ACE Teacher's Guide for Teachers
by Kate Gilbert
The moment when you first open your ACE
packet and the coins spill out is both exhilarating and a little
scary. Who amongst us has not thought for at least a second at that
point, “What on earth have I gotten myself into?” Unless you
already happen to be a numismatist, what you’ve gotten yourself
into is definitely unexplored territory. And yes, occasionally in
the coming days the sweat will break out on your brow and/or your
upper lip and maybe you’ll even wish you’d stayed at home to
watch the soaps instead of coming to work. But for the most part,
the opportunity to start from scratch and learn alongside your
students is a great gift – for you, certainly, but maybe even more
so for them.
After all, that Roman coin you’re
sweating over is a golden (well, bronze) opportunity to model the
vital skill of problem-solving for your students. Even if you never
reach a full identification, you and your students together can
explore various avenues that will get you to at least a partial one.
You can gather hard data such as weight and diameter; research the
basic elements of Roman coin design and the most common types of
images; eliminate many possibilities through trial and error; compile
what you’ve learned into a report to share with the ACE experts;
and possibly use their input to refine your conclusions even further.
As great as it feels when you can nail down a conclusive
identification, it’s even more satisfying just to share the
adventure – even when you occasionally find yourselves down a blind
The suggestions that follow are based
on my experiences during my first three years of participation in ACE
with my high school students. You will, of course, develop your own
methods, but this approach has worked well for me.
1). Work on a sample coin yourself
– Before you introduce the coins to the students, pull out a coin
for yourself and work on identifying it. By far the easiest way to
master the basic info about coin design and inscriptions and the ACE
resources is to work through it all with an actual coin in hand.
2). Don’t be afraid to pre-sort
the coins, if you have more than you need – If you’re going
to be pressed for time, or if you’re working with students who –
because of age or temperament – have very short attention spans, I
myself think it’s okay to pull out the coins that are easiest to
read and start with them. I put the whole ACE packet into the pot
the first year, thinking it would be cheating to pre-sort them at
all. The result was that while several of my students got difficult
coins, several coins languished unchosen that would have been easier
for us to work with. Of course it’s important to prepare students
ahead of time for the possibility that some coins might seem more
approachable, unusual, or exciting to them than others and for the
fact that the draw is both random and final -- no swapping or second
tries. Still, you do want a satisfying experience all around, and if
you have any surplus to play with you might as well do a little
culling before you start. Despite your best efforts, some students
may look at their friends' coins at the outset and decide that theirs
aren't as "good." Usually, though, by the end of the
project you will have identified something unique about each coin
that makes the owner pleased to have it. One coin will have the
clearest emperor's image, another the best-preserved diadem, and
another the most legible inscription. One will be the oldest. One
might been minted in the western half of the Empire while the rest
were minted in the east. One might have an eagle and another a
phoenix. And so on. In other words, some coins will be easier to
identify than others, which is the point of pre-sorting, but they're
all going to be in some sense "good" ones.
3). When you start identifying,
concentrate on likely possibilities – Nearly all ACE coins fall
into a narrow range of possible identities. More than likely, you
will have a small copper-alloy coin from sometime in the fourth
century C.E. It will have a head on one side, usually an emperor or
a member of his family, and some sort of design on the other. The
most likely “heads” are Constantine the Great and his co-emperor
Licinius; Constantine’s sons; Licinius II; and a few other late
emperors such as Valens, Valentinian I and II, and Arcadius. You
might also get a woman in a helmet, representing either Rome or
Constantinople; a veiled man, representing the dead Constantine on a
posthumous coin; or possibly one of a handful of earlier emperors
such as Probus. Several guides to the most common kinds of reverses
and obverses are included on the ACE CD and at the website. If you
focus on the likeliest possibilities, you can avoid getting
frustrated or sidetracked by all the many other possibilities offered
by five centuries of Roman imperial coinage.
4). Start with the measurements
– Every coin, no matter how inscrutable, can be measured, and it’s
both helpful to the ACE experts and satisfying to the students to
have solid quantitative information. Students should measure the
diameter of their coins at the widest point, in millimeters. If at
all possible, they should also use a digital scale to get the weight
to the nearest tenth of a gram.
5). Work on the obverse image first
– In my experience, the best questions to ask your students
immediately after the measuring stage have to do with the obverse, or
heads side. These are:
“Which is the heads side?”
“Which way is the head facing?”
“What’s the figure wearing on
“Is the figure shown from the
neck up, or can you also see the shoulders?”
“If you can see the shoulders,
what’s on them?”
In order to answer the third and fifth
questions, students will need to be familiar with the basics of what
the figures on the obverses wear. Although it’s great if the kids
actually learn the terminology, the most important thing is for them
to know that there are several types of headgear and styles of dress,
and to be able to match the type on their coin with the appropriate
picture or description. The ACE CD includes a file called "A
Short Guide to Obverse Images" that describes and illustrates
the most common types.
If the coin is hard to read, it may not
be all that easy to see what the figure is wearing. Certain telltale
features often survive, though, even when the rest are obscured or
worn away. Here are some clues to look for on the head:
Dots or bumps, lined up in a
headband arrangement and found at the flyaway ends of ties behind
the figure’s head. These tell you that the figure is wearing a
A prominent bump over the figure’s
forehead. This is the central jewel in a diadem.
Spikes radiating from the figure’s
head, the signature of a radiate crown. A well-defined
radiate crown may also show a bow or simple ties in the back.
The sharp lines of a helmet’s
crest or visor. Sometimes the helmet will also have a diadem or
radiate crown on top.
Two smooth or dashed lines in a
headband arrangement, possibly with a bow or simple ties behind.
This might be the remains of a laurel crown. A well-defined
example may still show traces of the leaves.
Rosettes in a headband arrangement
– another type of diadem.
Here are some things to look for when
identifying the clothing on a bust:
Anything that looks like a fold or
crease of cloth. This indicates that the figure is draped in
a cloak or mantle. Even if you’ve lost most of the drapery, even
a fold or two will be enough to tell you that there’s cloth
involved in the design.
A bump or circle in the shoulder
area. This is probably the remains of the brooch that pinned the
A square neckline and/or something
that looks like short sleeves (with or without a cloak on top).
This indicates that the figure is cuirassed.
Note: It’s very tempting to linger over the
ruler’s physical characteristics and try to make an identification
based on portraiture. This, however, is usually a dead end. While
numismatists sometimes have seen enough coins to be able to recognize
a specific person from something like his hairdo or the shape of his
nose, in general the images on coins of this era are too generic to
offer that kind of help to beginners. It’s fun to take note of the
hairstyle, build, and facial features, but these are mostly a
5) Work on the obverse inscription
next – Although the easiest place to start is the image, the
really important part of the obverse is the inscription. This will
help you move from a more or less generic picture to a specific
identification of the emperor who issued the coin. Unfortunately,
this is also probably the most daunting part of the coin for
beginners to work on, especially those of us with middle-aged eyes.
Here are some tips that may help:
On the common ACE coins, the
inscription goes in a curve around the rim of the coin from left to
right, starting at around 7 or 8 o’clock and ending at around 4 or
Sometimes the top of the head
breaks the inscription; sometimes the inscription goes over the top
of the head, unbroken.
There's usually little or no space
between the words; everything tends to be run together.
The inscriptions are often heavily
The letter U reads as a V:
The crucial part of the
inscription is the part where the main name is. At the end, and
usually at the beginning too, you’ll find titles and attributes
which, though they offer clues, are less helpful. Sometimes there
are also abbreviated forenames before the main name.
Many ACE coins have inscriptions
that end with PFAVG (“pius felixque augustus”). If you can
identify this, you can back up from there to find where the main
Another possibility for the end is
NOBC (“noblissimus caesar”). This tells you that the coin has
been issued in the name of a caesar, or emperor-to-be, rather than a
ruling emperor. If you happen to get this at the end of your
inscription, you can narrow the field considerably by looking just
at the handful of caesars within your time frame. If the caesar has
the same name as his father (as, for example, Constantine II), the
inscription will also include IVN (“iunior”): [somebody]
IVNNOBC. Working backwards, the main name will end just before NOB
(or, if it’s part of the inscription, IVN).
Your inscription may begin with
IMP (“imperator”) or DN (“dominus noster”). Bear in mind
that a caesar won’t rate the title of IMP at the beginning of the
inscription or AVG at the end, so if you have either of these
elements, you definitely have a sitting emperor. DN is sometimes
used with caesars.
Sometimes the first part of an
inscription includes abbreviated forenames such as FL (Flavius) or
CL (Claudius). These may be helpful to you in the final stretch,
but they’re more likely to be a distraction in the early stages of
cracking the inscription. Still, it’s useful to know what they
are if you happen to have them.
Once you have looked at the very
end and the very beginning and, with luck, have narrowed down the
area where the main name is to be found, the next thing to look for
is all or part of the letters CONST. The odds are in your favor
that you’ll find them, since so many ACE coins originated with
either Constantine the Great or his sons Constans, Constantine II,
and Constantius II. (The other son, Crispus, is less often seen,
and then only as a caesar.)
If you find CONST, the next thing
to do is see if the name is short enough (count the bumps, if you
can’t actually read the letters) to be CONSTANS.
If the name is too long to be
CONSTANS, look for the telltale third N that distinguishes
CONSTANTINVS from CONSTANTIVS. Failing that, count the bumps that
used to be letters: 12 for Constantinus, 11 for Constantius.
If you know that you have
CONSTANTIVS, the odds are extremely good that you have Constantius
II (the son of Constantine the Great, whose coins are extremely
common), rather than Constantius I (the father of Constantine the
Great, whose coins are rarely if ever found in ACE lots).
If you know that you have
CONSTANTINVS, the odds are very good that you have Constantine the
Great, who ruled for many years, rather than his son Constantine II,
who was emperor very briefly and caesar only slightly longer than
If you’re morally certain that
there’s no CONST anywhere in your inscription, then you need to
widen your search. Try VALEN (could be the beginning of either
Valens or Valentinian), LICINIVS, and ARCADIVS for starters.
Failing that, try PROBVS. Failing that, retrieve whatever
individual letters you can. When you post the inscription to the
ACEHelp board (especially with a picture), you’ll be amazed at
what the experts can tell you, even with fragments.
If you can get your hands on a
copy, a great print resource for obverse inscriptions is David Van
Meter's Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins. Here you can find
all the known variations of obverse inscriptions for each emperor,
empress, and caesar, and can look up which obverse inscriptions are
commonly combined with which reverses. Which leads us to the next
6. Work on the reverse image next –
The great news here is that there is only a limited number of common
reverses found among ACE coins, and they’ve been lavishly detailed
by Doug Smith in his Dirty Dozen file, which you can reach via the
Teacher Resources button on the ACE home page.
Note: to me, the learning curve dictates that the
best place to start is with the obverse of the coin, because even if
you can’t read any part of the inscription, you may be able to
distinguish some of the details of the headgear and/or clothing and
accessories, and if not that, you may at least be able to see that
there’s a head and which way it’s facing. Another fallback
position that’s very satisfying but stops well short of a complete
ID is to figure out what type of reverse you have. On this side of
the coin, as opposed to the obverse, if you can identify the design
type you can probably also figure out the inscription, and vice
versa. This is because with very few exceptions, each common reverse
design found in ACE lots had a standard accompanying inscription.
Without trying to recapitulate Doug’s
fine work, here are some shortcuts:
If there is no picture, but only
some letters surrounded by a wreath (possibly also with an
inscription surrounding the wreath), look at Doug’s # 9.
If you have a single figure, see
if there’s a trace of a wing on the right side and something that
might be a laurel wreath on the left. If so, look at Doug’s #10.
If you have a single figure but
there’s no evidence of wing or wreath, try Doug’s #4 and #7. If
you have #4, there may be a trace of a skirt on the figure and
you’ll probably see the bump of the globe (with nothing on top) to
the left. If you have the Jupiter variant of #7, there may be a
tear-shaped blob on the lower left (Jupiter’s eagle) and the
surviving line of his full-length scepter on the right. If you have
the Sol variant, you may be able to see traces of rays around his
If you have two figures with what
look like one or two shish-kebabs between them (actually battle
standards, or signa), try Doug’s # 2.
If you have something that looks
like two angels playing tennis, try Doug’s # 3. If your coin is
difficult to read, you may still be able to detect a wing on each
side and the two laurel wreaths (aka tennis racquets) in the middle.
If you have a very complicated
reverse image with lots of curved lines, what my students and I call
“scrambled eggs,” try Doug’s # 1. The elaborate design will
be one tip-off, even if you can’t make out what it is. You may
also be able to see the line of the spear with which the unfortunate
horseman is being skewered.
If your reverse has a building on
it, or if you can see anything that resembles rows of bricks or
building blocks, check out Doug’s #8.
If your reverse has three figures,
you probably have Doug’s #12.
If you can make out a sort of
stair-step shape, ascending from left to right, try Doug’s #11.
When you begin to work on the reverse,
the best thing to do is print out several copies of Doug’s article
and use that for reference. In fact, this may be the place to put in
a pitch for using as many hard-copy sources as possible, at least in
the early stages of identification. The pictorial resources
available on the ACE CD and on the Internet are terrific, but many
students work better from books or printouts than they do when
browsing on the computer.
7. Work back and forth between the
reverse image and the reverse inscription (if any). Remember that
if you can get all or part of the reverse inscription, you can
probably identify the image. Conversely, if you can figure out the
image, you will almost always know what the inscription was, even if
it’s no longer readable. Thus, for instance, if you know you have
two soldiers standing with one or two signa (aka shish-kebabs)
between them, the accompanying inscription has to be GLORIA
EXERCITVS. If you think you see a building, see if you can make out
any part of PROVIDENTIAE AVGG as the inscription. Note that Doug’s
#5 and #6 have no inscription on the reverse, #10 has three
possibilities, and #9 is a special case.
8. Take a deep breath and tackle
the mint mark – Like the inscription on the obverse, the mint
mark is one of the most important clues to a complete coin
identification. Also like the obverse inscription, the mint mark is
unfortunately one of the most baffling parts of the coin when you’re
just starting out. Basically, what you’re looking for is a
sequence of several small letters at the bottom of the reverse (an
area called the “exergue”). The sequence may start with P, M, or
SM (“pecunia,” “moneta” or “sacra moneta”). It might
also end with a letter indicating the particular officina, or
workshop of the mint that made the coin. The middle part of the mint
mark will indicate the name of the city where the coin was minted.
Often this is a straightforward abbreviation such as ANT for Antioch.
Sometimes, however, the abbreviation is less obvious, especially if
the city had more than one name in antiquity. Then too, some cities
have several variant mint marks. The best thing to do is go into it
with an open mind, identify as many of the letters as you can, and
see if you can find a match on the list of mint marks provided by
ACE. Even a single letter may be enough to put the ACE experts on
the right track, if you can also provide other information about the
coin. The main thing is, don’t be tempted to skip the mint mark
just because at first sight it looks like an undifferentiated blob.
Not only is it an important clue to the coin’s identity, it also
provides one of the most interesting pieces of background information
about the coin – where it was made. Definitely worth the effort.
9. Look for anything else of
interest on the reverse – Some coins have letters or symbols in
the exergue or the flat area (the “field”) around the main
figures. You may see an asterisk-shaped star, or a dot (a “pellet”).
There might be a Greek letter. These details may not mean much to
you or your students, but the ACE experts can often use them to help
pin down an exact identification.
10. Scan the coin and upload the
image to the ACEHelp site – It makes all the difference in the
world to the ACE experts if they can see a picture to help with the
attribution process. On the other hand, not all of us have easy
access to a scanner or time to scan anywhere up to 25 coins, and some
of us have no previous experience with scanners in any case. There
may not be an ideal way to resolve this issue, but here are some
things that might help at the teacher’s end:
In all but the youngest age
groups, you may have one or more students who know all about
scanners. Maybe you can delegate the job.
You have plenty of work to take
home as it is, of course, but if you don’t mind doing the scanning
at home and you have the equipment, it may be a lot easier to run
through a batch of scans there than at school. Just remember to
upload the images from there, too. More than once I’ve realized
that I’d left the image file on my home computer and thus had no
way to upload it to ACEHelp from school. Doh!
Two images are great, but one is
much better than none. It may be that you can get a decent scan of
only one side of the coin. That’s okay: just upload the good one.
Sometimes you can get a good image
by pressing aluminum foil (the thinner and cheaper, the better)
tightly over the coin and scanning it that way. I’ve never had
much luck with pencil rubbings, but that’s another way you might
try to get an image when the coin itself doesn’t scan well.
Your scanner will give you a
chance to crop the image closely around the coin before you do the
actual scan, to avoid scanning a huge area that’s too big to
The ACE mavens will be looking at
an enlarged image rather than the thumbnail that appears on the web
page, so scan your images with a medium-range resolution setting and
save them with low to medium compression (this will make sense once
you start doing it). Otherwise, when the images are enlarged, they
won’t be readable.
You don’t necessarily have to
prop the coin up on a glass sheet, as the ACE tips suggest. If you
can filch the glass from a small picture frame, by all means try it
that way. But don’t feel you have to have the glass. It’s
definitely worth a shot without it.
If you’ve never scanned anything
more complicated than a sheet of paper or a photo before, the first
few coins you do will take forever. When I started, each coin took
around 20 minutes, and even then most of the images were awful. The
images still aren’t anything to brag about, but after my second
year, I was able to knock off most coins in about a minute. Take
heart – it will get faster.
11). Get your students to fill out
their data sheets as completely as possible. You might want to find
the online submission form (linked to the ACE website) and print out
hard copies for them to fill out before they go online – Unless
your school has a mentor, you will probably be submitting queries to
the ACEHelp board via the online submission form. Rather than have
students sit down at the computer to extemporize their submissions,
it’s a good idea to make sure ahead of time that their information
is accurate and as complete as possible. Also, giving them a hard
copy of the form at the beginning of the attribution process will
help them understand what kind of information they're meant to be
looking for as they work with their coin. (Incidentally, the process
of communicating with the ACE experts offers a great chance to sneak
in a little instruction on the difference between writing a courteous
e-mail query and knocking out a heavily abbreviated, punctuation-free
instant message or text message to friends.)
12). Get the most out of the ACE
experts by giving them something to work with – If this sounds
preachy, it isn’t meant to be. The truth is, though, that there’s
a bare minimum of information that each student needs to have in hand
before submitting a query, or it’s going to be essentially a
frustrating and time-wasting exercise all around.
The most basic thing:
quantitative data. Every student can provide his or her name (with
only an initial for the last name), the school’s name, and the
school’s user name for the ACEHelp board. Every submission can
include the coin’s diameter in millimeters. If you can possibly
get access to a scale, it will also help a lot to provide the
If humanly possible, provide a
I’ll go out on a limb (and I’m
not in any way speaking officially for ACE here) to suggest a couple
of fallback goals to shoot for if you can’t get a complete
identification. If you can read enough of the obverse to tell which
way the head is facing and what type of headgear it has, that’s
something. If you can read enough of the reverse to tell what
general type of design you have (and remember that from that you’ll
probably know what the reverse inscription is, if there is one),
that’s even better. If you’ve met either or both of those
goals, the information you can provide from that, along with the
quantitative data – and ideally, images – will give the ACEHelp
folks a starting point and will make it worth your time and theirs
to submit a query. You’re going to want to aim higher than that,
to at least tackle the obverse inscription and the mint mark, but if
you can get a handle on the obverse image or better yet, the type of
reverse, or even better still, both, that’s a pretty darned
respectable result for a teacher and student working without a
Based on the preliminary
information you provide, the ACEHelp experts may be able to give you
suggestions that will allow you to figure out additional information
about the coin. Not only do they know a lot more about this stuff
than we do; they also have access to reference works that we don't
That’s it! Relax, have fun, and
don’t hesitate to ask for help or advice if you need it. It’s
all, as the kids say, good.
Ben Franklin Academy