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  • Gareth Harney

Another Publius Satrienus Denarius - Insights into the Roman Mint

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Though I was recently lucky enough to add an excellent example of Publius Satrienus’ famous she-wolf denarius minted around 77 BC (see blog post here), I was soon drawn back to the series when I was able to acquire another intriguing example - one that offers a rare insight into the processes of the Roman mint.

AR Denarius, Rome, 77 BC, 4.02g, Obv: Helmeted head of Roma (R), no control-mark behind / Rev: She-wolf standing (L) with front paw raised, 'ROMA' in field above and 'P·SATRIE/NVS' below. (Crawf. 388/1a, no control mark)

Having explored the imagery of the type in my previous post, I won’t reexamine its depiction of the famed she-wolf, except to reiterate how the striding, sinewy beast cannot help but bring to mind the iconic Capitoline Wolf. Shown here as both a fierce predator and a nurturing matriarch with distended teats, though notably free of the suckling infants Romulus and Remus, she remains emblematic of the city of Rome to this day.

Detail of the Roman she-wolf on the coin's reverse.

As with a number of other Republican issues, the coin type is notable for its employment of control marks, numbers or symbols designating the precise dies used to strike obverse and reverse, possibly as a means of quality control adding a level of accountability to the die engraving process or as just a systematic method in which to keep track of large coin issues. Control marks are of great interest to the numismatist as they can provide valuable evidence for many of the most interesting questions around the coin minting process: How many coins were struck within a series? How long did a coin die last before wearing out or breaking? In coin striking, did the obverse or reverse die wear out more rapidly? How many engravers were employed at the mint and how much variation was allowed between their individual artistic approaches? While control marks often take the form of small pictograms with fascinating representations of everyday objects from the ancient world, the Satrienus denarius instead uses a simple numerical system. Each obverse die is designated with a clear Roman numeral behind the head of Roma. When that particular die wore down to an unacceptable degree or indeed broke completely, the next number die awaited. Experimental archaeology has come up with varying estimates of how many coins a single Roman die might realistically strike with most in the number of multiple thousands.

As previously described, my last Publius Satrienus denarius was struck with the 34th obverse die of what we know were around 105 created for the issue. Below it is shown with a surviving example from the first numbered die, labelled simply “I”, which you would be forgiven for assuming was the first die engraved.

Top: Example using the obverse die numbered 'I'. Bottom: Example from my collection numbered 'XXXIIII'.

My latest acquisition is a fascinating rarity that adds to our understanding of the series as well as raising further intriguing questions. It is one of about 10 known surviving examples with no numerical control mark – and of those, one of the finer condition specimens. The lack of any numeral and its particularly fine style suggest that this obverse die was in fact the master or prototype engraving for the extensive coin series.

The obverse of my new example showing the helmeted head of Roma and with no control mark; perhaps the 'master' engraving for the series.

Interestingly, a quick search of some of the other surviving examples of this master-die mostly show corresponding she-wolf reverses struck from different dies, illustrating that for every obverse die a number of reverse dies might be in use. Two double die matches can be seen in the Bibliothèque nationale de France here and here, both likely struck on the same day as my example.

The variation in reverses is to be expected, as in ancient coin striking the obverse die was the lower die, placed within an anvil and therefore better protected, wearing down less quickly and suffering less damage than the reverse or upper die, which received direct hammer blows during the striking. Experimental archaeology has suggested that reverse dies were capable of striking on average half as many coins as obverse dies. Furthermore, where some dies at small provincial mints have been estimated to have lasted for a number of years and other Hellenistic dies a few months, at the busiest times in the Roman mint it is thought that a die might only last 12 hours or a single day’s striking.

The silver denarius then, while thoroughly enjoyable for its artistry and symbolism in its own right, may be seen as evidence of Roman mint workers following a production process that involved master copies, examples of which might even have been made available to subsequent engravers to follow as a guideline. One is also tempted to imagine engravers working from a large-scale artwork for each coin issue, displayed in the engraving room for the men to use as their model, though this is just imaginative conjecture.

Enjoy this rare denarius in my gallery here.

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1 Comment

Jan 09

I think that the process of seeing numbers which count up, or down, one unit at a time, for the die on one side of a coin, and then confidently arriving at the theory that it is the die number requires substantial explanation and justification including how confirmation bias was avoided. even if taken as fact that each obverse die has a unique number as mentioned above, then what that number mean is open to interpretation in the absence any strong evidence. I am not saying the following is an more valid explanation, but how for one example, do you know there were not for reasons of knowing which person/team was striking (or possibly more of the production process beforehand…

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