Roman coin designs feature mythological accounts of the republic’s origins such as Romulus and Remus depicted above.
Like people of almost every civilization, the Romans revered their past, which they explained with a curious mix of fact, myth and invention. Different accounts of Rome’s origins, and of important events from its formative years, were preserved – often in multiple versions.
Fortunately for collectors, some of Rome’s foundation myths are reflected in coin designs of the Republic and the Empire.
Roman Didrachm, c.275-255 BCE. All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)
The best place to start is with the mythology associated with the foundation of Rome. The canonical date of the ‘foundation’ of Rome – as reported by Atticus and Varro – is April 21, 753 BCE. However, many different dates were proposed among the Roman authorities (some of them much earlier), and archaeological evidence shows that the hills of Rome were occupied centuries before 753 BCE.
Even if the Romans eventually came to accept Varro’s canonical date, they were aware of Rome’s greater antiquity, for they had the myths of Evander and Aeneas, both of which considerably predated 753 BCE.
According to legend, Evander was a Greek from Arcadia who fled his homeland and settled in Rome even before the Trojan War had taken place. He made his home on a hill he named Pallanteum, after his grandfather, which later was called the Palatine hill.
Perhaps a century after Evander was thought to have arrived, the Trojan exile Aeneas was also said to have arrived to found Rome. Indeed, Aeneas did not arrive until 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 which became sacred relics of the Roman world.
Denarius of Julius Caesar, c.48-46 BCE
Shown above is a denarius of Julius Caesar which relates to the Aeneasfoundation myth. The Julian family, of which Julius Caesar was a member, 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 from Troy, 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 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 kind servants, who sent them adrift on the Tiber. They came ashore at the site of what would become the city of Rome, where they were cared for by a she-wolf.
Denarius of Antoninus Pius, c. 140 CE
Nummus of Maxentius, c. 310 CE
Constantinian-era commemorative, c. 330-335 CE
The three coins above show the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The first shows the wolf and twins within a cave (the Lupercal) at the base of the Palatine Hill where the twins were sheltered, whereas the other two omit the cave.
Denarius of L. Papius Celsus, 45 BCE
A variant type of this mythological episode appears on a denarius of the moneyer L. Papius Celsus, shown above. Here the she-wolf places a stick on a brazier as an eagle stands to the right, fanning the flames with its wings. It likely reflects an aspect of the myth later recorded by Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
Denarius (anonymous), c.115-114 BCE
Aureus of Titus, as Caesar, 77-78 CE
On the Republican denarius and the aureus of Titus shown above, the she-wolf and twins appear before the seated figure of the national goddess Roma. She is flanked by flying birds, which likely represent the auspicious birds that each of the twins saw and considered to be divine evidence in support of founding Rome on the hill of their choice – for they disagreed on this matter.
Denarius of Sextus Pompeius Fostulus, c.137 BCE
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, 71 CE
The rare brass sestertius of Vespasian shown above features a remarkable reverse type: Roma sits comfortably 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 BCE
One of the most common coin 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 BCE) and sparing the Romans a catastrophic defeat to their Latin neighbors (who had formed a league to oppose them). Ever since that day, they were revered.
Another episode in early Roman mythology is the abduction of Sabine women by Roman men, an event said to have occurred not long after Rome was founded. The Romans were in need of 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.
Denarius of L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, c.89 BCE
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 this very purpose in mind. It shows the head of Titus Tatius, then king of the Sabines, and shows Romans carrying off protesting Sabine women.
In the aftermath, King Titus Tatius declared war on Rome and besieged the 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 this, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, then made their way into the city.
Denarius of L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, c.89 BCE
Denarius of Augustus, c.19-18 BCE
Above are two coins depicting that event, which remained popular as a lesson to the costs of betrayal. First is a denarius of the moneyer L. Titurius L.f. Sabinus, and the second a denarius of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. The first pairs shows 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 the ordeal, minus the soldiers.
We’ll end this brief survey with a few portraits of early Roman notables which appear on coins of the Roman Republic.
Denarius of C. Censorinus, c.88 BCE
Shown above, on 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, claimed descent from both.
Denarius of M. Junius Brutus, as moneyer, c.54 BCE
The same may be said of the denarius above, for the issuer, M. Junius Brutus (later to be famous/infamous for his role in the murder of Julius Caesar), claimed descent from both of the men portrayed. The obverse shows L. Junius Brutus, famous as the founder of the Republic because he led the revolt that overthrew the last of Rome’s kings and because he was selected as the Republic’s first consul. The reverse portrays C. Servilius Ahala, equally famous in early Roman history for his murder of Spurius Maelius, who intended to crown himself King of Rome.
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