Roman Capitalis Monumentalis lettering and its modification and adaptation by the coin engravers of the Roman Empire (with photographic examples of early, later and Tetrarchic coin lettering).

Capitalis Monumentalis Lettering

[Roman lettering exemplar]

Roman Imperial coin inscriptional letterforms are based on those of CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS employed by stone cutters for edifices, monuments, tombstones, etc. A fine extant example is found on Trajan's column in Rome and the essential constructs of these letterforms are the models for all Majuscule (Capital) alphabets used in the western world. Stonecutters in particular still employ their distinctive proportions and terminating serifs. It should be noted that only twenty letters were used in the ancient Roman alphabet : A B C D E F G H I L M N O P Q R S T V X. Our modern J and U were not used, their equivalents being I and V respectively. Thus, our modern JULIUS was written IVLIVS. The letter K was seldom used and then only before A. The letters Y and Z were only used when reproducing Greek words. W was not part of the ancient Roman alphabet at all. It was Medieval scribes who formalized the construction models for the letters J K U W Y Z. Capitalis Monumentalis lettering is at the apex of the "Hierarchy of Scripts" for Calligraphers and is often used by them for especially important headers in pen and ink renditions.

There are numerous excellent photographs of actual CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS lettering (including that on Trajan's column) mostly accompanied by location information, translations and analyses, at Bill Thayer's Latin Inscriptions section of his LacusCurtius web site

Although in general the inscriptional letterforms employed by Roman Imperial coin die engravers, particularly those of the early Empire, closely follow CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS letterforms there are some subtle differences, mostly resulting from the limited space available on coins for inscriptional lettering. Most notably, they were modified to produce closer spacing and a compaction of the wide letters C O Q and M resulting in more uniform and "square" lettering. The essential letterform constructs were closely followed for coins of the early to mid Empire who's inscriptions are generally stately and elegant: E and F have equal length horizontal bars; A has a sharp apex; V has a sharp junction; the bowls of B P R S are always nicely formed. P is frequently rendered on Imperial coins with an open bowl, i.e. not touching the vertical stem at the bottom - especially on coins of the early Empire. The quality of Roman Imperial coin lettering reached its zenith on late period Julio-Claudian coins.

Adaptation of Capitalis Monumentalis letterforms by Coin Engravers

[Roman lettering exemplar]

It is hard to conjecture exactly how the letterforms were rendered on the coin dies. Having cut/inscribed Roman Capital letters myself in stone, wood/linoleum blocks and various metals I can imagine the die engravers would have used a selection of chisels (burins), stamps and punches -- the quality of the lettering may therefor have depended to some extent on the skill of the tool makers. The size of the planchet and the quality of the coin metal would also be determining factors. Certainly blundered letters did occur as evidenced by the S in CAES and the S in COS on the following almost mint state Quadrans of Claudius. Rendering well proportioned and constructed Capital Roman lettering has always demanded considerable skill and it seems there has always existed a disparity of skills among the crafstsmen who executed them -- regardless of the tools and media employed.

[Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo]
CLAUDIUS, RIC Volume I, No. 88

Examples of early Roman Empire coin lettering

[Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo][Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo]

Examples of later Roman Empire coin lettering

There wasn't any sudden change in the quality of inscriptional letterforms although, as Dr. Sutherland notes (Roman Coins, page 224), by the reign of ELAGABALUS (218-222) the quality and style of coin inscriptional lettering had noticeably declined from that of the earlier Empire.

However, I think the inscriptional letterform quality is quite high on many of the early Lugdunum reformed folles as exemplified by the following "Unknown Continental Mint" Class I coins:

[Roman coin inscription exemplar] [Roman coin inscription exemplar]
IMP C DIOCLETIANVS PF AVG ............................ GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
RIC Volume VI (Lugdunum) No. 14a

[Roman coin inscription exemplar] [Roman coin inscription exemplar]
IMP C MAXIMIANVS PF AVG ............................ GENIO POP -- VLI ROMANI
RIC Volume VI (Lugdunum) No. 14b

[Roman coin inscription exemplar] [Roman coin inscription exemplar]
FL VAL CONSTANTIVS NOB C ............................ GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
RIC Volume VI (Lugdunum) No. 17a

[Galerius coin photo] [Galerius coin photo]
C VAL MAXIMIANVS NOB C .............................. GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
RIC Volume VI (Lugdunum) No. 17b

There is some uneveness of letter height, but overall the lettering is quite pleasing and nicely rendered.

Examples of early British Tetrarchic coin lettering

By the time of the introduction of the British Tetrarchic coinage, the character of the inscriptional letterforms had changed significantly. They were noticeably smaller and thicker with heavier serifs. To my calligrapher's eye the early LON and unmarked folles inscriptions in particular often have poorly formed letters (however, as is the case with latter day calligraphers, not all coin die engravers were equally skilled). The graceful proportions and elegant structures of the early Empire letterforms are no longer evident. The bowls of B P R S, always difficult to execute with precision, are now often distorted or disproportional. O is often curiously small or distorted and out of round. X is given an entirely new form. The letter A (sometimes without the horizontal cross bar) now has a flat apex and V a flat bottom. T is often squat with very pronounced serifs.

[Roman lettering exemplar]
Depiction of A, M, X, V Roman coin letterforms

The following coins illustrate the typically somewhat thicker inscriptional lettering with heavier serifs so noticeable on the coins of this period.

[Diocletian coin photo] [Diocletian coin photo]
RIC Volume VI (Londinium) No. 1a.

[Roman coin inscription exemplar] [Roman coin inscription exemplar]
C VAL MAXIMIANVS NOB C ....................... GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
London, Intermediate Group (a) - not in RIC
Intermediate Group (a) issue - Lugdunum style head and British style Lettering

[Constantius coin photo] [Constantius coin photo]
FL VAL CONSTANTIVS NOB C ........................... GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
London, Intermediate Group (a) - not in RIC
Intermediate Group (a) issue - Lugdunum style head and British style Lettering

[Tetrarch coin photo] [Tetrarch coin photo]
MAXIMIANVS NOBIL C ......................... GENIO POPV -- LI ROMANI
RIC Volume VI (Londinium) No. 33.


Most coins bear the Emperor's portrait on the obverse and variety of depictions on the reverse. Sometimes the obverse features the portrait or depiction of a member of the Imperial family and the reverse often commemorates or propagandizes a significant event or Imperial accomplishment.

All inscriptions are in Capital Roman Letters and Numerals (Capitalis Monumentalis).

In most cases, names and titles are inscribed around the periphery of the coins with the primary ones being on the obverse, although they are sometimes carried over to the periphery of the reverse. Occasionally, however, inscriptions appear in the field of the coin -- usually on the reverse. The peripheral inscriptions are usually read (but not always) clockwise starting at the bottom. Names and (usually abbreviated) titles run together with no apparent spaces between them.


[Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo]
RIC Vol I, CLAUDIUS, As, Rome, No. 113 (AD 50)
Obverse: Claudius, bare headed facing left
Inscription clockwise from bottom: TI CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG P M TR P IMP P P
Reverse: Personification of Liberty, standing, facing right
Inscription clockwise from bottom: LIBERTAS AVGVSTA | S -------- C (left and right)

Following are abbreviations/inscriptional forms that are frequently encountered on coins of the early Empire:

Praenomen & Cognomen -- first (sometimes abbreviated) and last (familial) names such as, for example, TI (Tiberius) CLAVDIVS

Caesar -- inherited name of the Julian family subsequently adopted by the Claudians: CAESAR (not abbreviated on Julio-Claudian coins).

Augustus -- the unique appellation of the Emperor -- reverential title. Abbr: AVG, AVGVST.

Pontifex Maximus -- Head Priest of the Roman religion. Abbr: P M, PON M, PONT MAX.

Tribunicia Potestate -- Chief magistrate, Civil Head of State. Abbr: TR P, TR POT, TRIB POT.

Imperator -- Commander in Chief - the Emperor symbolizing victories of the Army. Abbr: IMP.

Pater Patriae -- Father of the Country. Abbr: P P.

Consul -- One of two elected Leaders of the Senate -- honorific title. Abbr: COS.


[Julio-Claudian coin photo] [Julio-Claudian coin photo]
RIC Vol. I, NERO, As, Lugdunum, No. 543 (AD 66)
Obverse: Nero, bare headed facing right
Inscription clockwise from bottom: IMP NERO CAESAR AVG P MAX TRP P P
Reverse: Winged Victory, walking left, holding shield inscribed SPQR
Inscription: S -------- C (left and right)

It should be noted that the Emperor did not always accept the title of Pater Patriae -- at least early in his reign -- and sometimes devolved the title and office of Consul to a family member. IMP was sometimes used as a Praenomen as shown above on the coin of Nero.

Some other abbreviations are: F (Filius -- son of), N (Nepos -- of the third generation -- grandson), PRON (Pronepos -- great grandson), DES (designate) and S P Q R (Senatus Populus Que Romanum - the Senate and the people of Rome).

As noted previously, the title inscriptions were sometimes carried over on to the coin reverse as shown here on the following As of Tiberius:

[Julio-Claudian coin photo]
RIC Vol. I, TIBERIUS, As, Rome, No. 44 (AD 21-22)
Reverse: clockwise from top

Note the numerals XXIIII (twenty four) following TRIBVN POTEST -- this indicates Tiberius was holding the Tribunician power for the twenty fourth time when this coin was minted. Inasmuch as such events were chronicled in the records of the Senate, these legends are invaluable aids in dating coins. In actuality, office renewals were automatic and rubber stamped. The offices of IMP, TRP and COS were similarly numbered and are included in coin inscriptions.

Following are abbreviations/inscriptional forms that are frequently encountered on coins of the later Empire (particularly Tetrarchic coins):

References and Resources

Go to the Roman Imperial coinage home page

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