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 p139  As

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp139‑141 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AS, the earliest denomination of money, and the constant unit of value, in the Roman and old Italian coinages, was made of the mixed metal called Aes. Like other denominations of money, it no doubt originally signified a pound weight of copper uncoined: this is expressly stated by Timaeus, who ascribes the first coinage of aes to Servius Tullius. (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.3 s13, XVIII.3; Varro, De Re Rust. II.1; Ovid. Fast. V.281). According to some accounts, it was coined from the commencement of the city (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.1), or from the time of Numa (Epiph. Mens. et Pond.; Isidor. Etym. XVI.18); and according to others, the first coinage was attributed to Janus or Saturn (Macrob. Saturn. I.7). This mythical statement in fact signifies, what we know also on historical evidence, that the old states of Etruria, and of Central Italy, possessed a bronze or copper coinage from the earliest times. On the other hand, those of Southern Italy, and the coast, as far as Campania, made use of silver money. The Roman monetary system was probably derived from Etruria (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I p457, 3d ed.; Abeken, Mittel-Italien, pp284, 326).

The earliest copper coins were not struck, but cast in a mould [Forma]. In the collection of coins at the British Museum there are four assesº joined together, as they were taken from the mould in which many were cast at once. In most asses the edge shows where they were severed from each other.

Under the Roman empire, the right of coining silver and gold belonged only to the emperors; but the copper coinage was left to the aerarium, which was under the jurisdiction of the senate [comp. Nummus; Moneta].

The as was originally of the weight of a pound of twelve ounces, whence it was called as libralis in contradistinction to the reduced asses which have now to be spoken of, and which give rise to one of the most perplexing questions in the whole range of archaeology.

Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.3 s13) informs us that in the time of the first Punic war (B.C. 264‑241), in order to meet the expenses of the state, the full weight of a pound was diminished, and asses were struck of the same weight as the sextans (that is, two ounces, or one sixth of the ancient weight); and that thus the republic paid off its debts, gaining five parts in six; that afterwards, in the second Punic war, in the dictator­ship of Q. Fabius Maximus (about B.C. 217), asses of one ounce were made, and the denarius was decreed to be equal to sixteen asses, the republic thus gaining one half; but that in military pay the denarius was always given for ten asses: and that soon after, by the Papirian law (about B.C. 191), asses of half an ounce were made. Festus also (s.v. Sextantarii Asses) mentions the reduction of the as to two ounces at the time of the first Punic war. There seem to have been other reductions besides those mentioned by Pliny, for there exist asses, and parts of asses, which show that this coin was made of every number of ounces from twelve down to one, besides intermediate fractions; and there are copper coins of the Terentian family which show that it was depressed to 148 and even 160 of its original weight. Though some of these standards may be rejected as accidental, yet on the whole they clearly prove, as Niebuhr observes (Hist. of Rome, vol. I p461), that there must have been several reductions before the first which Pliny mentions. Niebuhr maintains further, that these various standards prove that Pliny's account of the reductions of the coin is entirely incorrect, and that these reductions took place gradually from a very early period, and were caused by a rise in the value of copper in comparison with silver, so that the denarius was in the first Punic war really equal in value to only twenty ounces of copper, and in the second Punic war to sixteen ounces, instead of 120, which was its nominal value. He admits, however, that the times when these reductions were resolved upon were chiefly those when the state was desirous of relieving the debtors; and thinks that we might assign, with tolerable accuracy, the periods when these reductions took place. On the other hand, Böckh argues that there is no proof of any such increase in the value of copper, and on this and many other grounds his conclusion is, that all the reductions of the weight of the as, from a pound down to two ounces, took place during the first Punic war, and that they  p140 were accompanied by a real and corresponding diminution in the value of the as (Metrologische Untersuchungen, §28). It is impossible to give here even a summary of the arguments on both sides; the remarks of Niebuhr and Böckh must themselves be studied. It is by no means improbable that there was some increase in the value of copper during the period before the first Punic war, and also that the fixing of the sextantal standard arose partly out of the relation of value between copper and the silver coinage which had been very lately introduced. On the other hand, it is impossible entirely to reject Pliny's statement that the immediate object of the reductions he mentions was the public gain. Mr. Grote, who sides with Böckh, remarks, that "such a proceeding has been so nearly universal with governments, both ancient and modern, that the contrary may be looked upon as a remarkable exception." (Classical Museum, vol. I p32.)

These variations make it impossible to fix any value for the as, except with reference to some more specific standard; and this we find in the denarius. Taking the value of this coin at about 8½ pence [Denarius], the as, at the time of the first coinage of the denarius (B.C. 269), was one-tenth of this value, that is, about ·85 of a penny or 3·4 farthings; and in the time of the second Punic war, when 16 asses went to the denarius, the as was worth about 2⅛ farthings. When the silver coinage got thoroughly established, the reckoning was no longer by asses, but by sestertii [Sestertii]. Also, during the period or periods of reduction, the term aes grave, which originally signified the old heavy coins, as opposed to the reduced asses, came to mean any quantity of copper coins, of whatever weight or coinage, reckoned not by tale, but by the old standard of a pound weight to the as; and this standard was actually maintained in certain payments, such as military pay, fines, &c. (Liv. IV.41, 60, V.2, XXXII.26; Plin. l.c.; Sen. ad Helv. 12; Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. I pp466, 467). This mode of reckoning also supplied a common measure for the money of Rome, and the other states of Italy, which had asses of very various weights, most of them heavier than the Roman. The name of aes grave was also applied to the uncoined metal (Servius, ad Virg. Aen. VI.862; Massa, aes rude, metallum infectum, Isidor. XVI.18.13).

The oldest form of the as is that which bears the figure of an animal (a bull, ram, boar, or sow); whence the ancient writers derived the word for money, pecunia, from pecus, an etymology on which no opinion need be pronounced; but whether this impress was intended to represent property by that form of it which was then most common, or had some mythological meaning, is doubtful. Niebuhr denies the antiquity of this type, but his sole objection is satisfactorily answered by Böckh. The type seems however to have been much less used in the Roman than in some other old Italian coinages; and most of the pieces which bear it are of a rude oblong shape. The next form, and the common one in the oldest Roman asses, is round, and is that described by Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.3 s13), as having the two-faced head of Janus on one side, and the prow of a ship on the other (whence the expression used by Roman boys in tossing up, capita aut navim, Macrob. Sat. I.7). The annexed specimen, from the British Museum, weighs 4000 grains; the length of the diameter in this and the two following cuts is half that of the original coins.

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin. It is a depiction of an ancient Roman 'as'.]
(The dimension indicated is that of the coin, not of the half-scale engraving.)

The as was divided into parts, which were named according to the number of ounces they contained. They were the deunx, dextans, dodrans, bes, septunx, semis, quincunx, triens, quadrans or teruncius, sextans, sescunx or sescuncia, and uncia, consisting respectively of 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1½, and 1 ounces. Of these divisions the following were represented by coins; namely, the semis, quincunx, triens, quadrans, sextans, and uncia. There is a solitary instance of the existence of the dodrans, in a coin of the Cassian family, bearing an S and three balls. We have no precise information as to the time when these divisions were first introduced, but it was probably nearly as early as the first coinage of copper money.

The semis, semissis, or semi‑as, half the as, or six ounces, is always marked with an S to represent its value, and very commonly with heads of Jupiter, Juno, and Pallas, accompanied by strigils. The quincunx, or piece of five ounces, is very rare. There is no specimen of it in the British Museum. It is distinguished by five small balls to represent its value. The triens, the third part of the as, or piece of four ounces, is marked with four balls. In the annexed specimen, from the British Museum, the balls appear on both sides, with a thunderbolt on one side, and a dolphin with a strigil above it on the other. Its weight is 1571 grains.

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin. It is a depiction of an ancient Roman 'as'.]
(The dimension indicated is that of the coin, not of the half-scale engraving.)

 p141  The quadrans or teruncius, the fourth part of the as, or piece of three ounces, has three balls to denote its value. An open hand, a strigil, a dolphin, grains of corn,º a star, heads of Hercules, Ceres, &c., are common devices on this coin. Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.3 s13) says that both the triens and quadrans bore the image of a ship. The sextans, the sixth part of the as, or piece of two ounces, bears two balls. In the annexed specimen, from the British Museum, there is a caduceus and strigil on one side, and a cockle-shell on the other. Its weight is 779 grains.

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin. It is a depiction of an ancient Roman 'as'.]
(The dimension indicated is that of the coin, not of the half-scale engraving.)

The uncia, one ounce piece, or twelfth of the as, is marked by a single ball. There appear on this coin heads of Pallas, of Roma, and of Diana, ships, frogs, and ears of barley. (For other devices, see Eckhel, Doctr. Num. Vet.).

After the reduction in the weight of the as, coins were struck of the value of 2, 3, 4, and even 10 asses, which were called respectively dussis or dupondius, tressis, quadrussis, and decussis. Other multiples of the as were denoted by words of similar formation, up to centussis, 100 asses; but most of them do not exist as coins.

It is a very remarkable fact that, while the duodecimal division of the as prevailed among the nations of Italy south of the Apennines, the decimal division was in use to the north of that chain; so that, of the former nations no quincunx has been discovered, of the latter no semis. In Sicily the two systems were mixed [Pondera]. For further details respecting the coinage of the other Italian states, see Böckh, Metrol. Untersuch. §27; Abeken, Mittel-Italien, and Lepsius, Ueber die Verbreitung des Italischen Munzsystems von Etrurien aus.

In certain forms of expression, in which aes is used for money without specifying the denomination, we must understand the as. Thus deni aeris, mille aeris, decies aeris, mean respectively 10, 1000, 1,000,000 asses.

The word as was used also for any whole which was to be divided into twelve equal parts; and those parts were called unciae. Thus the nomenclature of the duodecimal division of the as was applied not only to weight and money, but to measures of length, surface, and capacity, to inheritances, interest, houses, farms, and many other things. Hence, for example, the phrases haeres ex asse, the heir to a whole estate; haeres ex dodrante, the heir to three-fourths, &c. (Cic. Pro Caecin. 6; Corn. Nep. Attic. 5). Pliny even uses the phrases semissem Africae (H. N. XVIII.6 s7), and dodrantes et semuncias horarum (H. N. II.14 s11).

The as was also called, in ancient times, assarius (sc. nummus), and in Greek τὸ ἀσσάριον. According to Polybius (II.15) the assarius was equal to half the obolus. On the coins of Chios we find ἀσσάριον, ἀσσάρίου ἥμισυ, ἀσσάρια δύω, ἀσσάρια τρία. (In addition to the works referred to in this article, and those of Hussey and Wurm, much valuable information will be found in the work entitled, Aes Grave del Museo Kircheriano, &c. Roma, 1839, 4to.; and in Lepsius's review of it appended to his treatise Ueber die Tyrrhener-Pelasger).

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Page updated: 17 Feb 21