NGC Ancients: Bridges on Roman Coins

Posted on 9/10/2019

A number of Roman coins depict bridges, although not always exact likenesses.

As engineers and architects, the Romans had few peers in the ancient world. Many of their buildings and monuments survive to this day, though most have vanished due to catastrophes or the recycling of building materials.

In this column we’ll look at bridges, one of the architectural marvels that appear on Roman coins. Perhaps the best place to start is with the most famous bridge (pons) on Roman coins: the ‘Danube Bridge’ on bronzes struck at the Rome mint for the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117).

Above and below are excellent examples of ‘Danube Bridge’ sestertii portraying a single-span bridge with archways – seemingly triumphal archways – at each end. Below the bridge is a boat upon water. Since this piece was struck c.A.D. 104-107, and Trajan’s famous bridge across the River Danube for his Dacian war was constructed in 104, the images here likely represent that bridge, even if they do so in a symbolic (rather than in a literal) way.

The scholar Philip Hill preferred to think of this type as depicting the wooden bridge Pons Sublicius, which centuries earlier had been built over the Tiber by Rome’s fourth king, Ancus Marcius. Several times it was swept away in flooding, and it always was rebuilt. However, Hill’s suggestion has not retained a great deal of support.

Another attribution for this bridge (shown on a third sestertius, above) is Rome’s famous Milvian Bridge, a view championed by, among others, the scholar Bernhard Woytek. Like Hill, he rejects the Danube Bridge because of the noteworthy difference in appearance of this bridge as compared with how it appears on Trajan’s Column.

In the final analysis, it boils down to whether or not an exact likeness was intended by the die engravers, or if artistic license was permitted. In all likelihood, that question will remain unanswered.

Above is a billon “AE4” issued at the mint of Constantinople in A.D. 330, presumably for dedication ceremonies the emperor Constantine I ‘the Great’ (307-337) held for his eponymous capital, Constantinople (which today is Istanbul, Turkey). Not surprisingly, the bridge on this interesting little coin has been variously identified.

The most common attribution is Rome’s Milvian Bridge because 18 years earlier, Constantine had there defeated his western rival Maxentius (306-312), allowing him to take command of Italy. It was a crucial step in his bid to conquer the whole of the Roman Empire, which he achieved in 324.

Another example of Constantine’s bridge coin is shown above. Some scholars do not accept that the Milvian Bridge is depicted. Another possibility, forwarded by scholar Nathan Elkins, is that Constantine’s own Danube Bridge is shown, for he also waged major campaigns in the same region that Trajan had more than two centuries before.

Another bridge appears on coins of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180), this one being a boat-bridge for temporary military use. Because the rare sestertius (above) was struck from 171 to 172, it probably represents the bridge as a tool of this emperor’s seasonal campaigns on the Danube front, very likely against the Quadi and Marcomanni.

Above is another rare bridge coin, this one a copper ‘as’ produced at the Rome mint in 208 for the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211). Its appearance is strikingly similar to that of the ‘Danube Bridge’ sestertii of Trajan from about a century before, even down to the curvature of the span, the triumphal-style arches at the ends, and the boat-on-water below.

As with the issues of Trajan, the identity of the bridge on Septimius’ coin is a topic of debate. Philip Hill suggested it could be the Milvian Bridge, which the emperor may have crossed when leaving Rome on his campaign in the north of Britain (for which this type was struck). Others suggest it is the bridge Severus built over the Firth of Forth to lead his war against the Picts.

We now move from imperial coins of the Rome mint to coins struck in the Roman provinces. The piece shown above was struck during the reign of emperor Valerian I (A.D. 253-260) for the city of Antiochia ad Maeandrum in the region of Caria, in modern-day Turkey.

The reverse shows the local river-god Maeandrus reclining on a platform upon a long bridge supported by six arches. There is much detail in the design, including a triple-bay arch (surmounted by a stork) at one end, a standing figure (a statue?) at the other end, a railing along the top, and rushing water below.

Another example of this type, struck for Valerian’s son and co-emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) is shown above. Though incompletely struck near the top of its reverse, the rushing water and the archways of the bridge are boldly represented on this piece. Missing from this version of the scene is the stork upon the triple-bay arch and the statue to the right. One can only imagine how proud the citizens of Antiochia were of the bridge, perhaps their finest local feature.

To the east of Caria was the region of Cilicia, where the bronze coin above was struck for the city of Mopsus in A.D. 255/6 under Valerian I. Its reverse composition echoes the issues of Antiochia ad Maeandrum shown earlier.

At the left of the bridge is a triple-bay arch, and at the right a single-bay arch. In this case, the reclining figure rests directly on the bridge and represents the local river-god Pyramus. This time the bridge has just five arches, custom-made to showcase the inscription ΔΩPEA (‘gift’), which suggests the bridge was built with imperial funds.

A comparatively simple presentation of a bridge (with a pronounced railing) appears on the reverse of the provincial bronze shown above. It was struck at the city of Buthrotum in Epirus, in western Greece, during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68). The emperor is portrayed on the obverse, with a countermark applied to the area of his neck.

We’ll end this survey with a coin that may or may not depict a bridge. It’s a silver denarius of the Roman Republican moneyer P. Licinius Nerva, who is believed to have issued coins c.113-112 B.C. If it depicts a bridge, as many scholars believe, it is presented in the context of the voting scene that is shown.

Starting in the 130s B.C. a host of populist reforms were introduced in the Roman senate. Some were meant to eliminate coercion and corruption in voting (including the use of secret ballots). In this case, the bridge leading to the voting location helped people cast votes without much risk of interference. One of the laws introduced by the dictator Marius, in fact, made the voting bridge narrower so the process was even more tamper-proof.

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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.


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