ACTA ACCLA, April 2004


Paul Ranc

In ancient coin collecting, information is almost everything. Unfortunately, the pages of Coin World are not filled with dealers offering Roman Imperial coins. As a result, collectors of ancients are dependent on books, catalogs and lists. While many have benefited from the adage "Buy the book before the coin," the value of this wisdom can be increased tenfold when referring to ancient coins.

Coined by hand, using dies with a limited life span, and sponsored by unstable minting authorities, ancient coins are difficult to typify. Many Roman emperors reigned for less than a year, yet looking at their coin varieties, which often number more than the complete types of U.S. coinage in their entirety, it is easy to understand the complexities of finding a representative type. Also present among ancient coins are forgeries, alterations and fantasy coins. The only way to make sense of all the different examples of ancient coins is to acquire knowledge through books.

Ancient-coin collectors have a burning obsession for books. They buy expensive catalogs, of which perhaps 5 or 10 percent of the offerings pertain to ancients. They haunt used-book stores seeking that British Museum Catalog (BMC), that Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) volume or that Head or Mattingly edition. Until recently, they were ill-served regarding ancient coin information. Books were printed in miniscule editions that were swallowed up by public libraries in England (alas, not in the United States), cost a fortune and weighed 16 tons. Adding insult to injury, these forbidding tomes, written by scholars for scholars, were archaic in both style and binding.

The first book I obtained was David R. Sear's Roman Coins and Their Values. You could build a very respectable collection of Roman coins without consulting any other books in the field. This volume has encouraged many a beginning collector of Roman coins and serves as an ideal introduction to Harold Mattingly's more formidable works The Roman Imperial Coinage and The Coinage of the Roman Empire in the British Museum.

If Sear had written nothing after Roman Coins and Their Values, his fame still would be assured--high but well deserved praise for a man who almost single-handedly has eradicated beginners' fears about ancient numismatics.

Of course, there are not enough photos in Roman Coins and Their Values and the rarer types are not represented, but to a neophyte, it is a wonder to obtain the most common Roman coin; its reclusive brothers and sisters can wait to be admired in bigger books.

No greater compliment can be paid to an author than extensive use of his or her book. Now, upon receipt of a new edition of Roman Coins and Their Values, I apply a heavy-duty, vinyl book cover, as I have worn out three editions through frequent use.

There comes a time, however, when it becomes necessary to bid Roman Coins and Their Values farewell. Perhaps the collector has obtained too many types not listed in Sear's book, or, as in my case, the book has become so familiar that I literally do not need to refer to it any longer. More important, Roman Coins and Their Values does not contain information about minting techniques, chronology, history or cultural background that the collector may wish to learn.

Where does one go from Sear? It is possible to proceed directly to the RIC and the BMC, but these can be imposing to the beginner. Fortunately, there are two works that I have found to be of great value at minimal cost.

First is the well-known Roman Coins by Mattingly. Originally published in 1928, the work still is the best introduction to the wide world of Roman numismatics. No scholar has written with more conviction and clarity on everything about Roman coins. Mattingly writes comprehensively yet simply on the role of numismatics in Roman history. Perhaps the measure of a great educator is the manner in which he or she puts complicated ideas into understandable language. Mattingly succeeds in doing this in Roman Coins. The second book I would recommend is Roman Coins and How to Collect Them by John Fox. This work, oddly enough, is not well known in this country, but it should be. I hope this article may help resolve this unfortunate situation. Fox has written the most useful, practical manual for the beginning collector that I can imagine. It appears that Fox composed the book for the collector short on funds but long on enthusiasm, recognizing that not everyone can afford the coins we see featured in the BMC and the RIC.

Fox lists pieces from his own collection, giving the background and prices paid for them. There are chapters on minting techniques, counterfeits, hoards, colonial mints, coins and archaeology. Roman Coins and How to Collect Them also includes information not found elsewhere, such as how to find, grade, catalog and display coins, in addition to an interesting note about how to use coins in education. There is even a grading scale with "Brown and Dunn-type" photos.

Underlying all this much-needed information is Fox's sense of what ancient coins can tell us about the past, alloyed with his love and understanding of the subject. In this work Fox binds the modern with the ancient in plain and witty language. Possessing all the information required by either a new or experienced collector, this reference belongs on the shelf of anyone with an interest in ancients or in archaeology.

These three books--Roman Coins and Their Values, Roman Coins and Roman Coins and How to Collect Them are ideal references for a personal library. Although serious Students of ancient numismatics will want to acquire additional books as their interest grows, I can think of no better place to start!

Paul Ranc, an English teacher, has been collecting Roman coins since 1972. A member of the Ancient Coin Club of Los Angeles, he is particularly interested in Imperial bronze coinage.


Paul Ranc's article first appeared in the NUMISMATIST, February 1989, 239, 333-334. The article is reprinted courtesy of the NUMISMATIST, official publication of the American Numismatic Association, Although this article was originally published in 1989, the books reviewed remain as valuable as ever. David Sear has produced several additional works on Roman coins including the 3 volume Millennium Edition of Roman Coins and Their Values. The books reviewed are regularly featured on dealers' lists.


ACTA ACCLA edited by Michael J. Connor.