Destruction of Emperors’ Images on Roman Coins from the ANS Collection

Numerous coins from the Roman collection of the American Numismatic Society make an outstanding portrait gallery of the founders and rulers of the Roman Empire and reflect the historical development of this society’s rise and fall.

Among these is a silver denarius with a laureate head of Julius Caesar, struck in the early months of 44 BC under the magistrate M. Mettius. Caesar was the first Roman ruler whose portrait bust appeared on Roman coins during his lifetime to represent his absolute power.

Fig. 1. ANS 1937.158.290

Caesar’s assassination at the hands of conspiring senators is commemorated on a silver denarius struck in northern Greece, ca. 43–42 BCE. It illustrates the chief conspirator, Brutus, on the obverse, while the reverse names the date of the deed—the Ides of March—and illustrates the assassins’ daggers and the pileus cap, a symbol of liberty.

Fig. 2. ANS 1944.100.4554

Another remarkable example in the collection is a gold aureus of Caesar’s nephew Octavian, the future first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 BC–AD 14). It was struck in Gaul, ca. 43 BCE. This coin bears the portrait of Octavian on the obverse and an image of Julius Caesar on the reverse and advertises Octavian’s relationship to Caesar, who was proclaimed a divinity. It was extraordinary for ancient Rome and became a sign of Octavian’s growing power and his transformation into an autocrat.

Fig. 3. ANS 1967.153.29

Among the Society’s coins of the early period of the Roman Empire are a sestertius with the bust of Agrippina the Elder (14 BCE–33 CE), granddaughter of Augustus, and a bronze as with an image of Germanicus (15 BCE–19 CE), prominent general, known for his military campaigns in Germania. The coins depicting this legendary couple, issued by their youngest son, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known by his nickname “Caligula,” demonstrated the family connection among the first emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

            Fig. 4. ANS 1957.172.1524

            Fig. 5. ANS 1957.172.1522

Caligula (“Little Boots”, as how his father’s soldiers called him), became emperor at the age of 25. He has passed into history as a ruthless and violent emperor, known for his eccentric actions. However, the images of Caligula on his coins do not give any hint of his brutal personality; on his coins he looks very much like other members of the Julio-Claudian family, with the typical forked locks of hair over the forehead and very few individualized facial features.

Fig. 6. ANS 1944.100.39337

During his short reign (37–41 CE), Caligula declared himself a god and tried to exclude the Senate from the political process to establish an absolute monarchy in Rome. This situation finally led to his murder on January 24, 41 CE. He was so hated that he received the dubious distinction of being the first Roman ruler whose memory was condemned. This damnatio memoriae, “condemnation of memory,”included the destruction of his statues and public inscriptions. His coins did not escape this condemnation; they were pulled from circulation and melted down whenever possible. Some of them were countermarked, like several bronze coins from the ANS collection. These bear the countermark TICA celebrating the new emperor Tiberius Claudius Augustus and also effacing the features of Caligula’s portrait.

            Fig. 7. ANS 1953.171.1075

            Fig. 8. ANS 1953.1079.1082

Another Roman ruler, mostly remembered for his extravagance and tyrannical behavior, was the emperor Nero (54–68 CE). After his suicide on 9 June 68 CE, the Senate formally declared him an official enemy of the Roman state and his memory was condemned. His commemorative monuments, such as the triumphal arch in Rome honoring victories in Armenia seen on an ANS sestertius, were destroyed.

Fig. 9. ANS 1937.158.472

Neronian bronze coins, like the Caligula coins before, were countermarked. The stamp SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) not only canceled and revalidated Nero’s coins, but also symbolically reclaimed them for the Senate and Roman People.

            Fig. 10. ANS 1953.171.1308

The last of the Flavian emperors, Domitian (81–96 CE), became the third ruler whose memory was condemned. His persecutions of the nobility and his unstable and megalomaniacal behavior led to his assassination on 18 September 96 CE. His wife Domitia Longina was allegedly involved in this murder. On coins struck for Cibyra in Asia Minor, whose obverse originally depicted facing busts of Domitian and Domitia, the portrait of Domitian has been defaced as a result of his damnation, while the image of his wife has been left intact.

Another example of numismatic damnatio appeared over 100 years later. It was connected with the most notorious condemnation in the history of the Roman Empire. The emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 CE) planned that both of his sons, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, known as “Caracalla” (198–217 CE), and Publius Septimius Geta (209–211 CE), should rule the Empire jointly after his death. Indeed, these two attempted to share power after Septimius Severus died on 4 February 211 CE. However, on 26 December 211 CE, Geta was murdered as a result of an allegation that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate his brother Caracalla. He was immediately declared a hostis, an enemy of the Empire, and Caracalla demanded that statues and coins which carried Geta’s image be melted down. Geta’s coins survive in enough quantity to indicate that destruction of his coinage was not extensive. However, Geta’s name and representation were eliminated from various coins struck in the eastern provinces. Some bronze examples in the collection of the American Numismatic Society attest the destruction of Geta’s portraits. Some of these coins also have been countermarked with a small image of a helmeted female head and the inscription ΘEOY, referring to Caracalla’s position as son of the deified Septimius Severus.

            Fig. 11. ANS 1971.230.20

            Fig. 12. ANS 1953.171.830

            Fig. 13. ANS 1967.152.461

The practice of attacking the images on coins, as well as countermarking of the coins of condemned emperors, lasted into the third century. It was an effective way of slandering defeated rulers, as well announcing loyalty to the new emperors. The enormous propaganda power of Roman coins, which circulated through the vast territories of the Empire, declared the strength of the Roman state, which seemed in those centuries like it would never be destroyed.