Numismatics, or the practice of collecting and studying coinage, dates back to ancient times. Accordingly, it should come as no great surprise that coin specialists have been collecting Roman currency for a long time. Such a hobby is not cheap and the novice collector should be aware of the criteria that define the value of Roman coins before opening his wallet.
Types of Roman Coins
The Roman Republic and subsequent empire lasted nearly 2,000 years. As a result, the variety of collectible coinage is vast. The earliest specimens date to nearly 300 B.C. and evolve through the Punic Wars, the Twelve Caesars, the age of Constantine, to the Byzantine Empire. Interestingly, age does not play much of a role in value. For example, a coin of Antestius Gragulus (Second Punic War era) sells for $125 whereas the much later Constantine era coin of Constantine I sells for $120 on the same website (ClassicCoins.com).
Value by Metal Content
Roman coins were minted from copper, bronze, silver, gold and electrum (a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold). Ordinary merchants and citizens of the Roman Empire used silver and copper pieces. Administrators and wealthier individuals used the gold coins. Not surprisingly, the metal content of the coin impacts its value. Generally, gold Roman coins are worth more than their weight in gold. For instance, a 4.5 gram Honorius coin can fetch around $700 to $800.
Rarity and Value
Unlike other areas of numismatics, the value of Roman coins is not based upon rarity. As Warren Esty writes in his article, “Rarity and the value of ancient Roman Coins,” there are thousands of unique coins out there, so many, in fact, that the sheer number of rare coins devalues their value as a class. Rather, rarity only works in limited “series” of coins where some items are rarer than others. For example, certain “buffalo” nickels are valuable since the currency series is limited to only 40 types over a 12-year period. However, when the series is unlimited and there are infinite variations, rarity no longer matters. Instead, Esty argues that the value of Roman coins depends on their aesthetic appeal and historical interest. For example, a mint condition gold coin of the notorious emperor Nero would fetch a high price.
Criteria for Pricing
Esty writes that the actual value of Roman coins depends on three factors: issuing authority (the ruler); denomination; and condition. To a large degree, the value is in the eye of the beholder. Just as art collectors may be willing to pay top dollar for paintings they find beautiful, ancient Roman coin collectors also pay more for coins they find aesthetically pleasing. If others share that opinion of a coin, the value increases accordingly.
The actual cost of specific Roman coins ranges all over the map. Prices range from $25 to several thousand dollars. And as the ancient Latin saying goes, “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”). Unscrupulous vendors who claim to sell “rare” Roman coins at inflated prices are common. Nonetheless, coins with the portraits of famous Roman emperors are highly collectible and rare specimens of that subset can fetch justifiably high prices on occasion.
Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.