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  • Aureus: the first Roman gold coins

    Beatriz Camino

    Aureus: the first Roman gold coins

    When were the first Roman gold coins minted?

    The first Roman gold coins, known as aurei (singular: aureus), were minted in the late Roman Republic around 211 BC. These first gold coins were issued during the Second Punic War to pay soldiers and fund military expenses. However, they were produced in limited quantities and remained relatively rare compared to silver coins like the denarius until the late Republic. Their significance grew during the Empire, particularly after the monetary reforms implemented by Emperor Augustus.

    Typically made from high-purity gold, the obverse of the aureus often featured the bust of the reigning emperor during the Empire. The reverse depicted various deities, personifications, or significant events. This gold coin remained in circulation until the early 4th century AD when the monetary reforms of Constantine I introduced the solidus. The latter, also made of high-purity gold, became the standard gold coin of the Roman and Byzantine Empires for centuries. Gold coins like the aureus and solidus played a crucial role in the Roman economy as they were used for large transactions, military payments, and as a store of value. Their high intrinsic value promoted economic stability, enabling more efficient tax collection and payment of troops, which was essential for maintaining the vast Roman Empire.

    How does the aureus look like?

    The aureus was usually around 99% pure gold, which contributed to its intrinsic value and stability as a form of currency. It weighed approximately 7.8 grams and had a diameter of about 19-21 mm, with a thickness of around 1.5-2 mm. Additionally, it had a round shape, which was standard for coins of the time. During the Empire, the design of the aureus included an obverse side that commonly featured the bust of the reigning emperor. This portrait not only helped legitimise the currency but also served as a means of disseminating the emperor’s image throughout the empire. The reverse side of the aureus often depicted Roman deities, personifications of virtues or significant events, and symbols of power and victory. Consequently, common motifs found in aurei include portraits of emperors such as Augustus, Nero, and Trajan, depictions of gods and goddesses like Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, and allegorical figures representing virtues such as Victoria, Pax, and Fortuna. These images were carefully chosen to convey messages of stability, divine favour, and imperial strength.

    Devaluations of Roman gold coins

    In the early Roman Empire, the aureus maintained a relatively stable value. However, as the empire faced increasing military and economic pressures, emperors began to reduce its weight and purity to stretch their resources. The process of devaluation began during the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68), who reduced the weight of the aureus from 7.8 grams to 7.2 grams, allowing the government to mint more coins from the same amount of gold. By the late 3rd century, during the Crisis of the Third Century, the empire experienced severe economic turmoil. In response, Diocletian (284-305) attempted monetary reforms, but it was not until Constantine I (306-337) that significant changes were made. Constantine introduced the solidus in 312, a new gold coin that replaced the aureus and remained the standard gold coin for centuries in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. The introduction of the solidus marked a shift in the gold coinage system, providing a more stable and reliable currency compared to the increasingly debased aureus.

    Which aurei are considered rare?

    Generally, the rarest aurei are those minted during the Republic. However, limited editions of aurei minted to commemorate specific events or victories are also particularly scarce. For instance, coins issued during the reigns of lesser-known emperors, such as Gordian III or Elagabalus, are generally considered rare due to their limited production. Another notable example is found in aurei commemorating military achievements, like those minted during Emperor Trajan’s reign to honour his victories in the Dacian Wars. Lastly, aurei featuring unique iconography adds to their rarity and historical significance. For example, the aureus of Emperor Augustus, featuring a portrait of the emperor with the divine image of Julius Caesar on the reverse, or the Eid Mars aurei, are considered rare and historically significant.

    Which Aurei are the most valued?

    Among collectors and numismatists, certain aurei hold a particularly esteemed status due to their historical significance, rarity, and aesthetic appeal. For instance, aurei minted during the reign of Julius Caesar are highly sought after, bearing his portrait and symbolic imagery reflecting his military prowess and political influence. Similarly, aurei from the era of Emperor Augustus are prized for marking the establishment of the Roman Empire, often featuring youthful depictions of Augustus that symbolise his consolidation of power.  Additionally, coins from the reign of Emperor Nero are valued for their intricate designs and historical context. Lastly, aurei from the reign of Emperor Hadrian are admired for their artistic refinement, depicting his distinctive features and emphasising his architectural achievements.

    How are the authenticity and value of the aureus determined?

    Determining the authenticity and value of an aureus involves expertise and meticulous examination. Experts begin by scrutinising the coin’s weight, diameter, thickness, and overall condition against established standards for aurei minted during specific periods. Any discrepancies may indicate potential authenticity issues. Metal composition analysis is the following step, as authentic aurei were traditionally made from high-purity gold. Techniques such as X-ray fluorescence or chemical analysis are employed to verify the gold content, ensuring the absence of counterfeit materials or alloys. Moreover, consulting historical records and documentation is essential, especially for aurei featuring unique designs or issued during significant reigns. Comparing the coin with known examples and historical accounts confirms its authenticity. Additionally, provenance plays a critical role. Understanding the coin’s ownership history and previous sales enhances its authenticity. Coins with certifications from reputable numismatic authorities command higher confidence and value in the market. Lastly, assessing market demand and pricing trends is very important. Knowledge of current market dynamics guides collectors in making informed decisions about acquiring or valuing authentic aurei.

    Where can you buy Roman gold coins?

    Roman gold coins can be acquired from various reputable sources that cater specifically to ancient coin collectors. One of the primary avenues is through established auction houses that specialise in antiquities and numismatics. Here, collectors can bid on a wide range of aurei, from those of lesser-known emperors to coins featuring unique designs or exceptional preservation. Another option is online platforms dedicated to numismatics, such as VCoins. These platforms offer detailed descriptions, high-resolution images, and sometimes certifications of authenticity, ensuring collectors can make informed purchases in a secure environment with buyer protections. Additionally, specialised numismatic fairs and conventions serve as venues where collectors can buy and sell ancient Roman coins. These events bring together enthusiasts, dealers, and experts, creating opportunities to buy and sell aurei while engaging with knowledgeable sellers who can offer valuable insights into each coin’s historical context and value.

    Techniques and tips for maintaining ancient gold coins in perfect condition.

    Maintaining the condition of ancient gold coins demands care and adherence to specialised practices. Firstly, handling should be done with clean hands, preferably using cotton gloves to prevent oils and dirt from contacting the coin’s surface. Storage is also essential; coins should be kept in environments with stable temperature and humidity levels to avoid damage over time. Using protective holders or capsules made from materials such as Mylar or PVC-free plastics protects coins from physical harm and environmental pollutants.  When displaying these coins, opt for cases or frames designed specifically for numismatic collections to provide adequate support and protection.  Above all, avoid cleaning ancient coins unless necessary and always seek the guidance of an expert, as improper cleaning methods can harm the coin’s surface or remove valuable patina.

    What certificates of authenticity and provenance exist for ancient gold coins?

    Ancient Roman gold coins often come with certificates of authenticity and provenance issued by numismatic authorities or expert appraisers. These certificates provide important documentation verifying the coin’s legitimacy, quality, and historical background. For example, coins sold through established auction houses typically include detailed certificates. These documents authenticate the coin’s attributes, such as its weight, diameter, and metal composition, alongside descriptions of its design and historical context. Similarly, online numismatic platforms like VCoins often offer coins with certificates. They may also include expert assessments of the coin’s condition and historical significance, aiding collectors in evaluating its value and authenticity before making a purchase. Moreover, coins sold through numismatic fairs and conventions frequently come with certificates from knowledgeable dealers and experts.




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