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Coinage of the Roman Republic


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Bertol, A. & K Farac. "Aes rude and aes formatum - a new typology" in VAMZ, 3. s., XLV (2012).
Buttrey, T. "The Denarii of P. Crepusius and Roman Republican Mint Organization" in ANSMN 21 (1976), p. 67-108.
Carson, R. Principal Coins of the Romans, Vol. I: The Republic, c. 290-31 BC. (London, 1978).
Cohen, H. Description historique des monnaies frappes sous l 'Empire Romain, Vol. 1: Pompey to Domitian. (Paris, 1880).
Coin Hoards of the Roman Republic Online - http://numismatics.org/chrr/
Crawford, M. "Paestum and Rome: The form and function of a subsidiary coinage" in La monetazione di bronzo do Poseidonia-Paestum. Annali 18-19 Supp. (Naples, 1971).
Crawford, M. Roman Republican Coinage. (Cambridge, 1974).
Davis, P. "Dacian Imitations of Roman Republican Denarii" in Apvlvm Number XLIII/1. (2006) pp. 321-356.
Davis, P. Imitations of Roman Republican Denarii, website: http://rrimitations.ancients.info/
De Ruyter, P. "Denarii of the Roman Republican Moneyer Lucius Julius Bursio, a Die Analysis" in NC 156 (1996), p. 79 - 121, pl. 21 - 22.
Grueber, H. Coins of the Roman Republic in The British Museum. (London, 1910).
Haeberlin, E. Aes Grave. Das Schwergeld Roms und Mittelitaliens. (Frankfurt, 1910).
Harlan, M. Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins, 63 BC - 49 BC. (London, 1995).
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Hoover, O. Handbook of Coins of Sicily (including Lipara), Civic, Royal, Siculo-Punic, and Romano-Sicilian Issues, Sixth to First Centuries BC. HGC 2. (Lancaster, PA, 2011).
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Coinage of the Roman Republic

by Lillian Sellati

Roman History 1 - 24 November 2010

Art is, in essence, a reflection of the artist and the world he or she lives in. As such, artwork provides a wealth of information about a civilization 's morals, interests, and societal norms. The Roman Empire is no exception.  Roman mosaics, wall paintings, architecture, and sculpture all have been studied in depth in order to form a better picture of the Roman Empire and its inhabitants.  However, there is one aspect of Roman art that is often overlooked; the iconography present on their coinage.

The coinage of the Roman Republic reflects the militaristic mindset of the Roman people.  From the founding of Rome somewhere around 753 BCE to the fall of the Republic in 44 BCE, Rome was nearly continuously engaged in warfare.  Wars were fought to gain land, wealth, and slaves, to keep allies subdued or to maintain buffers between Rome and other powerful empires.  Warfare also brought the diverse Roman and Provincial population together by providing them with a common goal to work towards. The few times that Rome was not at war during the Republican period, infighting and chaotic social reforms plagued the city of Rome.  In this way, annual warfare was crucial to the maintenance of the Roman State, a fact which is reflected in all aspects of Roman society and in Roman coinage especially.

The earliest coins in Italy came from Magna Graecia in the late sixth century BCE. Minting coins was originally a Greek practice which was brought to southern Italy when the Greeks colonized the area.  The main mints were located in Campania, Apulia, and Lucania.  This is not to say, however, that precious metals were not being used in a monetary fashion elsewhere in Italy; only that this did not yet conform to the definition of coinage (Cornell 394).  In Etruria, in northern Italy, the "coinage" of choice was bullion or aes rude. Bullion consisted of small vaguely rectangular bars or ingots made of various precious metals.  Copper bars of this type were called ramo seco, and were used in Etruria from the sixth to the third century BCE.  Other types of currency, such as marked bronze bars called aes signatum and heavy cast bronze coins called aes grave were developed later, in the fourth century (Hollander 16).

Despite the continued presence of coinage in Magna Graecia, the Romans did not become interested in minting their own coins until the late fourth century BCE.  However, the Romans still did not mint their own coins.  Instead, the coins were minted in Neapolis, Campania; one of the most prolific of the coin minting cities in southern Italy.  These bronze coins, dated to approximately 326 BCE, featured the head of Apollo on the obverse and the fore-portion of a man-headed bull on the reverse.  The reverse also contained the Greek legend "PΩMAIΩN".  Coins from this first issue have since been dubbed Romano-Campanian coins and are basically Greek in design (Cornell 394).  However, it is telling that the god chosen to grace the coins was Apollo, who the Romans associated with plagues and destruction along with his traditional Greek role as a god of light, music, and healing (Clain 72).  Furthermore, in contrast to Greek coins, these were cast rather than struck, a technique which was never used anywhere else in the Hellenistic world and was soon abandoned by the Romans as well (Cornell 395).

The first coins to show a truly Roman influence were the first silver coins, called didrachms, struck about 310 BCE in Neapolis.  On the obverse of these coins, the head of the war god Mars was featured.  On the reverse was a horse 's head, an animal associated with Mars, and the Latin legend "ROMANO."  This coin type was only used in southern Italy. In light of this restricted circulation and the year they were stuck, scholars believe these coins may have been specifically minted in order to pay for the construction of the Via Appia: a road, hundreds of miles long, which connected Rome and Capua in Campania and was eventually extended all the way to Brundisium in the far south-east of Italy (Boatwright 86, Cornell 396).  This road was one of the first built in order to make it easier and quicker for the Roman legions to march off to war in distant lands.

The first coins actually minted in Rome itself were silver coins cast in 269 BCE. This coin type included a quintessentially Roman iconography.  The obverse had the head of Hercules, the Panhellenic hero revered for his courage and prowess as a warrior.  On the reverse, was a picture of the she-wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus; a traditional image from the city 's foundation myth (Cornell 396).  The other earliest coin types included one with a harsh faced Jupiter on the obverse and the head of Roma, the personification of Rome, on the reverse and one with Victoria, the personification of victory, on the obverse and the head of Roma on the reverse (Crawford 8).  Also dating from about the same time, between 275 and 242 BCE, a cast bronze ingot from Etruria features an elephant on one side and a sow on the other.  These images also reflect a militaristic mindset.  The elephant is inspired by the Pyrrhic War of 280-275 BCE, which was the first time any of the people living in Italy had ever seen the great "war machines" (Boatwright 111).

Not only did early Roman coins have motifs inspired by conflict, but the main reasons for the development and use of coinage were related to war.  Bronze and silver coinage did not truly begin to be minted periodically until the outbreak of the Pyrrhic War in 280-275 BCE.  This was the first time that the Romans were required to fight a professional army.  The duration and difficulty of this war resulted in the need for an efficient way to pay the soldiers and to pay civilian contractors building related public works, such as the Via Appia mentioned previously (Hollander 16-17).  Another indicator of the connection between war and Roman coinage is the dates when the various issues of coinage were minted.  Of the 59 issues of coinage that took place before the Roman Republic fell, 56 coincided with times of crisis relating to war.  More specifically, eight issues occurred during the second Punic War, four during Sulla 's reign, and 44 during the Civil Wars of the first century BCE.  The final three issues were the only ones which did not fall into the common pattern (Hollander 20).

When it comes to the iconography of early Roman coins, they generally follow two themes.  The obverse shows either Roma, Alexander the Great, or someone associated with them. For example, many struck bronze coins have a warrior-woman in a Corinthian or Attic helmet on the obverse.  The obvious interpretation would be to say that the woman is Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom.  However, the reverse of these coins all have the Latin legend "ROMANO".  This could point to the woman being Minerva, the Roman equivalent to Athena, were it not for other evidence.  There are similar silver coins, with the same woman wearing a Phrygian helmet.  The woman on these coins has been confirmed as Roma due to their similarity to Apulian coins from the Hannibalic War which, once again, feature the same woman, this time with the title "ROMA" included underneath the image.  The importance of this confusion between Athena and Roma is that it demonstrates just how closely the Roman 's modeled the personification of their city after the Greek goddess of war.  This behavior is unprecedented, as usually personifications are meant to look like everyday citizens.  Therefore it must be assumed that war must have played a significant role in the life and psyche of the average Roman citizen (Burnett 67-70).

The other common motif in early Republican coinage is Alexander the Great.  However, unlike with Roma, Alexander himself is only ever seen on one issue of coinage and that was an emergency issue during the Mithridatic Wars (Bauslaugh 41).  Instead, Alexander was referred to through more subtle iconography, such as the Macedonian war helmets which appear on some versions of Roma.  The most common allusion to Alexander the Great on coins was actually through the guise of Hercules.  This is not surprising, as Alexander had already been closely associated with Hercules for many years in the Hellenistic world.  Like the portraits of Alexander popular on Hellenistic coinage, the Roman Hercules followed all of the classic features of the leonine type.  That is, the coins portrayed an eternally young man wearing a royal diadem who had no beard, an anastol hairstyle with long side whiskers, and idealized features (Burnett 72).  The Romans ' fascination with strong warrior figures such as Hercules and Alexander the Great is also displayed by the immense popularity of the Cult of Hercules in Rome, where Hercules/Alexander was worshiped as a god of victory.

Other related, though less common, images on early Roman coinage include portraits of Mars and Apollo.  As stated previously, Mars is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of war, Ares.  Meanwhile, Apollo is the Greek god of light, music, and healing.  He was also seen as a symbol of victory by the Greeks and in his Roman incarnation was the god of destruction and pestilence along with his other more benign duties.  There were also a few coin types which sported mixed motifs.  For example, some silver didrachms sported Roma 's head on the obverse and either a horse, a reference to Mars, or Apollo 's head on the reverse and the Latin legend "ROMA."  Other didrachms had an image of Mars with leonine features wearing a war helmet on the obverse and either a horse or a horse head on the reverse, again with the Latin legend "ROMA" (Burnett 72-74).

The later coin types of the Roman Republic were quite a bit more diverse than their forbearers.  These motifs can be categorized into eight groups, seven of which are relevant to this argument; that Roman coinage reflects the warlike nature of the Romans.   The first of these popular types of imagery for coinage is, unsurprisingly, the gods.  Mars, Roma, Victoria, and Apollo have previously been discussed so here it will only be reiterated that all of these have blatant, and in the case of Roma and Apollo purposefully wrought, connections to war and the critical role it played in the daily lives of Romans, as well as the pedestal on which great warriors were placed.

Other important deities featured on coinage are Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.  Their joint temple, the Capitolium on Capitoline hill in Rome, also decorated the obverse of a few late Republican coin issues pertaining to monuments, another of the categories previously mentioned (Clain 7).  These three form what was called the Capitoline Triad and were those deities the Romans deemed most important (Clain 75).  As such, they were named as patrons to most of the cities in Italy and a recreation of the Capitolium could be found in each.  That these three deities were chosen as the most significant, once again, says something about Roman culture.  Jupiter, whose Greek equivalent was Zeus, is an obvious choice considering his role as king of the gods.  He also is known for the iconic thunderbolts which he throws in battle. Another expected choice was Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, whose Greek counterpart Athena relates so closely with the personification of Rome (Burnett 68).  The third deity, Juno, is the Roman version of the Greek goddess Hera, jealous wife of Zeus, goddess of marriage, and protector of women.  At first this choice seems odd compared to the warlike attributes of the other two deities.  However, the decision becomes understandable when considering that the Romans changed the Greek perception of Hera by also worshipping Juno as a goddess of war.  Juno being a war goddess is also significant because the word "money" comes from her name in the guise of Juno Moneta, further connecting the Roman coinage system with militaristic pursuits (Clain 83).

Another group of deities seen on Roman coins are the Dioscuri, the twin gods Castor and Pollux.  These two gods were very popular during the early Republic and the preceding late regal period.  They were the sons of Zeus/Jupiter and were known for helping soldiers in battle and sailors at sea (Clain 78).  They also were considered gods of the cavalry.  Many Roman generals offered to dedicate monuments in these gods honor in exchange for winning an impending battle.  For example, Roman dictator A. Postumius Albus dedicated a temple to Castor and Pollux in return for winning the Battle of Lake Regillus, an important battle in the Romano-Latin Wars.  The last militaristic deity found on Roman coinage is the, fairly rare, appearance of Neptune. Neptune is the Roman incarnation of the Greek Poseidon, god of the sea, who was representative of the Roman Navy after its creation during the first Punic War from 264-241 BCE (Boatwright 105, Clain 89).

Mythological scenes or representations thereof are also common motifs on Roman coinage.  Two popular themes for this group of coins are heroes and monsters.  The most common monsters represented were silens and satyrs; the grotesque goat hoofed followers of Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, who were known for their drunken debauchery and promiscuous nature. The next most popular were centaurs: monstrous half horse-half human creatures characterized for both their wisdom and their brutality.  Lastly, famous monsters such as Medusa, the Calydonian Boar, and others also appeared, although less frequently (Clain 64-70).  As for heroes, of course the most popular and most regularly portrayed hero was Hercules.  One particular Hercules type coin was a denarius struck in 139 BCE in Rome by M. Aurelius in Rome.  The obverse shows a version of the Centauromachy with the stereotypical helmeted head of Roma on the reverse.  The Centauromachy is a traditionally Greek scene in which the barbarian centaurs are being defeated in battle by heroic Greeks, in this case Hercules.  Both the scene itself and the accompanying myth are particularly violent, making it an unsurprising addition to the corpus of Roman coin types (Clain 66).  Other heroes that appear include Bellerophon on Pegasus, the man who killed the chimera and fought the Amazons, the Catanean brothers, who saved their parents from the eruption of Mount Etna, and Aeneas, the Trojan prince who led the survivors of the Trojan War to Latium, Italy (Clain 65-66).

Scenes including Aeneas carrying his aging father and baby son from Troy also fall into the category of Roman traditions commemorated on coinage (Clain 36).  Another, perhaps the most iconic scene from the traditional Roman foundation myths, is the she-wolf and infant twins Romulus and Remus.  As stated previously, this obverse is normally paired with a portrait of a helmeted Roma on the reverse (Cain 37).  This coin type is of particular importance because it depicts two of the most significant motifs used to symbolize the quintessential spirit of Rome and its people: Roma and a wolf.  Roma is a rather blatant symbol, she is the personification of the city of Rome, a goddess of war who is always fully armored and ready to go out and do battle.  The wolf, as a symbol, is equally as transparent.  A wolf is a dangerous and vicious animal that was greatly feared by humans.  What better mascot for a warlike society hoping to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies?

Unsurprisingly, the Romans were not the only Italic people who represented themselves in the form of a formidable wild animal.  One example of this comes from a coin type issued during the Social War, 91-87 BCE, by the Italic peoples revolting against the Romans unfair treatment of them (Boatwright 180).  On the obverse, these coins showed a raging bull, the representation of the Italian peoples, trampling and goring the Roman wolf.  However, despite this gruesome declaration of military prowess, the personification of Italy, named Italia, on the reverse is a sweet looking woman with a crown of flowers in her hair (Boatwright 182).  She is more similar in appearance, and presumably nature, to the Etruscan goddess of flowers, Flora, than to a goddess of war such as Athena, whom Roma is modeled after.  This dichotomy says something about the differing levels of militaristic nature between the Romans and their Italic neighbors which they had long since subjugated, regardless of the occasional rebellion on the part of the conquered.
Even the coin types depicting everyday life reflect the militaristic mindset of the Roman people.  Most of these coins consist of a scene relating to voting in the comitium and/or Roman legionaries (Clain 16-18).  This pattern further supports the historical evidence which suggests that militarism was completely entwined with all aspects of Roman life. Part of this evidence being the fact that all male citizens were required to serve in the army and that the voting groups or centuries also doubled as their assigned grouping in the army.

Of all of the categories discussed, the most prolific is the theme of warfare and victory.  Ever since coinage first became abundant during the Pyrrhic War, that and nearly all of the following wars and conflicts were commemorated on some issue of Roman coinage.  One of the first types was the elephant/sow bronze ingot described earlier (Boatwright 111).  More elephant appeared on coins issued during the Punic Wars.  The great "war machines" were alternately used to represent Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians who utilized them and Julius Caesar whose famous coin depicting an elephant trampling a serpent represents his triumph over the Gallic tribes (Clain 45-46, 51).  Other important conflicts which were immortalized on Roman coinage include the slave rebellions of the first century BCE as well as various wars with the Latins, the Gauls, and the Iberian tribes (Clain 40-61).

Along with animal representations, figures such as Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, Victoria, and Roma were also depicted.  Roma was almost always shown in her stereotypical manner: a helmeted bust on the reverse side of the coin.  Victoria was also shown in this manner at times.  However, unlike Roma, she was also illustrated as a full body figure with a wreath either in her hand or elsewhere in the picture.  Other symbols associated with Victoria included a palm branch, symbolizing peace after victory, and a stylus, a mast-like structure symbolizing the navy.  She, like Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules, was also frequently seen in a quadriga: a war chariot drawn by four horses (Clain 40-44, 50).

All of the coins commemorating wars or battles were also meant to immortalize and publicize the individual or family who ordered its issue.  Because of this, some coins included the portraits of famous family members who were associated with the triumph depicted instead of the usual gods of war on the reverse.  A good example of this is a denarius struck by order of Cornelius Blasio in Rome in 112-111 BCE.  The coin had the helmeted head of his ancestor Scipio Africanus the Elder on the reverse, while the obverse depicted the Capitoline Triad.  This coin was meant to both remind the viewer of the connections between the Cornelii and the Scipione families as well as publicizing the issuer 's own name; which is written, complete with all magistracies held, around the edges on the reverse side of the coin (Clain 47).  Others ignored tradition all together and put only their own portrait on the coinage.  One such example is Q. Pompeius Rufus who issued a coin with a portrait of his grandfather and co-consul in 88 BCE Lucius Cornelius Sulla on the obverse and his own portrait on the reverse (Clain 56).

Militarism was an integral factor in Roman life and ideology, inseparable from other major societal institutions, such as religion and politics.  The influence of continuous warfare can be seen in all aspects of Roman society: from the gods they deemed most important to the organization of the voting system, from the characteristics they deemed worthy of honor to the development of their economy. All of these things are also clearly reflected in Roman artwork and nowhere more so than in the development and decoration of coinage.


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Bauslaugh, Robert A.. "The Numismatic Legacy of Alexander the Great." Archaeology July/Aug. 1984. 34-47. Print.

Burnett, A. M.. "The Iconography of Roman Coin Types in the Third Century BC." The Numismatic Chronicle 1986. 67-75. Print.

Clain-Stefanelli, Elvira Eliza. Life in Republican Rome on its Coinage. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1999. Print.

Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars. New York: Routledge, 1995 Print.

Crawford, Michael H.. Roman Republican Coinage. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Web.

Hollander, David B.. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition, Volume 29: Money in the Late Roman Republic. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers: 2007. Web.

Jones, John Melville. A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins. London: Redwood Press Limited, 1990.

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