Review: Roman Coins and their Values. Volume II

David R. Sear. Roman Coins and their Values. Volume II. London: Spink, 2002. 696 pp., b/w illus. Hb. ISBN 1-902040-45-7. £65.00/$95.00.

The much anticipated second volume of Roman Coins and their Values, Millennium Edition (RCVM hereafter), dealing with the imperial coins issued from the accession of Nerva (AD 96) to the fall of the Severan dynasty (AD 235), is a worthy companion to the first volume (Republic to the end of the Flavians), that appeared two years ago. Sear has continued to maintain the high level of quality in text, catalogue, and illustration that he established in the first volume and causes us to look forward to the concluding third volume, projected for release in 2004.

As in the first volume, before plunging into the main catalogue, Sear offers several introductory sections to provide an overview of such topics as the evolution of Roman coin denominations (pp. 17-26), the various themes of reverse types (pp. 26-64), and the development of the imperial mint system (pp. 65-68). A glossary, much improved and expanded over that which appeared in the Fourth Edition (1988), a guide to imperial mintmarks, and a table of chronological criteria for dating Roman coins are also included. With the exception of the latter, which only deals with the period from AD 96 to AD 235, all of the introductory material is identical to that of the first volume. Although much of the introduction is clearly derived from the text of the Fourth Edition, the author has now fleshed-out what was once a somewhat skeletal text. For example, rather than stating the bald facts, as they are known, concerning the development of the denominations, Sear also includes additional insights gleaned from recent studies, such as the view that Julian the Apostate’s AE 1 issues were actually intended as an attempt to restore the Diocletianic follis (p. 24).

In addition to expanding the text, the author has also expanded the number and quality of photographs used in the introduction and throughout the catalogue. These are particularly helpful in the section describing allegorical personifications (pp. 37-42). A coin image now depicts almost every personification listed. Several of the line drawings used for illustrative purposes in the Fourth Edition have also been replaced by photographs, such as that of the stunning solidus of Crispus Caesar on p. 29 and the siliqua of Constantius II on p. 48. Nevertheless, a number of old and new line drawings still appear as illustrations for reasons that are somewhat unclear. For example, it is hard to know why a line drawing of an as of Antoninus Pius (p. 55) used to illustrate the Great Sow as a reverse type is preferred in this section to the excellent photograph of the same coin that appears in the catalogue under no. 4302. Similarly, if it was not possible to find a stellar example of the same emperor’s sestertius (no. 4224) depicting Aeneas for the illustration on p. 62, surely an attractive Caesarean denarius such as the one depicted under RCVM I, no. 1402, would have made an excellent replacement.

Despite the upgraded version of the introduction to Roman reverse types; an error has been carried over from previous editions of RCV into the description of the personification of Virtus. According to the text on p. 42, Virtus is normally depicted as an armed and armored male figure. However, in sculptural and numismatic depictions from the high Imperial period this personification is far more frequently shown as a helmeted and armed Amazonian woman with bared breast. All of these iconographical features are actually present in the image of Virtus that appears on the Hadrianic sestertius (no. 3652) used for the RCVM illustration.

The format of the catalogue will still be familiar to users of the Fourth Edition although all the coins have been renumbered and additional historical information, as well as many new coins, have been added. However, the short listings of Roman provincial coins that used to appear after the coins from the imperial mints have been dropped, as well as the listing for Galerius Antoninus (formerly no. 1375), the son of Antoninus Pius who was commemorated on coins only in the Greek East. The one exception is the cistophori of Asia Minor, which continue to appear in the catalogue immediately after gold issues. The decision to eliminate the provincial coins was probably wise, since the listings were often far too brief and lacking in illustrations to be much help in identifying issues from such a complex series. The author now advises readers to use his Greek Imperial Coins and their Values (London, 1982) as well as the volumes in the Roman Provincial Coinage series to identify the coins issued in the provinces of the Roman Empire. In place of general provincial listings, Sear now treats his readers to sections devoted to the issues of Roman Alexandria. Although normally catalogued as a provincial coinage, the inclusion of the Alexandrian series alongside the regular Roman coinage is quite complementary and makes sense when we consider that Egypt was not only an imperial province, like Spain, Gaul, and Syria, but also the personal property of the emperor. Just as the Roman coins, the Alexandrian pieces are thoroughly described with reference to major catalogues, most notably Dattari, Milne, BMC, and Cologne. It is somewhat unfortunate that at the time of writing, Keith Emmett’s Alexandrian Coins (Lodi, WI, 2001) was not yet available to the author (see ANS Magazine 2 [Summer 2002], pp. 50-53 for its review), since its combined cataloguing system is now used in many North American sale catalogues.

Coverage of most emperors in this volume of RCVM has increased by about twenty-five to thirty percent, which will no doubt please those interested in the coinages of the so-called Adoptive Emperors and the Severan dynasty. The historical introductions are much more detailed than those in the Fourth Edition and now also include minor members of the imperial family, including Matidia, the mother-in-law of Trajan, and Didia Clara, the daughter of Didius Julianus, emperor for 66 days in AD 193. Coins with special historical importance, such as the sestertius of Nerva (no. 3044) proclaiming an end to abuses in the collection of the Jewish tax, or the aureus of Caracalla (no. 6715) alluding to the emperor’s violent restoration of order in Alexandria in AD 215 are indicated by explanatory text within the body of the catalogue. Each coin is also identified as to year and mint of issue whenever such data is available. In addition to increasing the information included in each catalogue entry, Sear has also taken the helpful step of segregating a number of exceptional imperial series from the main catalogue. Thus, the copper quadrantes produced for use at the imperial mines under Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, the ‘restored’ coinages of Nerva, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius, and the dynastic coin series of Septimius Severus all appear under their own headings. Similar treatment might also have been worthwhile for the popular Alexandrian series issued under Antoninus Pius, which depict the labours of Heracles and the signs of the Zodiac.

It almost goes without saying that many readers will also be interested in the second volume of RCVM for the updated values for each listed coin type. Whereas in the Fourth Edition values were only assigned for precious metal coins in Good Very Fine (gVF) condition and base metal pieces in Very Fine (VF) condition, several states of preservation are now addressed. Silver and gold are valued for both VF and Extra Fine (EF) conditions, while brass, bronze, and copper pieces receive values for Fine (F), VF and EF conditions. Of course, what these grades and the prices associated with them mean in real terms is extremely difficult to say, since scientific grading criteria, such as those currently used for United States coins, is non-existent for ancient coins. When we compare the prices assigned by another popular value guide, David Vagi, Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (Sidney, OH, 1999), to those that appear in the present volume of RCVM a number of discrepancies appear that should serve to underline the tenuous nature of the prices given in any value guide. Although Vagi and Sear are generally close in their assessment of values for precious metal coins, they often disagree where base metal issues are concerned. Sear provides values for brass, bronze and copper coins in EF condition, yet Vagi asserts that this condition is so rare for these coins that he only values them for the lesser grade of Choice Very Fine (ChVF). However, it is not infrequent for Sear to provide a price for a base metal coin in EF condition that is equal to or lower than the value given by Vagi for ChVF. A good example is RCVM 6472, a well-known P M TR P XVI COS III P P S C as (RIC 786a) of Septimius Severus, which Sear values at $2,500 in EF, but which Vagi (no. 1768) prices at $3,000-5,000 for ChVF. This sort of discrepancy may lead the reader to wonder whether the RCVM value is overly conservative, whether Vagi’s ChVF should be considered roughly equivalent to Sear’s EF, or whether there is some other unknown reason for the difference. As Sear and Vagi are both well respected and experienced professional numismatists specializing in ancient coins, it becomes very difficult to decide which value should be preferred. At the end of the day, it is probably wisest to use the values in RCVM and Vagi with caution and spend more time researching the hard evidence of final prices in sale catalogues.

While RCVM builds on the solid foundation lain by previous editions of RCV and is certainly a worthy successor to the Fourth Edition, one suspects that its new grand scope is intended to target a different audience than earlier versions. Previously, RCV had been the uncontested popular introduction to Roman coins, serving both the individual interested in aurei and high quality sestertii, as well as those with a fondness for low-end Constantinian bronzes. However, because of the vastly expanded coverage in the three-volume Millennium Edition the cost of owning a complete and up-to-date copy of RCV has now essentially tripled. Thus, we fear that the cost may put the complete set of RCVM out of the reach of many enthusiasts of lower value coins, although individuals may wish to purchase only the volume that includes the area of Roman coinage that interests them. This would be unfortunate, in the opinion of the present reviewer, because one of the strengths of earlier editions of RCV was that all periods of Roman coinage were easily available in one place. Although one might specialize in a narrow period, or a single emperor, it was not possible to avoid learning something about the coins of other emperors, described elsewhere in the book. The wide ranging, yet compact, survey of Roman coins provided by earlier editions was part of what made RCV a great introduction to the series and a springboard for diving into the important catalogues of Cohen, RIC and BMCRE. It served to whet the appetite for something more.

The new RCVM, however, is more of a tool for those already familiar with Roman coinage. The high quality of the catalogue allows it to be used as an abridgement of RIC and in this regard, RCVM also recommends itself to the archaeological community. Many excavation sites cannot afford the full run of RIC for the dig house library and therefore focus is placed on acquiring the volumes that contain the material most likely to appear in the course of digging. RCVM would make a useful and comparatively inexpensive reference for filling in the gaps in such partial RIC libraries. Nevertheless, whether it is viewed as part of a useful reference in its own right or as a distilled version of RIC with additional coverage of the Alexandrian material, the second volume of RCVM can rightfully stand next to its predecessor. All that remains now is to find space on the shelf for volume three.

—Oliver D. Hoover