Reading Ancient Roman Coin Inscriptions

The ancient Romans followed a fairly standard method for the design of most Roman Imperial coins. Usually the obverse (heads side) showed the portrait of the ruler or his family and abbreviated inscriptions. The inscriptions usually contained his first name, last name, title, and various honorary titles. Below are examples of inscriptions found on portrait and non-portrait coins.

Inscriptions on Portrait coins

Sestertius portrait coin of Domitian

While not entirely realistic, portraits on coins visually identified the emperor and served as a way for people in the far reaches of the empire to see what their ruler looked like. The inscriptions not only named the current ruler, but proclaimed the legitimacy of his authority.

[photo: Silver Denarius of Domitian]
IMP Imperator (victorious general), received upon accession
CAES Caesar. Inherited name of the Julian family (Julius Caesar). Used by later emperors to designate heir.
DOMIT Domitianus, ruler's name.
AVG Augustus, title of the emperor.
GERM Germanicus, a title honoring military victories in Germany.
COS Consul, a title linked to highest office in Senate, usually held by emperor.
XI Reflects number of times office held
CENS Censor, a public office overseeing taxes, morality, the census and membership in various orders.
PO Pontifex Maximus. Highest priest. The head of state religion.
TPP Tribunica Potestate. Tribune of the people. Each renewal indicated by numerals.


Crowns were originally a mark of honor for those who had distinguished themselves in battle. The crown worn on imperial coins is one of the many ways of identifying the denomination and possible date of issue.

Inscriptions on Non-Portrait coins

Bronze Quadrans non-portrait coin of Claudius

Coins without portraits were issued in various denominations by the Roman emperors. These non-portrait coins might have commemorated a family member, founding of a city or an important event. Most bear the name of the issuing emperor.

TI Tiberius
CLAVDIVS Claudius, ruler's name.
CAESAR Caesar. Inherited name of the Julian family (Julius Caesar). Used by later emperors to designate heir.
AVG Augustus, title of the emperor.
Obverse design Modius: Traditional Roman grain measure symbolizing imperial generosity.
[photo: Bronze Quadrans of Claudius]

Other non-portrait ancient Roman coins