The Roman Empire According To Coinage

Posted by Allison on 4 April 2009, 10:16

Certain periods of history always tend to grab our attention more than others.  One good example of this is the time of the Romans, and more specifically the Roman Empire.

While most people would name Julius Caesar as the most famous Roman they are familiar with, other names such as Claudius and Caligula will also be familiar to a lot of people.

But the real story of the Roman Empire can be told nowadays by their coins, which were nothing if not indicative of the times in which they were made.  In fact it is Julius Caesar and his vanity that we have to thank for the common custom today of featuring the ruler of a country on our coinage, just as we do in Britain.

While coins in Roman times served the same purpose as they do now – namely that they could be exchanged for goods to the value of those coins – they also had a far more important role, and it is this role we are interested in here, because it tells us far more about the times of the Roman Empire than it does about how people paid for goods and services back in those times.

It should be remembered that society was a very different place back then.  News didn't travel in the same ways that it does today; word of mouth was the main form of spreading news and while it worked it took time to reach everyone of note.

It didn't take the various Roman emperors long to realise that making specific types of coins was a good way of helping to spread any messages they might have that they wanted their subjects to know.  While today we would hear about the new ruler of a certain country via the internet, news reports and papers, back in Roman times they had none of these methods available to them.  The people who lived close to the Roman Senate would no doubt have heard any news of a new Roman emperor as soon as it broke, but if you were alive in those times and lived miles away from the Senate you might not find out about such a change until days – if not weeks – later.

That's why the Roman emperors – starting with Caesar - decided to have coins made with their image on them.  In this way the coins would start to circulate and people would find out about their new ruler as soon as they saw them.  The name of the new ruler would also usually be on the coins, leaving no doubt as to who was now in charge.

As such coinage held a particularly important role in Roman times.  It was as much a way of reinforcing the leadership of the Roman dictators as it was anything else, and coin collectors of modern times have many a Roman coin in their collections which points towards the time of a particular ruler.

In fact, while Roman coins are particularly interesting to a lot of collectors, those which have Julius Caesar's face on them are understandably even more desirable.  He is by far the most famous and perhaps also infamous of Romans, as he was finally overthrown and assassinated on The Ides of March (March 15th to you and I) by many of his former friends.  It is this story of betrayal and murder which tends to catch the imagination, and many people are curious to know what Caesar really looked like.

Of course, there are busts and paintings of him which have been created over the years – both ancient and modern – but these somehow don't give us the best impression.  Furthermore they all look rather different from each other.

Perhaps that is why Roman coins which feature Julius Caesar are so highly sought after.  They were made while he was still ruling over Rome and presumably he would have approved of them before they were made en masse and distributed to his subjects.

It's quite something to note how detailed his features were even back then, given the fact that the means to make coinage were somewhat different to how they are made now.  But how truthful were those images?  Do we really have any idea what Julius Caesar looked like, simply by looking at the Roman coins which bear his image?

The truth is that we will probably never know exactly what he looked like.  It is a natural human tendency to want to look as good as we can when being photographed, so there is no reason to expect it would be any different when coins were involved back in Roman times.  Even different Roman coins featuring Caesar look different from one another; this is possibly due to the skill of the different people who were trusted with making the design for the coins, and possibly due to the amount of time which elapsed between different coins as Caesar aged and perhaps changed his appearance a little.

On some coins he looks to have a more rounded face than on others; while some coins have lasted rather better than others and more detail can be seen.  A silver denarius (one of the coins of currency back in those times) shows Julius Caesar facing to the right and wearing some kind of veil.  The features are quite clear however – he has a slim and somewhat angular face with a large sized nose.  This is at odds with some of the paintings and busts which can be seen of him.

In the end, even though paintings can include far more detail than coins, they consist largely of the artist's imagination.  An ancient coin always holds the possibility that it could have been handled by Caesar himself, and as such it holds far more information than anything else would.  Even though it may not be as detailed, it provides a solid link back to Roman times when Julius Caesar ruled over Rome. 

This is probably one of the reasons why Roman coinage does tend to be particularly popular among collectors everywhere.  It helps to bring alive a time in history that occurred many hundreds of years ago, and which may sometimes seem to exist nowhere except in our imaginations.  Names such as Caesar, Pompey the Great, Brutus, Cassius and even more bring to life a time that is long gone, but which was filled with wars, dictators, betrayal and much more besides.

One wonders whether the coinage we use now will be looked upon with the same fascination some two thousand years from now.  It seems an unlikely possibility to us, but then if Julius Caesar had been able to see into the future and observed us using pieces of paper to pay for things – not to mention plastic cards – he probably would have found that amazing.

Currency changes through the ages just as our own lives do.  Everything moves on so perhaps our own currency will indeed be just as intriguing to people in two thousand years as the Roman coinage is to us today.  After all, even if you weren't a coin collector you would still undoubtedly be excited if you were to find a genuine Roman coin at any point in your life.