Contemporary copies of Roman coins

Contemporary copies are those that were made at the same time as, or shortly after, the official coins that they imitate. Some are convincing and were probably intended to pass as official coins, while others are so badly copied that they would not have fooled anyone. The latter must have been produced by a local community when the amount of official Roman coinage was insufficient to meet their daily needs.

Plated copies

These are copies that have a precious metal surface layer over a base-metal core. The most common examples are silver plated denarii of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. They can often be detected when the surface layer becomes cracked, or flakes away, revealing the copper-alloy core beneath. Sometimes corrosion of the underlying core will appear as bubbles or lumps on the surface and occasionally the surface will be completely removed leaving just the core. Plated imitations are normally lighter than the coins that they copy.

A plated copy of VespasianA plated copy of a coin of Aurelius Caesar

Figure 1: Two obverses showing damage to the surface plating.

Figure 2: Reverse of a plated denarius where only the core survives

Imitation Copper-Alloy denominations

Some copper alloy coins (sestertii, dupondii and asses) of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD can be identified as contemporary copies. These coins are often smaller and lighter than the official coinage and sometimes show signs of being made by casting. The evidence of casting is fairly easy to spot: A ridge running around the edge of the coin where the two moulds met, a pitted surface created by air bubbles in the mould and a lack of definition between the raised design and the background. Some imitations are given away by crudely copied portraits, inscriptions and designs.

Obverse of a genuine denarius of ClaudiusReverse of a genuine denarius of Claudius

Figure 3: Genuine copper-alloy as of Claudius I (AD 41-54)

 Figure 4: Good (top row) and bad (bottom row) imitation asses of Claudius I. The good copy is comparable in size, weight and style to the genuine coin. The bad copy is given away by its crude style.

Figure 5: Genuine copper-alloy as of Lucius Verus (AD 161-169) weighing 11.11g and 25mm in diameter and lightweight copy weighing 3.28g and 22mm in diameter

Barbarous radiates

Imitations of 3rd century AD radiates – known as barbarous radiates – are very common in the UK. Some may have been struck in a similar manner to genuine coins, while others were cast in moulds. Barbarous radiates are often distinguished by their smaller size, lighter weight and sometimes by evidence of the casting process. Most, however, are identified by their crude style: Poor quality portraits, reverse designs and blundered inscriptions.

Figure 6: Cast barbarous radiate of Claudius II (AD 268-270). The little ‘limbs’ sticking out of the sides show where the molten metal flowed in and out of the mould. These would normally have been clipped off during production.

Figure 7: Genuine radiate of Claudius II (AD 268-270) and two copies. The first copy is smaller and easily distinguishable by its crude style. The second has a pretty good quality portrait but is given away by its small size and light weight.

Figure 8: Compare the style of the copy (above) with the genuine radiate of Gallienus (AD 253-268). The portrait, inscriptions and the reverse design have been very crudely copied.

4th Century Imitations

Imitations of 4th Century copper-alloy nummi are also very common. Like the barbarous radiates of the previous century they can be identified by their crude style and/or reduced size and weight. Reverses of the periods AD 330-341 and AD 353-361 are the most frequently copied.

Figure 9: Compare the genuine coin (far left) showing a helmeted head of Constantinople and a figure of Victory standing on the prow of a ship, holding a shield (AD 330-335) with the copies. The first copy may be difficult to spot but the other three are much smaller and crudely copied. The example on the far right even fails to match the correct obverse and reverse (a genuine coin of this type always couples the Victory reverse with the head of Constantinopolis).