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What Do the Abbreviations on Coins and Inscriptions Say?

How to Form Abbreviations in Latin

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From the Res Gestae Divi Augusti From the Monumentum Ancyranum

From the Res Gestae Divi Augusti From the Monumentum Ancyranum

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikpedia.

Have you ever looked at an ancient Roman coin and noticed that the words inscribed on it are unpronounceable -- whether or not you know how to pronounce Latin? As you may be aware, that's because the words are abbreviations, but some are quite different from most of our English abbreviations. We usually use a period to show we have taken off the ends of words. Sometimes we use initial letters in a series to form a special sort of abbreviated word called an acronym, like "PIN," for "personal identification number." Then, again, some Roman abbreviations are just like our English ones, and our English ones aren't entirely consistent. In the appendix to his Latin Epigraphy, the 19th and 20th century classical scholar Sir John Edwin Sandys explains some of the conventions used to form abbreviations for use in Latin inscriptions, a topic that includes the writing on coins.

What Did the Romans Call Abbreviations?

Although the word abbreviation is based on the Latin word brevis for 'short,' it isn't the name for the ancient Roman abbreviations. Abbreviations are known in Latin as

  • notae
  • litterae singulares
  • singulariae
  • siglae

How Were the Latin Abbreviations Formed?

Romans usually created abbreviations from the first letter of the word or up to the first 5 consecutive letters of the word.
Example: the word praefectus 'prefect' could be abbreviated

  • PR
  • PRAE
  • PRAEF

Learn How to Make the Plural of Abbreviations

Simplifying, the final consonant of the abbreviation was doubled, so two consuls would be COSS because an abbreviation for 'consul' was COS. (In this case the abbreviation for consul does not follow the standard format because the 's' is not consecutive.) IMPP means 2 imperatores, AUGGG means 3 Augusti. DD NN stands for domini nostri 'our lords'. If there were 4 of them, it would be written DDDD NNNN.

We do this in English when we write "p" for 'page', but "pp" for 'pages' or "ms" for 'manuscript', but "mss" for 'manuscripts'. When we want to append a note to the end of a letter, we write "P.S." for 'postscript'. If we need to add a second note, we write "P.P.S."

How Did they Make the Plurals of Compound Words?

These could be abbreviated by the first letter of the whole word, or the first letter of each part. Populusque 'and the people' would be abbreviated P•Q.

Why Is Gaius Abbreviated C and Gnaeus CN?

This is not from the appendix, but from Sandys' chapter on the alphabet. Originally, the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet with the letters A,B,C replacing the alpha, beta, gamma of the Greeks. Thus, the Roman's C stood for the Greek's G (the initial sound of 'gamma'). Under this alphabet, C was an abbreviation for Gaius and CN for Gnaeus. Over time the Romans added an extra stroke to the C to form a separate letter G, but the abbreviations that had been in place before the separation of G from C continued without change.

What Are the Numbers on Inscriptions?

The title of the Roman Emperor Trajan might be written
IMP•CAESARI DIVI NERVAE F•NERVAE TRAIANO AUG•GERMANICO DACICO PONTIFICI MAXIMO TRIBUNIC•POT•VII•IMP•IIII•COS•V•P•P
TRIBUNIC•POT•VII = tribunicia potestate VII The 7th year that Trajan held tribunician power. [See: Roman Tribunes.] The emperor received the tribunician power on the day he became emperor. It was a power annually renewed, so the 7th year of tribunician power is also Trajan's 7th year as emperor. Nerva invested Trajan with tribunician power on October 27, 97, but Trajan counted the year from December 10.

IMP IIII = Imperator IIII -- the 4th time Trajan was called imperator. Note, today we usually fret about writing Roman numerals "properly" with 4 written as "IV". Clearly, literate native speakers of Latin could understand 4 even if it were written as "IIII".

COS•V is the fifth consulship.

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