Coins as an indispensable communication tool for Roman emperors

Roman coins were more than just a payment method. Coins were widely distributed in large numbers, making them an ideal medium for Roman emperors to communicate their ideological beliefs. In his PhD thesis, Sven Betjes reveals the evolution of the communicative function of coins over time. Betjes will be awarded his PhD at Radboud University on 5 April.

Today it is hard to avoid visual stimuli – from advertisements and news reports to announcements and political statements. Roman emperors had significantly fewer options at their disposal, but they were able to spread messages about their reign via coins that circulated throughout the empire. Emperors used coins to announce their titles, illustrate their conquests and depict imposing buildings that were built during their reign.

A ten-volume catalogue was recently published online featuring coins from Emperor Augustus to Zeno – from the period between 31 BC and 491 AD. Betjes was particularly grateful for its arrival. “40,000 coins produced in a period spanning almost five centuries. The catalogue clearly shows how emperors wanted to present themselves in the Roman Empire. You can also see how coins changed and in what respects they remained the same.”

God or a building

On the obverse of the coins, the emperor is depicted surrounded by his titles; the reverse side can feature a variety of images. “You will often see a god, Victoria, Mars or Juno, the depiction of a military triumph or a building such as the Colosseum.” Occasionally, the image on the reverse was surrounded by even more titles. Although the coins were not large, there was ample room to be creative. You can see that the makers tried to link the obverse and the reverse, for example, by repeating the title 'Augustus' on both sides so as to establish a connection between the image on the reverse and the portrait of the emperor on the obverse. The term 'emperor' as we know it today did not exist at that time. Titles such as Augustus were used to make it clear that this was the emperor of the Roman Empire.”

Betjes stresses the importance of tradition in Roman coins. “While coins could spread ideological messages, they were still first and foremost a means of payment. An unrecognisable coin undermined the value of coins, because they relied on trust and, by extension, recognition. Emperors also benefitted from emulating the imperial tradition in order to legitimise their power – hence the use of titles such as 'consul' or references to Emperor Augustus.”

The Emperor's slogan

Nevertheless, all kinds of innovations took place. “Hadrian and Constantine were innovative emperors,” explains Betjes. Hadrian (117-138 AD) was innovative in terms of his actions: whereas his predecessor Trajan conquered many new territories, Hadrian focused on controlling all those territories. “He presented himself much more as the emperor of the entire empire, and didn't just focus on Rome.” When it came to his coins, Hadrian followed the maxim 'less is more': HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS stood out clearly on his coins. “His predecessors included several titles ranging from ‘consul’ to ‘people's tribune’, but these were hard to read on coins the size of one euro cent. HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS, on the other hand, could almost be used as a slogan.”

Constantine (306-337 AD) was the first Christian emperor. Although this was not explicitly reflected on the coins, images of former Roman gods did disappear. “In addition, the focus was on him as the emperor. Under Constantine, the emperor was a veritable monarch rather than the first among equals, as was the case in the past. As under Hadrian, the changing significance of the emperorship is reflected in the coinage: innovative texts on the reverse side served Constantine's reign with fitting slogans.”

Scratched-off head

It is difficult to measure the influence of these coins. “Because coins were taken for granted as a means of payment, they were hardly ever written about.” “The famous Roman writer Suetonius once commented on a strange coin issued by Emperor Nero, and Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor, was criticised for his unchristian coins. But, in fact, hardly anything was written about the messages on coins.”

However, people really did pay attention to what was on the coins – as we can see from coins issued by emperors with a less than favourable reputation. “Take Maximinus Thrax, for example. He was a good general, but also a demanding emperor who imposed high taxes. People scratched his head off the coins.” The general public had a keen eye for detail, as is also evidenced by Caligula's coins; people scratched off the C of his name. “Although we cannot say with any certainty how much impact the coins had, they were an indispensable means of communication for Roman emperors.”

Want more information? Please contact

  • Sven Betjes, sven.betjes [at] (sven[dot]betjes[at]ru[dot]nl)
  • Radboud University Media Relations Office, 024 3616000, media [at]

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