Roman Imperial Coinage

The heart of one of the greatest civilizations to have ever been, the city of Rome was traditionally founded in 753 BC in central Italy. Starting out in an inconspicuous village under the rule of kings, over time the Romans conquered their Italic neighbors, and overthrew their monarchy in 509 BC, creating the famous Roman Republic. Over the years, the Republic spread its domain to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Gaul (France), Hispania (Spain), Carthage (Tunisia), and many lands in between, spreading their distinct engineering culture, leaving huge monuments everywhere they went. In 27 BC, the Republic was transformed into an Empire, with Augustus reigning as the sole ruler of the Rome and its lands. He and his successors spread their domain to Judea, Egypt, Britain, and for a brief while Armenia and Mesopotamia (Iraq). This Empire survived in one form or another until the fall of the Byzantines in AD 1453.

During most of this time, coins were minted for the government’s use, often to pay debts or soldiers’ salaries. Because of this, the government usually only minted gold and silver coins, as paying with bronze would require too many coins. Thus, bronze coins were minted at irregular intervals, and their quality was often lacking. However, a lesser quality coin was required for everyday purchases by the populace, and thus these coins are the most common found. During the later empire, local authorities could mint bronze coins, but silver and gold coins were still minted only the authority of the emperor.

Because everyone within the Roman Empire had a need for money, coins were ubiquitous. However, for the minters they often served other purposes in addition to monetary transactions. For instance, much Republic coinage featured images of the bust of Roma, a female deity who personified the city of Rome, along with other symbols of the city. This changed when Julius Caesar, after seizing control of mint from the Senate, was the first to mint an image of a living person on a Roman coin: himself. Following Caesar’s assassination, the tradition of putting one’s portrait on a coin was not abandoned, as many emperors would put their image on coins, control of the mint never returning to senatorial hands. These portraits were an important means of spreading the emperor’s image throughout his domain. These coins often tried to make the emperor seem divine, sometimes emphasizing a relationship between an emperor and a specific god. Often the coin would embody attributes of the individual portrayed on it. Dio Cassius wrote that following the death of Caligula the Senate demonetized his coinage, and ordered that they be melted.

In addition to their own portraits, emperors would sometimes mint coins with images of past emperors as homage to them. Other times they would mint coins adorned with images of their successors, in order to establish and solidify a rightful heir. The imperial coinage was, fundamentally, a government-controlled economic instrument which also had added value as propaganda.

From the entire collection of hundreds of Roman coins, this exhibit features 36 coins, each featuring a different emperor, with the exception of two coins dedicated to Nero. Unlike the Greek and Levantine galleries, this gallery features as much on the history of the people depicted on the coins as the coins themselves. Many of the coins in the gallery are bronzes, the most common type of coin in the Empire and the ones used in everyday life, although some examples of finer materials are present. Most of the coins are provincial coins, or those minted under the authority of individual provinces as granted by the emperor. Most were acquired by Luther’s own Dr. Orlando Qualley during an archaeological expedition to Karanis, Egypt between 1924 and 1925. Because Egypt had been ruled by Greeks for centuries before the Romans annexed it, many of the coins feature Greek symbols and words, as most people in the province would have spoken Ancient Greek.

To view more information about the coins shown below, please visit our Flickr page.

Ancient Roman Coin (375 Obverse face)