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Ancient Coins - Touching the Past
Few periods of history invoke more potent and dramatic images than the age of the Roman Empire.  For some, these are thoughts of the beginnings of western culture; arts, government, even our languages.  For others it was the astonishing military might and glory of the Roman Legions. For others it is images of debauchery, moral decay, bloody gladiatorial games and slavery.  All of these images have been reinforced by the magic of cinema through heavy use of poetic license and sometimes blatant disregard for historical facts.  The student of Roman history quickly finds, however, that reality is even more amazing and intriguing than the thin plots given to us by Hollywood. 

The Roman empire lasted for over 1,000 years. Some would disagree with this number, since the western Roman empire fell during the 5th century A.D., however some, including myself, consider the so-called Byzantine empire, or Romaion as a continuation of the Roman empire proper.  It was, after all, just the eastern division of the Roman empire which didn't fall until a thousand years later.  
During all of this time, Rome minted coins.  Millions of coins.  Many of these coins have survived the storms of time and many are actually in close to 'mint' condition. It comes as a surprise to most that such artifacts, many of which date from before the common era (B.C.E., or B.C. in other words) and the ancient Greek coinage extends even farther back, are relatively common.
The coins themselves give you a 'feel' for the era from which they came.  The reverse (back side) of the coins provide an almost infinite variety of designs, but most are gods, goddesses or the emperors themselves in various positions with various slogans written around the border of the coin.  A common reverse design is that of a fallen horseman being impaled with a spear by a soldier.  The slogan commonly associated with this violent scene is frequently FEL TEMP REPARATIO which translates, loosely, to 'Good times are here again!'  I rather like this design since it reminds us that while the Romans had developed a highly advanced civilization, the empire had been created and was maintained through ruthless expansionism through the use of its powerful legions. As we look around us, we can see that the world has not
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finger on them (and your nasty greasy oils) is considered sinful. Prized ancient coins, in contrast, are covered with a patina which protects the coin and frequently makes it very attractive.  Gold and silver ancients generally lack a patina but your greasy little fingers aren't going to do any  harm that 2000 years of hardship failed to do. These coins are primarily coins which were once held in a legionnaires purse and buried shortly before battle to be retrieved if the goddess Fortuna smiled upon him. Or perhaps a shop owner buried his petty cash reserve behind the shop. Perhaps that coin of Augustus you have in your hand was used by a fresh-from-war Centurion to pay for sexual attentions at one of Rome's many brothels (while Rome was not the mass orgy depicted in some Hollywood films, they were far from puritanical.)  All of these things pass through your mind as you TOUCH one of these coins.
I began my journey into Roman coin collecting (addiction, rather?) about three years ago.  I had been collecting contemporary coins for a few years before that, and stumbled upon a web-site one day selling ancient Greek and Roman coins.  My first impression was of disbelief; that perhaps they sold copies of museum specimens, or something of the sort.  After finding that they actually were ancients, I was then stunned by the prices.  I could purchase a coin of Constantine the Great which was over 1,600 years old with plenty of detail and in excellent condition for less than $10.00!  (Constantine is an extremely common emperor when it comes to coins) This was less than I would have to pay for a U.S. Morgan dollar from the late 1800's.

One of the annoyances I have always had with collecting contemporary coins is that you cannot actually touch them. I'm a very tactile person and, hey, I wanna touch my toys! When you have a mint state collectible coin from 1865, what you have is a coin that a collector stored away in 1865, and has never been used as money.  Laying a
changed all that much in regard to our inherent war-like nature, but I rather doubt that the public would approve of a coin issued which portrayed a soldier machine-gunning an enemy soldier.  Perhaps we've just become more hypocritical? Other common reverses include bound captives, captives being dragged about by the emperor, etc.  But other common reverses are religious in nature, portraying gods and goddesses bestowing their blessings or the emperor making sacrifices at altars, for example. 

The artistic styles and what is portrayed on the coins varies through the centuries of the Roman empires existence, making collecting themes almost inumerable. Collectors usually specialize: some collect different reverse designs, different coins of one emperor, coins minted in one city, and some collectors, including myself, become intrigued with the act of purchasing
dirty and mineral encrusted coins which are freshly dug from the ground and restoring and attributing them. I consider restoring/attributing coins as a seperate hobby which makes the learning of Roman history and  emperors even more important and interesting.

The first question I am usually asked when I mention this hobby (usually associated with a smirk and an eye roll) is "How do you know they are real?"  Once one becomes aware of just how many of these coins are found throughout the old world from the Middle East to Britain to India every day, and how that availability has reduced the prices on most of these coins into the double-digit area, it becomes clear that investing the amount of labor involved in forging the coins and then artificially 'aging' them would be ridiculous to the point of absurdity.  There are, of course, some higher-end coins (a mint-state portrait denarius of Julius Caesar might fetch a few thousand, for instance) that might make it worth-while, but for these purchases, authentication in writing is readily provided by a reputable dealer. Finding a reputable dealer or two should be your first priority if you plan on entering the high end club.  The most helpful on-line dealer I've found so far is a gentleman named Guy Clark, at
www.ancient-art.com.  His website is highly educational and I've actually used it as a research site for a number of attributions.  Another very good source with which I've had good experiences is Barry & Darling Ancient Coins at www.bitsofhistory.com. Please remember to mention that Darren Gold sent you if you purchase from them (mebee I can weasle out a 5% discount for myself or something :-) )  These two sites will provide you with links to many other informational sites (Word of Advice: Let your spouse hold your credit cards while you browse. The amazingly low cost on each ancient item doesn't seem so low once you have purchased 80 or 90 of them!)

As you explore these sites, you will soon find that there are maaannnnyyy other areas within the ancient coin collecting arena (i.e. Celtic, Medeival, Chinese, etc.) and you will also find that other artifacts are quite frequently available as well.  It's a rare day that I'm not wearing an authentic Roman ring or two, and figurines, oil lamps, buckles, etc. are all available.  A word of caution, however.  The ancient artifacts area is MUCH more dangerous when it comes to the number of fake sellers and dealers who misattribute their items for their own benefit.  I've started a discussion group on Yahoo where a number of reputable dealers have joined up, along with potential buyers such as yourself, to educate the buying public and aid them in making good purchases. Please consider joining at
www.groups.yahoo.com/group/ancientartifacts if you wish to enter this amazing hobby.

I hope I've piqued your interest for this fascinating field, though at the same time I rather enjoy the fact that it is almost an underground subculture.  If it becomes universally popular, I'll stop getting all those neat quizzical looks when I shout "Fel Temp Reparatio!" when I return from a beer run for a party. :) 
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