Propaganda on the Legends of Roman Coins

Do the legends on Roman coins add to their propaganda value?

Throughout the late Republic and Empire, the authority and achievements of powerful individuals and the emperor, respectively, were conveyed to the population in a variety of ways. The most widespread of these, being Roman coinage, circulated throughout the provinces of the Empire, serving to familiarise the populaces with influential individuals and emperors of whom they would never see in person. Coinage also served to convey the message of changing policies, merits and achievements throughout the empire. Images upon these coins were of great importance since their development c.300 BC, however it was only in the second century BC that the importance of another feature emerged; the rising significance of the legend, the text that runs around the edge of the coin. Whilst images upon Roman coins were seen to be the source of propaganda[1], the ambiguity of the images became an issue as a greater number of individuals and messages appeared on the coins. Thus, the legends on Roman coins can be seen to add to their propaganda value as they served to identify the issuer of the coin, increasing the legitimacy of the coins message, as well as conveying a less ambiguous message in text rather than images.

When looking at the legends on Roman coins and their significance in relation to the propaganda value, it is necessary to identify the level of literacy in Latin throughout the Roman Empire.[1] It is originally believed that the inhabitants of the Roman Empire had a low level of literacy in Latin. This is primarily due to the fact that many inhabitants did not speak Latin as their first language.[2] Rome had conquered many regions throughout the known world, and, by c.300 BC at least a dozen languages that were used for writing, aside from Latin, remained.[3] However, Latin endured as the language of bureaucracy, thus it can be expected that inhabitants of foreign cities annexed by Rome learnt ample Latin to assist in trades and political endeavours.

This concept of a growth in literacy is also supported by idea that creators of domestic objects were inscribing their names in Latin upon the items. The most reputable examples from the early third century are the black-glaze cups created at Cales in Campania.[4] These inscriptions state acclimations such as ‘Retus Gabinio, slave of Gaius, made you at Cales’.[5] Thus, it can be expected that, despite the wide array of languages that continued to exist throughout Roman history, ‘men of property’[6] soon learned Latin, increasing the audience of the propaganda the legends of coins spread.

The legends of Roman coins functioned in two ways; to indicate the authority responsible for the coins, generally found on the obverse, and to communicate a message conveyed by the issuing authority on the reverse.[7] The first function is undoubtedly the most important, as the authority of the personal whose name appeared on the coin determined the legitimacy of the message proclaimed.[8] The manner in which legends on coins enabled those receiving them to identify the issuing authority is revealed by a particular story in the Gospel according to Saint Mark: ‘“Fetch me a silver piece, and let me look at it.” They brought one and he said to them, “Whose … inscription [is this]?” “Caesar’s,” they replied…’.[9] Due to the vast collection of states of which made up the Roman Empire, it was doubtful that the majority of the population would ever meet, let alone see, the authorities of the Republic and Empire.[10] Consequently, the ambiguous image of the authority was unlikely to lend legitimacy to the message upon the coin.[11] Thus, through imprinting an identifying name of the issuer, the populus would be able to associate the recognizable name with the vague image, consequently legitimizing the message put forward, regardless of whether it was propaganda or not.

One such example is a coin of Augustus[12], during the period in which he was a member of the second triumvirate.[13] During this period the triumvirs made great use of written text on their coins, detailing their titles and honours to the extent that, at times, the legend would occupy both sides of the coin.[14] The coin RSC 128 depicts the legend ‘IMP CAESAR DIVI F III VIR RPC’, of which takes up the entire obverse. Coins such as this reveal how the legend served to identify the issuing authorities, at times taking place of the issuers image upon the obverse.[15] Thus, the legends involved are significant additions to the propaganda value of Roman coins in two manners: they endeavour to persuade the audience that the coin is legitimate through emphasizing names and positions that command respect; and consequently they request respect for the ideologies they present, therefore legitimizing the issuing authority and the regime that distributed them.[16]

Whilst not imperative in identifying the legitimacy of the coin, the second function of proclaiming a message from the issuing authority was certainly important as a form of communication; in this manner it served to intentionally and systematically mould perceptions of particular individuals throughout Roman history.[17] The primary concern of elite individuals throughout the Republic and Empire was to foster a particular ideology of themselves within the populus; consequently, coins were utilized coinage to spread word of their military victories, public works, and administrative reforms.[18]

A common theme upon coins of the late Republic was the appearance of divine and legendary individuals, often associated with a particular gens, as well as symbols of particular religious offices and achievements. However, the identification of these particular divinities and symbols was not always evident, thus explanatory legends became vital elements of the propaganda employed.[19] This is particularly evident on the coinage of Gaius Julius Caesar[20] of who minted a number of coins to emphasize his divine connections and acquisition of various religious offices. Throughout his public life Caesar claimed and promoted his connection to, and consequently aid of, the goddess Venus, and his descent from Aeneas, as is recorded by Suetonius:[21]

And in the eulogy of his aunt he spoke in the following terms of her paternal and   maternal ancestry and that of his own father: “The family of my aunt Julia is descended by her mother from the kings, and on her father’s side is akin to the iimmortal Gods; for the Marcii Reges (her mother’s family name) go back to Ancus Marcius, and the Julii, the family of which ours is a branch, to Venus…[22]

Despite this proclamation in 69 BC, Caesar’s connection to Venus and Aeneas was not advertised on coinage until 47/6 BC, a year after the death of his rival Pompey.[23] It was in this year that he released a coin[24] depicting the head of Venus on the obverse, and on the reverse an image of Aeneas, illustrated carrying the palladium in his right hand and his father Anchises on his shoulder.[25] Also upon the reverse is the legend ‘CAESAR’, in a downward direction. Through the presence of the legend, connections are able to be drawn alluding to Caesar’s claim of descent from Venus and Aeneas, as well as the idea that Caesar received support from Venus throughout his wars against Pompey.[26]

Religious implements were also depicted upon Roman coins as symbols of specific religious offices. Whilst Rome was in the midst of civil war, Caesar minted an issue depicting religious imagery, and accompanying legends of which enabled the offices to be identified.[27] The coin RRC 467[28] is one such example, focusing on Caesar’s accumulation of political and religious offices. The obverse of this coin depicts the goddess Ceres with the accompanying legend ‘COS TER DICT ITER’[29], whilst the reverse portrays a culullus, aspergillum, jug and lituus with the associated legend ‘AVGVR PONT MAX’.[30] Once again, as the coins reached an audience that extend further than the city of Rome, the images would have been unknown to a majority of the inhabitants of conquered cities. Accordingly, explanatory legends were required to extend the knowledge of the meaning and importance of the images presented. It was through the addition of the legends accompanying the images that Caesar desired to emphasized his religious authority; first as Pontifex Maximus and later as an Augur, a position which was traditionally aligned with political legitimacy and authority to command legions.[31] He also coupled the symbols of religious supremacy with those of political and military power to further emphasize his authority. Thus, it is only through this explanatory legend that vital elements of Caesar propaganda are conveyed to the desired audience.

This method is once again seen on a coin minted by Marcus Junius Brutus[32] to celebrate his role in the assassination of Caesar, in which the head of the Liberator, Brutus, is depicted on the obverse; and on the reverse the cap of Liberty between two daggers with the legend EID MAR[33] is illustrated.[34] Much like the coin of Caesar, it is the legend upon this coin, stating the date of the assassination, which emphasises the actions taken by the liberators, and consequently, the message that ‘he had freed his country with Cassius’.[35] Upon these two issues the artist took great care to include an explanatory legend on the coin.  This tendency to use explanatory legends, such as these, reveal a desire on the part of those issuing the coins to have the circulating message understood. Thus, on coins such as these, the legends are seen to add to the propaganda value of the coin as they serve to explain the images depicted on both the obverse and reverse, consequently conveying a less ambiguous message in text rather than images.

Coins minted to proclaim specific honours bestowed by the Senate and to commemorate the conclusion of successful wars were also common throughout Roman history. However, whilst an image was typically depicted, it was the legend struck on the coins that held the most significance in conveying the propaganda message.[36] Coins struck by the college of 16 BC, are particularly adventurous in regards to the use of the legend on Roman coins. Augustus is celebrated on a large variety of issues which record senatorial honours extensively on both the obverse and the reverse.[37] Whereas a portrait head and a statue are seldom depicted upon such issues, cumbersome and over lettered types are commonly found to recall the wording of senatorial honours in their place. Such coins include the denarius RIC1 358, of which are inscribed on the obverse with ‘IOM SPQR V S PR S IMP CAE QVOD PER EV RP IN AMP ATQ TRAN S E’, accompanied by a laurel wreath, and ‘IMP CAES AVGV COMM CONS’ flanked by ‘SC’ on the reverse.[38]  Such legends serve as a constant reminder of the SPQR as a source of honours, as well as a means of legitimizing the honours bestowed upon Augustus. Consequently, while the legends serve to indicate the authority bestowing specific honours, as well as the authority receiving them, they likewise represent the ultimate growth in significance of the legends in conveying propaganda, as well as the dispensability of the iconography.[39]

Among the earliest examples of commemoration of annexing regions are from coins that possess legends indicating to the acquisition of Egypt, ‘AEGVPTO CAPTA’.[40] Augustus struck these coins not long after the conclusion of the battle of Actium in 31 BC, when he obtained possession of the Nile Valley upon defeating Mark Antony[41] and Cleopatra VII[42].[43] This concept is seen to carry on nearly a century later when the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus crushed the first of the Jewish revolts. Here, ‘IVDAEA CAPTA[44]’ is minted upon the coins. Whilst an image is present on both of these issues[45], it is the legend that emphasizes the desired message of the particular authority. The images on the coins are representative of the specific regions in which war had taken place, however the triumph over these regions are only indicated by the straightforward messages of the legends, signifying the regions capture.[46] Therefore, it is only through the legends upon these coins that the message of military success can be properly conveyed to the populus. Thus through conveying a clear message to the public, the legends upon these Roman coins are seen to add to the overall propaganda value of the coin.

In the end, it can be seen that as ambiguity and variety of the images illustrated upon Roman coins increased, so did the significance of the legends in adding to the propaganda value of the coin. As is shown various issues of the Republic and Empire, particularly those of the triumvirs, the legends served to legitimize the authority issuing the coin, and consequently granted weight to the regime and its’ message of propaganda. They also served to proclaim the message of the authority, through identifying and explaining the images printed on coins, shown through the coins of Caesar and Brutus, as well as occasionally replacing the images as conveyers of propaganda, as is seen through coins issued by Augustus and Vespasian. Thus, through analysing coins of the Republic and Empire, it is revealed that Roman coins add to their propaganda value, through both legitimising and conveying a less ambiguous message to the public.

Ancient Works:
Dio Cassius. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. Cambridge: Harvard      University Press, 1968.
Jones, B.W. and Milns, R.D. The Use of Documentary Evidence in the Study of Roman      Imperial History, Sydney University Press, 1984.
Suetonius. “The Deified Julius”. In Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards.          Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
The Holy Bible. King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999.

Modern Sources:
Burnett, A. Interpreting the Past: Coins. London: University of California Press, 1991.
Crawford, M. H.‘Roman Imperial Coin Types and the Formation of Public Opinion’, in   C.N.L. Brooke, B.H.I.H. Stewart, J.G. Pollard and T.R. Volk (eds.), Studies in          Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson, Cambridge UP, 1983. 47-64.
Crawford, M. H. Roman Republican Coinage. London ; New York: Cambridge University            Press, 1974.
Evans, J. The Art of Persuasion: Political Propaganda from Aeneas to Brutus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.
Harris, W. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Howgego, C. Ancient History from Coins. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Levick, B. ‘Propaganda and the Imperial Coinage.’ Antichthon 16, 1982: 104-16.
Sutherland, C.H.V. ‘The Purpose of Roman Imperial Coin Types.’ Revue Numismatique 25, 1983: 73-82.
Voelkel, L.B. ‘Coin types and Roman Politics.’ The Classical Journal 43 (7), 1948: 401-5.
Wallace-Hadrill, A. ‘Image and Authority in the Coinage of Augustus’, Journal of Roman             Studies 76, 1986. 66-87.
West, Louis C. ‘Imperial Publicity on Coins of the Roman Emperors.’ The Classical Journal 45.1, 1949: 19-26.
Yavetz, Z. Plebs and Princeps. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

[1] For the purpose of this essay, the term ‘propaganda’ refers to the use of material aimed to communicate a particular image of an individual and their achievements to the community; Harris, 1989: 156.
[2] Crawford, 1974: 715.
[3] Harris, 1989: 177.
[4] Voelkel, 1948: 403.
[5] CIL i2.4iza = ILLRP IzI5 (in Harris,1989: 156); Inscriptions such as this are thought to have been made c.334 BC, the foundation of the Latin colony of Cales, at the earliest – however, they are normally dated much later.
[6] Evans, 1992: 18.
[7] Crawford, 1974: 712.
[8] Ibid: 51.
[9] Mk.12.13-17 (King James Version).
[10] West, 1949: 20.
[11] Harris, 1989: 161.
[12] RSC 128 (in Wallace-Hadrill, 1986: 75.); Obverse: IMP CAESAR DIVI F III VIR R P C around empty field. Reverse: no legend, ladle, whisk, pitcher & lituus.
[13] The name given to the official political alliance of Octavian (later known as Augustus), Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony, formed in 43 BC and lasting until 33 BC.
[14] Wallace-Hadrill, 1986: 75.
[15] Ibid: 75.
[16] Evans, 1992: 21.
[17] West, 1949: 19.
[18] Yavetz, 1969: 133.
[19] Howgego, 1995: 75.
[20] c.100 BC – 44 BC.
[21] Levick, 1982:112.
[22] Suet. Div Iul. 6.4 – 12.
[23] Sutherland, 1983: 81.
[24] The release of this coin type was the second largest issue of his career.
[25] RRC 458/1 (in Crawford, 1974); Obverse: Head of Venus right, wearing diadem. Border of dots. Reverse: Aeneas left, carrying palladium in right hand and Anchises on left soldier; on right, CAESAR downwards. Border of dots.
[26] Sutherland, 1983: 74; Burnett:: 1991: 43.
[27] Sutherland, 1983: 80; Levick: 1982: 110.
[28] Obverse: Head of Ceres right; behind, COS-TERT downwards; before, DICT-ITERupwards. Border of dots; Reverse: Cullullus, aspergillum, jug and lituus; above, AVGVR; below, PONT-MAX; on right, D. Border of dots.
[29] Consul for the third time, dictator for the second time.
[30] Augur, Pontifex Maximus; Levick, 1982:: 105.
[31] Yavetz, 1969: 17; Burnett, 1991: 50; Caesar had illegally entered Rome with his army and assumed the position of dictator and consul. Thus, many of his political offices were obtained through great bloodshed.
[32] 85 BC – 42 BC.
[33] ‘The Ides of March’
[34] BMC 68 (in Burnett:: 1991: 55.)
[35] Dio. Cass. Roman History. 67.25.3.
[36] Wallace-Hadrill, 1986: 75.
[37] West, 1949: 19.
[38] RIC1 358, p68 (in Wallace-Hadrill, 1986: 78).
[39] Howgego, 1995: 75.
[40] BMC I, p106, No. 650 = E&J 15 (in Jones and Milns, 1984: 2); West, 1949: 20.
[41] 83 BC – 30 BC
[42] 69 BC – 30 BC
[43] West, 1949: 20.
[44] ‘Judea captured: by decree of the Senate.’
[45] A crocodile, the symbol of Egypt, is depicted on the coin of Augustus, whilst an image of a seated Jewess at the foot of a palm tree is shown on the coin of Vespasian.
[46] Wallace-Hadrill, 1986: 75.


3 thoughts on “Propaganda on the Legends of Roman Coins

  1. This is a really interesting essay! I do find that there is a flaw in your use of the term “propaganda” though. You don’t seem to define what you mean by propaganda, and I think there is an important distinction between using coinage to “foster a particular ideology of themselves within the populus; [and] to spread word of their military victories, public works, and administrative reforms” and the term. Is it necessarily propaganda to take care in how you cultivate your own public image and achievements? You seem to use “propaganda value” without actually saying what you mean by it. I did enjoy reading that though, thanks for sharing!

    • There’s a footnote I used in the introduction to define propaganda for this particular essay (when I wrote it for class my paragraph on the definition took up too much of the word limit).

      • Oh gosh, sorry, my bad, you did. Not sure I agree with the definition, but I guess that’s a personal thing. 😛

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