COIN READING AND ATTRIBUTING
Last updated: 10 July 2016
Most coins bear the Emperor's portrait on the obverse and a depiction of a deity (Roman God or Goddess, example: VESTA - Goddess of family life) or personification (representation of a place or thing, example: LIBERTAS - liberty and freedom) on the reverse. The Emperor is depicted bare headed or laureate (wearing a laurel wreath) and is usually facing left or right. There are exceptions to the foregoing, however. Sometimes the obverse features the portrait or depiction of a member of the Imperial family and the reverse sometimes commemorates or propagandizes a significant event or Imperial accomplishment.
All inscriptions are in Capital Roman Letters and Numerals (Capitalis Monumentalis). During this time in Roman history the alphabet in regular use consisted of only twenty letters. Two of our modern letters -- J & U -- were not used, their equivalents being I and V respectively, thus, the modern JULIUS was inscribed on coins of this period IVLIVS.
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. The prominent letters S C (Senatus Consulto) are inscribed (usually) in the reverse field of all base (bronze and copper) coins, thereby signifying they were struck under the authority and auspices of the Senate -- a hollow claim, for all of the mints were totally controlled by the Emperor. Gold and silver coins were not so inscribed, for precious metal coinage was the personal domain of the Emperor.
As Princeps the Emperor exerted his Imperium over the Roman state by Auctoritas (authority) -- which was derived from the sum of the various titles bestowed on him by the Roman Senate (in actuality often claimed by him). These titles -- and his personal and familial names -- are frequently abbreviated in a variety of ways in the coin inscriptions.
EXAMPLE COIN ATTRIBUTION:
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 the abbreviations/inscriptional forms that are most frequently encountered on Julio-Claudian coins (there are others):
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.
EXAMPLE COIN ATTRIBUTION:
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 mentioned previously, the title inscriptions were sometimes carried over on to the coin reverse as shown here on the following As of Tiberius:
RIC Vol. I, TIBERIUS, As, Rome, No. 44 (AD 21-22)
Reverse: clockwise from top
PONTIF MAXIM TRIBVN POTEST XXIIII around S - C
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.