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My Favorite Series
By Josh Moran, WINS#62

The Large Copper Coinage of the Early Roman Empire


The coinage of Imperial Rome served as more than just a means of consumption and exchange. It can be argued that one of its alternate functions was a means of communicating current events and propaganda to the people of the Roman Empire. Just as modern "spinsters" use their language skills and eloquence to decorate the reputations of politicians, Roman moneyers used their artistic abilities to strike coins that achieved the same end. Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than on the copper coins of the early Roman Empire, making them my favorite coin series.

Because of the relatively small intrinsic value of copper during the time period (when compared to silver, the standard of domestic and foreign commercial exchange), most Roman copper coins were of a very hefty size. The large sizes allowed for the inclusion of magnificent detail that could not be included on smaller silver and gold coins.

The first and second centuries arguably contained the apex of Roman artistry. Sculpture of the time was of such high quality, that it set the standard of "perfection" later sought by Renaissance artisans in 14th century Italy. These same ideals were applied to the art on coins. The busts of the various emperors throughout this period are splendidly crafted with the finest details (Fig. 1 and 2). So well engraved were the dies, that these emperors could easily be recognized on sight by an experienced numismatist, were they alive today.

This does not include the quadrans and the semis, which at the time equaled and as respectively.


 

Figure 1 Sestertius of Trajan 98-117 A.D._______________Figure 2 Dupondius of Vespasian 69-79 A.D.


 

Two of the best examples of current events and propaganda depicted on these coins are found in the issues of Vespasian and Nero. In 67 A.D., Vespasian was appointed to quell the Jewish rebellion. After being proclaimed emperor in 69 A.D., Vespasian issued a sestertius depicting mourning captives beneath a palm tree (the symbol for Judaea). The coin features the legend "JVDEA CAPTA" referring to Vespasian's victory over the rebellion, an obvious symbol of the emperor's power and dominance (Fig. 3).

Because of his infamy, Nero's military successes were often overlooked. One of his coins portrays the temple of Janus (Fig. 4). This is a representation of Nero's closing of the temple, a ceremony which occurred only during the rare occasions when Rome was at peace. His coins were quite apparently trying to convince the Roman populous of his beneficence, despite his killing of numerous officials and his outrageous private life.


 

Figure 3: Sestertius of Vespasian 69-79 A.D_______________Figure 4: Sestertius of Nero 54-68 A.D.


 

The most appealing part of collecting this particular series, is the intellectual challenge it presents. The series contains such an incredible variety of types, styles and mints that numerous numismatic references are often required to research and attribute an individual coin and ascertain its date, rarity and sometimes price. An excellent beginning reference is the Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander H. Klawans. It features basic information on the denominations, types, inscriptions and motifs the collector will encounter in his pursuit. A very detailed account of Roman coinage is found in Roman Imperial Coinage by Sydenham and Mattingly, the "Bible" to collectors of Imperial coins. One could easily spend thousands of dollars on a numismatic library, and still not have a complete reference set. This is the final challenge of collecting this beautiful and fascinating series of coins.

Images in my essay are courtesy of: wildwinds.com




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