HomeAncient CoinsAncient and Medieval Coins as Royal Propaganda

Ancient and Medieval Coins as Royal Propaganda

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

How does a monarch solidify legitimacy? What tools can be drawn upon to project power?

Since a centralized state monopolizes the use of force, the monarch has it within his prerogative to wage war. If successful, an “US” versus “THEM” conflict is a surefire unifier of people, as personified by Napoleon or the raids on Nubia by ancient Egyptian pharaohs. These conflicts, however, can result in a fleeting legitimacy.

Roman Sestertius and Chinese Qin.
Left: ROMAN EMPIRE, Imperial Period. Sestertius, 9.5 g, Paduan. OBV: Emperor’s portrait. REV: Colosseum. Klawans 6; Matzke II / 22 var. 1. Heidelberger Münzhandlung Herbert Grün e.K., Auction 78, Lot 204. Price Realized: 529 EU (Approximately 589 USD). Right: CHINA: Qin to Western Han, issued c. 220-180 BCE. Ban liang. 4.62g, 27mm. OBV: Ban liang. REV: Blank, as made. REF: Hartill 7.8., From the Sallent collection. Ancient & Medieval Coins Canada. Auction 2, Lot 372, November 9, 2019.

Alternatively, kings may order monumental building projects. When Vespasian ordered the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre (otherwise known as the Colosseum) and Qin Shi Huang started the Great Wall of China, they were literally cementing their legacy in stone for the ages.

However, how do you promulgate those successes outside the royal court and communities immediately affected?


From the poorest landless Roman purchasing a scrap of bread with a bronze quadrant, to the most august land magnate in the Valois kingdom paying mercenaries with gold royals, coins of all denominations and compositions permeated society. Coins served two major functions for pre-modern societies: they improved the efficacy of commerce and they provided a vehicle to visually promote the state and its ruler.

Late Hellenistic & Pontic Kings

Given the Hellenizing impact of Alexander IIIAlexander the Great’s–Macedonian empire, it became commonplace for a massive multi-ethnic state to control the fates of many different peoples. Therefore, if rulers lacked the necessary military might or did not wish for bloodshed, they needed other mechanisms of control. During the twilight years of the Seleucid and Parthian empires, this demand was met through numismatic imagery.

PARTHIAN KINGDOM. Mithridates I. 171-138, BCE. AG Drachm. 3.88g, Undefined mint, possibly Ecbatana. OBV: Head of King REV: King with bow sits on Omphalos.REF: Sellwood 10.16. 3.88g. Ex Coll. Todd A. Ballen.Gerard Hirsch Auction. Auction 287, Lot 2068, September 22, 2011.

Once Mithradates I conquered his Seleucid rivals, “coins were practically the only propaganda vehicle” with which he could reliably reach both his old and recently acquired subjects. (“Political Propaganda”, 89) The king needed a Hellenized image. The new coinage “unmistakably highlighted … features proper to Seleucid imagery”. (“Political Propaganda”, 91) This shift in royal portraits can be observed on the above coin, minted prior to Mithradates’s capture of Margiana and the coin below, minted after. This royal rebranding indicates how Mithridates moved to ingratiate himself with his new Hellenic subjects, as he attempted to tie his martial legitimacy to the historical legitimacy of the Seleucid dynasty and by proxy, that of Alexander the Great.

PARTHIAN KINGDOM. Mithridates I. AG Tetradrachm,
PARTHIAN KINGDOM. Mithridates I. AG Tetradrachm, (139/138 BC) 15.32g, Seleukeia on Tigris. OBV: Bust in regalia with Diadem. REV: Boy Herakles stands naked, with, club and lion skin. REF: Sellwood 13.2-4. ex Peus 363.5104. Münzzentrum Rheinland. Auction 190, Lot 354, March 11, 2000. Price realized: 2700 EU (Approximately 3046 USD).

While the change in royal portraiture dominated higher denomination silver coinage, further proof of this change in “coin-borne propaganda” can be found on the smaller bronze denominations where the Pontic kings inserted the traditional Greek symbology of “the Dioscuri, their caps, Nike riding a biga [A two-horse chariot. —CoinWeek], and the head of horse or elephant, etc”. (“Political Propaganda”, 92). Coins with different reverses have been excavated across the empire, proving that “large number[s] of mints” allowed for the regime to “direct different political messages to different ethnic and social groups”. (“Political Propaganda”, 96)

The Jewish Wars

While early Pontic Kings employed numismatic propaganda to link their legitimacy to earlier dynasties, the rebels during the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) attempted to break from their Roman rulers by utilizing older Hebrew religious imagery. During the early stages of the rebellion, the inhabitants of the mountain city of Gamla, in the north of modern-day Israel, minted a series of bronze coins, of which only six survive (an example can be seen below).

JUDAEA, Jewish War. 66-70 CE. Æ (20mm, 7.62 g). Gamla mint.
JUDAEA, Jewish War. 66-70 CE. Æ (20mm, 7.62 g). Gamla mint. 66-67 CE. OBV: Omer Cup with paleo-Hebrew or Aramaic legend REV: Paleo-Hebrew or Aramaic legend. REF: Meshorer 217; Kadman –; Hendin 1372 (same dies as illustration); Bromberg 390 (same dies). CNG, Triton XIX auction, Lot 307, January 5, 2016.

All extant examples range from 21–24 mm in diameter and weigh about 12 g. They depict a chalice surrounded by an inscription, in both Paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic, which spells “the word LG’LT – To the Redemption of”, On the reverse, the legend continues with the “partial inscription YRŠLM HQ[DŠH] – Holy Jerusalem”. (Arbel, 233)

JUDEA First Revolt. Shekel
JUDEA First Revolt. Shekel. Jerusalem, 13.95g 66-70 CE. Obv: Chalice – pearled rim, Legend around. REV: Stem with pearled bottom and three pomegranate buds; REF Hendin 1370a. Image: Wildwinds/ Francis Bourcher.

The imagery is a clear “statement of defiance” against the Romans. (Arbel, 234) No roman governor would tolerate the minting of a coin based so clearly off of the Jerusalem shekels with both the chalice and the circular legend crudely imitating the originals pomegranates and chalice. (Arbel, 233) The propagandized nature of this imagery is very clear.

The coins were likely not intended for widespread commercial use due to their crude nature, indicating that the minters had little to no “previous experience in the production of currency”. (Arbel, 237) This inexperience would have “resulted in slow production and frequent failures” – which helps to inform us of the likely production number of these coins. (Arbel, 237) While there are only six extant examples, it is unlikely that many more coins will be discovered and that the production numbers were very low. Instead, the coin’s “profound ideological” and religious imagery prove their symbolic rather than commercial value.

Severan Imperial Propaganda

One of the first issues a new royal family must face is cementing their right to rule.

Left: ROMAN EMPIRE: Julia Domna, AR denarius, Alexandria. OBV: IVLIA DOMNA AVG, draped bust right. REV: Roma on shield, holding Victory and spear. RIC 538A; RSC 25. Hybrid with reverse of Sept. Severus RIC 350-I. Right: ROMAN EMPIRE: Julia Domna, AR Denarius. 196-211 CE. OBV: IVLIA AVGVSTA, draped bust right. REV: IVNO, Vailed Juno, holding patera & sceptre; peacock. REF; RIC 559 (Severus); BMCRE 38 (Severus); RSC 83a

Coming to power during a civil war, Septimus Severus was no different. After gaining control of the Roman state, the emperor immediately began waging war against the Parthian empire and successfully defended Britain against barbarian raids south of Hadrian’s wall. Initially viewed as rough provincials, the emperor waged a successful propaganda campaign aimed at the Roman elite in order to strengthen his wife’s political image. Returning to the seemingly eternal well of Augustan legitimacy, a concerted effort was made to connect the Empress Julia Domna to Livia, the wife of Augustus

Coins depicting Julia Domna clearly push this propaganda by “duplicat[ing] … nomenclature” connected to Livia, like changing her title from Ivlia Domna Avg to Ivlia Avgvsta. (Lusnia, 120-1)

Later in Severus’s rule, a further effort was made to link Julia Domna with both Faustinas (Elder and Younger) in addition to Livia. This linkage was formed through the usage of several goddesses, such as Venus, Juno, and Vesta. Semi-divine personifications of Imperial virtues such as Fecunditas, Hilaritas, and Pietas also appeared on the coinage of Julia Domna.

Finally, like many other Roman emperors the personified images of dynastic harmony and longevity, Concordia Aeterna and Aeternitas Imperi, respectively, were depicted on the imperial coinage. (Lusnia, 121)

Visigothic Spain

In the former Roman province of Hispania, foreign Visigothic kings struggled to maintain legitimacy over the local Hispano-Romans after invading from the east. Like in the colonial and early-federal US, a variety of foreign coinage circulated freely in the early Visigothic kingdom, proving a thorn in the side of the royal household.

Attempting to move farther away from the Byzantine empire, King Leovigild began “creating the Visigothic regal series”, which featured his name and image instead of the eastern emperor’s. (“The King’s Coinage”, 84) This not so subtle form of propaganda successfully marketed the local Visigothic king as the rightful ruler instead of simply being a vassal of Constantinople.

VISIGOTH KINGDOM: Leovigild AV Tremissis
VISIGOTH KINGDOM: Leovigild AV Tremissis. AD 569-586. OBV: Stylized, Diademed, Draped and cuirassed bust imitating Justinian I. REV Heavily stylized Victory (With 6 Legs) holding globe, advancing right. 1.30g, 17mm, 7h. Roma Numismatics. E-sale 2, 2 November 2013, Lot 731.

Later, on an issue of the kings royal series, “‘LEOVIGILDVS REX – CORDOBA BIS OPTINVIT,” is inserted boasting how the king captured, then “Crushed” the rebellion of Cordoba, which previous kings had proved unable to accomplish, thus promoting the king’s military prowess and effectively rule. (“The King’s Coinage”, 90)

In 582, during his conversion to Christianity, King Leovigild’s son Hermenegild began using Christian imagery and wording on his coinage in order to proclaim his piety to the world. (“The King’s Coinage”, 88)

Muscovite Russia

As domestic Russian coinage production first began in the late 14th century, the Muscovite coins of Vasili II (r. 1425-1463) show the first direct numismatic connection between political legitimacy and the minting of coinage. According to Gustav Alef, a notable academic who studied Russian history, the iconography of early Russian coins fluctuated to such an extent, that “no iconography of political importance was meant to be conveyed” (Alef 4). In fact, they seemed to randomly borrow the winged griffin, Heracles, and a sphinx from foreign cultures.

Instead, the early Russian “wire” coins served as royal propaganda in two other ways.

Firstly, the legends clearly denoted the ruling “grand prince” promoting his rule. These coins proved to be a “useful propaganda medium” and formed a useful connection “between the function of numismatic symbols” and the Duke’s “legitimacy in the cultural imagination”. (Emery, 3)

Secondly, the coins testified to the royal prerogative over the nation’s monetary system. By engaging in the act of minting, the Grand Duke demonstrated his political legitimacy. Through this “circular relationship”, the king appropriated numismatic symbols to solidify his political authority. (Emery, 3) This relationship is clearly exhibited on a unique coin, minted in Tver, a town outside of Moscow, in 1547, which depicts a figure wearing a crown hammering a coin.

A propagandized image of a ruler minting his own currency demonstrates the subtle legitimizing effects that the design and minting of coins hold for a monarch’s search for legitimacy and power.

Left: 1981 Afghanistan 500 Afghanis in Proof. FAO. Right: 1977 Tonga Pa'Anga. FAO.
Left: 1981 Afghanistan 500 Afghanis in Proof. FAO. Right: 1977 Tonga Pa’Anga. FAO.

These trends have persisted to the modern-day. One striking example can be found with the multitude of commemorative coins of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. From Afghanistan to Sudan, many countries have promoted this organization, partly in gratitude for their work and in what could be conceived as an attempt to woo them into providing more aid. Coins still serve as a fantastic vehicle state propaganda that lasts the test of time.

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Alef, Gustave. “The Political Significance of the Inscriptions on Muscovite Coinage in the Reign of Vasili II”, Speculum, vol. 34, no. 1, 1959, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2847975. Accessed 30 July 2020.

Arbel, Yoav. “The Coins Minted in Gamla: An Alternative Analysis”, Gamla III: The Shmarya Gutmann Excavations 1976-1989, Finds and Studies: Part 1, by Danny Syon et al., vol. 56, Israel Antiquities Authority, JERUSALEM, 2014, pp. 233–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1fzhd4c.10. Accessed 29 July 2020.

Emery, Jacob. “Species of Legitimacy: The Rhetoric of Succession around Russian Coins”, Slavic Review, vol. 75, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.75.1.1. Accessed 30 July 2020.

Lusnia, Susann Sowers. “Julia Domna’s Coinage and Severan Dynastic Propaganda”, Latomus, vol. 54, no. 1, 1995, pp. 119–140. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41537210. Accessed 29 July 2020.

“The King’s Coinage: The Beginning and Development of the Regal Coinage (c. 573-c. 720)”, Minting, State, and Economy in the Visigothic Kingdom: From Settlement in Aquitaine through the First Decade of the Muslim Conquest of Spain, by Andrew Kurt, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2020, pp. 81–122. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvzgb77v.6. Accessed 29 July 2020.

“The Political Propaganda of the First Arsacids and Its Targets: From Arsaces I to Mithradates II”, Studia Graeco-Parthica: Political and Cultural Relations Between Greeks and Parthians, by Edward Dąbrowa, 1st ed., Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2011, pp. 89–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvbqs43d.13. Accessed 29 July 2020.

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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