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Mark Lehman's NJCL Lecture Print E-mail
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Mark Lehman's NJCL Lecture
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So beginning in the late Republic, and expanding dramatically in early Imperial times, the coinage shifts from long-term designs to constantly changing designs of short duration. - Somewhat like our modern "State Quarters" series.  With the Classical world pretty much under one (Roman) roof, the coinage was co-opted by the Imperial propaganda machine.   There were three main objectives this constantly changing coinage tried to achieve:

9. "Anatomy" Plate of Nero Obverse with Inscription Explained
 
Anatomy of a coin obv
Anatomy of a coin obverse
 
The first objective was Bringing the Emperor and His Family to the People.

In the early Imperial period, the concept of an absolute monarch was alien to the Romans. The Emperor was originally viewed as simply a "first citizen" (princeps) "primus inter pares", and justified his authority by simultaneously holding a number of the political offices of the old Republic.  So quite often Emperors proclaimed on their coins the various offices and titles they held, I call these the "laundry list inscriptions" listing offices like consul, imperator, censor, holder of the tribunican power, and pontifex maximus.  Honorary names and titles such as Caesar, Augustus, Germanicus (victor over the Germans), Britannicus (victor over the Britons), Parthicus (victor over the Parthians) Pius ( faithful to the memory of a preceding Emperor) are very common parts of inscriptions, too.  Beautifully executed and highly (sometimes even brutally) realistic portraits of the imperial family on the coins brought their faces to every corner of the Empire.

10. Typical Reverses

 

Typical Reverses
Typical Reverses
 

 

The second objective was "Cranking" The Imperial Propaganda Machine

Since the Romans didn't have printing presses or newspapers, not to mention internet-news or soundbite-teasers with "film at eleven" they hit upon the idea of using the coinage to bring the people a broad spectrum of news, commemorations, religious instruction, and whatever other messages or propaganda happened to be being pushed by the Imperial authorities.  This was particularly true of the large bronze "small change"  - with the large "frame" they afforded, the engravers-"celators" as they ere called - were able to express complex ideas to a proto-literate public. Coins' designs were usually changed dozens of times each year:  Had the Emperor beaten the Germans again?  Conquered a new province?   Built a new temple?  Given a donative to the plebs?  Reduced taxes?  Traveled around the Empire?  Brought in a big new shipment of grain for the public dole? All these things, and many more, could be and were advertised on the coinage.   And if the Imperial authorities wanted to exalt a particular god, or to tout a virtue such as justice or clemency, particularly if that virtue was to be attributed to the Emperor or was emblematic of a behavior they wished more people would adopt, that could go on the coins as well.

11. A Few DIVVS Types
 
Divvs Types
Divvs Types
 
A third major objective was to produce an Emperor's Final  "Report Card".  

Emperors who were "popular" and did well, were often deified by the Senate following their deaths, with an accompanying coinage issue to commemorate this fact.  The better the Emperor, the more extensive his commemorative coinage.  The "so-so" Emperors were denied deification and a posthumous coinage, and a really bad Emperor like Caligula or Elagabalus might receive the "damnatio memoriae", or declaration of cursed memory.  In such event, the Emperor's statues would be destroyed after his death, and even his coinage defaced.  Caligula's coins are often encountered with deliberate-looking gouges and scratches.


12. Run of "Silver" from Early Empire to Septimius Severus
 
image
Silver coins thru Septimius Severus
 
Debasement of the Silver Coinage. 

At first, since money was only worth it's weight in whatever precious metal from which it happened to be struck, silver and gold were typically as pure as the refining technology of the era was able produce, but when the social contract made the trading value of coins exceed their bullion value, and since people were already used to token coinage for small change, it was no great leap for a financially strapped empire to start debasing. Debasement of the purity of the Roman silver coinage began gradually, starting in the infamous reign of the notorious narcissist and reputed nutcase Nero from 54 to 68 AD.  Most people don't know that the Colisseum did not earn that name merely because it was colossal - it was of course - and still is, but it was originally and officially called "the Flavian Ampitheater" for Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian during whose "Flavian" dynasty it was built and dedicated - it was called colisseum because of its location - the site of the Colossus of Nero, a huge gilded bronze statue that stood at the gates of his 80 acre "golden palace" in the middle of Rome - clearing all the valuable urban real-estate necessary for building that palace was probably the reason for the great fire you've undoubtedly heard the old chestnut about Nero fiddling through.  Historians of the age do record that Nero was much taken with his musical talents and made the senate, among others suffer through his singing recitals, accompanying himself on organ and lute as this pigheaded idiot styled himself as the young Apollo - Can you imagine!?! - It must have been even worse than sitting through this lecture! The silver in the denarius remained at a purity of roughly 80%, give or take, from Nero's reign until the time of Commodus in 180 AD.  Then the debasements started coming one after another, so that within 30 years the denarius was no more than maybe 45-50% silver.