yimakh shemo ve zikhro
יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ וְזִכְרוֹ
(“Let his name and his memory be erased”)
— ancient Hebrew curse
ANCIENT COINS OFTEN took a beating in circulation, remaining in use for decades or even centuries. But some surviving coins seem to have been deliberately defaced or mutilated as an expression of popular hatred and contempt for the subject depicted or name inscribed. A 17th-century scholar coined the Latin phrase damnatio memoriae (“damnation of memory”) for this practice, though there is no evidence for the use of the phrase in antiquity.
Coins mistreated in this way have a certain perverse appeal to some collectors, and a few dramatic examples have brought impressive prices at auction. Coins become damaged for many different reasons – sometimes the shovel or trowel that unearths a coin leaves a gouge in the metal – and unscrupulous sellers may try to misrepresent modern damage as ancient, so damnatio memoriae is hard to prove. Cataloguers often follow the phrase with a cautious question mark.
Gaius Julius Caesar was beloved by his troops and Rome’s common people, but he was hated by many of the elite; indeed a faction of the Senatorial class hated him enough to stab him to death.
When Caesar’s portrait was placed on a silver denarius in January 44 BCE, it violated a long-standing Roman taboo against depicting living persons on the coinage. A deep scratch across the face on this rare coin could be an expression of damnatio — or at least the auction cataloguer thought so. Lifetime portrait coins of Julius Caesar are in such high demand from collectors that even a deep scratch is an acceptable defect.
In Harlan J. Berk’s book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (2nd Edition, 2019), this type is #14 (Berk, 83).
Lucius Aelius Sejanus was a friend and trusted advisor of Emperor Tiberius, who made him commander of the powerful Praetorian Guard in 14 CE. Sejanus probably had Drusus, the son of Tiberius and heir to the imperial throne, poisoned in 23. As Tiberius lost interest in governing, Sejanus consolidated his power, becoming ruler of Rome in all but name and gradually eliminating his rivals.
In 31 CE, when Tiberius appointed him consul, Sejanus’ name even appeared on the coinage of several Roman colonies, such as Bibilis (near modern Zaragoza, Spain).
Unfortunately for him, on October 18, 31 Sejanus was arrested and charged with plotting to seize the throne. He was strangled to death and his body was torn apart by a mob on the Gemonian stairs where it lay.
The name of Sejanus was obliterated on all official inscriptions – including on coins. A bronze coin of Bibilis with the name L AELIO SEIANO effaced brought $2,000 in a 2007 New York auction.
When the reclusive, miserly and increasingly paranoid Tiberius died on March 16, 37 CE at the age of 78, most Romans greeted the accession of his great-nephew Gaius, nicknamed “Caligula”, joyfully.
The joy soon turned to horror as the strain of madness that ran in the family came to dominate his behavior.
On January 24, 41 CE, Caligula was stabbed to death in a palace coup. Two years later, the Senate voted that all bronze coins bearing Caligula’s image be melted down (Pollini, 34), but the chronic shortage of small change in the Roman economy meant this was never enforced, and many coins of Caligula survive, rarely with the name or portrait defaced.
The emperor Nero is infamous for his debauchery, fiddling while Rome burnt, and the scapegoating of Christians. To what extent ancient writers told the truth or exaggerated the facts for political reasons is difficult to know at this late date. What is known is that Nero, like his Julio-Claudian ancestor Caesar, was deeply unpopular with the nobility and political class, which eventually led to his overthrow. Nero killed himself on June 9, 68 CE, as the rebel army of Galba approached.
A possible case of damnation memoriae might be seen on this bronze sestertius, struck in Rome circa 66 CE and defaced in antiquity.
During the chaotic “Year of Four Emperors” that followed the death of Nero, Aulus Vitellius, who had commanded the legions on the Rhine frontier, held power in Rome for eight months. When the Eastern legions under the popular general Vespasian rose in revolt, Vitellius was abandoned by many of his supporters, overthrown in bloody street fighting in the capital, and executed.
On a copper as from Tarraco (now Tarragona in Catalonia, Spain), his portrait was defaced by a deep gouge. Ironically, the reverse of the coin proclaims FIDES EXERCITVVM (“Loyalty of the Army”). Formerly in the famous Knoblock collection, this coin brought $525 at auction in 2018.
A more violently defaced example is a denarius that appeared in a 2006 German auction; the portrait of Vitellius is nearly obliterated by multiple chisel cuts.
“Caracalla” is the nickname by which the bad emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (ruled 198-217 CE) is known to history (avoiding confusion with good emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled 161-180.) The name derived from a colorful Gallic hooded tunic he wore.
Eldest son of Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211) and Julia Domna, he hated his brother Geta, who was a year younger. Their father died on February 4, 211. That December, after attempts at joint rule broke down, Geta was murdered on Caracalla’s orders and an empire-wide campaign was launched to officially erase the name and image of Geta.
Large bronze coins of Roman provincial towns in the East often depicted the two young brothers side by side to honor the imperial family. On many of these coins, the portrait of Geta was condemned to damnatio memoriae by hammering. An excellent example comes from the city of Stratonicea in Caria (now Eskihisar, Turkey). Sometimes a countermark would be applied over the flat spot to validate the coin, as seen on a bronze of Pergamum.
Because of their high intrinsic value, gold coins were rarely defaced, no matter how hated their subjects might have been. A remarkable exception is a medallion of 3 solidi (13.74 grams) issued in 350 or 351 at Aquileia in northern Italy for the usurper Magnentius.
The reverse of the coin was hammered nearly flat to obliterate the image on Magnentius on horseback. Numerous deep gouges were applied across the face of the usurper on the obverse. This severely damaged piece brought just €2,800 ($3,087) in a 2019 German auction. Undamaged examples of this type typically sell for well over $50,000; a superb example from a 2006 Swiss auction is illustrated above, to show how ferociously the coin was mutilated.
All Roman gold multiples are rare, but quite a few of these, struck to reward rebel troops, have survived (it must have been a large issue). Defeated in battle by Constantius II in 353, Magnentius killed himself by falling on his sword.
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 Heritage NYINC Sale, January 8, 2017, Lot 34057. Realized $8,000 USD (estimate $5,000-6,000).
 Fun Fact: In the BBC TV series I Claudius (1976), the role of Sejanus is played by a young Patrick Stewart.
 CNG Electronic Auction 367, January 27, 2016, Lot 448. Realized $1,200 USD (estimate $1,000).
 VAuctions 333, November 13, 2018, Lot 464. Realized $525 USD (estimate $900).
 Gorny & Mosch Auction 147, March 7, 2006, Lot 2021. Resized €80 (about $95 USD; estimate €100).
 The most famous example is an ancient panel painting now in a Berlin museum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severan_Tondo.
 Numismatic Nauman Auction 78, June 2, 2019, Lot 631, realized €2,000 (about $2,229 USD; estimate €80).
 Naville Numismatics Auction 30, April 2, 2017, Lot 171. Realized £750 (about $938 USD).
 Gorny & Mosch Auction 265, October 14, 2019, Lot 1537. Realized €2,800 (about $3,087 USD; estimate €3,000).
 Numismatica Ans Classica Auction 33, April 6, 2006, Lot 605. Realized CHF 70,000 (about $54,285 USD; estimate CHF 50,000).
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL (2019)
Haymann, Florian. “Damnatio memoriae? Überlegungen zu Ursachen und Urhebern von Münzbeschädigungen” (Considerations on the causes and authors of coin damage), Geldgeschichtliche Nachrichten 299 (September 2018)
Hostein, Antony. “Monnaie et damnatio memoriae (Ier-IVe siècle ap. J.-C.) problèmes méthodologiques” (Coinage and damnatio memoriae [1st to 4th centuries CE] methodological problems)”, Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz 15, (2004)
Pollini, John “Recutting Roman Portraits: Problems in Interpretation and the New Technology in Finding Possible Solutions”, Memoirs of the American Academy at Rome 55 (2010)