From Art to Artifact:  Making Sense of Roman Coins

Denarius of L. Cassius Longinus

Research Commentary

Lucius Cassius Longinus minted an unique coin in 63 BCE. The lack of any identifying legend for the obverse portrait represents the importance and visibility the Vestals had in ancient Rome but also acts as a warning to ancient scholars about identifying coin types too hastily. If a coin had a descriptive legend, only the literate or well informed would have been able to discern the message. On the other hand, an image with no label suggests that the majority ancient Romans would have easily identified the type.

The rare reverse depiction of a voter is an interesting choice considering the obverse portrait of a Vestal Virgin. Vestals were supposedly the embodiment of the sanctity of the Roman state. Their chastity and the fire they tended were considered talismans of the safety of Rome.

Suffrage was a result of the establishment of the Republican government. Similarly, the right to vote was a symbol of citizenship, unavailable to non-Romans. Thus the obverse and reverse of this coin speaks to the viewer about the identity and preservation of the Republic.

This interesting message compliments the current political events of 63 when Rome, according to the consul Cicero, was in danger of civil war instigated by the politician Catiline. The Catilinian Conspiracy was the defining issue of Cicero’s consulship and culminated in the execution of Roman citizens accused of collaboration. As consul, Cicero would have hand picked Lucius Cassius Longinus as one of the tresviri monetales for 63 BCE and Cicero’s populist platform appears to translate to the coinage.