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 p393  Denarius

Unsigned article on pp393‑394 of

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

DENA′RIUS, the principal silver coin among the Romans, was so called because it was originally equal to ten asses; but on the reduction of the weight of the as [As], it was made equal to sixteen asses, except in military pay, in which it was still reckoned as ten asses (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.13). The denarius was first coined five years before the first Punic war, B.C. 269 [Argentum]. There were originally 84 denarii to a pound (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.46; Celsus, V.17 §1), but subsequently 96. At what time this reduction was made in the weight of the denarius is uncertain, as it is not mentioned in history. Some have conjectured that it was completed in Nero's reign; and Mr. Hussey (Ancient Weights, &c. p137) justly remarks, that Suetonius (Jul. 54) proves that 84 denarii went still to the pound, about the year B.C. 50; since if we reckon 96 to the pound, the proportion of the value of gold to silver is 7·8 to 1, which is incredibly low; while the value on the other supposition, 8·9 to 1, is more probable. Compare Argentum.

Mr. Hussey calculates the average weight of the denarii coined at the end of the commonwealth at 60 grains, and those under the empire at 52·5 grains. If we deduct, as the average, 130 of the weight for alloy, from the denarii of the commonwealth, there will remain 58 grains of pure silver; and since the shilling contains 80·7 grains of pure silver, the value of the best denarii will be 58/80·7 of a shilling, or 8·6245 pence; which may be reckoned in round numbers 8½d. If the same method of reckoning be applied to the later denarius, its value will be about 7·5 pence, or 7½d. (Hussey, pp141, 142).

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin. It is a depiction of an ancient Roman 'denarius'.]
British Museum. Actual Size. Weight 60·6 grains.

[image ALT: An engraving of a coin. It is a depiction of an ancient Roman 'denarius'.]
British Museum. Actual Size. Weight 58·5 grains.

The Roman coins of silver went at one time as low down as the fortieth part of the denarius, the teruncius. They were, the quinarius or half-denarius, the sestertius or quarter denarius [Sestertius], the libella or tenth of the denarius (equal to the as), the sembella or half libella, and the teruncius or quarter libella.

The quinarius was also called victoriatus (Cic. Pro Font. 5), for the impression of a figure of Victory which it bore. Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.13) says that victoriati were first coined at Rome in pursuance of the lex Clodia; and that previous to that time, they were imported as an article of trade from Illyria. The Clodius, who proposed this law, is supposed to have been the person who obtained a triumph for his victories in Istria, whence he brought home a large sum of money (Liv. XLI.13); which would fix the first coinage of the victoriati at Rome, B.C. 177; that is, 92 years after the first silver coinage.

If the denarius weighed 60 grains, the teruncius would only have weighed 1½ gr.; which would have been so small a coin, that some have doubted whether it was ever coined in silver; we know that it was coined in copper [As]. But Varro (De Ling. Lat. V.174, ed. Müller) names it among the silver coins with the libella and sembella. It is, however, improbable that the teruncius continued to be coined in silver after the as had been reduced to 116 of the denarius; for then the teruncius would have been 164 of the denarius, whereas Varro only describes it as subdivision of the libella, when the latter was 110 of the denarius. In the time of Cicero, the libella appears to have been the smallest silver coin in use (Cic. Pro Rosc. Com. c4); and it is frequently used, not merely to express a silver coin equal to the as, but any very small sum (Plaut. Cas. II.5.7, Capt. V.1.27). Gronovius (De Sestertiis, II.2), however, maintains that there was no such coin as the libella when Varro wrote; but that the word was used to signify the tenth part of a sestertius. No specimens of the libella are now found.

If the denarius be reckoned in value 8½d, the other coins which have been mentioned, will be of the following value:—

Pence Farth.
Teruncius ·53125
Sembella 1·0625
Libella 2·125
Sestertius 2 .5
Quinarius or Victoriatus 4 1
Denarius 8 2

It has been frequently stated that the denarius  p394 is equal in value to the drachma; but this is not quite correct. The Attic drachma was almost equal to 9¾d., whereas we have seen that the denarius was but little above 8½d. The latter drachmae, however, appear to have fallen off in weight; and there can be no doubt that they were at one time nearly enough equal to pass for equal. Gronovius has given all the authorities upon the subject in his De Sestertiis (III.2).

The earliest denarii have usually, on the obverse, the head of Rome with a helmet, the Dioscuri, or the head of Jupiter. Many have, on the reverse, chariots drawn by two or four horses (bigae, quadrigae), whence they are called respectively bigati and quadrigati, sc. nummi [Bigatus]º Some denarii were called serrati (Tacit. Germ. 5), because their edges were notched like a saw, which appears to have been done to prove that they were solid silver, and not plated. Many of the gentile denarii, as those of the Aelian, Calpurnian, Papinian, Tullian, and numerous other gentes, are marked with the numeral X, in order to show their value.

Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.13) speaks of the denarius aureus. Gronovius (De Sester. III.15) says, that this coin was never struck at Rome; but there is one of Augustus in the British Museum, weighing 60 grains, and others of less weight. The average weight of the common aureus was 120 grains [Aurum]. In later times, a copper coin was called denarius (Ducange, s.v. Denarius).

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Page updated: 8 Oct 19