NGC Ancients: The Origins of Rome Depicted on Coinage

Posted on 5/8/2018

Coin designs feature mythological accounts of Rome’s origins.

Like people of most every civilization, the Romans revered their past, which they explained with a mix of myth, fact and invention. Different accounts of Rome’s origins and important events from its formative years are preserved, often in multiple versions.

Fortunately for collectors, some of Rome’s foundation myths and noteworthy events from early years are reflected in coin designs from the Republic and the Empire.

Constantinian-era commemorative, c.A.D. 330-335

The best place to start is with the foundation of Rome. The ‘foundation’ of Rome was reported by Atticus and Varro to have occurred on April 21, 753 B.C. However, many different dates for this occasion were proposed by Roman authorities, and archaeological evidence shows that Rome had been occupied centuries earlier.

Even if the Romans eventually came to accept Varro’s date, they were aware of the city’s greater antiquity, for they had the myths of Evander and Aeneas, both of which considerably predate 753 B.C.

According to legend, Evander was a Greek from Arcadia who fled his homeland and settled in Rome prior to the Trojan War (which purportedly occurred in the 13th Century B.C.). He made his home on a hill that he named Pallantium, after his grandfather, which later came to be called the Palatine hill.

Perhaps a century later the Trojan exile Aeneas arrived in Rome after the Greeks had captured and burned Troy. He brought with him the palladium, the Trojan cultus statue of Athena, and the Lares and Penates, statues of the household gods of Troy. All of these became sacred relics of the Roman world.

Denarius of Julius Caesar, c.48-46 B.C.

Shown above is a denarius of Julius Caesar (d.44 B.C.) which promotes the Aeneas foundation myth. The Julian family, to which Julius Caesar belonged, claimed descent from the goddess Venus through her son Aeneas. This denarius celebrates Caesar’s ‘divine’ origins by pairing the head of Venus with a scene of Aeneas escaping Troy while carrying his father Anchises and the palladium.

The other important foundation mythology represented on coins is that of the twins Romulus and Remus, founders of the iteration of the city that would bring into existence the Roman Republic. Since they were considered blood descendants (albeit by several hundred years) of Aeneas, the two mythological accounts are linked.

Because of their noble birth, these twins were marked for death by their great uncle Amulius, ruler of the city of Alba Longa, only to be spared by servants who sent them adrift on the River Tiber. They came ashore at the site of Rome, where they were cared for by a kindly she-wolf.

Republican Didrachm, c.275-255 B.C.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius, c.A.D. 140

Nummus of Maxentius, c.A.D. 310

The three coins above show the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The denarius of Antoninus Pius shows the wolf and twins within the Lupercal, a cave at the base of the Palatine Hill where the twins were sheltered.

Republican Denarius, c.115-114 B.C.

Aureus of Titus, as Caesar, A.D. 77-78

On the two coins above, the she-wolf and twins appear before the national goddess Roma, who sits upon a pile of shields. She is flanked by flying birds, which seemingly represent the auspicious birds that each twin believed was proof of their own preference on which hill the new city should be built upon (for they disagreed on this matter).

Denarius of Sex. Pompeius Fostulus, c.137 B.C.

After being rescued and cared for by the she-wolf, Romulus and Remus eventually were discovered by a shepherd, Faustulus, who took them home, where he and his wife Acca Larentia raised them. The coin above celebrates this, with Faustulus to the left of the she-wolf and twins, and birds in a fig tree (a sacred tree near the Lupercal) in the background.

Sestertius of Vespasian, A.D. 71

The rare brass sestertius of Vespasian above has a remarkable reverse type: Roma sits among the seven hills of Rome, with the she-wolf and twins appearing to the lower left and the reclining figure of the river-god Tiber to the right.

Denarius (anonymous) of c.179-170 B.C.

One of the most common types of early Republican coinage is shown above. It features the helmeted head of Roma and the Dioscuri on horseback. The Dioscuri, the divine twins Castor and Pollux, were credited with rushing into the Battle of Lake Regillus (495 B.C.) to spare the Romans a catastrophic defeat to their Latin neighbors (who had formed a league against them). Ever since that day, they were revered.

Another episode in early Roman lore involves the abduction of Sabine women by Roman men, an event said to have occurred soon after Rome was founded. The Romans needed women to establish families, so they looked for wives in the surrounding areas. With no luck through persuasion or negotiation, the Romans resorted to trickery and violence by targeting a neighboring people, the Sabines.

Denarius of L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, c.89 B.C.

Above is a denarius of the moneyer L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, which depicts the mass abduction of Sabine women at a festival which had been staged by Romulus with the purpose of abducting women. It portrays Titus Tatius, then king of the Sabines, and shows Romans carrying off protesting Sabine women.

In the aftermath, King Titus Tatius declared war on the Romans and besieged their city. During this, the Roman Vestal Virgin Tarpeia offered to betray her fellow Romans by offering the Sabines entry to the city in exchange for gold. Incensed by her treachery, the Sabines crushed Tarpeia to death with their shields, then made their way into the city.

Denarius of L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, c.89 B.C.

Denarius of Augustus, c.19-18 B.C.

The two coins above depict that event, which remained popular as a lesson to the cost of betrayal. First is a denarius of the moneyer L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, and the second a denarius of the emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14). The first pairs the head of King Titus Tatius with a scene of the Sabine soldiers murdering Tarpeia; the second shows the portrait of Augustus and a simplified version of that ordeal.

We’ll end this brief survey with two coins of the Roman Republic featuring portraits of early Roman notables.

Denarius of C. Censorinus, c.88 B.C.

Shown above on a denarius of the moneyer C. Censorinus are the portraits of two of Rome’s early, quasi-historical kings: Numa Pompilius (the second king) and Ancus Marcius (the fourth king). They are portrayed because the moneyer who issued the coin in 88 B.C. claimed descent from both.

Denarius of M. Junius Brutus, as moneyer, c.54 B.C.

The same may be said of the denarius above, for the issuer, M. Junius Brutus (later famous/infamous for his role in the murder of Julius Caesar) claimed descent from both men portrayed. The obverse shows L. Junius Brutus, revered as the founder of the Republic because he led the revolt to overthrow the last king of Rome and because he was one of the Repbulic’s first two consuls. The reverse portrays C. Servilius Ahala, also famous in early Roman history for his murder of Spurius Maelius, who intended to crown himself King of Rome.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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