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Glossary Of Frequently Encountered Terms In Roman Coin Descriptions

Abacus, Acrostolium, Adlocutio, Adventus, Aegis, Aes, Ancile, Aplustre, Apex, Aquila, Aspergillum, Biga, Billon, Binio, Brockage, Caduceus, Carpentum, Christogram, Cippus, Cista, Cognomen, Congiarium, Conjoined, Contorniate, Cornucopiae, Curule chair, Decastyle, Decennalia, Decursio, Designatus, Diademed, Die, Distyle, Equestrian, Exercitus, Exergue, Fasces, Field, Flan, Fourrée, Gens, Graffiti, Hexastyle, Hybrid, Incuse, Janiform, Jugate, Labarum, Laureate, Legend, Legionary eagle, Lituus, Lyre, Manus Dei, Mappa, Mint mark, Modius, Mule, Mural crown, Nimbate, Nomen, Obverse, Octastyle, Officina, Orichalcum, Palladium, Parazonium, Patera, Petasus, Pileus, Planchet, Plated, Praenomen, Profectio, Quadriga, Quinquennalia, Radiate, Redux, Reverse, Rostrum, Serratus, Signum, Simpulum, Sistrum, Standard, Tetrastyle, Thyrsus, Togate, Trident, Triga, Tripod, Triskeles, Trophy, Turreted, Vexillum, Vicennalia, Victimarius, Vota

Rare Coins

Abacus  the hat worn by certain Roman priests, originally referring to the rod or spike surmounting the headdress.David Sear

Acrostolium  the prow-stem of a warship, i.e. the curved decorative extension of the stem-post.David Sear

Adlocutio  (or allocutio), the act of addressing or haranguing a gathering of military personnel, the word normally accompanies a scene depicting the emperor atop a low platform.David Sear

Adventus  the arrival of an emperor in Rome or in one of the great provincial centres. Usually accompanying a depiction of him on horseback, but on the coinage of the much-travelled Hadrian also showing him as a standing figure, together with a personification of the region or city of his destination (ADVENTVI AVG GALLIAE, ADVENTVI AVG ALEXANDRIAE, etc.). See also Profectio.David Sear

Aegis  a small cloak, decorated with a gorgon's head at the centre, associated in mythology with Zeus (Jupiter) and his daughter Athena (Minerva). It was employed as a decorative feature of the portrait busts of many of the Roman emperors, appearing first on the coinage under Nero.David Sear

Aes  non-precious metal (copper, bronze , brass) used for the production of coinage (hence the abbreviation 'Æ').

Ancile  a shield of distinctive form (narrow central section of oval shape with broad curving extensions at top and bottom). It was a particular attribute of Juno Sospita and was associated with the Salian priesthood of Mars.David Sear

Aplustre  the curved decorative extension of the stern-post of a warship, usually of spread form composed of several frond-like elements.David Sear

Apex  the hat worn by certain Roman priests, originally referring to the rod or spike surmounting the headdress.

Aquila  (see Legionary eagle)David Sear

Aspergillum  a whisk or sprinkler associated with religious rituals, appearing on the coinage as a symbol of the Roman priesthood of the Pontifices (this word was not used by the ancient authors and is of relatively modern derivation).David Sear

Biga  a chariot drawn by a team of two animals, usually horses.David Sear

Billon  an impure alloy containing less than 50% of silver, sometimes declining to less than 5%. It is especially associated with the debased imperial tetradrachms of Alexandria and with the Roman antoninianus denomination in the 3rd century, though it is commonly encountered in the 4th century also.David Sear

Binio  a double unit, a term most commonly applied to the gold multiple aurei of the 3rd century which frequently show the emperor with a radiate crown.David Sear

Brockage  a mis-struck piece resulting from the failure of the mint personnel to remove a coin which had stuck in the reverse or upper die after minting. As a result, the next blank to be struck received the impression of the obverse of the previous coin instead of that of the reverse die, thus producing a coin with two obverses (one of them incuse and a mirror version of the other). Brockages are most commonly encountered on denarii of the Roman Republic, but occur also on coins of all denominations in the Imperial series. Reverse brockages are much rarer and more difficult to explain as they would require a new blank to be placed on top of an existing piece which had remained in the obverse or lower die after striking.David Sear

Caduceus  the staff of Mercury, messenger of the gods, usually winged and ornamented with snakes.

Carpentum  a two-wheeled enclosed carriage permission to use which in central Rome was initially granted only to married women and, from early Imperial times, was restricted to a very select few. Carpenta appear on coins of a number of empresses in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, drawn by mules and most frequently in connection with posthumous honours.David Sear

Christogram  the Christian monogram, consisting of the Greek letters Chi and Rho = [Khr]istos).David Sear

Cippus  a squared stone pillar, usually bearing a commemorative inscription and set up as a monument or boundary marker.David Sear

Cista  (or cista mystica), a basket used for housing sacred snakes in connection with the initiation ceremony into the cult of Bacchus (Dionysus).David Sear

Cognomen  one of the three principal elements of a Roman name (praenomen, nomen, cognomen) it indicated the family name of the individual (e.g. Gaius Julius CAESAR). Usually acquired by an ancestor as a nickname indicating a personal characteristic the cognomen was afterwards inherited, thus becoming a family designation.David Sear

Congiarium  a ceremony in which the emperor distributed money to the citizenry. On the coinage of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD it is usually commemorated by an elaborate scene depicting the emperor atop a lofty platform, sometimes accompanied by the personification Liberalitas and with the legend CONGIARIVM or an abbreviated form (see also Liberalitas).David Sear

Conjoined  (see Jugate)David Sear

Contorniate  late Roman aes medallions which appear to have been produced in Rome in the late 4th and 5th centuries and are characterized by an incised border surrounding the obverse and reverse types. The designs are pagan and clearly betray a close connection with the circus and amphitheatre. They may well be associated with the anti-Christian sympathies of many of the late Roman aristocracy. Their purpose is unknown, though it has been speculated that they were used as entrance tokens, as counters in a board game, or as new-year's gifts. Like the earlier non-monetary medallions they have been excluded from this catalogue as they do not form part of the Roman coinage.David Sear

Cornucopiae  (plural cornuacopiae), the horn of plenty signifying prosperity, it is usually depicted overflowing with fruits and other agricultural produce. Although occasionally shown on its own, it more commonly appears as an attribute of an allegorical personification.David Sear

Curule chair  a folding stool with curved legs, it was symbolic of the highest or 'curule' magistracies in Rome (consulship, praetorship, and curule aedileship). It was said to derive from the seat placed in the royal chariot from which the Etruscan kings dispensed justice.David Sear

Decastyle  (see Tetrastyle)David Sear

Decennalia  the tenth anniversary of an emperor's rule, marked by the redemption of previous vows (vota soluta) and the undertaking of new ones (vota suscepta). It was often commemorated on the coinage by a depiction of the emperor sacrificing at an altar or by an inscription within a votive wreath. The quinquennalia (five years) and vicennalia (twenty years) were similarly celebrated, the latter of course far less frequently (see also Vota).

Decursio  a word used to describe rapid military manoeuvres, especially equestrian. Scenes of Nero galloping on horseback, accompanied by one or more of his soldiers, feature prominently on sestertii of AD 64-7.David Sear

Designatus  qualifies an individual who has been elected to future office but has not yet taken up the appointment. Most commonly encountered on the Imperial coinage on issues belonging to the end of the year, just prior to the emperor's assumption of a new consulship on January 1st (e.g. COS II DES III P P).David Sear

Diademed  wearing a form of head-dress indicating royalty. An eastern custom adopted by the Greek kings and queens of the Hellenistic age, the diadem is not generally worn by Roman emperors until the late Roman period, commencing with Constantine (though empresses are frequently depicted diademed at a much earlier period). The late Imperial diadem was usually ornamented with pearls and/or rosettes.David Sear

Die  the stamp from which a coin blank receives its design through the process of striking. Although very few have survived from ancient times, it seems clear that Greek and Roman dies were made of bronze or of iron and bore designs engraved usually in intaglio to produce a coin type in relief. The lower or anvil die would have received the obverse design and was engraved on the flat face of a cylinder which was then inserted into a circular aperture in an anvil block. The reverse die was engraved on the flat face of a cone or wedge. The top of this would have received the hammer blow after it had been placed above the heated blank which was resting on the anvil die. It has been estimated that this simple process could have produced at least ten thousand coins from a single pair of dies, possibly far more in the case of softer precious metals.David Sear

Distyle  (see Tetrastyle) Equestrian relating to horse-riding, the word derives from the Latin equus ('horse') . In the Roman social order the Equites formed a class second only to the senators. They originated from men who were selected for their special military abilities and were provided with a horse for the service of the state in wartime.David Sear

Exercitus  'army'. Encountered on Hadrian's series of coins issued to honour the provincial armies throughout his Empire (EXERCITVS SYRIACVS, EXERC BRITANNICVS, etc.). More general types celebrate the military establishment with inscriptions such as GLORIA EXERCITVS and VIRTVS EXERCITI. Also used in appeals for loyalty during unsettled times (CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, FIDES EXERCITVVM).David Sear

Exergue  the small space (generally on the reverse of a coin) below the principal type, from which it is usually separated by the 'exergual' line. On the later Roman coinage it was utilized for the main element of the mint mark.David Sear

Fasces  literally 'faggots', it was used to describe bundles of rods bound together which, accompanied by an axe, symbolize the authority of the highest Roman magistrates.David Sear

Field  the area surrounding the principal obverse or reverse type, in which may be placed subsidiary symbols or letters (often elements of the mint mark on coins of the later Empire).David Sear

Flan  (also planchet), the metal blank of correct size and weight which has been prepared for striking between a pair of dies.David Sear

Fourrée  a plated counterfeit coin with base metal core, usually in imitation of a silver denomination, though occasionally of gold. This normally indicates an unofficial product, though some fourrée appear to have been produced from official dies at the mint.David Sear

Gens  a group of Roman families sharing a common nomen, indicated by the second element of a personal name. Thus, Gaius Julius Caesar and the Republican moneyer Lucius Julius Bursio both belonged to the Gens Julia, whilst Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was a member of the Gens Pompeia (see also Nomen).David Sear

Graffiti  'scratches', letters and other marks scratched on the surface of a coin in ancient times to identify its owner.David Sear

Hexastyle  (see Tetrastyle)David Sear

Hybrid  (also mule), a coin on which the obverse and reverse designs are incorrectly combined.David Sear

Incuse  a design which is recessed into the surface of the flan rather than protruding in relief. Although frequently encountered on Greek coins this characteristic is very rare in the Roman series, being confined to the legends on certain quadrigati and denarii of the Republican series.David Sear

Janiform  two heads joined back to back in the manner of the god Janus.David Sear

Jugate  (also conjoined), two or more heads placed side by side. Not commonly encountered on Roman coins, though it does appear in both the Republican and Imperial series.David Sear

Labarum  a late Roman military standard ornamented with the Christian monogram (Christogram).David Sear

Laureate  wearing a wreath composed of laurel leaves. Originally associated with the god Apollo, and the standard head-dress of the emperors until the late Roman period.David Sear

Legend  the principal inscription appearing on the obverse and reverse of a coin, as opposed to a mint mark or mark of value.David Sear

Legionary eagle  (also aquila), the principal standard of the Roman legion. Normally affixed to a spear, the eagle was usually made of silver, this being the metal visible at the greatest distance.David Sear

Liberalitas  a ceremony in which the emperor distributed money to the citizenry. On the coinage of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD it is usually commemorated by an elaborate scene depicting the emperor atop a lofty platform, accompanied by the personification Liberalitas and with the legend LIBERALITAS or an abbreviated form. Sometimes the figure of Liberalitas appears alone (see also Congiarium).David Sear

Lituus  a short curving staff used in religious ceremonies of divination to mark out an area for the observation of birds. It appears on the coinage as a symbol of the Roman priesthood of the Augures.David Sear

Lyre  a string instrument with a rounded sound box at the bottom, traditionally made from the shell of a tortoise, and thin curving arms forming the uprights of the frame. It was believed to have been invented by the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury).David Sear

Manus Dei  'Hand of God', a Christian image which appears on some coins from the late 4th century onwards in the form of a right hand holding a diadem above the emperor's head. The symbolism indicates that the temporal ruler of the Empire is receiving divine sanction for his authority.David Sear

Mappa  originally the white napkin dropped by an emperor or magistrate as a starting signal at the Circus, in late Roman iconography it came to be a used as one of the principal attributes of the consuls.David Sear

Mint mark letters and symbols indicating the place of mintage of a coin and sometimes also the responsible workshop (officina) within the establishment. The precise form of the mark can often be a useful indication of chronology.David Sear

Modius  a measure of wheat, or any dry or solid commodity, containing the third part of an amphora. In form it resembled an inverted bucket standing on three legs. Serapis is usually shown wearing it on his head to denote his portrayal as god of the corn supply.David Sear

Mule  (see Hybrid)David Sear

Mural crown  (see Turreted)David Sear

Nimbate  wearing a nimbus or halo surrounding the head. Indicating an aura of glory or power, it was associated with the sun god Sol (Greek Helios) who was sometimes shown with a radiate nimbus in place of the usual radiate crown. Antoninus Pius was the first emperor to appear nimbate (on the reverse of a sestertius) and although seen more frequently in the late Roman period it was never a common iconographic feature.David Sear

Nomen  (see also Gens), one of the three principal elements of a Roman name (praenomen, nomen, cognomen) it indicated the clan to which the individual's family belonged (e.g. Gaius JULIUS Caesar). It was borne also by women (with a feminine ending, e.g. JULIA).David Sear

Obverse  from the Latin obversus ('turned towards') the obverse is the 'front' of a coin bearing what is considered to be the more important of the two designs struck on a flan. The earliest Greek coins bore only a single type engraved on the lower (anvil) die, whilst the upper (punch) die consisted of a simple raised square. This effectively held the flan in place during striking and produced the well known incuse which typifies the reverses of the archaic Greek coinage. The anvil die thus came to be regarded as providing the chief element of a coin's design.David Sear

Octastyle  (see Tetrastyle) Officina  one of the separate workshops within a mint establishment. From the mid-3rd century AD the products of an officina are often identified by a letter or numeral in the reverse field or exergue. Later, they are sometimes combined with the mint name, e.g. R P = 2nd officina of Roma; ANT = 4th officina of Antioch.David Sear

Orichalcum  = brass, a yellowish alloy of copper with zinc. It was used extensively for coinage in the Imperial period, principally for the sestertius and dupondius denominations. As the dupondius was not significantly heavier than its half, the copper as, orichalcum was clearly more highly prized, perhaps being officially overvalued to the benefit of the government.David Sear

Palladium  a statue of Pallas-Athena (hence the name) reputedly stolen from Troy and subsequently brought to Italy by Aeneas. It was held in great reverence by the Romans who, because of its renowned protective powers, regarded it as the guardian of their city.David Sear

Parazonium  a short sword or large dagger worn at the waist, it is usually depicted sheathed.David Sear

Patera  a shallow bowl or dish without handles, it was frequently used in religious ceremonies for pouring libations or scattering grain and salt. It also served as a symbol of the priesthood of the Septemviri Epulones.David Sear

Petasus  a flat hat, with or without a brim, especially associated with Mercury (Greek Hermes), the messenger of the gods. When depicted on Roman coins the petasus of Mercury is normally winged as an indication of his swiftness.David Sear

Pileus  a conical felt hat associated with the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), twin sons of Jupiter; with Vulcan (Greek Hephaistos), god of iron and fire; and with Ulysses (Greek Odysseus), hero of Homer's Odyssey. The pileus was also symbolic of freedom, as it was given to former slaves who had been granted their freedom, hence its use as a symbol of Libertas.David Sear

Planchet  (see Flan)David Sear

Plated  (see Fourrée)David Sear

Praenomen  one of the three principal elements of a Roman name (praenomen, nomen, cognomen) it indicated the personal name of the individual within his family (e.g. GAIUS Julius Caesar). It was selected from a relatively small number of recognized praenomina, the most common of which were Aulus (abbreviated A.), Decimus (D.), Gaius (C.), Gnaeus (Cn.), Lucius (L.), Marcus (M.), Publius (P.), Quintus (Q.), Servius (Ser.), Sextus (Sex.), Tiberius (Ti.), and Titus (T.).David Sear

Profectio  the departure of an emperor from Rome at the commencement of a journey or military campaign. He is usually shown mounted, though is sometimes on foot (see also Adventus).David Sear

Quadriga  a chariot drawn by a team of four animals, usually horses.David Sear

Quinquennalia  (see Decennalia)

Radiate  decorated with rays, like those of the sun, this term is usually applied to the spiky crown sometimes worn by emperors as an alternative to a wreath. Normally indicating a double denomination (dupondius = two asses, antoninianus = two denarii) it derives from the headdress of the sun-god Sol (Greek Helios) and implies an association of the emperor with the divinity. The equivalent attribute for empresses was a crescent moon behind the shoulders, symbolic of the goddess Luna (Greek Selene).David Sear

Redux  'bringing back', this epithet was often applied to the goddess Fortuna in the sense that she was being invoked to protect the emperor on his return journey to Rome, both by sea and by land (the former represented by Fortuna's attribute of a rudder, the latter by a wheel placed beneath the seat of her throne or beside her standing figure).David Sear

Reverse  from the Latin reversus ('turned away') the reverse is the 'back' of a coin bearing what is considered to be the subordinate of the two designs struck on a flan. The earliest Greek coins bore only a single type engraved on the lower (anvil) die, whilst the upper (punch) die consisted of a simple raised square. This effectively held the flan in place during striking and produced the well known incuse which typifies the reverses of the archaic Greek coinage. The punch die thus came to be regarded as providing only the secondary element of a coin's design.David Sear

Rostrum  the beak or ram of a warship, often with three prongs (rostrum tridens). Those captured by C. Maenius from the fleet of the neighbouring city of Antium in 338 BC were used to adorn the speakers' platform in the Roman Forum. Thus, this structure acquired the name rostra ('beaks'), hence the word rostrum in modern English.David Sear

Serratus  serrati were Roman Republican denarii with notched or serrated edges, produced by chiselling the blank prior to striking. This practice was confined to specific issues and was especially common in the late 2nd century BC through the early decades of the 1st century. The reason for the contemporaneous production of serrati and regular denarii remains uncertain.David Sear

Signum  (see Standard)David Sear

Simpulum  an earthenware ladle with long handle used by the Pontifices for pouring wine at sacrifices. It appears on the coinage as a symbol of this important priesthood.David Sear

Sistrum  a ceremonial rattle which appears as an attribute of the Egyptian goddess Isis. It is also held by the personification of the province Aegyptus on Hadrian's coinage commemorating his visits to various parts of the Empire.David Sear

Standard  a military ensign (signum) borne by a signifer as an emblem of a cohort within a legion. It took the form of a pole or spear surmounted by a hand and with additional decorations on the shaft, including phalerae (metal discs), wreaths, and emblems commemorating the battle honours won by the unit.David Sear

Tetrastyle  used to describe a building (usually a temple) showing four columns along its faćade. Also distyle (two columns), hexastyle (six columns), octastyle (eight columns), and decastyle (ten columns).David Sear

Thyrsus  the staff of Bacchus (Greek Dionysos) usually surmounted by a pine cone and wreathed with tendrils of vine or ivy.David Sear

Togate  clad in a toga, the cloak worn by Roman citizens on formal occasions.David Sear

Trident  a three-pronged fishing spear, the regular attribute of Neptune.David Sear

Triga  a chariot drawn by a team of three animals, usually horses.David Sear

Tripod  a three-legged stand, usually serving to support a seat or a large bowl (cortina = Greek lebes). It was especially associated with Apollo, because the priestess of the god at Delphi transmitted prophecies while seated on a tripod. At Rome, it also served as a symbol of the priesthood of the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis, who had charge of the Sibylline oracles.David Sear

Triskeles  (Latin triquetra), 'three-legs', a device comprising three human legs joined at the hip and radiating from a central point. On Roman coins it symbolizes Sicily. Because of its shape, the island was sometimes called Trinacria ('three-cornered').David Sear

Trophy  the arms of a vanquished enemy, attached to a vertical shaft with cross piece, set up to commemorate a notable victory and often appearing on coins with captives at its foot.David Sear

Turreted  wearing a crown in the form of a city wall with towers or battlements (normally an attribute of Cybele or a city goddess and often called a mural crown).David Sear

Vexillum  a military standard consisting of a square-shaped piece of cloth bearing a device suspended from a cross bar attached to a pole. Originally a standard of the legionary cavalry, in Imperial times it was used by auxiliary cavalry units (alae) and was borne by the senior standard-bearer, the vexillarius. It was also used by detached units (vexillatio). Its primary function seems to have been that of a commander's flag used for signalling. Miniature vexilla were awarded as military decorations.David Sear

Vicennalia  (see Decennalia)David Sear

Victimarius  an attendant at a ceremonial sacrifice whose task was to slay the sacrificial animal.David Sear

Vota  (plural of votum). A vow made to a god in order to obtain a divine favour stipulated in advance. The granting of the request obliged the vower to fulfil his promise. This usually took the form of a sacrifice to the deity or an offering to his (or her) temple. Public vota in Imperial times were normally for the welfare of the emperor over a stated period of time (five or ten years) and were regularly undertaken (vota suscepta) and hopefully paid (vota soluta). Sometimes they were more specific, relating to the safety of the emperor on a particularly hazardous journey or military campaign, or the current state of his health. The undertaking and fulfillment of these public vows was frequently recorded on the coinage and in the late Empire especially may provide useful evidence for the chronological arrangement of issues (see also Decennalia).David Sear


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