If coins could talk: History as told by ancient Roman currency

The Ernst Badian Collection, which was donated to Rutgers University by a late Harvard professor, features coins minted from every era from the beginning of the third century until the end of the Roman Republic.

One coin in the collection shows the bearded head of Mars on one side, and a horse’s head on the other side. Rutgers Ph.D. student Rick Hale says Mars symbolizes a relationship with Romulus, the first king of Rome.

“Something that we see quite a bit of is in the very earliest coins we see a standardized kind of iconography with the coins. You’ll typically you’ll have the same god and the same scene on the obverse and reverse of each coin,” Hale said.

Hale was amazed that you could get a sense of the way the republic changes over the course of time.

“As time progresses, you start seeing the people who are tasked with manufacturing these objects making reference to things like their famous ancestors, making reference to other political events, things like great victories, iconography of priesthoods that they might have held, that kind of thing,” said Hale. “As time progresses, you start seeing a much greater emphasis on the individual and personalized propagandist self-glorification that you didn’t see in the very early Roman Republican,” said Hale.

Hale handles a coin minted by Caesar. One side shows a trophy commemorating some kind of victory. The other side shows an elephant stepping on a dragon, or snake depending on who you ask, with Caesar’s name engraved underneath. It was minted during the Great Roman Civil War between Caesar and another general, Pompey the Great.

“Caesar, as we know, had his great rival in Pompey the Great at the time, so it was important for a guy like Caesar to have Romans carrying his name in their pockets,” said Hale.

For students and researchers, this collection offers a unique window into Roman culture and politics. But the digital library architect at Rutgers, Ronald Jantz, says access to such coins are rare because of logistics and security issues.

“What this online collection does is immediately extend this capability literally to everybody in the world. It’s public, there are no restrictions,” said Jantz.

It took Rutgers graduate students about four years to digitize the roughly 1,250 coins. Some of them were photographed in several angles to give people a chance to see all facets of the detailed engravings.

“If a student wanted to do a paper on weapons in Roman history, you could do a search and pull up every coin that has a weapon on it,” said Jantz.

One of the very earliest pieces of the collection is a large piece of unworked bronze.

“You would make an exchange for something in the value of the weight of that bronze,” said Hale. “Even the earliest cast round coins, they’re still quite large because the value of the coin is still tied up in some way with the value of the metal.”

As time progresses, money begins to turn into an abstract. Now think of where we are today with things like bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

“It isn’t even an object, it has no value except in that it’s understood to have value,” said Hale.

The coins offer the public a chance to see a monetary system evolve.