Bronze and gold
Diam. 1.3 in. (3.3 cm), 1.3 in. (3.3 cm), 0.75 in. (1.9 cm)
Purchased from J. Grafton Milne; Rogers Fund, 1908 (08.170.118,120)
Gift of Joseph H. Durkee, 1899 (99.35.177)
Roman coins of the Republican period were struck with symbolic designs including personifications of cities and virtues, mythological scenes and figures, and various images that held special significance to the issuer. In the second century B.C., moneyers began to imprint their names on their coins, perhaps as a mark of authenticity, and eventually struck issues commemorating their notable ancestors. By the mid-first century B.C., portrait heads began to develop as a legitimate coin type, yet these images were restricted to depictions of famous ancestors and legendary figures.
A major turning point for Roman portrait coinage occurred in 44 B.C., when Julius Caesar became the first Roman ever to appear on a Roman coin during his own lifetime. This was an important precedent that revolutionized Roman coinage, and Caesar's assassins and supporters alike began almost immediately to issue coins with their portraits along with designs that emphasized either their part in the conspiracy or their commitment to avenging Caesar's murder. Octavian made full use of this new medium for political propaganda, and initiated a numismatic portrait type that was to become a highly effective political tool utilized by emperors throughout the imperial period.
Coins minted by Octavian after his acceptance of the title Augustus in 27 B.C. invariably carry this new name. Emperors adopted the name "Augustus" to emphasize their ties to the first emperor and promote themselves as legitimate successors, and because the name "Augustus" soon became synonymous with "Emperor," it also became part of the standard imperial nomenclature. The emperor's title and the images placed on the reverse of his coins served to communicate specific ideas about imperial rule to the Roman people through whose hands the coins passed daily. The two bronze sestertii shown here are examples of how emperors used their title and achievements on coinage to "speak" to the Roman people.
The bronze sestertius of Titus is inscribed on the obverse with his full, official title that includes the names of Augustus and his father Vespasian, and the image on the reverse shows a caduceus (entwined snakes) and two cornucopiae, symbols of good fortune and abundance. The bronze sestertius of Trajan is also inscribed with his full title, including an abbreviation of the honorific "Dacicus" that was awarded him by the Roman Senate upon his victory over the Dacians in 103 A.D. The image on the reverse of Trajan's coin shows a bridge with a small boat underneath, and this could be a representation of the famous bridge he built across the Danube during the Dacian Wars. Both sestertii carry images and titles designed to transmit imperial policy to the Roman people, and by minting coins with symbols of fortune and victory, Titus and Trajan sought to instill in the Roman citizenry a sense of confidence in imperial rule.
Coinage was also an excellent medium through which emperors could disseminate their official portrait types, ensuring that citizens and provincials throughout the vast empire would recognize the seat of imperial power. The coins of Trajan and Hadrian serve to illustrate the drastic change that occurred in portrait styles between their reigns. Hadrian, famed for his love of Greek culture, was the first emperor to wear a beard, thus setting a precedent that was to be followed by every adult emperor until the time of Constantine the Great. However, unlike Trajan and Titus before him, Hadrian preferred a simpler titulature. The gold coin illustrated here was minted in about 138 A.D., after Hadrian had abandoned Trajanic decorative conventions in favor of a shortened name and simple illustrative scene. The reverse of this coin shows the Genius, or protective spirit, of the Roman people holding a cornucopia and offering a sacrifice over an altar.