What We Owe to Rome
by Mark Benvenuto
Modern Coinage Features Ancient Ideas
There is an old joke that the first coins ever made in the world were coined at 8 AM on a day in about 800 BC somewhere in modern Turkey – and that the first counterfeits were produced by noon that same day. We can laugh at the apocryphal nature of such a jest, yet by the time Rome rose from a republic to an empire, there had been enough counterfeiting among the ancient city states that Rome took in hand the idea of minting a uniform coinage, something that would help commerce in what would ultimately become a vast empire. Perhaps oddly, we still have some of the same features in our coins today that the Romans used so long ago. A full list of them goes far beyond counterfeit prevention, but let’s start there as we make an informal list of what we might claim we still owe to the Romans.
For those aficionados of the coins of the Greek city states, a common feature we might notice for its absence is what gets called the third side of the coin – the edge. These are absolutely beautiful coins, and it’s tough not to find them attractive, whether we are conspiring an Athenian owl or a Corinthian stater. But virtually all of these earliest coins are devoid of anything we might consider a clear and defined edge. Perhaps because of this, collectors today do find oddly shaped ancient coins from the Greek city states and elsewhere, sometimes on what might be called oblong or oval planchets. Some scholars debate whether or not this is the way the coin was made, or whether we are seeing through the lens of history a coin that has had some metal shaved from its side.
Rome appears to have been the first coin-issuing nation to make a serious attempt at putting a halt to the shaving of a bit of metal from a coin. There are numerous Roman coins – even some of the base metal pieces – which have small V-shaped cuts at regular intervals around the edge, something we might consider a precursor to the reeded edges many U.S. and foreign coins have today. Yes, these ancient pieces would have had such a feature cut in painstakingly, by hand. Yet this feature remains visible and even prominent today.
Plenty of Roman coins also have what can be called a beaded edge. This means that the rim of the obverse and reverse, not the actual edge, had a line of beads in place. Again, this easily functioned as an indicator as to whether or not someone had shaved off a bit of metal from a specific coin. Once again, specialists could argue that the mint workers may have struck a coin off-center, which translates to a piece that is missing part of that beaded edge. But again, Rome seems to be the first coin-issuing authority to have tried this idea out on a large scale. And both means of guarding the edge of a coin, as it were, are still with us today.
Pushing Lettering to the Rim
This may seem like an incredibly common feature on modern coins – simply because it is! Certainly, there are still coins and tokens in which some of the lettering is written in straight lines across the field of either the obverse or the reverse, but more often than not, the lettering on either side of a coin is written in arcs pushed up against the rim. Who managed to think this up? Once again, yes, it was our Roman friends of so long ago.
While it may be hard to believe that the mint masters of the Roman Empire came up with this now-common idea, look again to the only coins that are as old or older than those of Rome. The Greek city states tended to write on their coins, when they wrote anything at all, in straight lines. Often, a king’s name is written, then the word ΒΑΣΙΛΕΟΣ, the Greek for “Basileos” – king (also the root word for an ancient name for a dragon, a basilisk). At times, the words ΒΑΣΙΛΕΟΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΟΝ or some variant are written after the name, meaning king of kings. This is a title later attached to Jesus.
Much like the Greek coins, the coinage of Parthia routinely has written words on the coin always in a straight line. The Parthians were located east of Rome, and certainly had more direct interaction with the smaller city states of Greece than with the westerners who would eventually ascend to empire.
Finally, at roughly the same time that coinage came into existence in the West, it appears to have come independently into existence in China. But in China, coinage evolved from small metal objects that were traded to small metal images of those objects. Thus, the earliest Chinese “coins” tended to look like knives or hoes. When characters were used – since Eastern languages were written in character bases as opposed to letter bases – the characters tended to read from top to bottom. There was no real advantage to pushing them to the edge of whatever surface upon which they were portrayed.
It is probably obvious to many people today, whether they are coin collectors or not, that Latin was the official language of first the Roman Republic, and then the Roman Empire. But this simple idea, one language for all peoples under Roman rule, united disparate peoples who lived far from each other. In a day and an age when the fastest a person could move was a horse, if on land, and a sailing ship, if at sea, an important way to pass on any central idea was one unified language. There is probably a book’s worth of examples of how the Latin language made a difference in one specific situation or another, but one famous one remains the letter written by a Roman authority when Paul of Tarsus – better known as Saint Paul – was sent from the East to Rome, because he appealed to be tried before the emperor. The Acts of the Apostles details this rather well.
Today we still use Latin in numerous professions, including law, medicine, and the sciences. For United States coins, we now put the three words “E PLURIBUS UNUM”, meaning “from the many, one,” on them so often that no one living remembers a time when this wasn’t a symbol of U.S. coinage.
Much like coin in the U.S., indeed, before them, Great Britain has used Latin wording on its coinage, which means that Latin had truly been spread around the world. Many of the nations that were once colonial holding of the British Empire had Latin on them to some extent. Some of the independent nations that are part of the Commonwealth continue to do so. And those lands that are still colonies will still have the monarch’s face on them. Queen Elizabeth’s royal image is still often surrounded by wording in Latin.
We live in a day and an age in which scientific jargon and terminology permeates almost every aspect of our lives. The process of describing some specific thing, some instrument, or some procedure very often means that we need to abbreviate, so we don’t spend all day trying to say something. Ever seen a scuba tank? The word “scuba” is the acronym abbreviation for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” Have you known anyone who had to have an MRI of some part of their body taken? Those three letters stand for “magnetic resonance imaging,” an effective way to see internal parts of the body. Chemists and other scientists routinely measure out fine chemicals in what are called “moles,” short for “molecular weight” (or its German equivalent, molekulargewicht). All these shortened versions of longer words, and many others, have their origin all the way back in Rome.
We’ve already discussed Latin a bit, but we haven’t really discussed how the language was put together. For those of us old enough to remember what can be called school boy Latin, there may be some good or bad memories called up of having to memorize the endings on what are termed declensions. The Latin word “Rex” meant king, but the ending changed as it was used in a sentence. For example, “Regibus” meant “of the kings.” And while we change the endings of some words in English – think “actor” and actress” – we don’t appear to do it with the long ending Latin often seems to have used. Thus, shortening Latin up became important when there was a limited space upon which to write, such as a coin.
Collectors of coins of the Roman Empire usually note the image of an emperor, then his name starting at the lower left of the obverse, which usually continues to the top, and maybe farther on to the right. Often, the last letters in this inscription will be AVG. That is the abbreviated version of the word AVGVSTVS, meaning Caesar Augustus. Each emperor wanted to be sure his connection to the founder of the Empire was well known.
When it comes to modern coins, we use abbreviations in English, and to an extent in Latin. Many U.S. coins have some abbreviation of the word “dollar” on them; certainly, those of the nineteenth century do. Likewise, the “E pluribus unum” we have already mentioned is actually a one-letter abbreviation of “Ex pluribus unum.” And those British coins we just made mention of? Well, the queen remains “FD” meaning Fidelis Defensor or “Defender of the Faith.” In sort, there are plenty of abbreviations on coins today, and in other places as well, that have their roots all the way back in Roman coinage.
Curiously, what most of us think of as the single most famous abbreviation of them all is indeed Latin and has on occasion appeared on coins and medals throughout the ages: INRI. It’s the Latin abbreviation for what was nailed to a crucifix above Jesus’ head, and the full wording is: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum. We all probably know its English: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.
This feature of our modern coinage is one that serious collectors may wish to argue about, at least as far as to whether or not the Romans came up with it first. Yes, there were heads of important folks on coins prior to those on Roman pieces, but not many. Those Greek city states tended to use the image of something sacred to their city, like a sea turtle, or an eagle. Admittedly, Athena is prominently featured on the coins of Athens, but she is a goddess, and not some person who actually lived at any time. One can argue that Alexander appeared on the coins made as he ascended to his power, but the counterargument can be made that he ensured his image was blended with that of the demigod Herakles, also known as Hercules. This might just be considered a case of an enormous ego – a man taking the place previously reserved for a god or legendary hero.
By the time Rome had become an empire, the image of the emperor was a common one on the coinage. The emperor was often shown wearing a laurel wreath, an ancient symbol for a hero. Later, some are portrayed wearing a crown with straight ray-like points on it, the symbol of them being a divine being as the emperor. And while putting a real human’s image on a coin was bold when the first Caesar’s did it, it had become common as the Empire expanded. And this idea of putting the image of kings, queens, or in the case of the U.S., presidents, on the obverse of coins is clearly still with us today.
Interestingly, any student of history can make the claim that the U.S. has borrowed from both the Greek and the Roman influences before us, as we used a female personification of Liberty on many of our coins before the twentieth century. The idea behind this was that our nation had no king; rather the one symbol we venerated above all others was our liberty. But when we did start putting portraits of real people on our coinage, we often picked what we might stretch to call our “elected emperors,” meaning our presidents. Presidents are much more like emperors and less like gods and goddesses.
Positive Propaganda Reverses
The city of Rome was considered the center of the world for many people within the Empire, and the heart of it all needed to have a periodic dose of pomp and circumstance. This meant that Rome was big on gladiatorial games, festivals, and military parades. But while such spectacles were great for the folks who were there to see them, what was a way to get people all over the empire to recognize how great their emperor was, how powerful? One was to use the reverses of coins as a form of positive propaganda. Military conquests could be in some way displayed on the reverse of coins and seen by anyone who used the coin. This meant folks far from the battle, or from Rome, would know about it. It also meant that victory would be remembered for as many years as the coin was in use. Perhaps the most famous of all of these were the Judaea Capta coins issued by Vespasian, letting the world know that he had taken Jerusalem and put down the revolt in the East.
We can make the rather solid claim that our state quarter reverses are a modern-day incarnation of this Roman idea of positive propaganda. After all, each broadcasts some highlight of a specific state. Some of them do have a theme related to one past war or another. Others commemorate some other, often peaceful, accomplishment or natural feature of the land.
The Roman Empire has been gone for centuries – since 476 AD for the Western Roman Empire and the year 1453 for the Eastern. Nations have arisen, borders have been redrawn, languages have evolved, and an entire scientific age has dawned since this political colossus faded away and was extinguished. Yet there are remnants of Rome in much of what we do even today. We have seen that our modern coins, and those of other nations as well, carry quite a few features or remnants that we can easily attribute to the Romans of this ancient empire.