Imagery on Ancient Roman Coins

Since Rome first began minting coins in 289 BC, they took on enormous importance throughout the Roman world. This was not only because of their practical importance in everyday transactions, but also due to the imagery they bore, which transmitted powerful messages about the state as far as the coins themselves travelled. This imagery was almost always intended to celebrate Rome- the city, its empire, its leaders, or its values- through images and inscriptions, and thereby underline the extent of its authority and power.

roman coins

Commemorating Political and Military Achievements

Coins were frequently minted bearing messages explicitly announcing Roman political and military achievements, often relating to the conquest of a new territory. Famous examples include the denarius of Octavian (Augustus) issued in 27 BC which displayed the phrase ‘AEGVPTO CAPTA’, or ‘Egypt is captured’. This appeared alongside the image of a crocodile, a symbol of Egypt. Similarly, the Emperor Vespasian issued a series of coins following the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt in 70 AD, which proclaimed ‘Judaea is captured’, or occasionally the more brutal phrase ‘Judaea is defeated’. These appeared alongside depictions of Jewish rebels or women who are shown kneeling or bound. Even earlier than these, a range of coins minted in 235 BC, depict the prow of a ship as a reference to Rome’s major naval victory over Carthage just three years earlier. Peace was also celebrated in addition to military victories. This is shown by images of the god Janus, or the Gates of Janus in Rome, which would be symbolically closed whenever the empire was at peace. These images appear on coins as early as the 3rd century BC, and continue well into the days of the Empire, on coins such as the sestertius struck in around 65 AD, during the reign of Nero.

Religious and Mythological Imagery

Religious and mythological imagery also appeared frequently on Roman coinage. This could, on one hand, be seen as a legitimate expression of piety and respect for the gods. However, it also enabled Rome to be presented as a divinely favoured state, with powerful deities on their side. The legend of Rome’s foundation also provided a popular source of imagery, with depictions of the twins Romulus and Remus (who according to the legend were raised by a she-wolf and founded the city) dating back as far as 269 BC. Depictions of gods such as Jupiter, the ruler of the pantheon, and Mars, the god of war, were also popular throughout both the Republic and the Empire.

lupa roma
faustina i ar denarius
Aelius Ar denarius

Portraits of Rulers

During the Roman Republic, coins were produced acknowledging the consuls who were in office at the time, often through symbols associated with their family. However, it was several centuries until living people were depicted on coins. This happened during the Late Republic, when Julius Caesar was depicted on a denarius struck in 44 BC alongside his official titles, including ‘DICT. PERPETVO’, or ‘dictator for life’, in the space usually occupied by images of gods or heroes. It is notable that the next living person who was depicted on coinage was Brutus, who famously lead the assassination of Julius Caesar. On the reverse of this coin was a cap of liberty flanked by two daggers, making a powerful statement about how the deed had been a blow against the danger of tyranny. However, from Augustus onwards, portraits of living rulers on coinage became commonplace, and were often accompanied by inscriptions aimed at underscoring the legitimacy of the emperor’s reign. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Augustus’ inscription proclaiming himself ‘DIVI FILIUS’ or ‘son of a god’ (as a result of his adoption by the deified Julius Caesar). Thus coins were used to circulate propaganda which not only emphasized the power of Rome as a state, but also the vast reach of the emperor’s personal sovereignty.

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