Ancients: Famous Romans You Can Collect: Part I

David Vagi discusses ancient Roman coins in this first article of a multi-part series.

Paring down the list of famous Romans who issued coins is a difficult task, but if narrowed down to 50, a good coverage of the story of Rome from the 1st Century B.C. through to the fall of the West in the late 5th Century A.D. can be achieved.

Even a cursory review of Roman coin issuers would require a book or two. So, with the limited space of this overview, we intend merely to whet appetites for the adventure that awaits those who begin to collect Roman coins.

Instead of taking a purely chronological approach, these forty famous Romans will be distributed throughout five installments to assure that subjects from different periods in Rome's history will be present in each new column.

1. Julius Caesar, dictator, d. 44 B.C. Perhaps the most famous of all Romans, Julius Caesar is immortalized in the writings he composed while on campaign against the Celts in Gaul, and in those of Roman historians such as Suetonius and the English playwright Shakespeare. An extraordinary general and statesman, Caesar did much to consolidate his power and defeat his enemies – be they Roman or foreign. In doing so he helped finalize the transformation of Rome into a state willing to be ruled by a charismatic individual rather than by an elected senate. After a costly civil war that followed his death, Caesar’s political legacy was assumed by his great-nephew and heir, Octavian, better known as Augustus. Caesar appears on this silver denarius with a reverse type showing the goddess Venus, from whom he believed he was descended.

2. Tiberius, emperor A.D. 14-37 Before becoming Rome's second emperor, Tiberius distinguished himself as a general and administrator. Even so, he never got rave reviews in his own time, and posterity has not given him much more credit. He was dour, stingy, arrogant and sometimes cruel, but he was experienced, competent and strived to be fair – which is more than can be said for most of Rome's emperors. The achievements of his reign are strongly overshadowed by the dynastic struggles of the 20s and the perverse excesses attributed to him while residing on the island of Capri in the last decade of his reign. During his reign Christ was crucified in Jerusalem, an event that few if any Romans of the day could have imagined would eventually transform their empire to a monotheistic state. Tiberius is portrayed here on a silver denarius that on its reverse shows his mother, Livia, seated; this coin type is generally described as the “tribute penny” of the Bible.

3. Vespasian, emperor A.D. 69-79 From A.D. 68 to 69 the Roman Empire endured a destructive civil war, and as the dust settled the general Vespasian (who along with his eldest son Titus had fought to suppress a revolt in Judaea) claimed the title of emperor. His reign lasted a decade, and unlike his most recent predecessors he died peacefully in bed. During his tenure Vespasian kept his focus on rebuilding his shattered empire, maintaining his famously dry sense of humor throughout. He founded a dynasty, led afterward by his sons, which endured 27 years. His practical nature and sharp wit are revealed in his portrait on this brass sestertius, which shows on its reverse the god Mars advancing.

4. Trajan, emperor A.D. 98-117 Trajan was a militant emperor with a massive ego; he devoted most of his reign to leading campaigns in person, and to overseeing enormous building projects that would remain after his death as testament to his achievements. To his credit, with his final campaign he expanded the empire to its greatest size, but his final gains were ephemeral, and his successor had to withdraw from newly conquered territories that were impossible to adequately defend. Trajan's campaigns in Dacia (principally modern Romania and Moldova) were commemorated by what is known as “Trajan's Column”, a monument that survives to this day in the center of Rome; it appears opposite Trajan's portrait on this brass dupondius.

5. Commodus, emperor A.D. 177-192 Unfortunately for Rome, this emperor is famous for all the wrong reasons, and many historians consider the reign of Commodus the starting point of the fall of the Roman Empire. Though his father Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome's best emperors, Commodus shared few if any of his father's fine qualities, and succumbed to the perils of absolute authority. A great fan of blood spectacles, this emperor became increasingly ill and paranoid until, near the end of his reign his insanity endangered his ability to retain power. Eventually he was murdered in a palace coup. A mature portrait of Commodus appears on this brass sestertius, which shows on its reverse Fortuna holding a caduceus and a cornucopia, and placing her foot on a ship's prow.

6. Septimius Severus, emperor A.D. 193-211 This emperor came to power in the midst of the chaos that followed the murder of Commodus, and he devoted much of the next four years to consolidating his power and eliminating opponents. His reign was a success in the grand scheme of things, though the 'Severan Dynasty' he founded cannot be judged in such a positive light. He hailed from a respectable family in Romanized North Africa and rose through a stellar service in the army and government. Finally, in April of 193, he pursued the ultimate prize by leading his soldiers into Rome to oust a man who – unbelievably – had purchased the right to be emperor at a public auction held by the praetorian guards. This billon tetradrachm of Antioch in Syria shows on its obverse the emperor with his 'corkscrew' beard, and on its reverse an eagle standing on an animal leg.

7. Aurelian, emperor A.D. 270-275 Aurelian ranks among Rome's most energetic and accomplished emperors, for he helped lead the empire from near collapse to a rather miraculous recovery. He personally led his army from the Balkans to the desert oasis of Palmyra in Syria, then back across the empire to Gaul, and back to the Balkans again. He was victorious at every turn until he was treacherously murdered. A soldier's soldier, he earned the nickname 'hand-on-hilt' for being ever ready to draw his sword. He was especially devoted to the worship of the sun-god Sol, who was extremely popular among the legions, and he promoted a form of solar monotheism that in some ways paved the road for the eventual acceptance of Christianity as the state religion. This billon aurelianianus shows Aurelian wearing armor and a 'radiate' crown, and the reverse depicts Sol with two captives.

8. Diocletian, emperor A.D. 284-305 The two greatest reformers of the Roman Empire were the founding emperor Augustus, and the later emperor Diocletian, who introduced a form of mass socialism. In the end, however, the flexible system of Augustus endured far longer than the top-heavy, intricate system of Diocletian. His utopian system was not sustainable, and collapsed in his own lifetime. He was a visionary in many ways, for he willingly shared power with a co-emperor and two Caesars and he abdicated his throne to pass authority to his juniors. His vehement opposition to Christianity as a rising force in the empire did not meet with success, nor did his attempts to manage the economy by setting maximum prices for goods and services. He did, however, defend the empire's borders and he greatly reduced (temporarily, at least) the destructive cycle of internal rebellion and civil war that was a constant threat to national security. His portrait appears on this silver argenteus which shows on its reverse Diocletian and his three co-rulers sacrificing before the fortified walls of a city or a military camp.

Photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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