Few ancient coins are as recognizable as the Roman denarius. This small silver coin carries massive historical significance. Produced from 211 BC until the middle of the 3rd century AD, this denomination served as the backbone of Roman coinage and was the inspiration behind many later European coins.
Although Ancient coins can be a field left untouched and unknown by many collectors, you will be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard of a Roman denarius! These small silver coins were the main denomination of the Roman Republic through the early Roman Empire, and over the course of many magistrates, politicians, and Emperors, millions were minted. Large amounts have survived in hoards until the present, where common issues can actually be quite affordable! But what is the full history of this well-known coin?
Predecessors to the Denarius
The Silver Roman denarius is speculated to have drawn its roots from the small silver Greek coins circulating in Italy around 4th Century BC. These coins, known as the silver stater and the silver didrachm, weighed roughly 1/48th of a Roman pound (approximately 6.8 grams). After the Romans used these coins for some time, they went on to produce their own truly Roman coin.
The first true Roman silver coin was minted circa 225 BC. These coins were named “quadrigati” after the Roman quadriga that appeared on their reverse. The quadrigas were the 4 horse chariots that the Romans used for racing, as well as war. They remained a common theme on Roman coins for roughly 150 years.
Denarius of the Roman Republic
Coins of the Roman Republic were completely reworked and re-planned around 211, where the denarius was first officially issued. Set at a standard weight of 1/72 of a Roman pound (roughly 4.5g) of silver, the first silver denarii immediately formed the backbone of coinage throughout the Roman Republic. While some historians have estimated the coin’s original value to be three day’s pay for a soldier, it is not certain what the coin’s original value was.
These issues would show many different designs on both obverse and reverse. Some designs were very prominent, such as that of a Roman quadriga on the reverse and Roma wearing a winged helm on the obverse. Many were very unique, however, and were produced with a design decided by the maker – a moneyer.
Despite this vast array of designs, coins issued in the Roman Republic had very standard weights and fineness. This was due to Roman moneyers. Made up of rich families, these moneyers had the responsibility for the production of these coins, and to make sure they were the proper weights. It was an appointed position, but the ability to create coins bearing images of your design was enough to make many rich Romans vie for the position.
Debasement affected the Silver denarius throughout the years. Small amounts of copper were added to the silver, and the weight of the coin was decreased. 141 BC, the Roman denarius weighed 1/84th of a Roman pound (3.9g).
After the death of the dictator Sulla in 78 BC, many Roman generals and politicians began vying for more power. Civil war soon erupted as these powerful men began to battle one another. This produced the transitional coinage from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. These coins were issued by those vying for power in order to finance their armies. Many military Mints were used, which were mobile Mints that followed the armies of these Roman generals. Many popular Denarii such as those of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony were issued during this time.
Soon enough the smoke cleared, and a new era revealed itself – the Roman Empire.
Denarius of the Roman Empire
Silver denarii of the Roman Empire were immediately different from those of the Roman Republic. From early silver denarii issues of Augustus, a bust of the Emperor was seen on the majority of denarii issued. Emperors would sometimes have a bust of their wives or other close family members used on the obverse, such as on this silver denarius showing Faustina after Emperor Antoninus Pius had the senate deify her. Reverse designs were typically various gods and goddesses of Rome, but many objects, buildings, and vehicles can also be found.
While the silver denarius had always been produced in great numbers, the Roman Empire began mass-producing it on an even grander scale. Huge quantities were created in order to pay for the armies of Rome, and for trade among its citizens. The debasement had not stopped when Rome became an Empire… in fact, it increased!
Under the reign of Emperor Nero the weight of the denarius was reduced even further to 1/96 of a pound (3.4 g). This continued as an action of Emperors in order to create more coins from less silver. By the 3rd century, Emperors had reduced the silver content of the denarius so much that man examples weighed as little as 2.5g! Weights on Silver denarii produced in this time fluctuated greatly, and most coins would range between 2.5g – 3.5g. Not long after, the heavily debased silver denarius was replaced by the antoninianus, or “double denarius.”
Despite this gloom of a continuous debasement, these denarii all bore beautiful images and inscriptions. Nearly every Emperor issued denarii of his own, and they serve as a way for us to see accurate depictions of the Emperors of the Roman Empire. While some issues are hard to find, many can be found for very affordable prices!
Denarii available at ModernCoinMart (MCM)
If you are looking to add a few of these ancient Roman denarii to your collection, then MCM is a great place to start. With a large inventory boasting denarii from Roman Empire as well as denarii from the Roman Republic, we certainly have some items that you will be interested in. We carry many examples of denarii, such as those of Roman Emperors Tiberius, Antonius Pius, Gordian III, and many more. We even offer Random Ruler options, allowing you to pick your grade, but get a denarius with a Ruler from any point in Rome’s history!
Our coins are all certified by the only trusted name in ancient coin grading, the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). They have an Ancient coin division that specializes in providing accurate grading for these ancient coins. You can rest easy with ancient coins certified by the NGC!
Take a look at our large selection of silver Roman denarii, and see if we have any that you are looking for. We also offer a selection of bronze Roman coins and gold Roman coins, as well as many Greek coins that may peak your interest. With professional photography and in-depth product descriptions, we want to make sure you know the items you are purchasing.
Make a purchase today, and enjoy free and fast domestic shipping with ModernCoinMart!
After a break that lasted nearly 30 years, the U.S. Mint began what is called the “Modern Commemorative Era” with the launch of the 1982 George Washington Half Dollar. This coin celebrated the 250th anniversary of his death.