The American Numismatic Society
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The Romans had no coinage of their own before the third century B.C. For money they used rough lumps of bronze known as Aes Rude that were of no particular weight or shape and had to be weighed with each transaction. Later, rectangular bars bearing a device (Aes Signatum) also came into use. The earliest coinage proper was one of the results of Rome's expansion in the Italian peninsula which brought the Romans into contact with the Greek cities in south Italy, where there was a long tradition of silver coinage.
Two incommensurable systems soon developed - a bronze cast coinage (Aes Grave) based on the Roman weight standard and a silver struck coinage of a Greek standard. It was not until 217 B.C., with the introduction of the silver denarius, that a completely Roman system of coinage came into existence. The unit of value was the bronze as and the denarius, the chief silver denomination, was valued at ten asses.
The denarius was the standard coin of the Republic and Empire. Gold issues were rare until the late years of the Republic and bronze was issued irregularly. It was left to Augustus to reestablish the Aes coinage and during the Empire coins were minted in gold, silver, copper, bronze and orichalcum (brass). The variety of reverse types and the extensive series of imperial portraiture of this coinage provides an invaluable body of source material.
By the late third century repeated political, military and financial crises necessitated serious debasement of the coinage. A sweeping monetary reform by Diocletian did much to change its character, including innovations in types, denominations and mints. It seems appropriate to close the Roman series with mention of this reform and to begin the Byzantine series with Constantine the Great and the introduction of the solidus.
The first Roman coinage proper is the series known as Aes Grave, beginning ca. 289 B.C. These coins were cast in bronze and issued in several denominations, each identified by a mark of value and a characteristic type. The most extensive Aes Grave coinage is the "Prow" series shown here which began ca. 235 B.C. The naval victory of the Aegates Insulae over Carthage in 238 left Rome master of the seas and heralded an era of peace. In the year 235 the doors to the temple of Janus were ceremoniously closed, a symbol of peace. The types of this as commemorate these events. On the obverse is the double-headed god Janus and on the reverse, the prow of a ship, symbolizing Rome's sea power. The I above the prow marks the denomination - one as, or one Roman pound.
Silver coins were struck in south Italy beginning ca. 280 B.C. to finance military operations in that area. The Romans adhered closely to the Greek coinage system, borrowing types, denominations and even die-cutters from the Greeks. Shown here is a didrachm with a head of Mars on the obverse and a horse's head on the reverse. The horse is a characteristic Carthaginian type and perhaps alludes to a treaty between Rome and Carthage ca. 280-278 B.C.
An important innovation occurred in the year 269, when a regular silver issue was minted at Rome for the first time. The types are appropriate to Rome and honor the consuls for that year. The reverse type depicting the she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus refers to the legend of the founding of Rome. It is a representation of a statue group erected in Rome some years earlier by two brothers of the Ogulnii family, one of whom was consul in 269. The other consul belonged to the Fabii family, whose patron deity was Hercules. A bust of Hercules with a club over his shoulder appears on the obverse.
The long-lived silver denarius was introduced ca. 217 B.C. The coin on the left is one of the earliest denarii, with a head of Roma on the obverse and the Dioscuri on horseback on the reverse. The Dioscuri are the twins Castor and Pollux who, legend records, aided Rome in the battle of Lake Regillus against the Latins in 497 B.C. A Roman numeral X behind the head of Roma is a mark of value; the denarius was tariffed at ten bronze asses.
Biga and quadriga types came to be recurrent motifs on early denarii and replaced the Dioscuri as the standard reverse type. On the coin on the right, Victory is shown driving a biga. The letters S. AFRA below the biga abbreviate the name of S. Afranius, the mint official who issued this coin. A board of three moneyers was elected annually and it became the custom for these officials to sign their respective coinages.
The abandonment of the traditional Dioscuri reverse paved the way for the introduction of a wide variety of types. The types chosen often had some personal reference to the family of the moneyer. One of the earliest examples is shown on this slide of a denarius of Sextus Pompeius Fostlus, with a head of Roma on the obverse and the wolf and the twins on the reverse. The family of Fostlus claimed descent from the shepherd Faustulus who, according to legend, found the twins on the bank of the Tiber River. The shepherd is standing to the left; behind, in a fig tree, are two woodpeckers also connected with the myth. The moneyer's signature, SEX(tus) POM(peius) FOSTLVS encircles the reverse type.
The type was often chosen by the moneyer to be a punning device. The coinage of Q. Pomponius Musa, for example, includes a remarkable series depicting the nine Muses. The top coin depicts Apollo, patron deity of the arts, on the obverse and Erato, the muse of poetry, with a lyre on the reverse. In addition to the depiction of the nine Muses, Pomponius Musa also issued the lower denarius with another Apollo head on the obverse and Hercules wearing a lion's skin and playing the lyre on the reverse. The association of Hercules with the Muses, as indicated by the inscription HERCVLES MVSARVM, is often made in Roman mythology.
The moneyer of this denarius, L. Marcius Philippus, belonged to the Marcia family, which claimed descent from Ancus Martius, the traditional fourth king of Rome, who is portrayed on the obverse. The reverse type shows an aqueduct surmounted by an equestrian statue and the legend AQVA MAR inscribed below in the arches. The reference is to the most renowned aqueduct in Rome, the Aqua Marcia, said to have been built by another member of the house, Q. Marcius Rex, as praetor in 144 B.C. His statue was erected on the aqueduct in commemoration of his services.
In the first century B.C., the coin types began to reflect contemporary events rather than the deeds of ancestors. The coin on the left was struck by Julius Caesar in Gaul ca. 50 B.C. The obverse depicts an elephant, symbol of Caesar, trampling on a dragon, the symbol of Gaul. On the reverse are various religious attributes associated with the supreme religious office of Pontifex Maximus, which Caesar held at this time.
On the right is a coin issued by an adherent of Caesar's in 48 B.C. The striking portrait is of a Gallic warrior, perhaps that of Vercingetorix, the chieftain who was captured by Caesar and brought to Rome to adorn his triumph before being put to death. The reverse depicts a warrior and his charioteer. The moneyer's name, L. Hostilius Saserna, accompanies the type.
A revolutionary innovation occurred in 44 B.C. when a portrait of a living Roman appeared on the coinage for the first time. The portrait is that of Julius Caesar. A series of coins struck early in 44 by the newly enlarged board of four moneyers depicts Caesar with the titles he used during those months - dictator for the fourth time, imperator or general, and dictator for life, as on this coin (CAESAR DICT. PERPETVO). The portrait of Caesar thus occupies a place traditionally reserved for deities, legendary heroes or distant ancestors. The reverse portrays Caesar's patron goddess, Venus (Victrix), from whom the Julian gens claimed descent.
Resentment and fear of Caesar's exceptional powers culminated in his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. A leading figure among the conspirators was Marcus Junius Brutus, descendant of the founder of the Republic. This coin issued by Brutus in 43/2 B.C. with a cap of liberty flanked by two daggers and the legend EID(ibus) MAR(tiis) is a dramatic statement of the date, the means and the purpose of the assassination. But note on the obverse, a portrait of Brutus, a living person. What was an extraordinary innovation by Caesar has now become the rule, and from this point on portraits of living persons appear regularly on the coinage.
The assassination of Caesar did not restore the Republic but rather left Rome in a state of chaos. The leadership of the Caesarian party was quickly reduced to a contest between Antony and Octavian, the grandnephew of Caesar who was adopted by Caesar in his will. Caesar's deification by decree of the Senate in 42 B.C. was used by Octavian as propaganda supporting his claims. This coin, for example, has on the reverse the legend DIVOS IVLIVS in a wreath and on the obverse the head of Octavian, who is now DIVI F(ilius), the son of a god.
A much-publicized episode in the last days of the Republic is that of Antony and Cleopatra. Antony obtained command of the eastern provinces after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius and there encountered the Egyptian queen. Their personal relationship led Antony to serious political miscalculations. Following the conquest of Armenia, Antony celebrated a triumph in Alexandria, bestowed extravagant honors upon Cleopatra and placed her portrait on a Roman coin. On this extraordinary denarius, minted in 34 B.C., Antony bears the title ARMENIA DEVICTA and Cleopatra is styled "Queen of kings and of her sons who are kings."
AUGUSTUS (31 B.C. - A.D. 14)
Fearing that Antony was compromising Rome's interests in the East, the Senate was persuaded to declare war on Cleopatra with Octavian as commanding general. Antony was defeated at Actium in 31 B.C. when his legions refused to fight for him and in the next year he committed suicide. Cleopatra offered no further resistance and Egypt was annexed to the empire. On this denarius we see the head of Octavian on the obverse and on the reverse a crocodile, symbol of Egypt, and the legend AEGYPTO CAPTA.
Octavian emerged as the sole ruler in this struggle for power which brought an end to the Roman Republic. The concentration of authority in the hands of one man marks the beginning of the empire and a new era in Roman history. Under the empire, the coinage becomes an instrument of the emperor, broadcasting to the world the virtues, deeds and honors of the emperor and of the imperial family.
AUGUSTUS (31 B.C. - A.D. 14)
In 27 B.C. Octavian resigned most of his exceptional offices and was given the title Augustus. He was honored by the Senate with an oak wreath, and a laurel tree was planted on either side of his door. On this aureus, he is hailed as the restorer of citizen rights (CIVIBUS SERVATEIS); on the reverse, the title Augustus appears with an eagle holding an oak wreath and behind are two laurel branches. The letters S C (Senatus Consulto) in the field indicate that these honors were awarded him by decree of the Senate.
TIBERIUS (A.D. 14 - 37)
This is the "tribute penny," so called from the passage in Matthew 22.21, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." The Caesar (emperor) at this time was Tiberius and this denarius is the most common type issued by him. The reverse portrays a seated female who may be Livia, the mother of Tiberius, represented as Pax. The inscription PONTIF MAXIM is in reference to the office of Pontifex Maximus, the high priest, which was held by the emperor. On the obverse, a portrait of Tiberius and the legend, "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the deified Augustus."
CALIGULA (A.D. 37-41)
The largest of the aes denominations during the empire was the sestertius. The flan of this coin lent itself to the depiction of more complex reverse types, and also the finest portraits in the imperial series occur on sestertii. This is a sestertius of the emperor Caligula (Gaius) who is portrayed on the obverse. On the reverse are his three sisters who represent the personifications of Securitas, Concordia and Fortuna, identified by their principal attributes: Agrippina as Securitas on the left is leaning on a column; Drusilla as Concordia in the center holds a patera; and Julia as Fortuna on the right is shown with a rudder.
CLAUDIUS (A.D. 41 - 54)
A famous event in the history of Rome was the conquest of Britain during the reign of Claudius. Julius Caesar had crossed the channel to Britain a hundred years earlier, but his victories there were nominal and the country was not occupied. Claudius took more decisive action that resulted in Britain becoming a Roman province. This acquisition and victory was celebrated in Rome with games, and an arch was dedicated to Claudius in memory of the event. Shown on the reverse of this aureus is the arch surmounted by a horseman and two trophies. Across the front is the inscription DE BRITANN(is).
NERO (A.D. 54 - 68)
This well-known sestertius depicts a bird's-eye view of the harbor of Ostia, the port of Rome. It commemorates the restoration of the harbor completed during the reign of Nero. To the left is a crescent-shaped pier and to the right a crescent-shaped row of breakwaters. Neptune, the god of the sea, reclines below with a rudder in his right hand and a dolphin in the left. Eight ships take up the area of the harbor.
NERO (A.D. 54-68)
A historical event in the reign of Nero that is recorded only on the coinage is illustrated on this slide. It refers to an occasion of peace which was celebrated with the traditional closing of the doors to the temple of Janus. The temple, with a wreath hung across the top of the closed doors, is shown on the reverse. The inscription explains the type - "With peace achieved for the Roman people on land and sea, he [Nero] closed the doors of Janus."
VESPASIAN (A.D. 69-79)
A revolt of the Jews in Palestine that began under Nero was crushed by the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus in the year 70. Vespasian dealt harshly with the Jews and caused the city of Jerusalem to be destroyed. The province of Judaea was restored to the empire and its capture widely proclaimed on the coins. On this sestertius of Vespasian, the triumphant emperor stands in military attire, his foot on a helmet. Nearby a Jewess is seated under a palm tree in an attitude of dejection. The legend reads IVDAEA CAPTA.
NERVA (A.D. 96 - 98)
In addition to the sestertius, the two other common aes denominations are the dupondius and the as. Similar in appearance with regard to size and weight, the two denominations are distinguished by the fact that they are struck in different metals: the dupondius (like the sestertius) is of brass (orichalcum) and was valued at two asses, which are of copper. The difficulty of distinguishing between these two metals is seen in the fact that there evolved the practice of depicting the head of the emperor laureate on the as and radiate on the dupondius. The coin on the left is an as of Nerva with laureate crown, issued in 96. To the right is a dupondius of the same emperor with radiate crown from the year 97. Fortuna holding a rudder and cornucopiae appears on the reverse of both coins.
TRAJAN (A.D. 98 - 117)
An extensive building program was carried out by the emperor Trajan. Construction of a new road and of an aqueduct was completed and many architectural monuments erected, most of which are represented on the coins. This sestertius depicts Trajan's column, which is the only one of all his monuments that is almost entirely preserved. It was erected in Trajan's forum where it can be seen to this day, but the statue of Trajan surmounting the column has not survived. Sculptured reliefs winding up the marble shaft give a pictorial account of Trajan's Dacian campaigns. The quadrangular base with door in front bears other reliefs and eagles adorn the corners. Most of these elements are shown on the coins in an abbreviated form. The column was a monument to Trajan's military successes and also served as his tomb. Trajan died while on his eastern campaigns and his ashes were interred in the base of the column.
HADRIAN (A.D. 117 - 138)
The benevolent policy toward the provinces maintained by Trajan's successor Hadrian is well recorded on the coinage. Three different series honor the provinces. An "Adventus" series, illustrated on the left, records the visit of the emperor to a province, in this case Italy. A "Restitutor" series commemorates aid given to a province. On the center coin Hadrian extends a hand to a kneeling province, Achaea (Greece); the amphora is an additional symbol of identification of Achaea. A third series depicts the individual provinces. The coin on the right represents the personification of Egypt holding a sistrum; before her, an ibis rests on a column.
FAUSTINA I; FAUSTINA II (under Antoninus Pius, A.D. 138 - 161)
Empresses and other members of the imperial family also came to be represented on the coinage. On the left, an aureus of the elder Faustina, wife of Antoninus Pius, issued after her death in A.D. 141. It is a consecration issue with the deified Faustina on the obverse. The peacock on the reverse is a symbol of deification used only for empresses.
A coin of the younger Faustina, wife of Marcus Aurelius, appears on the right. It was minted in 146 after the birth of their first child. The reverse type with the legend LAETITIAE PUBLICAE refers to the public rejoicing at the birth of an heir.
ANTONINUS PIUS (under Marcus Aurelius, A.D. 161 - 180)
The custom of deification began with that of Julius Caesar and with certain exceptions the deceased emperor was consecrated by his successor. Several different types were used to record this act on the coinage. This sestertius commemorates the deification of Antoninus Pius by Marcus Aurelius in the year 161. The deified Antoninus (DIVVS ANTONINVS) appears on the obverse, and on the reverse, a funeral pyre surmounted by a four-horse chariot. Various figures are depicted in relief. The topmost layer, holding the bier of Antoninus, is flanked by torches.
MARCUS AURELIUS (A.D. 161 - 180)
Upon the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius raised his adoptive brother Lucius Verus to the rank of Augustus and co-emperor. This sestertius of Marcus portrays the two Augusti on the reverse in an attitude of friendship. The legend CONCORD(ia) AVGVSTORVM refers to the harmony between the two emperors. A similar sestertius was issued with the name and portrait of Lucius Verus.
SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS (A.D. 193 - 211)
Septimius Severus was acclaimed emperor in 193, but it took four years to crush rival claimants to the throne. After the defeat of Pescennius Niger, Septimius assumed the titles Parthicus Arabicus and Parthicus Adiabenicus, as illustrated on this coin (PART ARAB PART ADIAB). Arabs and Adiabenians had served under Pescennius and the titles imply that Parthia also supported the enemy. The reverse depicts a splendid trophy of eastern arms and two captives with hands tied behind their backs, seated below.
SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS (A.D. 193 - 211)
This remarkable aureus portraying the entire family of the Severi was issued after Septimius had established himself as sole emperor. Septimius appears on the obverse and the empress Julia Domna with the two boys, Caracalla and Geta, on the reverse. Caracalla, the elder of the two who holds the rank of Augustus, is on the left wearing a laureate crown; Geta, as Caesar, is bareheaded on the right. The legend SAECVLI FELICITAS expresses hope in a golden age and a new dynasty.
JULIA DOMNA (Joint reign of Caracalla and Geta, A.D. 211 - 212)
Julia Domna, the mother of Caracalla and Geta, surpassed all of her predecessors in the power she held and the honors she received. During the brief period that the two boys shared the throne after the death of Septimius, Julia often intervened to maintain the peace and it is in her role as mediator that she is shown bearing a scepter and olive branch on the reverse of this coin. This coin, however, is especially interesting for its display of titles. On the obverse, Julia is represented as Julia Pia Felix Augusta, while the reverse bears the unprecedented titles of Mother of the two Augusti, Mother of the Senate and Mother of her Country.
CARACALLA (A.D. 212 - 217)
The official name of the emperor Caracalla was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. It was given him when he received the title Augustus and he is so identified on all documents. During his sole reign, Caracalla introduced a new coin, shown here, called a double denarius or antoninianus after the emperor. It is characterized by a radiate portrait of the emperor on the obverse. On the reverse of this specimen is the god Sol, to whom Caracalla was particularly devoted. The coin is dated to the fourth consulship and twentieth grant of tribunician power, that is, the year 217.
ELAGABALUS (A.D. 218 - 222)
The worship of Sol reached its climax in Rome when the priest of the sun god at Emesa became emperor. Elagabalus, as he came to be known, wished to make Sol the chief deity at Rome. The sacred black stone of the cult was moved to Rome, installed on the Palatine, and two new temples were built to him. This aureus shows the procession of the sacred stone drawn by four horses.
MAXIMINUS I (A.D. 235 - 238)
The two coins on this slide are of the same emperor, Maximinus I. Maximinus was acclaimed emperor on the Rhine frontier and his earliest issues from the Rome mint (top coin), struck before an image of him was available, resemble the portrait of his predecessor, Severus Alexander. A more realistic portrait with the harsh features described by the ancient authors is shown below. The reverses portray, respectively, Pax standing with scepter and olive branch and Salus seated, feeding a serpent coiled around an altar.
PHILIP I (A.D. 244 - 249)
In the year 248, the emperor Philip I celebrated the millennium of the founding of Rome. Preparations for the festivities had begun many years earlier. One of the attractions was the importation of wild animals from various parts of the empire. Philip issued a series of coins depicting these beasts, which include a stag, goat, antelope, gazelle and lion (coin on the left). Also celebrating the anniversary of Rome is the coin on the right with its familiar motif of her founders, Romulus and Remus, suckled by the she-wolf.
TRAJAN DECIUS (A.D. 249 - 251)
Experimentation with a new denomination was made by the emperor Trajan Decius; a double sestertius with a radiate crown obverse. The coins are handsome specimens and medallic in appearance. After Decius they were struck by only one other emperor, the usurper Postumus. This specimen with the reverse, FELICITAS SAECVULI, alleges the happiness of the times.
GALLIENUS (A.D. 253 - 268)
The coinage of Gallienus is characterized by appeals to the loyalty of the troops. One series honors each of the legions stationed on the Rhine and Danube frontiers. On the left, a coin of the third legion Italica, whose badge was a stork; on the right, the fourth legion Flavia Felix, whose crest was a lion. Both legions bear the epithet "Pious and faithful for the sixth time" (VI P VI F). The series was discontinued in 259 when the Rhine legions went over to the usurper Postumus.
DIOCLETIAN (A.D. 284 - 305)
The military and financial crises of the third century took their toll from the coins. The familiar bronzes of earlier years ceased to be issued, gold was rare and the silver consisted of a copper core with a silver wash. The monetary reform of Diocletian reestablished all three metals and instituted a uniform coinage struck at mints all over the empire. The reformed coinage projected a new image. For the copper, there is one denomination, the follies, and at first one main type, the Genio Populi Romani (Genius of the Roman People). It was a slogan of the new regime, an appeal to the unity of the Roman people. The diversity of reverse types with historical, architectural, religious and family references which had characterized the imperial aes coinage for three hundred years was now a thing of the past.