Roman Republican coins: Dating them and Relating them to History.

This site has two pages. This is the page on theory. You may wish to begin with the other page with many examples and coin pictures.

1)  Do we know the dates of Republican types?
2)  Do references to historical events help?
3)  How do methods of dating them compare to methods of dating Roman imperial types?
4)  What methods do scholars use to determine dates?
    4a)  References in ancient literature to types (These are extremely few)
    4b)  Types that reference particular ancient events (Until the first century BC these references are usually too obscure to help much)
    4c)  Seriation (This is most important--see below)
    4d)  Relative wear (In a hoard, the more worn coins are probably older types)
    4e)  Style and fabric (Coins of the same style, or same fabric, may have been struck close together in time)
    4f)  The college of moneyers had three moneyers in any given year and they did not necessarily all mint coins. So, we do not want to assign types of more than three moneyers to a given year.
    4g)  Moneyers may have been in office in years when they were appointed by relatives who were consuls. Because we know the years of consuls, this can help date otherwise unknown moneyers.
    4h)  Denarii with "SC" on them may indicate a special, senatorial, issue (with dating consequences, according to Harlan.)

About dates:  The Romans named years with the names of the two consuls that year. We know how their years correspond to our BC dates. So, if we are lucky enough to know from ancient sources the consular year of some event, we know its date in our modern system. However, this is rarely the case for numismatic events. For example, we almost never know from written sources the dates of the moneyers named on the coins.

Do we know the dates of Republican types?  Modern references often attribute Republican types to a particular year or sometimes a span of two years, but it was not easy to come up with the current best-guess dates, and it is far from certain that most of the proposed dates are right. Why is that?

The names on Republican coins are often of obscure moneyers, usually not important historical figures, who are not recorded in history other than on their coins. Although many Republican coins reference events, the references are usually too obscure to help much with dating. For example, many references to events are not to current events, rather events associated with the moneyer's family long in the past. Others are generic references to events such as victories and grain-doles, but which victory or grain-dole is not specified. References like that do not help much to determine the date of the type. We will see how seriation can put many Republican types in relative order, but absolute dates are often uncertain.

In fact, much of what you read about particular Roman Republican coins is uncertain. The date might be wrong by few years, or more, and the given historical reference of the reverse might be completely wrong. Dealers and web sites assign dates (usually those given in Crawford's book) and meanings to proffered Republican types and it is simplest for beginners to just accept them. Maybe the exact date does not matter that much anyway. However, over time, collectors will discover conflicting information and wonder which date and which interpretation is right. Sometimes the uncertainty cannot be resolved yet. Advanced collectors, on the other hand, know that extracting the dates and associated events from Republican coin types is not simple and many of the usual dates could be off by a few years and some of the accepted associations could be wrong. That is part of the fun of collecting. Much is not known and scholars can go back and forth with theories about when a type was issued and what it means.

Roman Imperial Dating. Roman imperial coins almost always have a name of an emperor, which narrows down the issue date to within the span of his reign. Also, many imperial coins actually have dates on them; if they have a TRP year, that dates the coin. Even if they are not explicitly dated, may have references to historical events that narrow the date range. Republican types are not like that.

What methods do scholars use to determine dates of Republican coin types? Read on. It's not simple.

Romans named years by the pair of consuls for the year and we know the BC equivalents of those years. We also know the dates of major historical events, such as the second Punic War. So, the problem is to put the coins on the timeline of history.

Over the course of the 1900's scholars changed the supposed date for the beginning of the denarius denomination from 268 BC (five years before the first Punic War) to 240 BC to 187 BC and finally to 212-211 BC during the second Punic War. Quite a few significant changes! The changes in date of the initial issue necessitated sliding many other dates up or down the timeline. Why didn't we know all along what the dates were?

A better question is, why would we know the dates? We would know the date of a type if history mentioned the particular type in a dated context, but this is very rarely the case. Mentions of ancient coins are extremely rare in ancient literature, and sometimes ancient authors writing long after the events are simply wrong. For example, the ancient author Pliny wrote (in the first century AD) a confusing paragraph that seemed to say that the denarius was introduced five years before the first Punic war, that is, in 268 BC. This was accepted as correct for a long time, but now we know he meant that Republican silver coinage was introduced then, but it was silver in the form of didrachms, not denarii. Denarii came much later. In the author's day silver coins were called denarii and had been for over 200 years. He used the wrong term, confusing numismatists. Even written sources are not always correct.

We would know the dates of coins if the coins themselves were dated as they often are under the empire by TRP numbers, but Republican coins are not explicitly dated. We would know the dates if the types were firmly related to historical events, but until the late Republic they rarely are. Under the empire, for example, we know the dates and some of the history of Septimius Severus, including when he won his war in Britain. So, we know approximately when his "VICT BRIT" type was issued. Types with references as certain as this do not exist in the second century BC and are rare until near the end of the Republic.


Here is a Republican reference to a victory:   249249 The reverse type has winged Victory holding a wreath while driving a quadriga. The letters on the coin abbreviate a name, which expands to that of the moneyer, P. Maenius M.f. Antias (or Antiaticus). He is an obscure person not attested in written histories. There were lots of victories during the Republic. How are we supposed to know which victory the coin references? The coin is Crawford 249/1, attributed to 132 BC. Crawford says, "presumably claiming descent from C. Maenius, Cos. 338, conqueror of Antium." So, the reference is perhaps to an event associated with an ancestor over 200 years earlier, not to a current event, because the honor of the victory persists in the family line. If the 132 BC date is correct, it is not determined by reference to a victory.

Denarii in the second century BC often refer to deeds of ancestors long since dead who brought honor to the family. When do coins begin to be able to be dated by reference to current events?

This is hard to answer. With the most recent scholarship, the next coin, which references a Gallic victory, refers to two recent Gallic victories. But, in 1910 it was dated 26 years later than it is now and given a reference to a Gallic victory of 223 BC, 104 years earlier than the currently proposed date of the type! It takes a lot more information (largely from seriation) than just a reference to victory to be able to pin down a date and reference.
A trophy for a victory in Gaul: 281281  L. Furius Filus. 119 BC. Victory crowning a trophy of distinctly Gallic arms. The Gallic arms mean this refers to a Gallic victory. But which one? There were many clashes in the late second century BC, including those opening a land route to Spain through southern Gaul. Now we think this coin refers to those victories of 121 BC and was struck only two years later.  Once most of the Republican types are put in relative order (largely by seriation), we can slide the types on the scale of time until history and types correspond in a plausible order. But, why was it struck two years later rather than in the same year, or one year later, or some other number of years later? That is a difficult question without a simple, or even good, answer. Read on. (The "Timeline" page has a table which shows how different scholars proposed different dates.)

There were lots of victories under the Republic and lots of coins with victories on them. The previous coin was dated to make one of each correspond. Similarly, there is more than one time in Republican history when grain prices were high and famine was threatening. Several Republican types that have prominent ears of grain which might refer to grain subsidies.
Here is one example: RR Note the large ears of grain dividing the legend on the reverse. Perhaps that is a modius for storing grain behind the head. Victory (winged) is driving the biga. Is this type associated with an historically attested subsidy? Is it associated with a known victory? Crawford attributes the type to 134 BC and moneyer C. Marcius Mn. F, who is otherwise unknown, but is able to find an ancestor associated with a grain law of hundreds of years before, which is no help whatsoever in dating the coin. It does, however, recall a good deed associated with the family of the moneyer. As far as we know, Republican coins before about 120 BC did not refer to current, or even recent, events.


Particular Historical Events.

Grain law subsidizing prices: 330 330 Reverse legend: AD FRV[mentum] EM[vndum] "for buying grain" EX SC. L. Calpurnius Piso, 100 BC.
Clearly this type refers to buying grain for the public.
Scholars relate this particular type to a historical law of 100 BC which subsidized grain prices. To place this event in time it takes knowledge (from a treatise of Cicero) of the existence of and date of  L. Saturninus's grain law. The head on the obverse with a harpa (sickle) behind his neck as an attribute of Saturn identifies Saturn--an agricultural deity--which makes a plausible reference to Saturninus. Seriation gives an approximate date of the type to begin with and other grain-related types seem more-distant in time. Putting these together, scholars think this is one type where they have the reference and its date right.

However, it is possible that the type commemorated that event a year or more later when the moneyer interested in commemorating it was in office. It is accepted that in the second century BC and the early part of the first, many coins do not refer to specific events. But, those that do refer to events refer to deeds of the moneyer's family, not to current events of the state. So, if a moneyer from family B is in office when a member of family C does something noteworthy it may (will) not be mentioned on the coins because a moneyer from family B would not publicize family C. Was there a connection between Saturninus and Piso?  The event is firmly fixed in time to 100 BC. Does that mean the coin commemorating the event was issued at the same time rather than later, perhaps years later, when the moneyer was in office and promoting his family?

The timeline page shows that some scholars dated this type to about five years after the event, although Crawford picked the year of the event (100 BC). Seriation and other factors contribute to assigning a date.


Seriation.  The most important idea for dating Republican coins is called seriation. Seriation is used to put things in relative, but not absolute, order.

Here is a simple hypothetical example to show how seriation works:
Consider two hoards and five Republican coin types. Here is a table with the numbers of each type in each hoard. What can you tell about chronology?

entries are numbers of coins of each type Type 1 Type 2 Type 3 Type 4 Type 5
Hoard 1 7 15 21 10 12
Hoard 2 0 25 3 22 0

Pause now and think about it. Two entries are particularly important.

It is highly likely that Hoard 1 was "closed" (no more coins added) later than Hoard 2 because it has some types that Hoard 2 is missing. The missing types do not seem to be rare so they are probably missing because Hoard 2 was closed before they were issued. So, Types 2, 3 and 4 are earlier than Types 1 and 5. These two hoards do not help us know if Type 1 or Type 5 is the earlier of those two types. That much inference is pretty firm.

Less certainly, the hoards hint that Type 3 is the latest of Types 2, 3, and 4 and that Hoard 2 was buried part way through the issue of Type 3. Why does it hint that?

Hoard 2 has distinctly more coins than Hoard 1 of Types 2 and 4.  Why doesn't it also have more of Type 3? We don't know, but one possibility is that it was closed before Type 3 had time to fully mix into the population of coins that the hoarder had access to. This might be if Type 3 was the latest of those three types, issued only shortly before Hoard 2 closed.

The Theory of Seriation: Suppose two large hoards are similar but the second one has a common type that the first omits. A likely reason is that the first hoard was closed before the new type in the second was issued, so the omitted type and the second hoard are later. Then we know the types in the first hoard are all earlier than the new type in the second hoard. Assemble the information from many large hoards and many types can be put in relative order.

However, there are many things that can go wrong. There can be a time period with no useful hoards leaving the coins issued within that time unordered relative to each other. (In the example above, there is no information about the relative order of Types 1 and 5. There is no information about the relative order of Types 2 and 4. Numismatists hope additional hoards will appear and one of them will have one type and not the other.) Issues can be small and randomly omitted from hoards that, based on hoard burial date and type date-of issue alone, "should" have them. For example, Harlan, below, dates the MVSA type (illustrated next) before the close of the Mesagne hoard, even though it was not included in that hoard. A relevant hoard might be from a region of the empire that was not supplied with a type which was issued for use elsewhere, so it might omit a type which would then be interpreted as later than the issues represented in the hoard when it is really not. Occasionally different hoards produce contradictory seriation information. However, mostly seriation works and the relative order of most issues is known. It is unfortunate that we cannot conjure up additional hoards that close at just the right time to resolve remaining disputed points, but perhaps, over time, new hoards will be found that will help.

Crawford published the main resource, Roman Republican Coinage, in 1973 with a wonderful attempt, largely successful, to identify moneyers and dates of all Republican coins. However, already by 1977 hoards had appeared which required changes (e.g Hersh, Numismatic Chronicle, 1977, and H. B. Mattingly in the same issue). In the 1990's scholars were already talking about enough having changed to warrant a second edition. Crawford himself was active in another area of Roman history (Roman law), but not coins, and did not take on the project. Time passed and neither did anyone else. Crawford (the book) still reigns, in spite of warranted changes. The prestige of the book is so great that almost everyone identifies coins by "Crawford numbers" and quotes his dates. It is the easy way. Now, in 2016, the International Numismatic Congress Survey of Numismatic Research published a call for a new work to replace Crawford.

A real application of seriation:


/a muse
Cr 410Cr 410 Cr 410/8
S 359
Syd 811ff
BMC 3606ff
Hill 57
Carson 174ff

67 BC
66-55 BC

66 BC
c. 65 BC
56 BC

65 BC.
The moneyer Q. Pomponius Musa used punning types which illustrated the muses on his reverses. This one is the muse of Astronomy.

   But when? When Crawford was published in 1973 there were no well-recorded hoards that closed between 75/74 and 55/54 BC. So, by seriation we knew this type was after 74 and before 55, but Musa was not known to history and the type seemed to have no connection to history, so how could it be dated?  In spite of the hesitation to use "style" to put  types in order, there was no alternative. Doing the best he could with those twenty years of issues, Crawford put this issue in 66 BC. However, it was not included in the Mesagne hoard which was dated to 58 BC by Hersh and Walker in 1984. That forced some issues, including this one, to be redated. Hersh and Walker dated it to 56 BC. They admitted they probably had too many issues squeezed between 58 and 51. Harlan decided some of those were missing from the Mesagne hoard by chance, including this small issue. He found reason to pick 65 BC, a date well before the close of the hoard. Others feel the MVSA issue is not that small and would have been included if it were before 58, so it must be later, as Hersch and Walker had it.


Absolute dates:  Why is this not simple? Under the empire, it is often simple. For example, many coins are explicitly dated (by TRP power of the emperor). The coins all name the emperor (whose dates are known) and their titles on the coins and frequent references to historical events usually make it possible to pin down dates to within a few years.
However, in the second and early first centuries BC, the name on Republican coins is that of a moneyer, usually greatly abbreviated, often making the full name uncertain. Moneyers were young men not important at the time and not mentioned in their role of moneyers in ancient sources. Each moneyer was just beginning a political career. Many moneyers never did become important and we know nothing about them beyond their family name and the fact that they issued their coins.

Many times the letters on a coin suggest a name and a similar name is recorded in history at some later date. Those moneyers who did become important enough to be mentioned in the history books are associated with events an unknown number of years later, so we don't know when they issued their coins. That prompts the dating of the coin type as before the historical date by a typical number of career-years between being a lowly moneyer and whatever office (perhaps, consul) they attained that was mentioned in history. This is hardly precise reckoning. There is no real certainty as to the number of career-years and there is sometimes even uncertainty that the moneyer is really the same person and not just a different family member with a similar name. Decades ago numismatic scholars thought that the office of moneyer was elective and those elected assumed the office at age 28 (or maybe 30) at the beginning on the cursus honorum. Those who succeeded and eventually became consul were probably about age 42 then, so 42-28 = 14 and coins might be dated to about 14 years earlier than the consulship. (The dates of consulships are known--they were used to date events in the Republican world like AD dates are used now.) This is plausible, but does not make for dates which are certain. Burnett (in 1977) argued that moneyers were appointed, probably by consuls, and not elected (as had been thought) and therefore the years of moneyers might be closely correlated with years with consuls from the same family. This might help date at least some coins.  In volume II Crawford has a table of the careers of the moneyers, for those that are otherwise known, including dates when they were consul if they ever were.

Another bit of information can help with dating. There were three moneyers each year (a triumverate) and in the second century each issued only one type (or, possibly no type at all) so it is desirable to arrange the types with at most three moneyers per year. Later, in the first century, sometmes it was only one in a year. If there is a proposed time span with too many moneyers to fit in it, the proposal has some flaw and the time period must be extended. In the second half of the first century some moneyers struck numerous types in a single year, but they were all signed with the same name. 

If any of these approaches yielded a sequence of issues and dates consistent with all the evidence, it would have been adopted long ago. However, there is often some hoard that suggests a different order, or some type that might refer to a historical event if it were moved a few years in the sequence, or a special issue that really should be associated with some other type for stylistic reasons but a different time for some historical reason. Trying to justify their personal favorite order and dates keeps numismatists busy (and will continue to do so for a long time in the future).

Dates later in the First Century BC.  The history of second half of the first century BC is more extensive than earlier Republican history and coins began to be issued by famous generals or moneyers working directly for them, or sometimes the family of the moneyer is known to have taken a particular general's side. Then, when the types or legends are distinctive, they can often be pegged on the timeline of history within a year or two, although disputes remain. In general, later dates tend to be more accurate than earlier dates.


Harlan.  Michael Harlan wrote two books discussing what we know about the coins and what their types refer to. They cover the period 81 BC (when Sulla introduced a new constitution which described the cursus honorum) to 49 BC (when Caesar crossed the Rubicon to initiate the "imperatorial" period).  Like everyone else, Harlan first relies on seriation to date the types. Several useful hoards had appeared since Crawford wrote, including the very important Mesagne hoard, which divides the interval into pre- and post-58 BC. The earlier part has few names on coins known otherwise to history, whereas most names on coins in the second part are known to history, although not as moneyers, rather from later in their careers.
Harlan observes that some types have "SC" or "EX EC" on them Cr 392Cr 392and many don't.
They sometimes have additional indication of senatorial rank such as "Q" for "quaestor" or "AED CVR" for "Aedile Curule" or "P" for Praetor.Cr 422Cr 422[This one has "EX SC on either side of the camel and AED CVR above].  He argues that these were issued by special order of the Senate to supplement the regular issue of the year for some specific purpose and that they were issued and named, not by the regular moneyers, rather by the senator in charge. Hill [p. 83] asserted this a century ago. Crawford devotes a section, Section 4, "Special Formulae", p. 605-609 to this. He states [p.607f] "I believe ... the Senate normally decided at the beginning of the year how much coinage was to be struck. It seems in principle likely that issues marked with EX S C, etc. were authorized separately later in the year." The office on the reverse, AED CVR, pins down the date. BMC says "As it is recorded that the curule aedileship of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus and Publius Plautius Hypaseus took place in B. C. 58, this is one of the few instances at this period when we are able to fix from historical evidence the precise date of the issue of a particular coinage" [p. 483].

Although we know the college of moneyers was a triumverate with three members per year, there are few enough names on coins of this period that Harlan argues that only one regular moneyer per year actually put his name on coins, not counting the special "SC" issues, and he finds just enough regular moneyers to provide one per year, and fills in the extra SC issues where they fit best. Some of this is done by trying to accommodate the cursos honorum and the consuls of various years. Harlan agrees with Burnett, who argues that, contrary to previous indications, moneyers were appointed, not elected, and may have been appointed by the consuls, so there is likely "a close chronological link between a moneyer and a related consul" [p. 41]. In volume II Crawford has a table of the careers of the moneyers, for those that are otherwise known, including dates when they were consul if they ever were.

Harlan's first book begins with 63 BC before the Mesagne hoard closed in 58 BC. He picks the least worn types in that hoard to fit from 63 to 58. He notes that assigning dates in the second book, covering 83-64 BC, is more difficult because fewer of the names on the earlier coins are attested anywhere else. But, with the one moneyer name per year idea supplemented with senatorial "SC" issues he works out a chronology. To fit the one-per-year idea he needs to put a couple of issues (especially the MVSA types) before the close of the Mesgane hoard even though they were missing in the hoard. He argues that small issues might be omitted in a hoard even if they were issued before the hoard closed. Wilhelm Hollstein in NC 1996, who wrote his own book on the period (in German), disagrees with Harlan on many points.


Conclusion:  Seriation is the most important method of dating Roman Republican types. Prior to the imperatorial period very few types are easily pegged to a timeline by using the coin types alone. Frequent coin references to victories or grain-doles are rarely explicit enough to distinguish which victory or which grain-dole is referenced. However, combining seriation with the other factors (enumerated in (4) above) usually allows types to be dated to within a short time period.

The other page of this site, a timeline, gives examples.

References: See the bottom of the other, "Timeline," page.

Go to the master site Table of Contents for all other, unrelated, topics on this site.