Starting a Roman Coin Collection – Part 1
Something very special happens when you place a 2,000 year old coin in someones hand...especially if that person has never seen such an item.To be able to hold and handle something with so much history is quite remarkable. This is the joy of collecting Roman coins.
The first question I usually get asked about ancient coins is...how can they still exist? After all they are so old. Most Roman coins that we have today we discovered hidden in the ground. Consider that no banks existed to make deposits...so the best way to store your wealth was to hide it. Large Roman armies were travelling with treasuries of freshly minted coins. Likely, many were hidden before battles..and some remained so for 2,000 years. Other hoards may have been hidden in the brickwork of homes, other groups in the forest, etc. Since the invention of the metal detector we have had the pleasure of re-discovering these fascinating groups.
Roman coins are the easiest to collect of the ancient societies for many reasons. Firstly they are usually available in quantity, and in all budgets (very used bronzes can sometimes be had for a few dollars). Secondly since all of the writing on them is in Latin, they are easy to decipher even for those not fluent in this language. Thirdly, the coins follow a similar pattern to our modern coins. Most have a ruler on one side and a design on the other. For reasons I will explain in a future article, they are also easy to date, thus we can figure out the exact year the coin was minted.
Like most coin collecting endeavours the best way to start is with a little reading.The standard modern reference on Roman coins is – Roman Coins & Their Values – Authored by David Sear. Each of the many volumes (there are four now) covers a different period in history. For example Volume one deals with the Roman Republic to the end of the Twelve Caesars (roughly 280 BC to AD 96). I would also suggest some general reference books, or websites on Roman history.These books can be found online or at a coin dealer specializing in this subject.
There are so many ways to go about a collection it is hard to begin. One thing I would not suggest is to try to get every Roman coin (this is impossible anyways). Focus on something that interests you. Many collectors will put together a set (although virtually none will finish it) of each Roman ruler. Most are obtainable, and some are not.This is a fun way to start because you will see a wide range of types, and it is fun to learn about each ruler as you go.A shorter but still challenging set would be of each of the famous 12 Caesars.
Personally, I like to focus on a ruler or dynasty (in the case where the ruler’s sons took over) and try to get as many different coins as possible. Often the ruler’s wives, and sons appear as well. I know a collector who does the same for a specific Caesar and has hundreds of different coins, which he assemble over the last decade.
Consider that coins were produced in bronze, silver, and gold. The latter being the most expensive and generally the most difficult to obtain. Coins, especially bronzes do come in a wide assortment of denominations (sizes) as well. Just trying to get one of each coin size in all metals would be quite an interesting group.
Another theme to consider is historical reverses (the side of the coin opposite to the one with the rulers bust). Coins were issued to commemorate major historical events...mostly military. The capture of Britain, Armenia, Judea, etc.
Roman gods are prominently featured on many coins, as well as interesting architecture, and animals as well. Imagine a culture that existed for about 800 years...there is a lot here to collect.
The same rules of collecting apply to ancients as to modern coins .... get the best quality possible. Original coins have a great amount of detail, and new condition examples look extraordinary. Most of what is offered to collectors are very cruddy looking little bronze coins...be careful...not only are these hard to identify (although some folks like the challenge!), but despite their vintage they are not desired by collectors, and therefore not valuable.
Counterfeits do exist, and so please be very careful buying items as a tourist overseas, or online. Best to consult a well known collector, or dealer when you start to make sure you are buying the real thing.