Roman Coin Designs (part 1). Emperors, Empresses, Gods and Goddesses

coin detail

From the minting of the first Roman coin the 'Aes Grave' in around 270 BC to the fall of the empire a huge number of different coin designs were struck, a handful of which are described here.
Copper alloy Sestertius of Trajan, c.98-117 AD.

Emperors, Empresses and Princes


Representations of emperors and their family were nearly always found the obverse (the front) of the coin, just as Queen Elizabeth's head appears on our modern coins. Julius Caesar was the first living person to be depicted in this way on a Roman coin and the emperors that followed continued the trend. However the emperor and his family could also appear on the reverse (the back) of the coin.

Emperors often used coins to portray an image of themselves that they wanted people to see. Some wanted to be seen as generous, giving gifts to citizens or rebuilding damaged buildings, as protectors of the harvest, lovers of culture, or lovers of war. Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) liked to be shown playing music and singing, showing his love for the arts, and Emperor Valens (364-367 AD) who ruled during a period of war liked to be depicted in battle proving his military strength. Valens can be seen dragging his defeated enemy by the hair, encircled by the inscription 'GLORIA ROMANORVM' 'The Glory of Rome'. Commodus (180-192) was a cruel and vain emperor who believed he was the incarnation of the Greek hero Hercules, he loved to be depicted as Hercules complete with lion skin and club.
Silver alloy Antoninianus of Salonina, wife of Gallienus, c.254-268 AD
Members of the imperial family could also be represented. Emperor Nero for example depicted his mother Agrippina on some of his coins, Caligula (37-41 AD) portrayed his three sisters, and Gallienus (253-268 AD) was one of many emperors to depict his wife, Empress Sabina. Septimius Severus issued some 'family coins' which depicted his whole family, his wife, daughter-in-law and sons as well as himself. Some emperors also issued coins with depictions of their desired successor to add legitimacy to their claims.

Some popular emperors and empresses also had commemorative coins struck after death. They could be depicted in hearses, or beside an alter, Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) depicted an empty throne for his wife after her death, and Constantine the Great (306-337 AD) was depicted in a horse drawn chariot ascending to heaven.
Mars, The Roman God of War.

Deities, Gods and Goddesses


Deities were common depictions on reverses. These were used if an emperor wished to be associated with an attribute of that particular god or goddess. For example if an emperor wanted to appear peaceful he could depict 'Minerva Pacifera' the 'Bringer of Peace', or if he wanted to appear war like he could strike a coin with the image of 'Mars' the God of War. Furthermore emperors could also use the image to suggest the gods approved of and supported their reign, or additionally associate themselves with a divine ancestor as Julius Caesar did with a depiction of Venus.

Coins could also be struck with a number of personifications (a human-like representation of an idea). These figures included 'Justica' who represented justice, 'Spes' hope, 'Pax' peace, of 'Fides' confidence and good faith. Romans were aware of many more deities and personifications and no matter which attribute the ruling emperor wished to be linked with he could find a suitable God or personification.