Calgary Coin

Anatomy of a Roman Coin

ancient roman denarius of trajan

17.6 x 19.1 mm. 3.50 grams

To many collectors new to Roman coins, this is just a denarius of Trajan (AD 97-117) with an image of a Roman soldier on the reverse. They might purchase it for their growing portrait set, with little thought beyond it filling their need for a portrait of Trajan. However, this coin is far more than that, as it tells a story of what was happening in the Roman world when it was struck. All we have to do is read what is on it, look at the images, and that story comes back to life after almost 2000 years.


The Story Begins on the Obverse

trajan head

The emperor's portrait is normally the first thing most people look at on any Roman coin, and in this case it is easily recognizable as that of Trajan. His dignified look befits his position as emperor, but just so there can be no confusion about his position he is shown wearing a laurel wreath in his hair. This laurel wreath is the "Laureate Corona" which during the Republican period was conferred only on one who had achieved the highest pro-consular dignity. Around 44 BC Julius Caesar reserved it as a symbol of the supreme ruler and starting with Augustus it became a symbol of the emperor, conferred only on those holding the title of "Augustus".

Just in case we are not familiar with the portrait, he conveniently tells us via the obverse and reverse inscriptions exactly who he is and being able to understand these inscriptions is critical to understanding the coin. Starting at 6 o'clock and reading clockwise around, we find the following:


This has two meanings. First, it is used as a praenomen of the Emperor, indicating he is emperor and supreme commander of the Roman Army (a little like the term "Commander and Chief for the US president). It is this context in which it appears to be used on this coin. On many Roman coins it will also be used as a title awarded to the Emperor as he wins important military victories but in that context it will normally include a number that indicates how many times it has been awarded to him.


This was the family name of Julius Caesar, assumed as a name by Augustus (Caesar's adopted son) and became part of the name of members of Julio-Claudian house that ruled Rome until the death of Nero. After Nero, CAESAR became a title meaning a person of great dignity, and a dignitary of the second rank (one in line to become IMPERATOR). However the title was retained once one became Emperor, still indicated a person of great dignity. Trajan was awarded this title in October of AD 97, only three months before becoming Emperor.


Trajan was the adopted by the Emperor Nerva in October of AD 97, at which point he assumed NERVA as part of his name.


Trajan's full birth name was MARCUS ULPIUS TRAIANUS, so here he is just telling who he is.


Meaning "the most perfect prince", a title awarded to Trajan by the Senate in AD 100, after he re-entered Rome following the German wars. This title appears to have been very important to Trajan, as it appears on many of his coins, sometimes spelled out in full on the reverse.


The title AUGUSTUS originally mean "worthy of veneration", but when it was conferred on Octavian as the first Roman Emperor, it became a title indicating the Sovereign, or high ruler. It is this title, which he was awarded in January of AD 98, that defines him as Emperor.


Meaning "victor over the Germans", this was a title awarded to Trajan in AD 98, following his German victories of that year.


Meaning "victor over the Dacians", this title was awarded to Trajan following his victories in his first Dacian war of AD 101-102.


Meaning "victor over the Parthians", this title awarded to Trajan in AD 116 following his victories over the Parthians in that year. For the purposes of dating this coin, this is the most important title on the coin, as it tells us the coin cannot have been issued prior to AD 116 and thus the coin was issued in AD 116 or 117.

The obverse inscription, expanded from it's abbreviations becomes:


The literal meaning of which is:

"The supreme commander of great dignity, Nerva Trajanus, the most perfect prince and sovereign, victor over the Germans, Dacians and Parthians."


The Story Continues on the Reverse

For this coin, the reverse inscription is really a continuation of the obverse inscription:


Meaning "High Priest". As holder of this title, Trajan was in charge of the Roman religion and scared ceremonies. As was normal, the title was assumed by Trajan when he became Emperor in AD 98.


Meaning "Tribune of the People". Officially the title mean Trajan was a protector of the rights of the plebeians, but in reality it allowed him to do almost anything he wished to do. It not only gave him the power to convene or dismiss the Senate, but included veto power over the Senate's decisions. The title was renewed annually and while not the case on this coin, on some coins it is followed by a number indicating how many times it had been awarded and thus can be used to accurately date many other coins.


Meaning Consul for the sixth time. The title of Consul originates early in the Republic period when a Consul was the highest magistrate and had a great deal of power. Under the Empire the power of the consuls was greatly diminished, with the title more one of show than power. Most Emperors held the title, which was renewed periodically so helps to date coins. Trajan became Consul for the 6th time in AD 112 but stayed at that number for the balance of his reign.


Pater Patriae means "father of his country". This was a purely honorary title which only some Emperors used, and did not confer any additional powers to the Emperor.


Meaning "The Senate and the Roman People". This is not a title, but rather become part of a much larger meaning that will be made clear below.

When expanded from it's abbreviated form the reverse inscription becomes:


The literal meaning of which is:

"High priest, Tribune of the People, Consul for the sixth time, Father of the country, as recognized by Senate and the people of Rome."


Having read the inscriptions, one must still examine the reverse design to understand what the Emperor is trying to say to his people, and what we find is a standing figure of VIRTUS, the Roman personification (an idea given human form) of courage. He is shown wearing military dress, holding a parazonium (a sword like weapon) and a spear. What is easy to overlook, and very important, is that the spear is held in a transverse position with the point down. This transverse spear is in a position not ready for imminent battle, and thus is a symbol of peace rather than war.

One can take this to have two meanings as it is not absolutely clear if Virtus symbolizes the courage of the Emperor has brought peace, or if the courage of the Emperor's army has brought peace. It is likely both meanings are correct at the same type and the viewer could choose which one was more important to him.


How It All Fits Together

When one views the reverse inscription as a continuation of the obverse inscriptions, and you consider the coin as a whole, it is almost like the front page of a newspaper that would have looked something like this:

November, the 19 th year of our Emperor


trajan head

The supreme commander of great dignity, Nerva Trajanus, the most perfect prince and sovereign, victor over the Germans, victor over the Dacians and victor over the Parthians, High Priest, Tribune of the People, Consul for the sixth time, Father of the country, as recognized by the Senate and the people of Rome, has peace to the Empire.

Through the great courage of your Emperor Nerva Trajanus, and the courage of our military under his command, a great victory has been achieved over the Parthians and thus the Senate has conferred on him the title of PARTHICUS. With his earlier victories over the Germans and the Dacians, there is now peace across the Empire.


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