The Exchange : A History of Rome and Its Coinage

A History of Rome and Its Coinage

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 Carthage.

 

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 period.

 

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 Rome.

 

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 wall.

 

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 co-emperors.

 

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.

Written by Will Schrepferman at 12:00

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