Roman Republic and Roman Empire were at their peak a span of more than 2,000 years. They covered approximately 2.3 million square kilometers. The Romans were a major influence on Western Civilization and many aspects of the Roman world still exist today. In their history, many leaders rose up to take their own version of Rome into new heights. Each leader created a coin that left an imprint on history. Let’s explore the lives of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Justinian II to illustrate what impact they left on the Roman world and what beautiful coinage they left behind as part of their reign.
During the Roman Republic, in the first centuries B.C. a social conflict occurred which caused the old Republic order to gradually fall apart and decay. The elite oligarchs gradually gave way to warlords, who used force against the Roman Senate. Their influence helped them establish armies, which allowed them to take the top position in the government.
Julius Caesar, one of the warlords, was a general who enjoyed a long and successful military career. His success led to the formation a Triumvirate Leadership that included Pompey & Crassus.
Each leader received provinces to be under his jurisdiction.
After Crassus’ defeat and death during his invasion of Parthia in 53 B.C., Pompey and Caesar lost a powerful ally that would lead the two men into war for the supreme power of the Republic. Pompey gained favor in Rome with the Senate, which was opposed to Caesar’s growing military authority. This was while Caesar completed his conquest of Gaul in 51 B.C.
In 49 B.C. the senate demanded that Caesar disbanded his army, and granted Pompey the authority to defend against Caesar.
Julius Caesar Making a Stand
Caesar, along with Marc Antony, his most trusted general, refused to cross the Rubicon River. Pompey.
Pompey, along with many of his senators, fled to Greece. Caesar and Pompey would meet on the Pharsalus battlefield in 48 B.C. where Caesar was beaten by over 10,000 men. Despite the odds against him, the battle would end up being another example of Caesar’s supreme military tactics, as Pompey would suffer total defeat and flee for his life to Egypt where he was soon murdered. Caesar would be declared dictator multiple times by the Senate, recognizing his superiority in battle and loyalty of his soldiers.
The coin seen above was issued at the beginning of 44 B.C., and displays Julius Caesar on the obverse with the Latin inscription “CAESAR DICT QVUART” which translated means “Caesar Dictator for the Fourth Time.” This was the first time a Roman leader appeared on their coinage, quite a statement at the time when the Roman Republic was ruled collectively by Consuls and the Senate. The reverse features the Roman Goddess Juno Sospita also known as “The Savior of Rome”, a tribute paid to Caesar for his efforts in saving the Republic.
Many people felt that Caesar had accumulated too much power.
Many traditional Republicans believed that the title dictator should be temporary during a crisis.
In 44 B.C., Caesar was given the title Dictator perpetuo (dictator forever). This created more difficulties. The enormous authority given to one man was unprecedented, and it was too much for most people.
It wouldn’t take long for a rebellion to take shape, which ultimately led to Caesar being murdered by Brutus and Cassius among other senators on the Ides (15th) of March. Ironically, Brutus later celebrated the event with a portrait of his own on the infamous “Eid Mar” coin referring to the ”Ides of March.” The coin seen on page 52 reveals Brutus on the obverse, while the reverse shows a liberty cap which was often referred to as a symbol of freedom. The cap is flanked with daggers – the weapon of choice for Brutus, his coconspirators and themselves during their attack against Caesar.
Antony & Cleopatra
In the aftermath of Caesar’s death, the senate would abolish his dictatorship to restore their authority. However, it would be in vain as two key individuals would take over Rome.
Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian, was the great-nephew and heir of Caesar. He inherited most of Caesar’s fortune. Marc Antony felt the Republic was now under his control and was at odds with Gaius Octavius (Octavian).
Antony was a romantically involved Cleopatra VII and a powerful ally during this period. Cleopatra appears on Cleopatra’s obverse, while Marc Antony is on her reverse. It’s believed these coins declared the political alliance between the two and also served as payment to his soldiers during their eastern campaigns.
Antony exerted a lot of effort in bringing these provinces under his control, although Italy remained under Octavian’s influence. After a failed second Triumvirate involving both men and Lepidus the two armies met in the Battle of Actium, 31 B.C. Octavian’s navy was led by Agrippa, a competent commander who routed Antony and Cleopatra’s navy and sent them both fleeing for Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in Egypt, leaving Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
This was the end of Roman Republic because Octavian gained absolute power. He would continue to collect titles and set off to systemically restructure Roman Republic into hereditary monarchy. It was a dawn of a brand new era and the Roman Empire began to take shape. By 27 B.C., the Senate had bestowed upon him the honorific title Augustus, or the “Illustrious One.” The coin shown on page 53 reveals Augustus on the obverse facing right, with his heir Caius Ceasar on horseback with standards of the Roman army in the background.
Augustus ruled his newly-established empire for 45 long years, until A.D. 14. This laid the foundation for an Empire which would last for many more years.
In the second millennium A.D. the Roman Empire attained its peak due to the diligence of the emperors, and their ability both to expand and defend the domain.
Marcus Aurelius reigned between A.D.161 and 180. Aurelius experienced large-scale conflicts that threatened the security and borders of the empire during his 20-year tenure.
Aurelius, a stoic, performed his duties to the best his abilities according to history. He was one of only a few Emperors to personally lead his troops into battle. This is despite his preference for philosophy and an easier way of life. On his coinage are many examples of the victories he achieved in military campaigns, including this medallion specially issued in A.D.173. Aurelius is shown on the obverse in his military armor facing right, while the reverse honors the recent victory he achieved over the Germanic Marcomanni & Quadi tribes.
Aurelius was a military genius who defended the borders of his empire, but the gains he made were lost quickly after his death. Commodus was a relatively inept military leader and this led to the steady decline of the Empire for the next century. It wasn’t until A.D. 286 that Emperor Diocletian recognized the strain on the Empire and decided to divide it into an Eastern and Western Empire each governed by separate rulers.
The empire was stabilised and moved on to its next phase as two separate territories but still connected.
The Western Empire continued until it was overthrown in A.D.476 by the Barbarian King Odoacer, while the Eastern Empire survived well beyond and became more commonly known as Byzantine Empire.
Justinian II was a Byzantine Emperor who ruled between A.D.685 and 695, as well as from 705-711. He was a ambitious Emperor that tried to regain glory for the Empire through aggressive campaigns in Armenia, as well as Balkans.
He’s known for social programs that supported lower-class citizens which was the primary source of his armies. He’s also famous for being the first Emperor to strike images of Jesus Christ on their coinage.
On the obverse of the solidus, Christ Pantokrator is depicted. On the reverse, Justinian holds a cross potent which was a powerful Christian symbol at that time. Justinian II, an Orthodox Christian who was adamant in his faith, made strong efforts during his reign to reconcile differences between Eastern and Western Christian Faith.
Justinian the II’s Byzantine Empire would last for seven more centuries, until its eventual fall to the Ottoman Empire A.D.1453.
Impact of the Roman World
Roman architecture and art had a profound impact on Western civilisation. Roman coinage tells us a lot about Roman society and its leaders. Coinage was used by rulers to represent their favorite gods or to commemorate victory, and it became the social media for the time.
The miniatures are highly prized by collectors for their historical significance and value.
This article about Roman Imperial Coinage was originally published in COINage Magazine. Click here to subscribe. Story by Timothy M. Ryan.
COINAGE Magazine first published Exploring Roman Imperial Coinage.