All entries for Monday 01 June 2015

June 01, 2015

Aes Grave

Compared with most of the Greek world Rome was a latecomer in its adoption of coinage; one might say indeed that it blundered its way onto the numismatic scene in a way that is really only understandable in the context of its geographical and cultural position within central Italy. The virtual absence of precious metals from the area, except what could be acquired through trade, tribute or war-booty, meant that the region’s medium of exchange had long been copper alloy. This had initially taken the form of rough pieces of metal (Aes Rude), which had to be weighed out to gauge their value. One stage on from this are cast ingots associated with Rome’s neighbours, often bearing dry-branch motifs (hence the description Ramo Secco) and usually found broken into smaller units. This idea the Romans adapted to produce their own ingots (Aes Signatum) bearing a variety of motifs (shields, sword & scabbard, cattle, elephant and pig, tripod and trident) – and of various weights: from c. 1000g. to 1850g.

obverse_aes.jpg reverse

Aes grave coin with the head of Janus on the obverse and a prow on the reverse.

Round coinage, such as we would recognise, in the context of Rome, though, is curiously not at first the product of Rome itself but of the Greek colony of Naples to the south: silver and copper issues bearing the name of Rome but with a man-headed bull motif that is clearly a reference to Naples. Probably produced in the last decades of the fourth century, their purpose remains obscure – perhaps to record some treaty between the two states. Certainly their rarity does not suggest a significant commercial purpose. In the early decades of the third century more silver issues more evidently Roman begin to appear, though whether actually produced in Rome is a moot point since their style is clearly still Greek. Internally, however, Rome itself was still wed to the idea of bronze and, more significantly, to the idea that weight of metal and value went hand-in-hand. Hence what appeared was the weighty Aes Grave coinage, based on the As unit of account, often weighing in the region of 320g., fractioned down to a twelfth, and in the case of the very first issue (the so-called Janus-Mercury issue because of the motifs on obverse and reverse) down to a twenty-fourth. For a period of some ninety years this currency formed the staple medium of exchange, the only variation being changes of motif (e.g. the Apollo-Apollo series, the Wheel series), and around the middle of the century a lightening of the As to 280g., perhaps in order to bring base metal and silver into some kind of relationship. Rome’s apparent fixation with weight and value, however, was not to last. Around 225 BC the last Aes Grave series was issued, the so-called Prow-series, bearing the two-faced image of Janus on the obverse of the As and the prow of a galley on the reverse, as in the illustration here. Again this basic unit was fractioned, with the head of Saturn on the half, Mars on the third, Hercules on the quarter, Mercury on the sixth, and Roma on the twelfth, and with the prow reverse common to all denominations. And, if such clumsy coinage were not enough, Rome also minted a now-unique monstrous 5-As piece, doubtless on the analogy of the three- and two-As pieces of the Wheel series.

The system, though, was to suffer serious disruption when in 218 BC Hannibal invaded Italy and severed Rome from its metal supplies. In short, Rome went bankrupt and for a time waged war on credit from its citizens. The effect must have been catastrophic: to conserve metal, over a period of six years the Aes Grave suffered a series of weight reductions till in 212 it was a mere sixth of what it had been; the silver coinage being issued underwent a drop in both weight and fineness of the metal –content until it was abandoned and replaced by a new silver coinage (the denarius), and gold as an emergency currency began to appear. It cannot be underestimated to what extent the losses in manpower and resources affected the city; yet within a decade of 212 Rome was to emerge victorious over Carthage, became the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, and had produced a new currency that was to remain essentially standardised for the next two hundred years.


This month's coin was written by Stanley Ireland, an emeritus reader in the department.

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