Sep 4, 2011

The First Roman Coin

Its military expansion during the fourth century BC transformed the Roman Republic into the greatest power on the Italian peninsula. The political, economic, and cultural contacts with the Greek cities of Campania and southern Italy became much more intense. Compared to these Greek cities, Rome was, despite its power, a backward and predominantly rural society, in which trade played a comparatively minor role. The production of coinage was much more advanced in the cities of Magna Graecia than in Rome, where rustic bronze bars were used instead of coins. 

The need to interact with these cities led Rome to instruct its allies to produce a series of coins with Greek characteristics for its own use. That is the usual interpretation offered by experts for a range of early Roman coins which represent a clear break with the roman tradition of cast ingots. On the chronology of these coins there are, however, very different views. The information available is insufficient to settle the issue definitively. Here I follow the conclusions of Michael Crawford (see Roman Republican Coinage).

The first of these coins (Crawford 1/1) -illustrated above- has fascinated scholars since the origins of numismatic studies. It is made of bronze. On the obverse we can see Apollo crowned with laurels and on the reverse the front of a bull with a human head accompanied by the Greek legend RWMAIWN (of the Romans). Due to its characteristics and style, this coin is usually associated with the coinage of Naples, and is believed to have been produced in the mint of that city at the request of Rome. It was probably coined shortly after the treaty (foedus aequum) that united Naples and Rome as allies at the beginning of the second Samnite war in 326 BC. A second piece of bronze with similar characteristics was coined in Rome around 300 BC. 

This coin is particularly interesting because it is a “fiat currency”. This means that, unlike what happened with the ingots commonly used in this period as currency in Rome, this coin had almost no real value, it weighed only four and a half grams. Its value came from the fact that the Roman state and its allies accepted it as a means of payment. 

In the third century BC Rome entrusted its allies in southern Italy with the minting of a series of coins with a distinctly Greek outlook: the Roman silver didrachms. I will discuss them in a following post.

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