What is the writing on the coins?

The great majority of Roman provincial coins had inscriptions in Greek, but Roman colonies of Roman citizens and municipia used Latin to emphasize their Roman identities. By the third century, the coin engravers were not very good at Latin and sometimes produced garbled or even mixed inscriptions.

The inscriptions on the front of the coins convey the name of the emperor. At first they are very simple, like ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΣ for Augustus or ΝΕΡΩΝ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ for Nero, but as time passes they get longer, reflecting the usage of coins at Rome. Abbreviations also start to be used: Greek normally avoided abbreviations, and their appearance in the coin inscriptions is a sign of the way that Greek was influenced by Latin usage. By the third century the minters seem, surprisingly, to have had little or no idea about the correct way to spell the emperor’s name, and some strange forms appear: guess which emperor is meant by Γ ΟΥ ΑΦΙ ΓΑΛΛΟϹ ΟΥΟϹϹΙΑΝΟ.

The reverses of the coins usually have the name of the city, usually in the genitive plural, e.g. ΕΦΕΣΙΩΝ meaning ‘of the Ephesians’. The name of the city is often accompanied by more information, perhaps a title of the city, such as ΝΕΩΚΟΡΟΣ, denoting the award to the city of a ‘neocorate’, or the right to build the only temple of the emperor in a province. 

In Asia, in particular, personal names are also often found, which are today called ‘magistrates’ names’ for short: sometimes the names are indeed accompanied by an indication of the office or magistracy they held in a city, such as grammateus or strategos. The names and titles of individuals, who are sometimes explicitly magistrates, also appear on the reverses of some coins from Thrace, Moesia Inferior, and Asia Minor. It is not clear why these names appear: are they there to date the coins or to record responsibility for the minting of the coins (which might include paying for issues)? In a small minority of cases particular formulae record responsibility, sometimes embracing initiative or financial generosity on the part of the individual named, but in the vast majority of cases both possibilities are left open. 

Sometimes women’s names are also found, such as Mineia at Paestum in Italy, a local benefactress who is even shown with her portrait, or sometimes in conjunction with coins issued for her husband: for example at Acmonea in Asia we find the name of Lucius Servenius Capito and Julia Severa on coins of Nero and his wife Poppaea.

Except in the case of pseudo-autonomous coins, the obverse inscription normally gives the titles and name (usually in the nominative case) of the emperor or member of the imperial family depicted.

It is possible to search the database for magistrates’ names and titles by using Magistrates on the advanced search page.

Further Reading: P. Weiss in Howgego, Heuchert, and Burnett 2005Bennet 2014