Roman Imperial Coinage

According to Roman tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C. 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 B.C., 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. In 27 B.C., the Republic was transformed into an Empire, with Augustus reigning as the sole ruler of 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 A.D. 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 by the authority of the emperor.

Because everyone within the Roman Empire had a need for money, coins were universal. 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 the 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, and 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.

For more information on the coins, please contact Prof. Dan Davis, Classics Collection Manager, at [email protected]. Also, please visit our Flickr page.