Legend says that the brothers Romulus and
Remus founded the city of Rome around 750 BC. At first, the Romans
were one of many cities vying for power in central Italy; but,
after many battles, Rome emerged as the most dominant of these. By
the end of the 4th century BC, Rome controlled most of
central Italy; then, after the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC), in which
it defeated the Greek city-states in southern Italy, Rome
controlled nearly all of the Italian peninsula.
Carthage, a Phoenician city in North Africa
that dominated the lands south of the Mediterranean, came into
conflict with Rome during the Punic Wars, around 250 BC. These wars
lasted for nearly 100 years, neither side gaining an advantage.
Finally, at the end of Third Punic War, the Romans captured
It is during the Punic Wars that Romans
first began to issue circular coinage. They adopted the idea from
the Greek city-states they had captured, but made their own designs
and denominations. The most common coin was a silver denarius,
which was worth 10 copper asses. The early Roman denarii typically
depicted a bust of the goddess Roma on the obverse, and another
deity on the reverse.
The Roman Republic continued to grow
larger as it conquered Iberia, Greece, and some of Asia Minor.
However, the Roman senate, which for nearly 500 years had governed
the Republic, began to grow corrupt. Powerful generals, such as
Pompey the Great, began to amass much power for themselves; three
of these powerful individuals (Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus)
united to create the First Triumvirate in 60 BC. However, these
generals soon were at each other's throats, and the Republic fell
into civil war.
During this civil war, coins were used as
propaganda tools throughout the empire; the coins from this time
period often show images representing a general's victory. This was
also the first time living Romans were portrayed on coins; Julius
Caesar's portrait appears on many coins from this time
Julius Caesar won the civil war, and
virtually became the emperor of Rome. However, Caesar was
assassinated in 44 BC. After his death, another civil war broke
out; this time, it was Junius Brutus and others who had helped
assassinate Caesar against Mark Antony and Octavian, Caesar's heir.
Antony and Octavian won this war, but then turned on each other.
Octavian defeated Antony, and became the first emperor of
Thus began the Roman Empire; it lasted
from 30 BC until 476 AD. Some of the significant emperors were:
Claudius, who conquered Britannia; Nero, who supposedly set the
Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD; Vespasian, who ordered the building of
the Colosseum; Trajan, who conquered Dacia and built Trajan's
Forum; and Hadrian, who commissioned the construction of Hadrian's
Coins issued during this time period
depict the Roman emperor of the time on one side, and have the
emperor's abbreviated name inscribed around the emperor's bust. For
example, a coin might say: IMPCMAVRSEVALEXANDAVG. This means:
Imperator (emperor) Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander
Augustus. On the other side, they list the titles the emperor had
been given by the senate and typically have the image of a deity.
Some common inscriptions on the reverses of roman imperial coins
were PP (pater patriae), or Father of the People; TR P (tribuncias
potestas), or Tribune of the People; and COS (consul).
During the third century, Rome fell into
the so-called "third-century crisis" due to invasion, economic
depression, and civil unrest. From 235-284 AD, there was civil war
between different provinces, and many Romans claimed themselves to
be emperor. Due to inflation, denarii (and other previously silver
coins) issued during this time period were nearly all bronze or
copper with barely a trace of silver. The emperor Diocletian
brought the empire out of the crisis eventually, and made the Roman
Empire a tetrarchy; that is, he ruled alongside three
After Diocletian, civil war broke out
amongst Constantine, the emperor the Western Roman Empire, and the
other emperors. Constantine won, and in 324, became sole ruler of
the empire. He issued a new coin, the gold solidus, to help combat
inflation. Constantine also made the Edict of Milan, which decreed
religious tolerance throughout the empire, and made Constantinople
the capital city of the Eastern empire.
After Constantine's rule, the empire
gradually began to fall as Germanic tribes invaded the empire;
these tribes sacked Rome multiple times. The Western Roman Empire
fell when the final Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed
of by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain.
Rome was the greatest empire of all time;
throughout the history of the Roman empire, coins were issued that
help us understand the past. Through these coins, we can figure out
the accomplishments of the individual emperors. We can also
discover details about how the Romans lived from the coins, and
what deities they worshiped. Ancient Roman coins, more so than any
other artifact, are windows into the past.