I would like to understand how the Romans minted coins. Mining, smelting and refining are no mystery; I can envision ways in which uniform coin-blanks might have been made : but the big problems are (1) the striking of the coins themselves, and (2) the means of mass production.

  1. The dies were small, and intricate in design, but what tools were used to shape them? Have any tools for die-sinking ever been identified and, if so, what were they made of? Was there any aid to vision? And what was the material of the dies? To withstand repeated hammering of bronze or silver, a die must resist wear and distortion (the stress in stamping gold is significantly less), so was there a hardening process?

  2. And once all that has been settled, how was the necessarily prodigious striking rate achieved? Allowing that a blank stock sufficient to allow uninterrupted striking is plausible is one thing, but at, say one minute per coin, during twelve hours of daylight, one pair of dies would produce 720 coins per day, by which time the die might be quite well worn. At such a rate, to turn out a million coins would need 1,400 working days — and the circulation could actually run into billions of sesterces!

One reads of two opposing dies being struck with a hammer (there are even photographs of them), but I have never come across a believable account of the whole business. The industry would have been a large employer of highly skilled labour, but I can't find any discussion of it. Was there any way of increasing efficiency, in the way that (for instance) the spinning jenny revolutionised the textile industry?

Over the years I've tried to discuss this with all manner of people who I thought might help, but few had paused to think it out. Maybe I've been asking (and looking) in the wrong places. Can anyone point me to ancient sources for solid information?

  • I think that this question would be more at home in history.stackexchange.com – Pablo Oliva Nov 17 '17 at 16:23
  • You may be right, though I've little hope. I'm still trying a few other possible sources. – Tom Cotton Nov 18 '17 at 17:21

I personally doubt that much headway will ever be made on this subject. The cagey attitude adopted by anyone that I ask about it often seems almost guilty —perhaps as if they ought to know, but don't!

For anyone interested, the best summary that I've ever found is online at http://www.classicalcoins.com/dies.html It is worth a look. It’s at least honest about the question, in being far superior to the evasiveness that I have so widely encountered from alleged “authorities”.

In summary, it declares that no-one knows exactly how the ancients made the dies, and suggests that they were of iron or bronze; but the techniques of die-sinking are still debated. There are sensible comments about production rates and so on, which only go to emphasize the formidable difficulties in finding an solution.

But the nature of the engraving tools can only be guessed at. It's the physical strength of the tool, which basically needs to be more durable than the die material, which needs a convincing explanation.

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