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SESTER´TIUS This term is a contraction for semis tertius, which is the Latin way of expressing 2 1/2 It may be used for various weights and measures: for example, pes sestertius is 2 1/2 feet. But it has been more usually applied to coin: the numus sestertius, sestertius, or, as it is rendered in English, sesterce, was the unit according to which sums of money were reckoned by the Romans almost throughout their history. It was expressed on the coins themselves and in documents by the symbol ΗΣ (two units and a semis), or with a line through, H-S, a form commonly though incorrectly printed as ΗΣ.

According to the view of Mommsen (Röm. Münzw. p. 292), when silver coin was first issued at Rome (B.C. 269: As, p. 205) it was based on the equation of the scruple of silver (17.5 grains) to one libral as of 10 ounces, or 2 1/2 of the current reduced asses of 4 ounces. Thus the denarius (10 asses) was equal to 4 sestertii, and the quinarius to 2 sestertii. But this equivalence of the sestertius to 2 1/2 copper asses as current did not last long: in the time of the Hannibalic wars it was decreed that thenceforth 16 asses should go to the denarius and 4 to the sertertius, excepting in case of military pay, in which the old relations were preserved. Up to that time, as the sestertius and the libral as had been equivalent, money had been reckoned in either indifferently; but thereafter the sestertius became the regular unit.

Shortly after its issue the sestertius fell in weight from 17 1/2 to 15 grains. After a time it ceased to be issued as a silver coin, though as a quarter of the denarius it remained as money of account. M. Antony issued sestertii in copper with the marks of value ΗΣ and Δ; that is, sestertii of four asses. And Augustus ordained that the sestertius of 4 asses and the dupondius of 2 should be struck in brass (orichalcum), while the as should be minted in copper.

Sestertius of Nero in brass.

In reckoning sums of money the Romans sometimes, but not often, reckoned by denarii. But far more usually they reckoned either by the libral as (in which case aeris or aeris gravis would, be added) or by the sestertius, which was originally the equivalent of the libral as. [AS]

Sums up to a thousand sestertii were simply stated in sestertii. But sums of several thousand sestertii were expressed as so many milia sestertiorum numorum or sestertium numum. Thus decem milia sestertium is 10,000 sestertii; and the same amount is sometimes expressed by the formula decem sestertia, where sestertia is usually regarded as the plural of a neuter form sestertium (= 1000 sestertii), though to this view there are grammatical objections. Sums of a million sestertii and upwards are expressed by a use of the numeral adverbs in--ies; centena milia, a hundred thousand, being expressed or understood. Thus a million sestertii are decies centena milia sestertium, a phrase abridged to [p. 2.668]decies sestertium. Similarly, vicies and tricies sestertium stand for two and three million sestertii, and so on. As an example, we find in Cicero (Verr. Act. Sec. 1.39, 100) 2,235,417 sestertii thus expressed: “vicies ducenta triginta quinque milia quadringentos xvii numos” (i. e. sestertios). The distinction between units, thousands, and hundreds of thousands of sestertii is conventionally expressed merely by adding lines above or beside the numeral: thus ΗΣΧ= 10 sestertii; ΗΣΧ_ = 10,000 sestertii or 10 sestertia; ΗΣX=decies sestertium or 1,000,000 sestertii.

The English equivalent of sums stated in sestertii cannot be accurately ascertained, since different values will be given according to the relation presumed between the value of silver and that of gold; but an approximation sufficient for all purposes will be reached if the metal value of a sestertius or sesterce is taken at two-pence, and that of a sestertium at £8 sterling. What was as regards purchasing power the equivalent of a sestertius in modern money, is a different and an insoluble problem.


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