Last updated: 27 April 2017
CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS LETTERING
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. Stone cutters in particular still employ their distinctive proportions and terminating serifs. It should be noted that only twenty letters were normally 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.
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 Die Engravers
The coin die engravers 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 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.
CLAUDIUS, RIC Volume I, No. 88
Examples of early Roman Empire coin lettering
Go to this page for detailed information relating to reading and attributing these coins
Examples of late Roman Empire coin lettering