NGC Ancients: Medallions of the Roman Empire

Posted on 5/10/2022

Emperors used medallions to promote their rule and mark important events.

Throughout history, coin designs have been used by kings, city-states and nations as a means of disseminating information. This was especially true in the Roman Empire, where coins often promoted the rule and the agenda of emperors.

Similarly, medallions were used for these purposes when Roman emperors struck them to mark special occasions. The nature of these occasions varied greatly, from imperial births, deaths and adoptions to anniversaries, or the start of the new year. Due to their large size, medallions were an excellent medium to spread messages to a targeted audience.

While we often know why medallions were issued, we lack meaningful evidence concerning who received them. However, scholars tend to agree that they were given only to citizens of high rank and that they were not intended for the general population.

In this column we’ll review a selection of Roman medallions and — when possible — share some thoughts on the occasions for which they were produced.

The massive, 78-gram bronze medallion above is of fantastic style. The obverse has a pleasant bust of the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138). The reverse shows the goddess Cybele seated in a cart being drawn by four lions. She was the “great mother” of the Romans and was identified with imperial order and Rome’s religious authority.

This series of medallions was issued in different sizes. Interestingly, it was the first time Cybele was portrayed on an imperial issue, be it a coin or medallion.

The above medallion, also of remarkably fine style, was issued for the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180). The obverse shows the armored bust of the emperor. The reverse shows a temple, before which the emperor sacrifices at a tripod and a bull is being sacrificed as several attendants stand by.

The engraver of this reverse die creates a remarkable depth of field in the design, with several planes to present a multi-layered scene. Though rarely achieved in coin designs, it is not uncommon on Roman medallions.

The above medallion is believed to celebrate the recovery of the empress Faustina Jr. (A.D. 147-175) from one of her pregnancies. She had 13 children and, as empress, her recovery was worthy of celebration. The obverse portrays the empress in simple attire. The reverse shows Salus, the Roman goddess of health and well-being, seated on a throne feeding a snake that coils around a branch, beside which is a statue atop a column.

Tying in with the “imperial family” theme of the previous medallion is the one shown above, issued A.D. 166-169 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The obverse shows two children of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Jr. — one being the future emperor Commodus, the other his younger brother Annius Verus. The reverse shows the four seasons, portrayed as young boys at play. The inscription TEMPORUM FELICITAS means “the happiness of the ages,” marking the imperial couple’s hope for the longevity of the dynasty.

Sadly, Annius passed away in A.D. 169, at the age of 7. Though Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Jr. had many children, few survived to adulthood.

The amazing medallion above was made for the infamous emperor Commodus (A.D. 177-192). It was minted during the final months of Commodus’s reign and was intended to celebrate the upcoming 18th renewal of his tribunician power, though he was killed before it occurred.

The obverse shows the emperor in the guise of the Greco-Roman hero Hercules (Heracles), wearing the scalp of the Nemean Lion. The reverse also depicts the emperor in the guise of Hercules, dragging the fallen Nemean Lion and holding a club.

You may notice a difference in the appearance of the green patina, which is darker in the center and lighter in the periphery. This is because the medallion is bi-metallic, with a copper core and an outer ring of brass.

Minted during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211), the obverse of this medallion shows a portrait of the emperor in bold, veristic style. The reverse shows Septimius addressing six soldiers while standing on a platform with his two sons, Caracalla and Geta.

Similarly, as the medallion of Marcus Aurelius (above) and the one of Severus Alexander (below), the artist created a scene of remarkable depth.

This medallion of Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) is especially interesting since it ties in the history of two rulers by showing on its reverse the restored Temple of Jupiter Ultor.

The previous emperor, Elagabalus (A.D. 218-222), rededicated this ancient temple to the Emesan sun-god Elagabal, and called it the Elagabalium. This offended many patriotic Romans and for this (and a host of other reasons!), Elagabalus was killed by his own soldiers. As successor of Elagabalus, Severus Alexander quickly restored the temple to Jupiter, the traditional, supreme Roman god.

This 32mm medallion, made for Gordian III (A.D. 238-244), shows the young emperor facing left. The reverse has the Three Monetae holding scales and cornucopias, with piles of coins at their feet. This medallion bears traces of gilding, which may have been applied at the time of production or afterwards.

Moneta was the personification of the mint and protector of funds for the empire. Usually on coins she is shown as a single figure, but on medallions, with their larger fields, engravers typically show the Three Monetae, representing the three metals used in coinage: gold, silver and copper. Our English word “money” is derived from her name.

This bi-metallic medallion was likely minted to commemorate a victory of the emperor Gordian III against Rome’s arch-enemies, the Sasanians, near the end of his life. The obverse shows the ruler in full military attire, holding a spear and a shield decorated with an image of the emperor on horseback spearing an enemy.

The reverse is especially complex and alludes to the historical occasion for its issue. To the right, Victory crowns the emperor, who sacrifices at a flaming altar. Before the altar, the figures of the Mesopotamian rivers Tigris and Euphrates recline, representing the region in which Gordian achieved his victory. Above them, Sol — the sun-god emblematic of “the East” and devoutly worshipped by soldiers — approaches in a facing chariot.

The gilded bronze medallion above was made for the emperor Claudius II “Gothicus” (A.D. 268-270). Despite his reign being troubled by barbarian invasions and internal revolts, this vigorous emperor fought against the tide, only to be stricken down by the plague before he could build upon his successes.

The obverse bears a remarkably calm portrait of Claudius II considering the dire circumstances he faced. The reverse shows the familiar Three Monetae.

The above medallion is truly magnificent. It was created for the emperor Maximian (A.D. 286-305), who at this time co-ruled with the senior emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305). Maximian wears elaborate consular robes and holds a globe and an eagle-tipped scepter. The reverse shows the Three Monetae holding scales and cornucopias, with piles of coins at their feet.

Issued for the emperor Constans (A.D. 337-350) at the Greek city of Thessalonica, this piece is typical of Late Roman silver medallions, being struck on a broad, thin planchet. It pairs the bust of the emperor with a wreath enclosing an inscription that marks the 5-year anniversary of Constans’ rule, offering hope for another 10 years. This inscription GAVDIVM POPVLI ROMANI indicates public rejoicing and occurs only on medallions of the co-emperors Constantius II and Constans.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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