred to as the ‘denarius’ system, the
basic unit is actually the bronze as: a denarius (literally ‘tenner’) is
a silver coin worth ten of these basic units.
• The system is initially trimetallic (that is, there are coins in three
metals: gold, silver, and bronze).
• There are gold coins of 3, 2, 1 scruples weight, marked LX, XXXX
and XX [60, 40, 20] respectively. The marks of value are reckoned
in the as unit of bronze.
• Silver coins of 4, 2 and 1 scruple(s) weight, marked X (the
denarius), V (quinarius ‘fiver’) and IIS (sestertius: ‘two-and-a-
o There is also a ‘victoriate’ of 3 scruples, which bears no mark
of value, different types from the three silver denominations
(a head of Jupiter/Victory & Trophy, as opposed to a head of
Roma/Dioscuri) and is of low silver content and dubious
function – but produced in huge numb