MINT MARKS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE PART II
In the last issue of Coin Collector we looked at the earliest appearances of mintmarks on Roman coins. Now Dr Adrian Marsden moves on to the more elaborate mint marking system of the late Roman Empire where almost every coin carried a signature linking it to a mint and to a workshop within that mint
It was in the 280s that the inhabitants of Roman Britain would come across the first large issues of mint marked coins produced in the province in the form of radiates of the usurper Carausius (AD286-93). Carausius’ early coins were crude and were struck with only basic mintmarks (see Coin Collector, issue 4) but his later issues are neat with a sequence of quite complicated mintmarks. These combine what are best seen as issue letters in the reverse fields with an exergue mark containing either the letter C or L.
The L almost certainly stands for Londinium, London, but the meaning of the C has been debated for generations and there are a welter of theories ranging from place names such as Camulodunum, Clausentum and Glevum to more military meanings such as Classis (Fleet) and Comitatus (Field Army). It is unlikely that we will ever solve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Carausius’ successor, Allectus (293-6), continued this mintmarking system.
With the reconquest of Britain in 296 the island’s radiates were replaced with the
new currency produced for the Tetrarchs Diocletian and Maximian (and their deputies) across the rest of the empire. There was a little gold and silver but the vast majority of the new coinage came in the form of large copper alloy coins with a thin silver coating known in the past as folles and today generally as nummi, not an overly helpful term since the word nummus simply means coin. We have no idea what these coins were called at the time.
The new coins were comprehensively mint marked. This was necessary since
now more mints than ever were striking coins; in the years around AD300 as well as London there were mints at Alexandria, Antioch, Aquileia, Carthage, Cyzicus, Heraclea, Lyons, Nicomedia, Rome, Serdica, Siscia, Thessalonica, Ticinum, and Trier, a total of fifteen. The formula used was not standardised but always there was, or almost always was, at least the initial of the mint. Where the mint had more than one workshop (or officina) the workshop number would be given, either in the western form of a P from the Latin Prima, S for Secunda and so on or in the eastern fashion where a letter of the Greek alphabet gave the number A for Alpha, B for Beta and so on.
Bizarrely, London did not at first mark its products. After a small and very rare initial issue using the exergue letters LON, all of its nummi had no marks at all (figure 1). Of course, that means that its coins can be easily ascribed to London since it was the only mint issuing unmarked nummi but it was still an odd situation. This strange lack of marks lasted for a very few years but not for long. By 307 London had come to place the letters PLN on its products, the LN clearly denoting Londinium (figure 2).
The nummus became much reduced in size over the next forty years but the mint marks that the coins carried became more complex. The reverse types of the coins changed every few years or so and each issue within each reverse type was distinguished from its predecessor by a different mint mark. For example, the Trier nummi of the BEATA TRANQVILLITAS Altar type carry a number of different symbols around the basic signature giving mint and workshop; these enable the coins to be broken down into a number of sequential issues based on the mint mark (figures 3-7). The sequence goes PTR, STRl, lPTRl, STR followed by a crescent and lSTR followed by a crescent.
With the collapse of the Tetrarchic system of joint emperors and the victory of the first Christian emperor Constantine over his opponents, the system across the empire became standardised. Now coins with the same general types were struck at mints from one end of the empire to the other. The situation reached by the 330s is best illustrated by looking at a range of examples of Constantine’s popular VRBS ROMA commemorative coinage from all of the mints producing it. The basic type shows a helmeted bust of Roma on the obverse with the inscription VRBS ROMA and a reverse showing the she-wolf and twins, Romulus and Remus, with two stars above. The major details are constant on all coins although the treatment can differ in the specifics from mint to mint. For example, on the coins of Antioch the twins are often depicted with little cloaks (figure 8) whilst on those of Constantinople their torsos are shown from behind so that each buttock is visible (figure 9).
The mint marks from the western mints serving the Gallic provinces and Spain follow a broad pattern giving the mint’s initials, the workshop number and usually an issue symbol. The coins pictured show all of these features. Trier has TRlP giving TR for Treveri, P for the first workshop and the pellet is an issue symbol (figure 10). Lyons has a crescent followed by PLG, the crescent being an issue
symbol, the P denoting the first workshop and the LG being a contraction of Lugdunum (figure 11). Arles has PCONST with a pellet within a wreath in the field above the wolf; this is an issue mark, the P stands for Prima, the first workshop and the CONST for Constantina, the Roman honorific for Arles (figure 12). The northern Italian mint of Aquileia follows the same conventions; the mark AQS with the issue symbol of a pellet in the field above the wolf’s tail is rendered down to AQ for Aquileia and an S for the second workshop (figure 13). The other Italian mint, Rome, did things similarly; the mark of RBQ breaks down into three letters, the R standing for Roma, the Q for Quarta, the fourth workshop, and the B is an issue letter (figure 14). At Rome, because it had five workshops the Greek letter epsilon is used instead of Q for Quinta to differentiate it from Q for Quarta.
As we move east so the mint marking system changes. In the Balkan mint of Siscia, Greek letters become the norm for marking workshops; thus, we have SIS, the gamma, third letter of the Greek alphabet, standing for the third workshop (figure 15). The SIS stands, of course, for Siscia. There are no issue letters or symbols on this coin; this was the first VRBS ROMA issue at the mint and first issues are often unadorned with details other than mint letters and workshop numbers. Constantinople, standing at the point where Europe meets Asia, follows a similar course to Siscia in the use of Greek letters. The mark of CONSIA gives CONS for the name of the city and IA for the workshop (figure 16). Mints did not go above the tenth Greek letter in mint marks, indeed very few had so many officinae. So, here, we have I for ten and A for one equating to ten plus one or eleven.
Further east mint marks always give the workshop number in the form of a
Greek letter and the formula used is very standard. There are also few issue symbols and, where there are, these are always pellets in exergue or field. Eastern mints are noted in this period for prefixing their signatures with the letters SM for Sacra Moneta the words literally meaning Sacred Money. Thus, a coin of Nicomedia has the letters SMN followed by an epsilon, the N referencing Nicomedia and the epsilon the fifth workshop (figure 17). There are three pellets in the field, an issue symbol. Thessalonica has the letters SMTS also followed by an epsilon (figure 18). Again, we have the TS marking Thessalonica and the epsilon workshop five. Thessalonica is one mint where different types were struck by different workshops. This was a rigid system and workshop five was devoted to the VRBS ROMA issue. The type was not struck at any other workshops which each struck
issues in the name of one individual only, Constantine, his sons or Constantinopolis, the personification of Constantinople.
The coin from Cyzicus gives, after the
SM, a K for the city and a B for the second workshop (figure 19). There is a pellet before the letters. Heraclea is similar, a pellet followed by the letters SMH ; the H signifies Heraclea and the epsilon the fifth workshop (figure 20). The other two eastern mints of Alexandria and Antioch did things just the same. Alexandria’s SMALB signature stands for the first two letters of the city’s name with a beta for the second workshop (figure 21). Antioch’s SMANI gives AN for Antioch and I for the tenth workshop (figure 22). Most of Antioch’s wolf and twins issues were struck in the ninth workshop (figure 23) but there was not the same rigid allocation of different types to different workshops that there was at Thessalonica and wolf and twins coins are known with the signatures of other officinae.
Interestingly, there exist a very few extremely rare coins of this type which must have been the first struck. They read SMANT ; here the ANT is an extended abbreviation for Antioch but the use of a delta followed by an epsilon is less obvious (figure 24). In fact, this is a mark of superstition. In the Greek East the ninth letter of the alphabet, theta, was used as an abbreviation for Thanatos (Death) when jurors were marking their ballots to vote for a death sentence. The engraver preparing the very few coins that carry this delta-epsilon mark was avoiding use of the theta letter with its unchancy suggestions and instead employed a four plus five equals nine formula.
The different mint marks of this common coinage are listed in Roman Imperial Coinage volume VII and in Late Roman Bronze Coinage although there are problems. The western museum collections that were used as the basis of the lists were very much biased in favour of the products of western mints and so eastern material is very under-represented. The order of issues is often wrong and this has to be corrected by going back to the source material and analysing the details. With such a vast coinage struck across a dozen mints it is inevitable that new types will occasionally turn up that are not known in the reference works. For example, an issue of the type from Nicomedia without the three pellets often found above the wolf would be expected (figure 25) and coins lacking these pellets are indeed known in the name of Constantine and his family but such VRBS ROMA coins are absent from the publications.
Other discoveries are not so expected such as a coin of Rome with the hitherto unknown signature R Q with a palm branch between the two letters (figure
26). This simply represents an extremely rare survivor of what was surely a very small issue. Another VRBS ROMA coin, this time from Arles has a standard wreath with a pellet within occupying the field above the wolf but with two additional pellets flanking it (figure 27). This is presumably a new mint mark; the coins with a pellet in the wreath succeed those with a wreath without a pellet and so, presumably, the additional pellets represent an increasing complication of the mint mark, differentiating coins of this issue from those of the preceding one.
Just as the standard reference works miss some rare mint marks carried on official coins so they occasionally list as regular the garbled mint marks carried by irregular ones. Contemporary imitations of Roman coins were very common in the western provinces in this period (see Coin Collector 5) and there are a number which have mint marks that are either combinations of the marks used at two different mints or simply invented. Several VRBS ROMA derived imitations illustrate this well, coins with marks that never existed on official coins (figure 28). The style of some of these imitations can be very good indeed although, with careful study, they should always be recognisable from the official series.
The system of mint marking the products of the empire’s mints continued for many generations but the formulae evolved by the last years of Constantine’s reign did not much alter and the same basic principles continued to be used for many years. With long practice, the late Roman coin expert can usually tell the products of different mints apart on the basis of their style alone but, in the absence of this specialised knowledge, the mint mark can do it by itself.