A Silver Denarius of Vespasian

A coin is not just a piece of metal that was paid out and bought goods and services. It is a window into an brief period of time, it can commemorate a particular event, or it can be used to communicate a particular idea. Careful examination of a coin can tell us a great deal about where and when it was minted and what the Emperor was doing at the time. In this article we are going to look at a silver coin of the Emperor Vespasianus.


A denarius (silver coin) of Vespasian showing Vespasianus on the
obverse (heads) and sacrificial implements on the reverse (tails).

This coin is a denarius (silver coin) of the Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (AD 69-79). The legend (text) on the obverse (heads) says: [IMP] [C]AES VESP AVG PM COS IIII (brackets indicate missing or unclear letters) which means “ ImperatorCaesarVespasianusAugustusPontifex MaximusConsul IIII “.

In this coin Vespasian is declared Imperator (leader of the army), an honour bestowed for outstanding military service during Republican times, but assumed by the emperors (although Vespasian earned it). The reference to Caesar was used by emperors to align themselves to the Caesar (Julio-Claudian) family, and thereby establish legitimacy to rule (Vespasianus was not related at all). The honour of Augustus (venerable) became synonymous with “Emperor”, so “Vespasianus Augustus” in effect means “Emperor Vespasianus”. The term Pontifex Maximus indicates that Vespasian is, as emperors usually were, the chief priest of the Roman empire. Finally, Vespasian embarked upon his fourth consulship (consul 4) in AD 72, and it wasn’t until AD 74 that he became consul for the 5th time, so we can tell that this coin was probably minted in either AD 72 or 73.


Diagram of the reverse of the Vespasian denarius.

On the reverse (tails) of the coin there is a set of sacrificial implements which are, from the left to right: (a) simpulum (ladle), (b) sprinkler, (c) libation jug, and (d) lituus (curved staff). The legend says: [A]VGVR TRI POTwhich means “ AugurTribunicia Potestas“. The sacrifical implements represent the Emperor’s role as an augur, who reads auspices (omens) from the flights of birds, as well as entrails of other animals (haruspices). Tribune of the Plebs (Tribunicia Potestas) was originally a position that could only be held by plebians and equestrians, and it meant that the holders had the power to veto any decision made by the Senate, so you can see why an emperor would want to be a tribune! It was a six month office, although the emperors could hold the position several times — again, one can see why!!!

During Flavian times, a denarius contained approximately 2.92 grams of actual silver, and was equal to 4 sestertii or 64 quadrans. To give you an idea of what that was worth, consider that 25 denarii was equal to 1 aureus (gold coin), and that 1 aureus could buy 400 litres of cheap wine (not that Falco would buy cheap wine), or 12 aureii was one year’s pay for a legionary soldier (according to the Museum of London’s ‘Roman Gold’ exhibit). Then consider that Falco needed to save 400,000 aureii to qualify for the Equestrian rank! That’s 160,000,000 litres of cheap wine, or just over 33333 years in the army as a legionary!

Coin References

Coin references are books, often in several volumes, which list all the known types of coins and catalogues them into some sort of logical order along with the coin’s sale value. There are several of these reference works, the largest being Roman Imperial Coinage. These cost serious amounts of money, so people usually buy smaller handier references like Roman Coins and Their Values(itself not cheap!). There is currently an online reference work of RIC and RCV coins at Wildwinds, which is where I researched my coins.

The references for this Vespasian denarius are:

  • Roman Imperial Coinage: RIC 42
  • Seaby, Roman Silver Coins: RSC 45
  • Sear, Roman Coins and their Values: RCV 770

Latin Terms

Imperator
Leader of the army
Caesar
Family of the Caesars
Vespasianus
Titus Flavius Vespasianus
Augustus
Venerable (denotes Emperor)
Pontifex Maximus
Chief Priest
Consul IIII
Consul for the fourth time
Augur
Priest who read auspices
Tribunicia Potestas
Tribune of the People (Plebs)
Simpulum
Ladle (a sacrificial implement)
Lituus
Curved staff (belongs to an augur)
Auspices
Casting omens by the flight of birds
Haruspices
Casting omens from animal entrails

Coin Values

Aureus Denarius Sestertius As Quadrans
  1
  1 4
  1 4 16
  1 4 16 64
1 25 100 400 1600
Table based on Roman Coinage in Britain by P. J. Casey.
Coin images are not to scale (see diagram below for actual coin dimensions).

Coin Dimensions

Diameter in millimetres, weight in grams

Sources

Casey, P. J. Roman Coinage in Britain Shire Archaeology (1994)

Scarre, C. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors Thames & Hudson Ltd. (1995)

The Museum of London. Roman Gold: A hidden treasure
[http://www.museum-london.org.uk/MOLsite/exhibits/coins/index.htm ]

Wildwinds. Coin Catalogue a searchable database of RIC and Sear numbers, with examples and photographs.
[http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/]

Jay’s Roman History, Coins, and Technology . Reverse Images on Coins