Roman Coinage: The Reverse Images of Trajan and Hadrian

by Barry R. Dale

The Power of Roman Coinage

Before the examination of individual coins commences it may be useful to first look at the coinage of Rome in general. The first distinction which must be made is that this paper deals with imperial coinage. Therefore, coinage produced before Octavian/Augustus is outside the scope of this work. We wish to focus on the Empire and how it used coins. We will look at the over all time periods of the Empire, the purpose of coinage, and a brief history up to the time of Trajan.

Imperial coinage is attributed to one man, "for the measures taken by Augustus laid down the lines of the system on which the imperial coinage for something like the next three centuries was to be based."[1] The beginning of imperial coinage is usually associated with the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE.[2] Before Augustus, the coinage and the economy was controlled by the senate. It is quite possible that if Anthony had never opposed Augustus the Roman economy may not have been as influenced by Augustus as it was. The key to the Augustan reforms was probably the spoils of Egypt he acquired. This allowed the new princeps to have dominant financial influence. Previously coins bore the mark SC[3] on the reverse since the coinage was minted literally 'by the authority of the Senate.' In Augustan times, however, the SC was used only to humor the Senate or to appease them. Since they had lost control of coin production their insignia was really no longer needed, but Augustus used it to bring back, if in physical appearance only, the practices of the Republic. Eventually, the SC is removed from the imperial coinage as it becomes more secure in its politics. All emperors to follow Augustus must have realized the power of a mass produced, widely distributed, piece of art.

The visual effect of coins on the people of Rome cannot be understated. In an empire that was so large the portraits on coins were sometimes the only chance people had to see what the Emperor looked like. It is almost the same today since modern scholars must use art to see what the emperors looked like. The potential for propaganda is hopefully apparent. The reverse of a coin is even more valuable as a means of suggestion. On this side of the coin an Emperor could put reminders of things or events that he has done in the name of Rome. The sense of nationalism must have been a main focal point. A propaganda based coinage allowed an empire that was spread over a very large area to have something that united all the people together. It also served to remind the people how organized and civilized the empire really was. Anyone who could have such a controlled economy and separate themselves from the barbarians must be great in the minds of its citizens.[4]

Post-Augustan emperors used the basic design that Augustus laid out. The obverse contained a portrait and the reverse contained some kind of statement and/or image of how well the empire was being managed. No matter how short a time emperors ruled they always managed to quickly produce coins because they realized how great a role the images on coins played in the stability of their power. Even the emperors of 69 CE produced coins having been in office for only a few months. The Flavians, although their power was passed on from Vespasian to his sons and was firmly established, still used coinage to influence the people to support them. Trajan and Hadrian, just as adopted emperors before them, needed coinage to give credibility to their reign and to remind the people of deeds they had previously done for Rome.

Trajan

Civic:

The Emperor Trajan, just as the emperors before him, used coinage to solidify their power. He adopted the same titles and positions which Augustus had started and which the other emperors used. "After the official mourning period was over, the senate met to confirm Trajan as Nerva's successor, electing him pontifex maximus and Pater Patriae."[5] Coins marking the event were released as Trajan took his place. Throughout his reign, Trajan produced several types of coins. We shall first look at civic reverses, that is anything which does not relate to military or religious aspects of power.

When an emperor comes to power it is very important to prove to the people that he will rule in the ways which they are accustomed to and not be tyrannical. What better way to show this on a coin reverse then to show Trajan shaking hands with a representative of the Senate.[6] Although the inscription of this coin simply reconfirms the consulship, Trajan's tribunican power, and his Pater Patriae status[7] the image connects him with the senate and therefore shows his respect for government and for the traditional role of the Senate. Trajan often still uses the SC on his coins but in this case the image alone gives him senatorial permission.

Another typical example of the emperors civic duties involves the alimentia, or aid to farmers and children, and the annona, or grain doles given by the emperor to the poor. A wonderful example of this act in coinage is of Trajan reaching down to two children.[8] The inscription, ALIM. ITAL., reminds us how Trajan has taken care of the people, especially the orpahns, with his generous gifts and alimnetia. This image of Trajan, whom one could call a very militarily inclined emperor, is as a citizen not a general. He helps the poor, showing he can do more than just fight. Coins such as this must have spoke volumes when seen everyday.


Silver denarius, RIC 243, RSC 9, BMC 469, VF, 2.94g, 19.9mm, 180, Rome mint, 112-117 A.D.; obverse IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS VI P P, laureate bust right, drapery on far shoulder; reverse ALIM ITAL S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI, Annona looking left holding cornucopia and stalks of grain; on left child holding roll

Public works is perhaps the best area of study when looking at civic contributions of the Emperor. Building the structures is the first step, but almost as important is making sure the people remember who built it. This is done on coin reverses by showing the structure you have built. For Trajan, the Forum of Trajan is an obvious choice. There are three good examples of these types of coins. The first reverse, of the forum as a whole, is described as, "Trajan's Forum, represented by six columns on a podium, with an arched doorway in the central intercolumniation and shrines in the other four."[9] Other examples include just the Circus Maximus[10] or just the Basilica Ulpia.[11] This is perhaps Trajan's most important contribution to Rome in a building sense. The market place created by Trajan, is ironically, a wonderful place for coins with these images to be used. The average Roman would be very aware that he was purchasing goods with coins that had pictures of the area he was in at the time. He would also be reminded by the obverse side who built it.

Military:

Trajan was endowed with great military skill and came to understand the Roman military system very well. It is perhaps his military prowess that made Nerva, an emperor with little military background, choose him as an heir. It was important to imperial power that victories over enemies of Rome be remembered, and coinage was an easy way to spread the memory of these victories. To look at two major campaigns of Trajan we will focus on the Dacian campaigns and the Parthian campaigns.

In the aftermath of the wars with Dacian Trajan issued several types of coins to commemorate the defeat of Decabalus. Without looking at all the types issued, such general victory types or iconographical types, let us look at the one type which depicts Dacian warriors and another which depicts monuments that commemorate the victory. Of the first type is a coin of Trajan on horseback riding over a crouching Dacian warrior.[12] We know from the obverse that Trajan has already defeated the Dacians in the second Dacian war since within his name[13] the title Dacicvs is included. Another of this type is of a bound Dacian prisoner.[14] This is meant to remind everyone that the Romans, under the great leadership of Trajan, can capture all who opposes. 


Silver denarius, RIC 174b, RSC 100, BMC 359, VF, 3.09g, 18.6mm, 180, Rome mint, 103-112 A.D.; obverse IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P, laureate bust right, drapery on far shoulder; reverse COS V P P S P Q R OPTIMO PRINC, trophy on stump, tunic with helmet on top, one round shield and two rectangular shields as arms, two swords and two javelins at base


Silver denarius, RIC 96, RSC 118b, BMC 388, VF, 3.12g, 19.5mm, 180, Rome mint, 103-112 A.D.; obverse IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P, laureate bust right, drapery on far shoulder; reverse DAC CAP COS V P P S P Q R OPTIMO PRINC, Dacia captive with her arms tied, seated right on pile of arms

            After the Dacian wars Trajan built several monuments to celebrate his victory. One of these monuments is the famous column of Trajan depicting in a spiraling frieze the efforts of the Roman army to build a huge war machine, cross the Danube, and defeat the Dacians. Since this column was placed in the Forvm Traiani all the people of Rome could see it. Coinage was used to let the rest of the Roman world know that Trajan had built this wonderful monument. There are several issues of coins with the column on it.[15] "The coin-type naturally can only suggest the reality--the bands of sculpture being faintly indicated by a spiral. We see clearly, however, the statue of Trajan as world ruler on the summit."[16] The frieze on the column could never be rendered on a coin and so the statue of the emperor was given the spotlight since this would remind citizens who Trajan was and what he had done. These types of coins brought were like postcards of great military monuments.


Silver denarius, RIC 292, RSC 558, BMC 452, VF, 3.27g, 19.8mm, 180, Rome mint 112-114 A.D.; obverse IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS VI PP, laureate draped bust right; reverse S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI, Trajan's Column surmounted by statue of the Emperor, at base two eagles

Let us now switch gears to another part of the Roman frontier. The campaigns on the eastern frontiers carried Trajan against the Armenians and Parthians. We can now look at different types of coinage then we did with the Dacian campaigns. Rivers were often represented by large human forms as on the column of Trajan. A wonderful eastern example is the victorious Trajan standing between the personifications of the Tigris and Euphrates with a weeping inhabitant of Mesopotamia at his feet.[17] This coin commemorates the reconquering of Armenia and Mesopotamia and their establishment as a joint province. It is interesting to note that the emperor is actually bigger than the river gods. Anyone else would be of a smaller scale.

reflects that. The enemies of Rome were right in fearing the armies of Trajan. On the other hand, however, he used the coins to show that he respected the old ways of Rome and that he wanted to help the less fortunate. The image which he wished to project with these coins is that he takes care of his friends and has no mercy for his enemies.

Hadrian

Civic:

The emperor Trajan obviously used the power of coinage to his advantage. When he died in 117 CE his Comes in the Dacian wars became emperor. Hadrian was no doubt well groomed to fill the position of emperor. He served under Trajan in several military campaigns and also had administrative experience. Just as emperors before him, he used coinage to create a national image. Although he issued many coins of the same types as Trajan, it might be better to look at different types of coinage when it comes to Hadrian. We will first look at his civic role in the provinces and then see his religious coinage.

Hadrian, just as Trajan, had several military campaigns. We can examine the aftermath of two of these in coinage. The focus here is not the actual war but the civic administration put in place after the war. In 132 CE the second Jewish revolt broke out. In 135 CE the rebellion was put down. After this revolt Hadrian used much man power and money to help rebuild Judea. A coin with the simple inscription IVDAEA commemorates this effort of Hadrian.[18] On this coin Hadrian extends his hand to help up the fallen personification of Judea, as children stand around her. This shows the kind Hadrian as the restitutor of Judea, and reminds us of the alimentia issues of Trajan. A very unique feature is that Hadrian is of the same scale as the fallen Judea, sending the message that he is humble in his aid.

The second type of civic Hadrianic coinage has less to do with actual administration and more to do with Hadrians contact with the empire. Hadrian traveled throughout the empire, perhaps more that any other emperor. His stops are recorded in coinage. The importance of these coins is the connection of the emperor with different parts of the empire. They can be simple, such as Hadrian standing with the personification of Africa,[19] military, like an example of Hadrian reviewing troops in Germany,[20] or symbols of empire extenuation, such as the image of Britannia as a deity.[21] Regardless of the specific type, these coins show how well Hadrian new the empire. He had been to most of the known world and that must have connected the provinces with the central government. The people got a chance at direct imperial rule instead of just paying taxes to an unseen emperor.


Silver denarius, RIC 306 variety, RSC 842a, BMC 846, EF, light toning, 2.74g, 19.0mm, 180, Rome mint, 134-138 A.D.; obverse HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, bare head right; reverse HISPANIA, Hispania reclining left holding branch and resting elbow on rock; scarce


Silver denarius, RIC 299, RSC 138, BMC 816, choice aVF, 2.95g, 18.7mm, 180, Rome mint, 134-138 A.D.; obverse HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, laureate head right; reverse AFRICA, Africa wearing elephant skin head-dress, reclining left, holding scorpion and cornucopia, basket with fruits or grain before her; toned


Silver denarius, RIC 297, RSC 99, BMC 797, choice aVF, 3.19g, 18.1mm, obverse HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, bare head right; reverse AEGYPTOS, Aegyptos wearing lotus on head, reclining left resting left arm on basket, holding sistrum in right arm; ibis in front

Religious:

When it comes to religious coinage there it is easy to divide them into two groups although the Romans would see no difference in the two. The first group is the simple association of Hadrian with the Roman gods. Although these may seem generic or unimaginative, they were of extreme importance. The emperor was also the head priest of the Roman world and so he must continuously prove to the people that he is thinking of his job. These coins could have normal images of gods such as Jupiter,[22] or heroes like Hercules.[23] In some cases, however, we see connections with specific city deities such as Diana of Ephesos.[24] This type of coin allows Hadrian to prove that all the gods of the empire are welcome as long as they fit in with established rules. It is interesting to note that when Christianity takes over the empire the reverse is used in the same way to show religious symbolism.

The other main religious connection an emperor must make is with the imperial cult. The Imperial cult was one of the things that gave an emperor his power. Hadrian was adopted by Trajan who was now a god and who had been adopted by the now deified Nerva. This cult allowed the adoption process to work. Hadrian reminds the average citizen of his deified parents in a coin that show the heads of Trajan and his wife Plotina.[25] They have stars above their heads indicating that they are gods. With this image, Hadrian uses the coinage to solidify his connection to a god.

Hadrian was an emperor who knew the empire better than most emperors. Throughout his travels he gained a key insight into how each part of the empire lived. By putting this on coins he let everyone know that he had did not just sit in Rome, but that he understood the empire. He also wanted the citizens to know that religion was not lost in his travels and he even thought to include images of gods that many may never have seen. Finally, he wanted all people to remember that he was the son of not just a powerful emperor, but a god.

Conclusions:

It should be clear by now that the Romans did not use coins simply as monetary system, but as a mean of propaganda. Trajan and Hadrian, had several points that they wished to convey to the people. They needed to establish their power. The people should know that they are emperors and that the armies of Rome follow them. On the other hand, they needed to use the coins to prove that they had a rightful claim to the office and that the old ways would still be followed. Finally, they wanted to show, or at least pretend, that they were not tyrants and that they cared about the people whom they ruled. They were able to convey all these things through coinage. It was the only way, in a world without television or newspapers, to visually influence the population. 

It should also be noted that these Trajanic and Hadrianic coins were also sources of pride. It is the same in the United States today. Although most of us never really look at the coins in our pockets, they contain a visual symbol of what the USA stands for. It is the same in all the other countries of the world as well. The current president gets power because he hold the same office as those men on the obverse of coins. This year is a perfect example of the power of coinage since the US quarter is now being redesigned. Each state will have its own unique reverse which will be a subject of pride to the peoples of those states. The Roman provinces had their unique reverses and Trajan and Hadrian, just like people today, understood that the image on the reverse of a coin could have a profound effect.


Notes:

[1]Carson 1990 p.xii

[2]The ending of imperial coinage is debated and of no real relevance here.

[3]Senatus Consulto

[4]This refers to people within the empire in general not just official citizens of Rome.

[5]Bennett 1997. p.50

[6]see Carson 1990. plate 10 fig. 127

[7]TRPCOS PP

[8]see Stevenson 1982 p.36 or Carson 1990 plate 10 fig. 131

[9]Smallwood 1966. p.127-128 #376.

[10]see Carson 1990 plate 10 fig.133 and Smallwood 1966 p.127 #374

[11]see Carson 1990 plate 10 fig.132. and Smallwood 1966 p.128 #377.

[12]see Sydenham 1917 p.86 #154.

[13]Obv. IMP. CAES. NERVAE. TRAIANO. AVG. GER. DAC. P. M. TR. P. COS. V. P. P.

[14]see Carson 1990 plate 10 fig. 129

[15]see Stevenson p. 236

[16]Mattingly1966 p.lxxx

[17]see Breglia1968 p. 135-136 or Carson 1990 plate 10 fig. 130

[18]see Breglia 1968 p.140-141

[19]Carson 1990 plate 11 fig. 156

[20]Birley 1997 p.122 plate 11

[21]Carson 1990 plate 11 fig. 155

[22]see Carson 1990 plate 11 fig. 152

[23]see Carson 1990 plate12 fig. 170

[24]see Carson 1990 plate 12 fig. 167

[25]see Carso 1990 plate 12 fig. 160


Bibliography:

Bennett, Julian. 1997. Trajan Optimus Princeps A Life and Times. Indiana University Press.

Birley, A. 1997. Hadrian The Restless Emperor. New York: Routledge.

Breglia, L. 1968. Roman Imperial Coins Their Art and Technique. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.

Carson, R.A.G. 1990. Coins of the Roman Empire. New York: Routledge.

Cohen, H. et al. 1978. The Coin-Inscriptions and Epigraphical Abbreviations of Imperial Rome. Chicago: Ares Publishers Inc.

Mattingly, H. 1966. Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum vol. III Nerva to Hadrian. London: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Smallwood, E.M. 1966. Documents Illustrating the Principates of Nerva Trajan and Hadrian. Cambridge University Press

Stevenson, S.W. 1982. Dictionary of Roman Coins, Republican and Imperial. London: B.A. Seaby LTD.

Sydenham, E. 1917. Historical References on Coins of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Gallienus. London: Spink and Son LTD.

Toynbee, J.M.C. 1956. Picture-Language in Roman Art and Coinage. in R.A.G. Carson and C.H.V. Sutherland eds. Essays in Roman Coinage Presented to Harold Mattingly. Oxford University Press.