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The Roman Aes Grave


Ancient Coins of the Roman Republic and Italy from Before 150 B.C. in the Forum Ancient Coins shop

Bertol, A. & K Farac. "Aes rude and aes formatum – a new typology" in VAMZ, 3. s., XLV (2012). PDF available online
Garrucci, R. Le monete dell'Italia antica. (Rome, 1885). Available online
Grueber, H. Coins of the Roman Republic in The British Museum, Vol. 1. Aes rude, aes signatum, aes grave, and coinage of Rome from BC 268. (London, 1910). PDF Available Online
Haeberlin, E. Aes Grave. Das Schwergeld Roms und Mittelitaliens. (Frankfurt, 1910). Available online
Sear, D. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume I: Republic to the Flavians. (London, 2000).
Sydenham, Edward A. Aes Grave, a Study of the Cast Coinages of Rome and Central Italy. (London, 1926).
Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, France, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles, Vol. 6, Part 1: Italy (Etruria - Calabria). (Paris, 2003).
Thurlow, B. & I. Vecchi. Italian Cast Coinage. (Dorchester, 1979).
Vecchi, I. Italian aes rude, signatum and the aes grave of Sicily in Thurlow–Vecchi, Italian Cast Coinage. (Dorchester, 1979).
Vecchi, I. Italian Cast Coinage. (London, 2013).

Although the history of the coinage of Rome is outside the scope of the present volume, nevertheless the Aes Grave holds so conspicuous a place in the coinage of Italy as a whole that occasional reference to it will be necessary.

A slight sketch of the development of the heavy bronze money of Italy will not therefore be out of place, and will indeed be requisite for all students of the coinage of the Italo-Hellenic states.

The earliest measure of value throughout Central and Northern Italy was bronze, which circulated in blocks of irregular form. In this primitive condition of the currency we have no reason to suppose that the weight of the blocks of bronze was fixed by the State or in any way regulated by law. It is, nevertheless, highly probable that it was customary to cast the lumps of metal according to pound weights divided into 12 ounces. This ancient Italian money was called aes rude (Pliny. H. N. xxxiii. 3. 13). Subsequently it was found convenient, in order to avoid constant recourse to the balance, to adopt the custom, which had long prevailed in the Greek cities, of marking the money with an official stamp. According to the popular tradition it was Servius Tullius who first introduced the practice of stamping bronze for circulation, primus signavit aes (Pliny. l. c.), which was thence called aes signatum, but the advanced style of art exhibited even by the earliest specimens of Roman and Italian aes signatum is quite sufficient to show that the tradition which ascribes them to the age of the kings is not worthy of credit. Nor does the theory that the Roman coinage began in the time of the Decemvirs, B.C. 454, and that coins were mentioned in the laws of the XII Tables, rest upon any more solid foundation (see Bahrfeldt, Geschichte des älteren römischen Münzwesens, Wien, 1883, p. 20). Neither does the often cited Lex Julia Papiria, B.C. 430, specifically fix the payment of fines in coined money, but probably by weight in bronze.

Of the exact date of the first introduction of coined bronze money at Rome we have therefore no record; but the style of the heads upon the earliest Roman asses points unmistakably to the second half of the fourth century. There are indeed, as Haeberlin has shown (op. cit.), no Roman coins which can be positively assigned to an earlier date than circa B.C. 335, for although the workmanship of the heads of Janus and the other divinities on the As and its divisions is necessarily rough, owing to the process of casting employed, yet there is no trace of archaism, nor even of the severity characteristic of the period of transition from archaism to fine art, such as we should expect to find at the close of the fifth century.

When bronze was first coined at Rome (circ. B.C. 335) it was on the basis of the light or ‘Oscan’ pound of 272.88 g. (= 4,210 grs.). The later

1 It has long been acknowledged that Mommsen’s chronological classification of the early aes grave of Rome and Central Italy must be abandoned. Haeberlin's essay, like Mommsen's, is, in the nature of things, largely hypothetical. But his theories certainly provide a more adequate and intelligible explanation of the phenomena than anything which numismatists have yet been asked to consider. In these circumstances they will doubtless be generally accepted, unless and until they are superseded by something better. The light they throw incidentally on other problems, such as those connected with the coinage of Etruria, is strongly in their favor. In any event his classification is uniform and comprehensible, qualities indispensable for a handbook like the present volume.

Roman or ‘Attic’ pound of 327 grams, although it had made its way into Central Italy, was not accepted at Rome until silver, on the relation of which to bronze its weight was based, had superseded bronze as the chief medium of exchange.

This Romano-Oscan pound of circ. 273 grams was divided by the Romans duodecimally, and the types, value-marks, and weights of the six denominations of the earliest cast Roman aes grave (c. 335-312) are as follows:—

As. Head of Janus. I Prow of galley.
I Wt. c. 273 grams.
Semis. „ Jupiter. S
S „ 136.5
Triens. „ Minerva. ••••
•••• „ 91
Quadrans. „ Hercules. •••
••• „ 67.5
Sextans. „ Mercury. ••
•• „ 45.5
Uncia. „ Bellona or Roma. •
• „ 22.5

There was, however, owing to the rough process of casting, so much irregularity in the actual weights of the aes grave that the above figures can only be accepted as approximate. The prow on the Roman coins is an indication that Rome had become a sea-power since, in B.C. 338, it subjugated the powerful maritime city of Antium on the Latin coast, and set up the beaks of its ships in the Forum.

Concurrently with this urban aes grave of Libral weight Rome, according to Haeberlin, issued, from a mint at Capua, silver money inscribed ROMANO for currency in Central Italy, chiefly in Campania, of which the principal denomination was the didrachm, c. 7.58 grams (= 117 grs.). (See Capua, p. 32.) For about a quarter of a century there seems to have been no attempt to fix any definite rate of exchange between the urban issues of aes grave and the Campanian issues of silver coins; but (according to Haeberlin, circa B.C. 312) when it had become customary to carry on trading operations also in silver values, and when the silver Scripulum (1.137 grams = 1/288 of the heavy or so called ‘Attic’ Id.), which had been already adopted in parts of Etruria and in parts of Central Italy as the ordinary silver unit of value, had obtained recognition also in Rome, the necessity arose of reducing the weight of the Roman silver coins, as issued at Capua, from 7.58 to 6.82 grams (= 117-105 grs.). The new Romano-Campanian didrachm was accordingly made equivalent to 6 scruples; and the Roman As of circa 273 grams, equivalent to 2 scruples at an exchange rate of 120:1, was thus brought into direct relation with the silver coins. Later still, c. B.C. 286, a further attempt was made to facilitate the exchange of the urban aes grave with Romano-Campanian silver, at 120:1, by reducing the weight of the As by one half, from 273 to 136½ grams (Semilibral Reduction), and, as Haeberlin thinks, by dividing it decimally instead of duodecimally. The Semilibral As of about 136½ grams was thus made the exact equivalent of one silver scruple, and as, little by little, the silver scruple displaced the bronze As, the As and its divisions began to sink in weight. This is evident from the marks of value on the earliest silver coins struck in Rome itself, B.C. 211, the denarius of 4.55 grams marked X (= 10 Asses), the Quinarius, V (= 5 Asses), and the sestertius or scripulum of 1.137 grams, IIS (= 2½ asses) which (still at the old exchange rate of 120:1) yields an As of only 54.5 grams, a weight identical with that of a libral sextans of the heavier, or later Roman pound of 327 grams, which seems circ. B.C. 268 to have replaced (at Rome, though probably not simultaneously in other districts) the lighter ‘Romano-Oscan’ pound of 273 grams. The name Sextantal Reduction is therefore not inappropriate to the reform of the Roman bronze coinage in B.C. 268. The gradual reduction in the weight of the Roman As from 273 to 54 grams. is not however to be interpreted as an indication of a corresponding change in the relative values of bronze and silver as metals. It merely shows that Rome was trying to maintain a double standard as between bronze and silver, and that for convenience sake the pound of bronze, originally regarded as a single As, was gradually split-up into a larger and larger number of Asses, the process being somewhat as follows:—

Period I, circ. B.C. 335-312.

Original ‘Romano-Oscan’ pound of c. 273 grams. represented by 1 Libral As of 12 ounces, and divisions with marks of value on both sides, without any exact silver equivalent.

Period II, circ. B.C. 312-286.

The Libral As of 273 grams. and divisions, with marks of value on rev. only, equivalent, at 120:1, to 2 scruples of silver of 1.137 grams. each.

Period III, circ. B.C. 286-268.

Semilibral Reduction. The same pound represented by 2 Semilibral Asses of 136½ grams, each equivalent, at 120:1, to 1 silver scruple of 1.137 grams.

Period IV, Circ. B.C. 268-217.

Sextantal Reduction. Adoption of the later Roman pound, 327 grams probably represented by 6 Asses of Sextantal wt., each 54.5 grams. The silver scruple, 1.137 grams, tariffed as equivalent, at 120:1, to 2½ Asses. (5 Asses = 1 Romano-Oscan pound of 273 grams, and 6 Asses = 1 later Roman pound of 327 grams)

Period V, circ. B.C. 217-89.

Uncial Reduction. The Lex Flaminia or Lex Fabia, B.C. 217, fixed the minimum weight of the As at 1 ounce = 27.3 grams = ½ of the later Roman pound of 327 grams (or 1/10 of the old Oscan pound of 273 grams).

Period VI, circ. B.C. 89.

Throughout all these reductions bronze at Rome was gradually becoming subordinate to silver, and notwithstanding the efforts made to maintain the double standard by legal enactment, a time came when it ceased to be a matter of importance whether the As was of full legal weight or not. Hence when in B.C. 89 C. Papirius Carbo, a tribune of the people, introduced a law, by virtue of which it was permissible to strike the As of the minimum weight of half an ounce (Semuncial Reduction), this was merely a legal authorization of a custom which de facto had prevailed for some years before that date, if not in Rome itself, at any rate in some of the Confederate towns.

Soon after the passing of the Lex Papiria the issue of bronze money ceased altogether in Rome (circ. B.C. 87-74), and it was not resumed until B.C. 15, when the right of coining gold and silver was taken away from the Senate by Augustus. who at the same time conferred upon that body the privilege of coining in the baser metal. Then begins the Roman Imperial series, commonly called large, middle, and small brass (sestertius, dupondius, and as), distinguished by the letters S. C. (Senatus Consulto).

Although the use of heavy, bronze cast coins was not confined to Rome, it is probable that it originated there, for the earliest specimens of aes grave with types are the Asses of Rome itself.

But, during the greater part of the fourth and third centuries B.C., nearly the whole of Northern and Central Italy made use of cast bronze coins similar to those of Rome; similar, but by no means identical. Some of the more important centers had distinct coinages, differing from that of Rome in type, and not infrequently also in weight, for it does not appear that the pound was everywhere of the same weight. In some parts of Etruria, for instance, the pound was only about 218.3 grams = 3,368 grs., while in Picenum it seems to have attained a weight of more than 388.8 grams. = 6,000 grs.

As a rule the Central and Transapennine communities continued longer than Rome to adhere to bronze as their one standard of value. The steady diminution of the weight of the Roman aes grave and the successive legal reductions of the As (due, not to national bankruptcies, but simply to the fact that bronze at Rome was giving place to silver as the standard of value and sinking to be mere money of account) had no effect upon the intrinsic value of the metal, and no corresponding reductions took place in districts where bronze remained the sole standard. Indeed, Rome itself, as Haeberlin thinks, continued to cast heavy bronze pieces for her bronze-using dependencies in Latium, &c., concurrently with her own urban money of reduced weight.

The various series of aes grave cannot all be attributed with certainty, as many of them have no inscriptions; but they may be assigned conjecturally to certain districts, or even towns, on the evidence of repeated discoveries of the same classes in the same localities.

The dates of the several series of aes grave are frequently no less difficult to fix than the places to which they belong. In this matter we must not be deceived by style, for the rudest and most clumsily executed pieces are not necessarily the earliest, as would doubtless have been the case if the art exhibited upon them had been of native growth. As a matter of fact the art work of the aes grave is everywhere borrowed from that of the Greeks, and the degree of excellence attained in any particular district depended upon the closeness of its relations, direct or indirect, with some Greek city, or at least with a population imbued with the spirit of Greek art.