Positive and Negative Exempla in Pocket Change

By Nathan Elkins

The recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952–2022) and the elevation King Charles III has prompted questions about how the face of money will change in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. This may seem like an odd line of inquiry to numismatists and historians, who expect the portrait of King Charles III to feature on any new currency printed or struck in the United Kingdom to circulate alongside the existing money featuring his late mother. But we must remember that as the longest-reigning monarch in British history, ruling for over 70 years, few alive today saw or remember the reign of Queen Elizabeth II’s predecessor; anyone under 50 years of age will not have seen any other sovereign’s image on the circulating coinage of the United Kingdom, as the UK moved its currency to the decimal system in 1971, forcing the old coinage—including those of previous monarchs—out of circulation.

From this vantage point, it is unsurprising then that there was an initial assumption among many people that coins and currency featuring the visage and titles of Queen Elizabeth II (e.g., Fig. 1) would be recalled and systematically replaced with money bearing the face of King Charles III (e.g., Fig. 2). The Royal Mint and the Bank of England have, of course, clarified that, while King Charles III will appear on new coins and currency, money bearing the portrait of Elizabeth II will remain in circulation as legal tender. The Royal Mint’s homepage even presently states under “Frequently Asked Questions” that coins with Queen Elizabeth II’s effigy remain “legal tender and in circulation,” reflecting the concerns of the general public.

Exempla Figure 1
Figure 1. Penny featuring the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, 2008 (ANS 2008.48.1).
Exempla Figure 2
Figure 2. Obverses of coin designs featuring King Charles III, 2022 (The Royal Mint).

Aside from the recent experience of the long-reigning queen’s passing that has prompted questions about the validity and longevity of currency issued in her name, there seems to be a popular assumption that in past monarchies coins were replaced when a new ruler came to power. When I teach or lecture about Roman imperial coins, for example, one of the most common questions I am asked is whether or not the coins of the previous emperor were recalled and replaced when a new emperor rose to power.

Of course, when an emperor died and a new emperor ascended the coinage of former emperors remained in circulation alongside that of the new emperor and only in rare and exceptional circumstances were the coins of former rulers systematically recalled or demonetized. Instead, coinage reforms affecting the use of denominations or the purity of precious-metal content had a far greater effect on what did and did not remain in circulation than whether or not the authority featured on the coin was still alive. In fact, Roman coins could remain in circulation for centuries. Well-known examples include the debased legionary denarii of Mark Antony (Fig. 3) that made up to 20% of circulating denarii in some parts of the empire during the first century CE, and which are found in hoards as late as the third century CE, by which time they are nearly worn flat.

Exempla Figure 3
Figure 3. Legionary denarius of Mark Antony, 32-31 BCE (ANS 1956.163.42).

An often-cited passage by Cassius Dio (60.22), who wrote nearly 200 years after the events he alleged, states that after Caligula’s assassination and the rise of Claudius the Senate recalled and melted down the coinage of Caligula that bore his portrait because they despised his memory. Historians and numismatists often take this passage as face-value evidence for the demonetization and recall of Caligula’s coins, although there is little material or archaeological support for this. Caligula’s coinage is not particularly underrepresented in hoards or individual finds for an emperor who ruled for four years, and his asses with Vesta on the reverse are one of the more common types of the first century CE. Furthermore, Dio is a rather late source for events in Caligula’s and Claudius’s reign and this alleged recall is not corroborated by any other source. So, while it was easy for the Senate to tear down monuments of ill-remembered emperors, and smash their portraits and erase their names from public monuments in the capital, the cost and complexity of a wholesale withdrawal of an emperor’s coinage, even one as hated by the senatorial aristocracy as Caligula, was rather impractical. If there was any real demonetization of his coinage, it would have probably involved only a token destruction of some of his coinage in the treasury rather than any larger effort.

Exempla Figure 4
Figure 4. As of Caligula with Vesta on the reverse, 37-38 CE (ANS 1931.58.358).

When we think about the coinage programs of particular Roman emperors and the communicative value of individual types, it is important to remember that these coins circulated alongside that emperor’s dead predecessors, and circulated also after his death. To ancient viewers, this juxtaposition had power, especially when we think about the broader cultural context at play.

I have much sympathy for the school of thought that Roman state-sanctioned art and coin iconography operated similarly to poetry and panegyric and that the emperor was among the audience of the designs on his coinage, communicating praise and expectations. This is, of course, not to say that the emperor was never consulted or did not have some occasional involvement in the selection of themes, but I do believe the initiative typically came from outside of the person of the emperor and that the coherence between poetry and panegyric and coin designs are symptomatic of the process (e.g., as advanced in a piece I wrote on Trajan).

Poetry and panegyric deployed epideictic rhetoric, praising certain predecessors and blaming others, using them as positive or negative exempla for the reigning emperor. Coins of the current ruler and those of the past in one’s purse offered the opportunity for coin-users to participate in this praise-and-blame culture themselves, seeing, on the one hand, the virtues and expectations for the living emperor visualized on his coins, while at the same time also seeing positive models and reverse types of ‘good’ emperors of the past (which may have also inspired the designs on the coinage of the living emperor) as well as those ‘bad’ emperors that the designs on the new coinage often responded to directly.

We live in a very different world with a completely different cultural framework and outlook than the Romans and, of course, the designs on our money operate completely differently as well. But when the new coins and banknotes of King Charles III are issued, people will see the faces of two different monarchs on their money and they will make comparisons in their minds, as the Romans did.