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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.