The Aes Grave bronze coin during the Roman Republic

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

We say that when Greece built great temples of white marble, the Romans lived in mud huts. While this is a sweeping generalization, there is some truth behind it, as evidenced by the Republic’s earliest documented coinage, the Are you rude or “Raw Bronze”. These proto-coins, used between the eighth century BCE and the end of the fourth century BCE, were essentially crude ingots of cast bronze traded according to their base metal weight.

At the beginning of the 4th century BCE, as the Roman economy evolved and the local technology of metallurgy became more sophisticated, the Aes Rude slowly transformed into Tomb of Aes or “Heavy Bronze”. Like the Aes Rude series, the Aes Grave traded at metal value. But unlike the rough bronze bars, the Aes Grave can be considered a genuine coinage which includes “distinctive types as well as marks of value and approximating to a defined standard weight” (Sydenham, 55). While the value of each Aes Grave was always based on weight, it is interesting to note that this weight fluctuated wildly. This was due to the Romans focusing more on the total weight of the metal and not the individual pieces. Since it was a fractional denomination system based on the Roman pound, all that Roman Mint involved was tossing the correct number of coins of each pound.

The Latin pound, or Balance, was approximately equal to 329 modern grams. For comparison, the modern pound (lb) is equal to 453.6 grams, yet in homage to the Romans, the abbreviation “lb” is still used.

A Like, the basic denomination of these bronze coins, was equal to 12 Roman ounces or one libra. As a duodecimal system, there are seven fractional denominations, the smallest, the seedweighing 1/24th of an Ace.

The denominations and their corresponding fractions of an Ace are as follows:

Over time, the weight standards of the Aes Grave series have dropped significantly.

Initially, until about 270 BCE, the Libral stallion weighed the aforementioned 12 Roman ounces (329 g). By 270 BCE, the Romans had switched to a lightweight or “reduced” Libral standard, weighing an average of 10 Roman ounces (270 grams). Between 217 and 211 BCE, the weight was further reduced three times from semilibral to quadrantal, and finally to standard sextantal: 6 oz (137 g), 3 oz (81 g), and 2 oz (54 g), respectively. Finally, in 141 BCE, the weight of the Aes Grave system was established at one Roman ounce or 27 g. This decrease is due almost entirely to a combination of general inflation and First and Second Punic Warsfought from 264-241 and 218-201 BCE, respectively.

The famous British numismatist and historian Edward A. Sydenham was the first scholar to really delineate the As weight system in a clear and logical way without, as he put it, creating a character system so “complex that, for a non-mathematical people like the Romans were of the fourth and third centuries. BCE, they would have been totally unthinkable” (Sydenham, 54).

As part of the light liberal standard, around 225 BCE, the Romans introduced the “Bow” type for the first time. Named after the inverted pattern ubiquitous on all denominations, these coins depicted the bow of a ship. As this was introduced between the two Punic Wars, it is likely that the “Prow” series was not a commemoration of a specific event but rather a general assertion of mastery over the Mediterranean Sea and subsequent exchanges.

While the design changed over the years, each denomination had a distinct denomination mark. The Ace can be identified by a Ithe Half a Sthe Triens four pellets, the Quadrants three pellets, the Sextans two pellets, the Uncie a lozenge, and the Semuncia a Greek Sigma (Σ).

From the first series Aes Grave, the As generally represented two divine busts. This example shows the leader of Apollo on the obverse and reverse and gives its name to this first Apollo/Apollo series. It is not certain that the denomination “I” was located on the part of the design under the busts which is not visible on the blank. Moreover, it was common for the gods janus and Mercury appear on the first examples. Later, as the design evolved, Janus became the most common god depicted on this denomination.

Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

The Semis, meaning half, was worth half of an Ace. Commonly marked with an “S”, and less commonly marked with six lozenges, the first Semises minted as part of the original Libral standard depicted the helmeted head of the goddess Minerva on the reverse. Interestingly, on early series it was common for the denomination to appear on both sides under the busts. This is a trend common to most denominations.

Other examples depict a crudely executed beardless bust of the god of war March instead of Minerva. Later most examples would shift from depicting female goddesses to male titan Saturn on the obverse, and the bow design on the reverse. As Rome began to prepare for the Second Punic War, they switched from castings to hammered coins for the first time, starting with the Aces.

Image: Stack’s Bowers Galleries
Image: Stack’s Bowers Galleries

In the Aes Grave series, Rome produced two concurrent main designs for their Trians.

The first is an example of two horse heads, one on each side facing opposite directions. Below the horse heads are the four dots, representing the denomination. It is possible that the nascent Roman state based this design on the relatively contemporary horse motif of its southern rival, the city-state of Carthage. This comparison is easily observed between the shekel below, struck between 300 and 264 BCE, and the extremely similar anonymous Roman issue struck between 280 and 269.

Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Image: Stack’s Bowers Galleries

The second common design of the Triens in the first Aes Grave Libral series depicts a stylized thunderbolt that splits the denomination (four dots) on the obverse and a dolphin swimming to the right above the denomination on the reverse.

Image: Davisons Ltd.

As with the rest of the denominations, once the Romans moved to the “reduced” series, the Trians underwent a complete design change. A helmeted bust of Minerva replaced the horse and dolphin motifs on the obverse and the standard bow design was placed on the reverse.

Image: Stack’s Bowers Galleries

In the first series, the Quadrans represented a series of different models. These included running boars or dogs, hands open with all five fingers outstretched, spoked wheels with four, five or six spokes and pairs of barleycorns. The only constant element was the denomination which was indicated by three dots in a straight line. Later, however, once the Light Libral system was implemented, the design became more standardized, with the head of Hercules being depicted on the obverse.

Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Likewise, Roman Sextans had several major designs before the introduction of the bowed type.

On the obverse, the first main design depicted a shell shell, and on the reverse a caduceus. The standard two-pad denomination was included on both sides. For the second design, the Romans employed a tortoise on the obverse and a six-spoked wheel on the reverse. Unlike the Romans, the other Italian city-states used many different designs for the Sextans. After the introduction of the bow type, the obverse was moved to a bust of Mercury facing left with the denomination below the bust.

Image: Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG.
Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Photo: Auktionshaus HD Rauch GmbH.

For the penultimate denomination, the Uncia, the Romans used two main initial designs for the standard Libral series. Most often, the designs depicted the same image on both sides. However, they were not always the same matrices. The first picture was a astragalus or an animal bone used as a dice for gambling or as a divination tool. The Uncia was named by a single pellet. Eventually the design was changed to match the bow type standard and depicted a helmet Rome (the divine personification of Rome) on the obverse and the bow facing right on the reverse.

Image: Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG
Image: Pegasi Numismatics
Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Published until around 210 BCE, the smallest denomination in Rome was the Semuncia or half Uncia. This little piece has only had one major design change. Initially, the design was simple, with an acorn on the obverse and a sigma, the denomination, on the reverse. For the bow series, the design became more traditionally Roman, with the god Mercury facing right wearing his traditional winged hat and the standard design of the bow reversed.

Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Image: Nomos.

While the first types can be rare and hard to find, there are Aes Grave pieces for every collector! Good collection.

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Getting Started with Roman Coins – Aes Grave (Heavy Bronze) Coinage (290 BC to 211 BC)

Crawford, Michael H. Roman republican coinage. Cambridge University Press. (1974)

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in washington d.c.he worked for save the children creation and management of international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the United States after living abroad in the Republic of North Macedoniawhere he served as Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

David C. Barham