Coins and Target Audiences in the Roman Empire

I spend a lot of time thinking about the significance and intent behind certain images on ancient coins. I am also very much interested in what people really saw and whether visual messages were successfully communicated to people who used coins. There are several ways we can think about target audiences in the Roman Empire and how actors in the Roman government reached them.

Figure 1. A sestertius of Trajan, struck at Rome, from 103 CE showing on its reverse a view of the Circus Maximus. This coin was struck at the time Trajan completed major repairs on the Circus. The type would have had little relevance to viewers outside of Rome who did not benefit from the entertainments there. It is an uncommon type among sestertii of Trajan. ANS 1944.100.44720, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

When considering individual types of designs on coinage, it is important to attend to the frequency of certain images and messages according to die studies, hoards, and/or site finds. Reams have been written about unique or very rare coin types of historical interest but, in reality, such coins would have had a small audience and played a limited role in communication. One of the most beloved topics in the study of Roman coin iconography are coins that bear images of public buildings and monuments. Nonetheless, quantitative studies suggest they accounted for only up to 3% or 4% of what was in circulation among the imperial coinage of the late first and early second century CE, a period of great variety (e.g., Fig. 1 and Table 1). By contrast, personifications of imperial ideals, which made up a larger proportion of the coinage, communicated more broadly, but until relatively recently have received less attention.

Table 1. This table indicates the total number and percentage of base-metal coin types with architectural images from samples in Rome and Trier. The sample from Rome is based on the “sottosuolo urbano I and II” find complexes and the sample from Trier is derived from Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland (FMRD). The table is extracted from N. T. Elkins, “Monuments on the Move: Architectural Coin Types and Audience Targeting in the Flavian and Trajanic Periods,” in N. Holmes (ed.), Proceedings of the XIVth International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 (Glasgow, 2011), pp. 645–55.

In addition to frequency, we can consider the different types of messages and designs placed on certain denominations. William E. Metcalf’s work on Liberalitas (the personification of the concept of liberalitas, i.e., generosity) presents an informative case. He showed that, in the second century CE, when liberalitas became synonymous with a congiarium (a cash distribution to the urban plebs), Liberalitas appeared on gold aurei (e.g., Fig. 2), used more by elite classes, whereas bronze denominations, more likely encountered by beneficiaries of the distribution, depicted the congiarium itself (e.g., Fig. 3).

Figure 2. An aureus of Antoninus Pius, struck at Rome, from 153–154 CE depicting on its reverse Liberalitas, who holds fasces and a paddle used in the distribution of coins at a congiarium. This denomination represents very high value (i.e., 25 denarii or 100 sestertii), and so would have been used more by an elite and wealthy audience. ANS 1956.184.45.
Figure 3. A sestertius of Hadrian, struck at Rome, from 119–121 CE depicting on its reverse a congiarium scene in which the emperor sits on a platform with an attendant to oversee the distribution; Liberalitas stands in the background with her counting paddle. ANS 1944.100.45626, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

The bronzes denoted the event and the specific benefit that the user received from the emperor, while the personification on the higher-value coins may have allowed elite users to apply their own meaning based on the benefits they reaped from the emperor’s liberality. Quadrantes, the smallest imperial denomination, which circulated primarily in Rome and Italy, naturally bore images that tended to refer to the day-to-day concerns of the common people, such as the quadrantes of Caligula that refer to the remission of the 0.5% tax on auction sales in Italy (Fig. 4), rather than referring to grander political events.

Figure 4. A quadrans of Caligula, struck at Rome, from 39 CE depicting on its obverse a pilleus, the cap awarded to a freed slave and a standard attribute of Libertas (Freedom) and on its reverse R•CC, an abbreviation for remissa ducentisima (remission of the ½%). Together the two sides of the coin communicated freedom from the ½% tax on auction sales in Italy.

Another way to think about target audiences is via regional circulation patterns in a specific time and place. For instance, the publication and analysis of Julio-Claudian and Flavian (mostly) bronze coin finds from in and around Rome gives a great sense of what the urban audience was seeing: types that celebrated imperial ideals, dynastic arrangements and family, legitimacy and continuity, public building, popular initiatives, and so on. By contrast, in the middle of the first century CE, there were few if any such coins in circulation in Judaea, owing to the relatively late introduction of imperial coinage to the region. Here, coins with the emperor’s portrait were rare at the time, as more local and regional coinages prevailed: Nabatean coins, coins of the Herodian dynasty, the procuratorial coinage, etc. (e.g., Fig. 5). With the exception of Herod Philip II, who did not rule over a Jewish area, coins of the Herodian dynasty and the procurators bore symbols a Jewish audience would understand, as these were largely inspired by the Hasmonean coinage.

Figure 5. A prutah of Pontius Pilate, struck at Jerusalem, from 29–30 CE depicting on its obverse a lituus and its reverse the date within a wreath. Unlike most Roman coins that depict the emperor’s portrait, the procuratorial coinage only bore the emperor’s name (in Greek) and depicted symbols intelligible to the Jewish population. This demonstrates how sensitive locally produced coinages could be to the traditions and customs of the local population. ANS 2016.15.238.

In the Roman East, as the example of Judaea relates, people were more accustomed to using regionally and locally produced coinages that bore images of local interest. For instance, the provincial coinage typically bore reverse designs referred to local cults, monuments, games and festivals, and other markers of civic identity (e.g., Fig. 6), which differed from the iconographic content on imperial coinage that circulated more in Italy and the Roman West.

Figure 6. A bronze coin of Hadrian, struck at Ephesus, from ca. 117–138 CE depicting on its reverse the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus containing the unique cult statue. The famous temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean. The depiction of the temple on the coinage was an expression of civic pride and identity. ANS 1944.100.46100, Bequest of E. T. Newell.

But even imperial coin circulation was not the monolith it is sometimes assumed to have been, for there were differentiated supplies of base-metal coins that appear to have been sent to select populations. Fleur Kemmers has contributed much to this area, as, for example, she discerned that soldiers stationed at Nijmegen, and elsewhere, were deliberately supplied with coins with martial imagery. Although the sample size for Rome is small, my own study of Nerva’s coinage is suggestive that coins bearing images referring to the remission of obligations to the imperial courier (vehiculatio)in Italy, the cash distribution (congiarium) to the urban plebs, and Fortuna Populi Romani (the Fortune of the Roman People—a more defined message than just Fortuna), might have been more common in the circulation pool in Rome and Italy than in the provinces (Figs. 7–9 and contrast Chart 1 with Charts 2 and 3). That also would have been the audience to which such images were also the most relevant.

Figure 7. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 97 CE depicting on its reverse Nerva seated on a platform overseeing the congiarium; an attendant passes coins to a recipient on a ladder and Liberalitas appears in the background. Only a subset of the urban plebs, the plebs frumentaria were eligible to participate in the congiarium in Rome, making this an image that would appeal most to the population in the city of Rome. ANS 1944.100.42656, Bequest of E. T. Newell.
Figure 8. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 96 CE that depicts on its reverse a cart on its side behind two mules; the accompanying legend denotes the cancellation of obligations to imperial courier (vehiculatio) in Italy, making this most relevant to an audience within Italy than outside of it. ANS 1947.2.446.
Figure 9. A sestertius of Nerva, struck at Rome, from 97 CE that depicts on its reverse the Fortune of the Roman People seated on a throne; she is labeled FORTVNA P(OPVLI) R(OMANI). While Fortuna is a common and generic personification on the coinage, the Fortune of the Roman People is more defined, as populi Romani refers to the citizenry in Rome, making it a more defined message for that audience. Yale University Art Gallery 2001.87.5880, Transfer from the Sterling Memorial Library.
Chart 1. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in Rome (data derived from the “sottosuolo urbano I and II” find complexes). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 95.
Chart 2. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in the area of Mainz and the Taunus-Wetterau limes system (data derived from FMRD IV.1; IV.1.N1; V.1.1; V.1.2; V.2.1; V.2.2). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 96.
Chart 3. The typological makeup of Nerva’s sestertii found in the Garonne Hoard (Aquitania). Chart extracted from N. T. Elkins, The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98 (Oxford, 2017), p. 97.

While there is some empirical evidence that coin designs were made and distributed with relevant audiences in mind, evidence for the intelligibility of designs among target audiences is less direct. Literary texts that describe Roman coins are primarily written by senatorial authors in Rome and do not relate the interaction between non-elite viewers and coin designs. Here, archaeology provides us with some important clues that suggest the broad intelligibility of designs, even if ancient viewers did not think as deeply about coin iconography as modern researchers. Coins deposited in Roman graves show patterns of deliberate type selection based on reverse designs. For example, in graves around Cologne, types bearing on the theme of immortality, eternity, and memory prevail. Excavation of the Blackfriars shipwreck found a Domitianic coin with a reverse of Fortuna holding a rudder on the mast-step, suggesting that shipbuilders recognized the image as Fortuna and personalized her meaning (e.g., Fig. 10).

Figure 10. An as of Domitian, struck at Rome, from 90–91 CE that depicts on its reverse Fortuna holding a rudder and cornucopia. Fortuna, of course, connoted good luck and success, and the rudder symbolizes guidance and stability. The builders of the ship at Blackfriars evidently recognized the figure, her attributes, and personalized her meaning by placing her on the mast-step of the ship. Note this is not the coin of from the Blackfriars shipwreck but a representative example of one similar to it. ANS 1947.2.445.

Interrogating the mechanics and realities of visual communication, and the contextual evidence that informs questions of audience and reception, brings more vitality and depth to the objects we study.