Roman Numerals



Section 1 Assignment: Coins

Are you a Numismatist??

Due in section Feb 13—15

Please print this assignment and bring it to section.


Coins are a unique testament to the history of Rome. Fortunately for you, they survive down to our age in plentiful numbers. Each coin is itself an instrument of propaganda for the ruler who authorized and motivated its minting. As you have seen in lecture, Augustus masterfully employed coinage for political advantage. A thorough study of his period, therefore, requires one to discern the messages that Roman coins could convey. This assignment will help you learn to “read” the language of coins.

Part I:

A. The historian’s examination of a coin requires the two-step process known as “formal analysis”. The first step is to look closely and describe what you see with an eye for detail and an analytic sense that seeks to explain the motivation behind meaningful details. Examine carefully the coins below. Each dates from a different period of the Roman Republic. The brief descriptions provided will help you identify the figures and decipher the inscriptions. Consider following checklist of questions as you perform your formal analysis for each coin:

  • What is stamped on the obverse? On the reverse?
    • Is there an image? What does it depict?
    • Is it a portrait? Of whom? Is this figure male or female?
    • How much space does this image or portrait take up? How big is it in proportion to other images?
    • Look more closely at the portraiture:
      • What is the hairstyle? Is there anything in the hair?
      • Is the face rendered idealistically, or realistically (veristically)?
      • Is the figure nude or clothed? Are there other adornments of the body?
      • What is the figure doing?
  • Is there a legend (inscription)? What is the visual relationship of the inscription to the image(s)?
  • B. The second step in formal analysis is to make connections (among the symbols, signs, and legends themselves, and between these and historical data), and thus to interpret the overall message conveyed by the coin. The following checklist of questions should help you with this:

  • Does any image on the coin have a particular symbolic or metaphoric significance?  
  • What is the significance of the portrait: is it a mythological, historical, or contemporary figure? Why would such a person be represented here?  
  • What might the hairstyle or costume signify? (For example, nudeness reflects Greek influence.) 
  • Does the legend refer specifically to a figure shown on the coin, or to something else? Whom/what is the legend commemorating? Why? (For a list of Roman consuls, see Syme or click here.)  
  • How does the obverse of the coin relate to the reverse? How do the images and legends juxtaposed on one side relate to each other? 
  • What overall message is the coin trying to express? Does it recall a glorious event in history? Is it trying to influence popular opinion about a current event or a public person? 


Part II:

Coins for examination

Coin 1. Silver Didrachm commemorating the consuls of 269 BC, 269-266 B.C.

Obverse: Head of Hercules wearing lion's skin, club over shoulder.

Reverse: Romulus and Remus with she-wolf. Inscription: ROMANO<RVM> ("of the Romans")

Information:  The Year 269 BC, the year commemorated with this coin, represented an important innovation as regular silver issue was minted at Rome for the first time. The consuls of that year were of the Ogulnii (see passage, below, from Livy) and the Fabii family, whose patron deity was Heracles.

The curule aediles, Gnaeus and Quintus Ogulnius, brought up several money-lenders for trial this year. The proportion of their fines which was paid into the treasury was devoted to various public objects; the wooden thresholds of the Capitol were replaced by bronze, silver vessels were made for the three tables in the shrine of Jupiter, and a statue of the god himself, seated in a four-horsed chariot, was set up on the roof. They also placed near the Ficus Ruminalis a group representing the Founders of the City as infants being suckled by the she-wolf. The street leading from the Porta Capena to the temple of Mars was paved, under their instructions, with stone slabs.                           
                                                                                  (LIVY X.23.11-12)


 Coin 2.  Two coins issued by the moneyer Quintus Pomponius Musa, 66 B.C. 

    Obverse (left): 
head of Apollo
    Reverse (left): 
Erato, the muse of poetry, with a lyre. Inscription: Q. POMPONI MVSA.

     Obverse (right):  head of Apollo. Inscription: Q. POMPONI<US> MVSA.
     Reverse (right): 
Hercules wearing a lion's skin and playing the lyre.  Inscription: HERCVLES MVSARVM ("Hercules of the Muses")

    This type was often chosen by the moneyer to be a punning device. The coinage of Q. Pomponius Musa, for example, includes a remarkable series depicting the nine Muses. The left coin depicts Apollo, patron deity of the arts, on the obverse and Erato, the muse of poetry, with a lyre on the reverse. In addition to the depiction of the nine Muses, Pomponius Musa also issued the right denarius with another Apollo head on the obverse and Hercules wearing a lion's skin and playing the lyre on the reverse. The association of Hercules with the Muses, as indicated by the inscription HERCVLES MVSARVM, is often made in Roman culture.   For more information also read Zanker p. 11f.


  Coin 3.  Gold aureus issued by Octavian, 37-32 B.C.

Head of Octavian.  Inscription: CAESAR DIVI F III VIR ITER R P C [Caesar divi filius triumvir iterum rei publicae constituendae] "Caesar son of the divine one, triumvir a second time for managing the state"
      Reverse: Temple of the Divine Julius (on architrave the words DIVO IVL [divo Iulio] "to the divine Julius").  Inscription: COS ITER ET TER DESIG [consul iterum et tertium designatus] "Consul for the second time and designated for a third consulship"


The dates given for this coin are in contention, the date usually given in reference books is 37 BC, but this is inconsistent with the consular titles on the reverse, which suggest a date of 32 BC (the date of Octavian's 2nd and 3rd consulships can be verified using the consular lists in the appendix of Syme's Roman Revolution). For further information read Zanker pg. 34ff.

  Part III. 

Written Assignment
Your written assignment is due at the beginning of section, and will be 300-400 words typed. The unfortunate students who turn in an essay exceeding 400 words will suffer a traditional Roman punishment. Prior years have seen students hoisted into the Charles by a throng of jeering TF’s after having been stitched into a sack with a live dog, monkey, and snake (true story). A similarly gruesome and historically accurate fate awaits those whose papers fall short of 300 words. Suffice it to say, a few RoA students mysteriously disappear each semester.

To prepare for the written assignment, examine coin III closely, making a list for yourself of the various elements (using the questions posed in Part I to guide you).

Write a brief (one paragraph) description of each side of the coin. Then write your analysis of the historical and political significance of this coin, making reference to its details to support your statements. Use your examination of the coin itself, of the primary texts and of the information above. What message is the coin is designed to convey? What do you think the images and legend on the coin are meant to signify? Specifically, what would this coin suggest to a Roman about the character and position of Octavian? 

A successful essay incorporates a precise analysis of the iconography of this coin, relating it to historical events, and presents a coherent argument in lucid, succinct language.  


For a list of the Roman consuls: see Syme or UNRV's website listing Roman consuls

Note: For a brief and attractively illustrated survey of Roman coinage, visit The American Numismatic Society’s site; for more information on Harvard’s own coins, you can view the short Inter Libros video featuring Prof. Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Curator of Ancient Coins at Harvard.