Early Roman coinage and the founding myths of the city
Roman republican coinage represents in various forms the early phases of Roman history, with a particular attention to the mythical origins of the city and the early period of the Kings, in particular Romulus, Numa Pompilio and Ancus Marcius. It is a sensational story that has reached us primarily through written texts, especially by Titus Livy, the Roman historian of the first century BC, and others, integrated with architectural, iconographical and archeological sources. A lively debate is still active between historians and archeologists about how much of this history is purely mythical, entirely invented, largely modified or by and large correct in its main chronological developments. While historians tend to question most of the facts concerning the first three centuries of Roman history, which are often logically inconsistent, archeologists conducting excavations on the Palatine and the Roman Forum find in the excavations many more reasons to accept as historically correct much of the institutional narrative of the early years of Rome, including the dating of the foundation of the city to the period 775-750 BC.
Without intending to solve the controversy, we present here the numismatic documentation of how Roman monetary magistrates presented early Roman history in coinage before Livy. Their personal direct connection with historical figures, real or imagined, or simply the similarity of names justified the choice by the tresviri monetales of the episode which would decorate the year’s denarii, for the purpose of propaganda, self-aggrandizement, patriotic display or religious devotion.
The mythical origin of Rome starts with the flight of Aeneas, son of Venus/Aphrodite, from burning Troy, in the twelfth century BC, represented in a denarius of Julius Caesar, published in the November 2013 issue of this series of Coin of the month. At the end of his journey Aeneas arrived on the coast of Latium and his son Ascanius/Julius founded the Latin city of Alba Longa and supposedly the gens Julia (to which Caesar belonged).
A descendent of Julius was Rea Silvia, daughter of a deposed former king of Alba Longa. She was forced by her uncle, the usurper, to become a Vestal, bound to remain a virgin by law, so that her descendents would not challenge the hold on power of the usurper. Rea Silvia however became pregnant. According to her version the god of war Mars had raped her (Mars is here illustrated with a Greek style helmet in a anonymous denarius of 114-115 B.C. ); according to others it was the usurper King.
When she gave birth to two twins, Romulus and Remus, they were flung in the river Tiber to get rid of them, without officially having to kill them. The river however deposited them in a flooded area at the foot of the Palatine hill, where they were rescued by a she-wolf who had lost her cubs and was passing by (but lupa also meant prostitute, an alternative interpretation of the original saviour). The scene of the she-wolf feeding the twins is represented in the reverse of the same denarius of 114-115 B.C.. It gives a central role to the shepherd Faustulus, who then found and raised the twins. When they became adults they rescued their mother Rea Silvia, killed the usurper and reinstated their grandfather on the throne of Alba Longa, leaving thereafter to create a new city. After Romulus founded Rome, he quarreled with his brother Remus and killed him after he had mockingly violated the new border fortifications of the city.
Romulus was the first of the seven Kings of Rome and began to mold the institutions of the city. Rome mixed a form of elective monarchy with substantial power given to the patricians in the Senate, whose position was based on continuous frontline military leadership. It also afforded a measure of influence given to the plebeians as well, assimilating progressively refugees, runaway slaves, escaped criminals, and neighbouring populations through a process of military conquest followed by integration, leading to full citizenship, protected by an effective legal system.
The first of many conflicts was with the neighbouring Sabines, to whom Romulus’ band of male bachelors turned looking for wives. The Romans first asked and then, having received a refusal, decided instead to kidnap for marriage the Sabine women, taking advantage of a festival that they had organized for the purpose (the so-called Rape of the Sabine women, represented in a denarius of 89 B.C. by L. Titurius. L. F. Sabinus). War ensued, led by Romulus on the Roman side and by the Sabine King Titus Tatius on the other (also represented bearded in the same denarius of 89 B.C.). One of the victims of the conflict is represented in another denarius of 89 B.C., depicting the death of Tarpeia, daughter of a Roman commander, who had betrayed the city, promising to hand a Roman fortification to the Sabines in exchange for the gold bracelets that they carried on their arms. She was then killed by the Sabines who despised her treason, and, as they passed, threw at her the shields they also carried on their arms, crushing her under their weight. Her name was given to the Rupe Tarpeia on the back of the Capitoline hill, a cliff used for the executions of traitors in Rome. By the time the decisive field battle was to start the Sabine women had children and placed themselves between the combatants, refusing to choose between their fathers and brothers and the fathers of their children, effectively stopping the conflict. The ensuing peace brought many Sabines to live in Rome under the joint monarchy of Romulus and Tatius. Full integration of the remaining dissenting Sabines, however, took far longer, and a final war was concluded as late as 290 B.C.
Romulus governed as sole ruler after the death of Tatius, but suddenly disappeared, possibly killed by the senators for his increasingly arbitrary behavior after decades of power. The consolidation of the religious aspects of the new Roman state was undertaken by the second King of Rome. The Sabine Numa Pompilius, son in law of Tatius, was chosen by the Romans as successor of Romulus, in adherence to a principle of alternance in power between the two communities. He is here represented in a denarius by L. Pomponius Molo of 97 B.C., holding a lituus, a curved augural staff used by Roman priests and augurs, in the act of sacrificing a goat held by an aide in front of an altar.
The fourth King of Rome Ancus Marcius was also a Sabine, considered a good ruler because he was less warlike than his predecessor (Tullus Hostilius), because he presided over further extensions of the city and reportedly was the first to bring an aqueduct to the city. Indeed a denarius of 56 B.C. by a member of the gens Marcius claiming to descend from him, L. Marcius Philippus, represented the profile of Ancus, without beard, unlike the representations of predecessors. He was associated on the reverse with the aqueduct of the Acqua Marcia, which still serves the centre of Rome today, surmounted by an equestrian statue.
The last three kings of Rome were Etruscans (Tarquin the elder, Servius Tullius and Tarquin the Proud), another sign of Roman openness to offer opportunities of great advancement to outsiders and immigrants. None of them, however, received the later honour of being represented on republican coinage, despite the fact that not all of them were considered bad rulers. The republic was founded and ideologically based on the rejection of the tyrannical nature of the late monarchy and on conflict with the Etruscan cities, which represented the main alternative power to Rome in fifth century B.C.’s Italy.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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