AN INTRODUCTION TO ROMAN PROVINCIAL COINAGE
Written by Mark Lehman
In addition to the rich, but fairly familiar variety found in the Roman Imperial series of coins, there is a less well-known and studied parallel series, known as Roman Provincial or Greek Imperial coinage. In many cases these coins are the capstone of centuries-long minting traditions in hundreds of once-independent municipalities. They bear the literal imprint of both their long-term Greek heritages, and of influences that came only with Roman rule. The scope of this series is truly impressive, and occasionally bewildering.
Except in those areas where resistance to the coming of Roman influence was most bitterly expressed, most coin-issuing entities were allowed to continue minting at least a few types and denominations familiar to them - with the addition of the Imperial portrait, of course. Awarding or removing the mint-right was a powerful tool used by the Empire to exert political pressure on cities and provinces. Those in particular favor might even be allowed to omit the Imperial portrait.
So how do you know if your coin is a Provincial issue? The first thing to check is the language of the inscription - typically it will be in Greek. Often Provincial coins will exhibit small depressions or "centration dimples" in the middle of the obverse and reverse. These dimples are an artifact of a poorly understood process of preparing the blanks for striking - perhaps trimming off flashings from the edges, smoothing the surfaces, or both. Many Eastern mints, particularly in Egypt and the Middle East, cast the blanks in a manner that makes them larger on one side - usually the reverse - than the other. This gives the coin a trapezoidal cross-section and is correctly called a conical section. Sometimes blanks were cast in strips and crudely broken apart leaving lugs or "pontils" sticking out, or voids if the break occurred within the diameter of the finished coin.
If you are familiar with the style of Roman Imperial coinage, and the various standard denominations, you may notice coins that are much different in style and/or larger or smaller than the standard Imperial denominations. Most Provincial Æ coins do not have "S C" in their reverse designs. (Although the mint of Antioch in Syria used a large "S C " in a wreath as their main reverse type. Confronted busts (face-to-face) or Jugate busts (one superimposed upon the other, facing the same way) are far more common on Provincial coins than on Imperial issues too, so this can be a tell-tale sign of a Provincial issue as well.
Although these coins' inscriptions are typically in Greek, there are exceptional issues that may mix Greek and Latin. A very few Provincial issues are inscribed entirely in Latin. It is important to remember that literally hundreds of cities minted coins under the Romans, some for hundreds of years. Many struck dozens or hundreds of different denominations and types over that time. Some cities holding the mint-right struck only sporadically, or ceased production for decades at a time, only to start again. The reasons for this are not always well understood. This results in an enormous variety of styles and technologies, even for a single city or area.
Increasing centralization of government services, continuing Romanization of local populations, then a breakdown of Imperial influence and monetary systems in the chaos of the mid-late 3rd century A.D. were all factors in the diminution of the number of Provincial mint cities. It was approximately one hundred years from their multitudinous height under the Severan Dynasty to the final end of the Roman Provincial coinage system. Alexandria in Egypt continued to produce the very last of the Provincial types until the reforms of Diocletian finally brought an end to their distinctive types and denominations. The Alexandria mint fell in line with the Imperial mint-system in about 297 A.D.
At first glance, this might seem to be an almost incomprehensibly large and varied corpus of material. Due to recent advances in metal detectors and the change of political climate in many formerly inaccessible Eastern European countries, a huge body of previously unknown, or poorly understood material has become available for study in recent years.
It is our hope that in the near future, these many and varied series will be better cataloged and better understood, placing them properly within our growing understanding of the Roman world.
The Peters' Provincial Collection: http://www.aeratvs.com/provincial