Coins as propaganda

The flipside to ancient Roman coins

From Huliq

“Imperial Portraiture on Roman Coins” Exhibition at the University of Sidney.

Coins are the most mundane of objects; we barely give them a thought as they come and go through our possession.

But throughout history, governments have frequently seized the opportunity to deliver political messages and images of power on the coins they issue. Hold even the staunchest republican upside down, and an image of the Queen will probably fall from his pockets.

The Romans were adept at this subtle use of propaganda, and an exhibition currently on show at the University's Nicholson Museum presents 132 Roman coins, each with a story to tell.

The faces on the coins include some famous and infamous names: Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Hadrian, Nero, Claudius, Caligula, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine, and some powerful women such as Agrippina and Galla Placidia.

Dr Peter Brennan, senior lecturer in classics and ancient history, who has written the historical notes to accompany the exhibition, said: “Like statues, coins give a physical face to power, sometimes realistic, sometimes idealised, not only of emperors but also of those whose faces on coins show their importance in the physiognomy of power.

“These are the men and women who shaped the emperor's power: would-be heirs who never made it; failed usurpers; imperial women – wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, even aunts and nieces.”

Through the words and images on the coins, the Romans built up an idealised view of their empire: they portrayed a harmonious atmosphere in the state, an image of prosperity and success, and the virtues of the emperor and his family.

“One message is constant from the first coin to the last: that the Roman emperors bring victory for the state,” Dr Brennan said.

Another constant is the presence of religious ideas, a crucial facet of Roman power. Every coin links its imperial figure to the divine world, Dr Brennan added, whether a Roman world full of gods or one in which the Christian God had triumphed.

The coins harbour some remarkable stories. Emperor Commodus, who was portrayed in the movie Gladiator as a rival of Russell Crowe's character, had little interest in governing the country but devoted himself to pleasure and arena sports, fancying himself as a gladiator and marksman. A coin in the exhibition from his later years shows him losing touch with the real world, with the emperor portrayed as the god Hercules dressed in a lionskin and carrying a club.

“He was not as cruel as the character in the movie, but he was obviously in the wrong job,” said Dr Brennan.

A lecturer at the University for 37 years, Dr Brennan's current research interest is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and the role of the military in the transformation of the late-Roman into the post-Roman world. His expertise in Roman history adds flavour and spice to the exhibition. “The Roman empire will never die, nor even fade away, while these small coins remind people of its splendid history,” he said.

A series of public lectures discussing ideas of power will be held in conjunction with the exhibition. ABC broadcaster and columnist Philip Adams opened the exhibition last week; former NSW premier Bob Carr and Cardinal George Pell will give lectures later this year. -Source: http://www.usyd.edu.au

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