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Iberian Denarii

These notes started with the questions of "what differentiates a Palenzuela type Iberian denarius minted in Osca from one that is not Palenzuela type? Along the way many other questions came up:

  • When were these minted?

  • Where were these minted?

  • Why were these minted?

  • Are these a Roman or local coinage?

  • What is that language/script on the reverse?

  • Were these issued to pay troops in the Sertorian War?

  • Are these the silver coins of Osca mentioned by Livy?

Although there is a lot to wade through, some answers do emerge.

Roman Conquest of Spain

At the end of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). The Romans having defeated Carthage, gained territory in Spain and Sicily. They established two provinces new provinces (although maybe not so quickly): Hispania Citerior (Nearer Spain) and Hispania Ulterior (Farther Spain). In 198 BC, the Roman Republic elected two additional praetors (governors) for the administration of Spain to serve in the year 197. Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus was elected to govern Hispania Citerior and Marcus Helvius to govern Hispania Ulterior.

"That year, for the first time, six praetors were elected, to meet the increase in the number of provinces and the expansion of the empire. The following were elected: Lucius Manlius Vulso, Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus, Marcus Sergius Silus, Marcus Helvius, Marcus Minucius Rufus, and Lucius Atilius, of whom Sempronius and Helvius were plebeian aediles (the curule aediles being Quintus Minucius Thermus and Tiberius Sempronius Longus)."
-Livy, The History of Rome, 32.27.6 

Huesca, Spain, highlighted on a map of Spain.

All was not quiet in Spain. Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus was killed by the Celtiberi. The Celtiberi also attacked Helvius as he was leaving Spain, and Helvius prevailed. "Silver coins of Osca" are mentioned by Livy as booty taken from this victory and two others. Osca is the Romanized name for the Iberian City of Bolskan which was located in modern Huesca, Spain.

"At the same time, as Marcus Helvius was retiring from Farther Spain (Hispania Ulterior), accompanied by a guard of six thousand men furnished by Appius Claudius the praetor, the Celtiberi with a large force fell upon him near the town of Iliturgi. Valerius writes that there were twenty thousand men there, that twelve thousand of them were killed, the town of Iliturgi taken and all the adults put to death. After that Helvius came to the camp of Cato, and, because this region was now safe from the enemy, sent his guard back to Farther Spain and set out for Rome, and by reason of his victory entered the city in an ovation. He deposited in the treasury fourteen thousand seven hundred and thirty-two pounds of uncoined silver, seventeen thousand and twenty-three denarii stamped with the two-horse chariot, and one hundred and nineteen thousand four hundred and forty-nine silver coins of Osca."
-Livy, The History of Rome, 34.10 

These "silver coins of Osca" are again mentioned in 194 BC:

"About the same time his colleague Marcus Porcius Cato triumphed over Spain. He carried in his triumph twenty-five thousand pounds of silver bullion, one hundred and twenty-three thousand silver denarii, five hundred and forty thousand silver coins of Osca, and one thousand four hundred pounds of gold. From the booty, he gave to each of his soldiers two hundred and seventy asses, and thrice that amount to each trooper."
-Livy, The History of Rome, 34.46 

These "Oscan coinage" mentioned in 179 BC:

Q. Fulvius Flaccus returned to Rome with a great reputation after his work in Spain. While he was still outside the City waiting for his triumph he was elected consul, together with L. Manlius Acidinus, and a few days later he entered the City in triumph with the soldiers he had brought with him. In the procession there were carried 124 golden crowns, 31 pounds of gold and 173,200 pieces of Oscan coinage.
-Livy, The History of Rome, 40.43 

This map shows the expansion of Roman control of Spain from 220 BC to 19 BC, source: image shared under CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

"Iberian denarius"

This coin, an "Iberian denarius", is potentially the type referenced by Livy:

Iberia, Bolskan, circa 150-100 BC, AR denarius (20mm, 4.07 g, 11h)

Obv: Male head right; Iberian BON behind

Rev: Horseman right, holding spear; Iberian BOLSKAN below.

Ref: for an excellent online catalog of Iberian coins see (MIB 79/07a)

Although perhaps Livy is not being very specific: Gozablez (2012) notes that "scholars agree that the expression argentum oscense refers to the local coinage of the Second Punic War, including, under diferent criteria, Emporion drachmae, Iberian imitations and Carthaginian issues".

There is not good hoard evidence to put a date on the appearance of this coinage, although the weight standard ties it to the Roman Republican denarius and expert consensus lands somewhere in the middle of the 2nd century.

"Paleohispanic script"

The text on this coin is "Northeastern Iberian", one several scripts known collectively as Paleohispanic scripts with Phoenician origins.

"Although the first attempts to decipher Palaeohispanic scripts date back to the 16th century, the fact that they are not alphabetical but semi-syllabic considerably delayed their final decoding. The key achievement in this respect occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, when Manuel Gómez-Moreno identified the value for most of the northern characters, including the syllabic ones. This decoding was essentially possible thanks to the existence of coin inscriptions, which were, in some cases, bilingual, and, in some other cases, clearly linkable to place names known through ancient Greek and Latin sources. "
-Joan Ferrer i Jané, Noemi Moncunill Martí, Palaeohispanic writing systems: classification, origin, and development 

The "letters" can be both alphabetic and syllabic, as illustrated by the table below showing how the letters combine to add consonants e.g. B + O yields this symbol that is the first character on my coin above (full name in 5 letters: Bo-L-S-Ka-N).

"Palenzuela type"

There are two types of these coins, the one above represents the first, older, type that roughly appear in the first third of the second century. The second type dates closer to the time of the Sertorian War (80-72 BC) and is known as the "Palenzuela type". It is named for the "Palenzuela hoard" published in 1947 in the Archivo Español de Arqueología.

Palenzuela, highlighted on a map of Spain.

Palenzuela is a small town and home to this medieval Islamic castle built in the 14th or 15th century using "rammed earth".

Ruins of the castle in Palenzuela, photo by Francisco Fernández, shared as public domain on

Jenkins, in 1957, noted two styles when comparing coins from the Cordoba hoard to those of the Palenzuela hoard.

"At a later date, however, the denarius coinage of Osca (Boskan)revived, None of the later type pieces occur in the Cordova hoard, which gives us a terminus post quem for the later type of c. 100 BC. The revival is marked by the issue of more compact and neater style, easily distinguishable from the Cordova hoard type: the latter style is represented in the Palenzuela hoard."
- Jenkins in 1957 in "Notes on Iberian Denarii".

pre-Palenzuela (Cordoba hoard coin), note the way the hair is drawn, writing with heavy lines:

Palenzuela hoard coin:

The images from the Cordoba hoard (14) and Palenzuela hoard (E) are from Jenkins in 1957 in "Notes on Iberian Denarii". This recent acquisition is a "Palenzuela type" Iberian denarius - note the finer lines in the writing and the hair comparing with the earlier coin above.

REf: MIB 79/11c [Palenzuela II] or MIB 79/11a [Pre-Palenzuela] ca. 100-72 BC.

This 1968 paper A Azaii, "En Torno a un hallazgo de denarius de Beligio", describes the "Palenzuela type" from Jenkins as:

"So called because they are abundant in the discovery of a hoard with this name. The style is careful, with a small head, with fine strokes, in large flans."

Presumably the head of the engraving tool is small/fine, as the head seems larger to me on the Palenzuela type and the neck shorter.

Dates for the Iberian Denarius

The range of dates for the start of these coins begins with Livy (roughly 197 BC) and ends with Crawford's proposal in "Coinage and Money Under the Roman Republic", that these coins were not minted until 155-154 BC.

"I argue then that Rome paid for her presence in Spain down to the 150s largely with her own bronze coinage and that in 155-154, when she might have used her massive new silver issues, she instituted instead the Iberian denarius coinage.  There were no fiscal reasons for Roman silver coinage to travel to Spain and for a period after 155-154 almost none did."
-Michael Crawford, 1985, Coinage and Money Under the Roman Republic

Notes in the Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman coins share the basic information that the bulk of these coins were issued well before the Sertorian war in the 2nd century BC.

"Some cities like Bolskan, Arekorata, Turiazu, or Sekobirikez minted quantities of denarii. Those that have been studied do not support the idea that they were struck to finance the Sertorian Wars (80-72 BC), because by then most of the silver issues had already been coined, although it seems that they were extensively used in those years."
- Pere P. Ripollès: Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, 2013

Clare Rowan leaves things a bit ambiguous - struck in second century, and ceased after the Sertorian Wars. There may have been some Roman involvement.

"Iberian denarii were struck during the 2nd century B.C. and ceased after the Sertorian wars, and are found mainly in the north of the peninsula. Precisely when in the second century these denarii began to be produced (either early or middle second century) remains the subject of debate as does their purpose. The fact that they are only struck in Hispania Citerior and bear very similar iconography, although struck by different tribes, suggests some form of Roman tolerance or permission, while the types and script suggest local involvement."
- Clare Rowan: “Ambiguity, Iconology and Entangled Objects on Coinage of the Republican World.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 106, 2016, pp. 21–57.

M. Campo y Diaz provides additional evidence with a hoard that is dated to instability from the Sertorian war. This hoard contains both Roman and Iberian denarii and includes an Iberian Denarius of Villaronga Type IV, which Jenkins had identified as the "Palenzuela type".

"With the dating of the most recent Roman denarius, 86 BC according to Crawford's chronology, and the characteristics of the Bolskan denarius that we have already mentioned above, we can place the moment of the treasure's hiding at a date close to or contemporary with the Sertorian Wars (82-72 BC)."
- Campo y Díaz, M. (1996): "Noticia de un tesoro de denarios en el Canal de Urgel". Nvmisma, Año XLVI, 237. Madrid.

For the later coins, there does seem to be some consensus that they were not minted for the Sertorian war, but were used extensively during the war.

"How do we know what we know?" is one of the core questions that is often considered in these notes pages. Jane DeRose Evans has an interesting chapter in the Blackwell Companion that she edited that covers the relationship between coins and archaeology. The Iberian denarius is her example, with the unsolved puzzle of establishing the date of these coins.

"Unfortunately hoards give us little to go on. Roman and Iberian denarii only appear together in hoards in the last third of the second century, after both the "high" and "the low" date of the introduction of the Iberian denarius."

She highlights that numismatists have resorted to other tools: relative wear in hoards to support dates. Unfortunately, wear is not the most reliable tool for dating coins.

Purpose of the Iberian Denarius

R.C. Knapp in 1977 is inconclusive in his summary of a lengthy assessment of the potential uses of these Iberian denarii:

"The purpose of the native denarius coinage was thus not simple. Coined silver might be needed for the storage of wealth for prestige purposes; it might be needed to buy friends among other native tribes; it might serve as a means of payment of local obligations (i.e. auxiliary troop pay) and of obligations to the Romans (i.e. tribute and taxes). Some commercial uses perhaps arose also, but the use of Iberian denarii as a standard of value and a medium of exchange was probably rather limited."
-R.C.Knapp, 1977 

Crawford notes (in Coins & Money Under the Roman Republic, 1985): "It is also relevant that Iberian coinage does not seem to have circulated outside the Iberian peninsula, with insignificant exceptions. It is odd that those for whom it was designed almost never exported it, if the coinage was a response to local needs (as argued by M. Koch), whether economic or social, despite the fact that it was perfectly compatible with mainstream Roman coinage." and he argues "that the pattern of Roman Silver coinage in Spain in the late second century reflects the presence of Roman and Italian settlers and the introduction of Roman monetary usages".

By 1987, Knapp writes of a new possibility for these coins in "Coinage of Spain in the Later Roman Republic" that the coins were used in slave trade that served the silver mines.

Other mints

There are multiple mints for these Iberian denarii (Gozalbes cites 21) - this one from Bascunes (near modern Pamplona).

Iberia, Bascunes (Pamplona), c. 110-90 BC, AR denarius (2.92g)

Obv: Bearded head right, iberian legend BENKODA behind

Rev: Horseman right, holding sword, iberian legend BASKUNES below.

Ref: MIB 87/14

So what can we conclude? The lack of date-able hoard evidence leaves uncertainty about when and why these were stuck. There appear to be two types with the "Panzuela type" issued more recently near the time of the Sertorian War 80-72 BC.

  • How can the two types be differentiated? The Palenzuela type is recognizable with finer engraving, a larger head with shorter neck and overall neater style.

  • When were these minted?: Iberian denarii are a local currency that began on a denarius standard as the Romans gained control of parts of Spain after the 2nd Punic War with hoard evidence suggesting c. 170 BC and ended circa 70 BC coincidental with the end of the Sertorian War.

  • Where were these minted?: "A comprehensive catalogue for these series identifies nearly a hundred cities in Hispania Citerior and probably up to sixty in Hispania Ulterior which were minting coins before the arrival of Augustus (CNH)." of these 21 cities minted silver denarii. (Gozalbez, 2012) And Crawford notes evidence that by the time the Scipionic camps were established in 134-133 BC the mints of Untikestken, Iltirta, Kese, Arsaos, Baskunes, Bolskan, Sekia, Sesars, Belikiom, and Sekaisa were minting.

  • Why were these minted?: Uncertain, perhaps for local trade and use by Roman and Italian settlers, to pay local soldiers, for trade in slaves that manned the silver mines, and even non-monetary uses as "gifts" to build alliances and relationships....

  • Are these a Roman or local coinage?: These are a local coinage minted under Roman influence and are generally found far from the location where they are minted. Perhaps giving Roman administration of Spain a short-cut in procuring currency for the region, turning local silver into coins rather than shipping silver to Rome and then receiving currency from Rome.

  • What is that language/script on the reverse?: Northeastern Iberian a Paleohispanic scripts with Phoenician origins.

  • Were these issued to pay troops in the Sertorian War?: No, but they were used during the Sertorian War to pay troops.

  • Are these the silver coins of Osca mentioned by Livy?: Gozablez (2012) notes that "scholars agree that the expression argentum oscense refers to the local coinage of the Second Punic War, including, under diferent criteria, Emporion drachmae, Iberian imitations and Carthaginian issues".

As a starting point for further reading, Gozablez (2012) is well organized and summarizes well. For a searchable database of >4000 types and over 100K Celtiberian coins see Moneda Iberica. Unfortunately Leandre Villaronga's Corpus Nummum ante Augusti Aetatem published in 1994 is one of those numismatic reference books that is not easy to find.

Additional References

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