From Art to Artifact:  Making Sense of Roman Coins


Research Commentary

The imagery of the quadrigatus coinage is representative of the development of early Roman iconography. Both the obverse and reverse types are related to earlier Greek and Italian models. However, when the images were appropriated on Roman coinage, the types were altered to give the coins uniquely Roman significance.

This Roman significance was inevitably related to the militarism of the early Roman Republic. From the quadrigatus onward, for more than a century Roman silver coinage was dominated by militaristic images.

The emergence of a unique Roman iconography from earlier Greek antecedants was roughly concurrent with the development of the Roman monetary system. The very earliest Roman silver, featuring Greek and Campanian types and perhaps minted in Campania, was issued only sporadically, always to fund operations outside of Rome. The money that circulated in Rome was cast bronze, and there is no evidence for any official exchange rate for bronze and silver currency. By the time of the quadrigatus issue, Rome’s expanding regional dominance and consequent increasing economic integration with its neighbors necessitated the unification of the bronze and silver coinage. The financial stress on Rome during the Second Punic War exposed the weaknesses of this system and was the catalyst for the creation of the integrated denarius system.

The reshaping of the Greek monetary system parallels the Roman appropriation of Greek coin types. As the Romans developed the monetary structures that would be unified in the denarius system, the iconography used on Roman coins was adapted to reflect the militaristic values of early Rome. The establishment of a symbolic vocabulary was the first step to the development of the unique system of signification on Roman coins.