Review: Misstruck Roman Empire Bronze Coins

Dennis O’Reilly, Misstruck Roman Empire Bronze Coins, San Mateo, CA: John Jencek, 2003. Spiral bound. 55 pp. color illus. $15.00.

In ancient Rome just about everyone had his own book, almost all of which were privately published, mainly to share with friends and colleagues. Cicero had his epic poem about his own consulship, Tacitus had his histories, and Pliny the Younger had his letters. Perhaps one of the most well known examples of a Roman author privately publishing his work is that of Catullus, who had his libellum (“little book”) of poems published so that he could offer them as a gift to his friend, the historian Cornelius Nepos.

A similar sort of grassroots publication of “little books” by and for friends has been an important staple of United States and American Colonial numismatics for decades (many an important and arcane die study that has become a cornerstone in the study of these series began its life as a private publication circulating among like-minded collectors), however, it has not generally tended to be as successful in the world of ancient numismatics. While there are some notable examples of privately produced libella on ancient topics, such as C. Daniel Clark’s underground classic, Speedy Identification of Early Denominationally Marked Byzantine Bronzes (Tehachapi, CA, 1990), they are very few and far between. This situation is somewhat unfortunate because without publication it is impossible to know what material is really out there in private hands.

In the present privately published little book, Dennis O’Reilly describes and illustrates a collection of some 109 bronze and billon coins from the early Principate to the first half of the fifth century AD, all suffering from various striking errors. Just about every possible minting mistake is represented here in some form. Obverse and reverse brockages are plentiful, including an impressive provincial brockage of Caracalla’s portrait (p. 9), while various degrees of double striking, centering errors, and die clashes account for the majority of the remaining material. For good measure an example of a double reverse muled as of Tiberius (RIC I, 82 [Rome], misdescribed as a lifetime issue of Augustus) is also included on page 2.

The method of presentation is extremely simple and straightforward. Each page illustrates two coins in full color and enlarged to twice their original size. Below each image appears a summary description including the name of the issuing emperor with reign dates, an abbreviated type description, a description of the error and the diameter of the coin. Rough values are also given as well as a catalogue reference, when possible.

Although the images are generally well photographed, it would have been helpful if further attention had been paid to the descriptions and references. The absence of numbers for the individual coins hampers the usefulness of the catalogue, while the referencing is somewhat haphazard. The Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) volumes are used mainly for the Julio-Claudians and a few isolated third and fourth century emperors, while the bulk of the fourth century rulers are referenced by the numbers given in Late Roman Bronze Coinages. David Sear’s Roman Coins and their Values (London, 1988) is used for the remainder of the coins. While Sear is fine for rough descriptions on 2×2 flip inserts, his numbers do not, nor were they ever intended to convey the same kind of detailed information as RIC numbers. Thus, descriptions of several coins as “variants” of, or “similar” to, those listed by Sear become tiresome very quickly, since all of the issues in question are known and fully referenced in RIC. The numbers provided by the more up to date RIC should also be preferred to those from LRBC.

In addition to improved referencing, the author would have been well advised to include more typological and denominational details in the descriptions as well as the metrological data. However, for the most part, the descriptions, such as they are, are correct. Only a few minor errors have crept into this catalogue of error coinages. We have already mentioned the case of the misidentified Tiberian as, above, but the majority of the remaining mistakes are misread inscriptions, some of which may be typographical, rather than reading errors. For example, the titles P(ius) F(elix) do not exist on the double struck Postumus sestertius (RIC V, 146 [Lugdunum]) listed on page 16, although O’Reilly restores them in his description. Likewise, the legend of a 60% off center and double struck antoninianus of Claudius II Gothicus (RIC V, 113 (Rome)) on page 26 is given as VIRTV[S AV]G, when in fact the inscription reads VIRTVS [AVG]VS[TI]. A 55% off center 12mm bronze coin on p. 49 is described as a SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE issue of Valentinian I despite the fact that only […A]VG and […R]EIPVBLI[CAE] remain of the obverse and reverse legends, respectively. Considering the small diameter and the placement of Victory’s arm on the reverse it seems more likely that this is really a SALVS REIPVBLICAE AE 4 issue of Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius, or Honorius with the reverse type of Victory dragging a captive to left.

Despite these criticisms, Misstruck Roman Empire Coins does fill a void in Roman numismatics by collecting together in one place a good sample of error coins of the imperial period. This interesting and understudied material also serves to pose questions that may be worthy of further investigation. For example, one wonders why the fifteen errors catalogued for the period of the Julio-Claudians (5 of Augustus, 2 of Tiberius, 1 of Caligula, 2 of Claudius, and 1 of Nero), Flavians (1 of Vespasian) and the Antonines (2 of Hadrian and 1 of Antoninus Pius) are primarily limited to the copper denominations of the as and the quadrans. The orichalcum sestertius and dupondius are almost nowhere to be found. It is unclear whether this is simply a fluke of the collection, or whether the process of minting, or quality control, for orichalcum permitted fewer error coins to enter into circulation. To answer such questions in a scientific manner would require a look at a much larger group of error issues sampled from the world’s major numismatic collections.

It is interesting that the only misstruck coins included in the catalogue for the Severan dynasty are three provincial issues of Caracalla (one of which can be attributed to the Macedonian mint of Stobi) and one provincial coin of Elagabalus. Admittedly this preponderance of the provincial material to the exclusion of the imperial coins should probably be considered a coincidence, but it also serves to underline the reduction of copper coin production at the imperial mints in the late second and early third centuries.

The prevalence of error coins from the later third and fourth centuries, of which O’Reilly presents some 90 examples, should probably come as little surprise, since this was a period of massive production of imperial base metal coinage in response to the persistent problem of inflation. The Roman Empire of the third century is primarily represented by base antoniniani of Gallienus (10 examples), Claudius II Gothicus (5 examples), and Probus (4 examples), while issues of Postumus (3 examples), Victorinus (6 examples), Tetricus I (5 examples), and Tetricus II (1 example) admirably represent the breakaway Gallic Empire. It is not clear to the present reviewer why a 19mm blank planchet on p. 23 has been attributed to one of the Tetrici or Claudius II. Error coins of the British usurpers Carausius (2 examples) and Allectus (2 examples) fill out the overview of mistakes at mints in the third century. It is an interesting coincidence that many of the errors appear under rulers who were especially hard pressed by inflation and who issued massive billon coinages in response. Since this process involved the almost annual recall, debasement, and recoining of older coins with higher silver content it is hardly surprising that numerous errors in striking were made. Quality is often the first thing to be sacrificed when speed and quantity are given precedence.

The frequent monetary reforms of the fourth and fifth centuries also provide a good deal of evidence for continued hasty production and poor quality control at the imperial mints. Constantine the Great and his family are very well represented: Constantine I (6 examples), Helena (1 example), Crispus (2 examples), Constantine II (4 examples), Constans (4 examples), Constantius II (8 examples). An AE 3 of Constans (cp. RIC VIII, 91 [Constantinople]) on p. 43 is not actually an example of a misstruck coin, but rather an example of a coin struck by an improperly engraved die. Here instead of the usual obverse inscription the die engraver inscribed DN CONSTANNS PF AVG, adding an extra letter N to the emperor’s name. The post-Constantinian age is filled out mainly by three issues of Valens and the coinage of the Theodosian co-emperors Arcadius (3 examples), Honorius (2 examples), Theodosius II (1 example), and Valentinian III (1 example). It is interesting, but probably coincidental, that most of the coins from the late Roman period tend to suffer from double striking and poor centering, much more than brockage, while in the material collected for the third century and the early empire, brockage reigns supreme as the main form of striking error.

The imperfect references and lack of a numbering system will probably prevent Misstruck Roman Empire Bronze Coins from attaining the kind of underground reference status among Roman coin enthusiasts that some privately produced works have attained in other areas of numismatics. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever been interested in error coins, or who has ever wondered what a bad day at the Roman mint really looked like, would not be badly served to follow the same recommendation that Catullus made to Cornelius Nepos concerning his own libellum: “take and keep this little book, such as it is, and whatever it is worth.” (Cat. 1.8-9).

—Oliver D. Hoover