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October 01, 2014

The Power of Words?

Coin of Augustus with Latin on both sides (RIC 12 358)

It is a truism that we are increasingly becoming a more visual age and one that plays down the impact of the written word. Everything has to have visual impact to engage and interest the passive spectator. Is PowerPoint the problem or the solution?

But, as often with the classical world, we have been there before. Coins are a good example of communicating a message through visual means and this Coin of the Month series has shown what a huge variety there are. Augustus, in particular, has been studied for his use of iconography in forming and disseminating the image that he wanted throughout the empire (see Zanker’s seminal book The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus).

This coin interested me for its lack of visual stimulus. It seeks to get its message through the written word. It is a denarius, about 18 mm in diameter. At this period, a legionary soldier received 10 asses a day, which amounted to 225 denarii a year.

One side of the coin (the obverse) has text within an oak wreath decorative border, reading as follows: I O M S P Q R S PR S IMP CAE QVOD PER EV R P IN AMP AT Q TRAN S E Expanding the standard abbreviations, adding letters in brackets, we see:

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) S P Q R V(ota) S(uscepta) PR(o) S(alute) IMP(eratoris) CAE(saris) QVOD PER EV(m) R(es) P(ublica) IN AMP(liore) AT Q(ue) TRAN(quilliore) S(tatu) E(st)

To Jupiter Greatest and Best, the Senate and the Roman people (give) their vows made for the health of their leader Caesar (i.e. Augustus) because through him the state is in a greater and more peaceful condition.

On the other side is a cippus, a small, low pillar which usually had an inscription on it. On this representation of a cippus there is inscribed:


In full this reads:

IMP(erator) CAES(ar) AVGV(stus) COMM(uni) CONS(ensu), S(enatus) C(onsulto)

Caesar Augustus leader with common consent, and with the agreement of the Senate.

In addition, around the inside edge of the coin is written: L. MESCINIVS RVFVS IIIVIR This is the name of the magistrate (Lucius Mescinius Rufus) and his position as a moneyer (triumviri monetales) which helps to date the coin to 16 B.C.E.

How successful was this design? Well, we can’t tell from this one coin, but we do notice that there are other coins from this period with their emphasis on text rather than image, but after this we see very few. We can deduce from this that the innovation was a failure. Why might this be? Estimates of the level of literacy in the Roman world vary. As well as the graffiti of Pompeii, from the opposite ends of the Roman Empire we have writing from the tablets of Vindolanda and the papyri from Oxyrhynchus which suggests that there was a reasonable level of literacy throughout society, but interpretation of the evidence is disputed (Ancient Literacy by W. V. Harris provides a good starting point).

Could this coin have got its message across? Could enough people have read to make it effective? Were the abbreviations too much of a barrier? Was the size of characters too small (the coin is only around 18mm in diameter)? Did coins get worn too quickly? Do people ignore writing on coins (can you remember the words on a £1 coin?) Was it a brave attempt at a new, more sophisticated form of communication that did not work well enough? Perhaps it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Mr Clive Letchford

Clive Letchford is a Teaching Fellow in the department, teaching Latin and Greek to those who have not had the opportunity to learn these wonderful languages before arriving at Warwick.

(Image © The Trustees of the British Museum)

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