How to read a Roman coin

Coins are important evidence for archaeologists because they can be easily dated.

Bust

The 'obverse' of a Roman coin from the period of the Roman empire usually depicts the issuer, often the emperor or empress. They are shown with a bust - a side view of their head, as the Queen is on our coins today.

Lettering 'legend'

The bust and lettering surrounding it are usually the initial means of identifying a coin. The busts are sometimes easily recognisable

coin showing a man's head in profile

Coin featuring Faustina Augusta from the Knutsford hoard.
Accession number MOL.2015.90.91, reference LVPL-860CC0

The lettering will name the emperor and give his titles and some of his attributes, such as:

  • IMP: Imperator - Emperor of the Roman Empire, and leader of the army. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.19
  • CAES or CAESAR: Caesar - a title taken by emperors demonstrating their descent (whether directly by blood or not) from Julius Caesar. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.57
  • AVG: Augustus – a title taken by emperors meaning 'majestic' or 'venerable'. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.33
  • AVGVSTA: female of Augustus. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.91
  • COS: Consul - the consuls was the chief magistrates of the Roman government. This title is often followed by a numeral which indicates the number of times the emperor had held this position. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.84
  • PF or PIUS: Pius Felix - meaning dutiful and wise Pius. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.60

Other lettering on the coin might include:

  • SC: Senatus Consulto 'by decree of the senate' - the emperor controlled gold and silver coins, and copper alloy coins were controlled by the senate.
  • SPQR: Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - of the Senate and People of Rome. Found on coin MOL.2015.90.33

Personification

both sides of a coin, with an image of the goddess Providentia

Coin featuring the goddess Providentia from the Knutsford hoard.
Accession number MOL.2015.90.82, reference LVPL-7311C1

The 'reverse' of a coin often has a personification on it. These are gods, virtues represented in human form, such as peace, or military or religious symbols. Coins in the Cheshire hoards include:

  • Mars - god of war. 
  • Salus - goddess of safety and wellbeing. 
  • Jupiter - king of the Roman gods, shown holding a thunderbolt. 
  • Venus - goddess of love and beauty, shown holding Victory and resting her left hand on a shield. 
  • Aequitas - goddess of fairness. 
  • Providentia - personification of making provision for the future, shown holding cornucopia.
  • Hilaritas - personification of cheerfulness, shown arranging her hair! 
coin with a picture of a bull

Coin featuring a bull from the Malpas hoard.
Accession number MOL.2015.51.28

Animals

Several reverses of these coins portray animals which often have meaning, including:

  • Eagle. Found on coin MOL.2015.51.15
  • Peacock - associated with or a representation of goddess Juno, protector of the state. 
  • Salus and the snake - the goddess of safety and well-being, Salus, is seen feeding a snake - that of her father Aesculapius, god of healing and medicine. 
  • Horses, being ridden or pulling chariots. Found on coin MOL.2015.51.29
coin with a picture of a camel 

Coin featuring a camel from the Malpas hoard.
Accession number MOL.2015.51.18