Roma Aeterna:

Why the History of Rome matters to those who collect her Coins and an Introduction to how to Discovery it

One of the (many) attractions of collecting Roman or other ancient coins is the connection that these tiny works of art allow between the collector to the world from which they come. A silver denarius of Marcus Aurelius (Caesar from 139 AD and Emperor from 161 AD to 180 AD, as well as general, statesman and author of the Meditations), for instance, entered the world during his reign. There is, one supposes, a tiny chance that the coin passed through the hands of the Emperor himself, a physical connection to a man whose legacy and indeed inner most thoughts still reverberates across western society to this day. if it didn't, it certainly touched the hands of his contemporaries, and preserves both the likeness of a man dead more than 1800 years on it's obverse, and a subtle political message in the image on it's reverse and the legend chosen for it.

Such coins are a tangible link to a revered, historic, and for many, near mythical past, and indeed the interpretation of the art and legends on coins can indeed provide a valuable insight or perspective into matters that we might not otherwise be aware. This is particularly so when considering a past where the quantity and quality of alternative historical sources is limited. In such circumstances, coins may provide some of the best historical, economic and artistic evidence available. For instance, as a medium of exchange, coins provide objective economic data. They are often dateable, so where they are found and in what quantity can tell us a lot about historical events..Their artistic value is not only intrinsic - what their subjects are and how they are depicted can tell us much about what the issuerer considered important or the messages that they wish to convey across political, social, religious and military spheres. Even the material that they are made from can tell us much about the time in which they were struck. Finally. they are evidence for events and places that history may not speak of and archaeology may not be able to find. In short, coins can speak to us today about the past from which they come.

But the opposite can also be true, particularly for the amateur collector for whom an understanding and appreciation of the historical context from which our coins emerge can feed an understanding and appreciation of our coins. Not for nothing has it been said that "history without numismatics is imperfect," while "numismatics without history is impossible." 

As such I strongly encourage collectors to dive into the history of the culture or period as a way of increasing your understanding and appreciation of your coins. 

Fortunately there is a lot written about Ancient Rome, perhaps more than any other civilization. But as always, when there is endless material it is hard to know when to begin. This guide is here to help you take some tentative steps.

Primary Sources

Primary sources from the ancient world are material from the ancient world itself.

We are lucky in that many works of literature and history written within the Roman Empire have survived to this day, giving us a contemporary view from the inside.

The list below is by no means an exhaustive list of such works, but instead is intended to introduce you to the major classical writers who can teach us something about the men and women whose names and portraits appear on Roman Republican and Imperial Coinage.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Ammianus, Res Gestae

Most likely written in the 390's AD, Ammianus' Res Gestae (Latin for "things done") is a history of the Roman empire, picking up from where the works of Tacitus.conclude with the accession of Nerva in 96 AD and concluding with the death of the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. Unfortunately history has not been kind to the Res Gestae and all but 18 of the 31 books have been lost. Those that remain cover the period from 353 to 378.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor from 161-180 AD,.has left us with a very remarkable work that is known to modern readers as the Meditations. It is a collection of writings which seem to have never been intended to have a wider audience than the Emperor himself, comprising notes and reflections written by the Emperor while on campaign with the apparent intention of helping him live and rule in accordance with the principles espoused by Stoic Philosophy. While the work does provide much information of historical interest and relevance, it is not intended as a history. Rather, it's significance and value lies in provided direct insight to the inner thoughts of one of histories greatest figures, and that insight provides an example of a person worth emulating even today.

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Commentarii de Bello Civili

These two works by Julius Caesar are accounts of his military exploits in the Roman conquest of Gaul and the Civil War that followed. Like Marcus Aurelius' meditations, these works provide a unique insight into the mind of their author, but in contrast to the private nature of the Meditations Caesar wrote not for his own private reflection but for a domestic audience with clear propagandist motives. Nevertheless, and although one should keep Sir Winston Churchill's quip that "history is written by the victors" in mind throughout, these works combine a first hand historical account of some of the most significant events in early Western history, with an explanation of the same from not only an eye witness but in most instances, their chief author. On top of that they are quite well written.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Dio Cassius, Roman History

Dio Cassius' 80 book Roman History covered the time from the mythical foundation of Rome to 229 AD. It survives today in fragments, often in abridgments put together by later authors.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Livy, The History of Rome

An important source for early Roman history, Livy's History of Rome covers a period between the legendary foundation of Rome to 9 BC. Only parts have survived to today

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans

Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (often known simply as the Parallel Lives or just the Parallels) are a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures, for the most part arranged so as to contrast a comparable Greek life with that of a Roman one (for example, pairing Julius Caesar with Alexander the Great) coupled with his own assessment or comparison of the two. They were intended by their author to convey lessons about the character of their subjects and the impact of this on their lives, rather than be "history" per say, but nevertheless contain a wealth of valuable historical information.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Polybius, the Histories

The Histories detail Rome's ascendancy as a Mediterranean superpower, covering the period from 264 BC to 146 BC in which time Rome went from a regional to international superpower, culminating with the sack of Carthage, Rome's main rival for power in the Western Mediterranean, and the Greek city Corinth, representing it's eclipse of the Greek world in the east. The work has come down to us incomplete, but written by an outsider (Polybius was a Greek hostage forced to live in Rome) and probably for a non-Roman audience (modern academics theorize that Polybius' Roman "patrons" wished to use his work as propaganda to help sway his Greek compatriots opinions in favor of Rome), the Histories provide a unique perspective of this pivotal period in Roman history, 

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars

Suetonius' Twelve Caesars is a biography of the first 12 post-Republican rulers of Rome from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Tacitus, the Annals and the Histories

Tacitus' two (partially) surviving works cover the period from the death of Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, in 14 AD, to the First Jewish–Roman War, in 70 AD and the accession of Vespasian.(although it is thought that the missing parts of the Histories may have gone as far as the death of Domitian in 96 AD).

Available Online at Project Gutenburg

Zosimus, Historia Nova

A Greek historian living in Constatinople in the fifth-early sixth centuries AD, Zosimus' work covers the history of the Emperors from Augustus to 410 AD. Zosimus wrote as a non-christian in what was becoming a predominantly christian empire, It was also an empire in decline which appears to have been the theme of his work 

Available Online at

Secondary Sources

A secondary source about the ancient world is a work discussing or interpreting the primary source information that has come down to us.

Secondary sources may draw together multiple primary sources of information into one, including histories, archaeology, and more, to provide a more in depth or interconnected description of the past than might be apparent from a single primary source.

Again, this list is not intended to be an exhaustive list, or even really to scratch the surface, of great secondary sources about Rome, but should serve to give you an introduction to Roman History 

Beard, Mary, S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard is one of the pre-eminent classical scholars of our age and this work (first published in 2015) is intended for our age, interpreting Roman political history and social history for a contemporary audience from a variety of sources (including, on occasion, coins). The work takes encompasses a broad historical scope, covering a period from the mythical foundation of Rome to the edict of Caracalla in 212 AD, although it combines this with detailed analysis of key events in an effort to explain significant systemic changes. . ..  

Duncan, Mike, A History of Rome Podcast

If you crave an introduction to the entire history of the western Rome, from it's legendary foundation by Aenas to the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last the western empire's last emperor, delivered to you in easily digestible, and eminently listenable, audio format, Mike Duncan's epic 179 part podcast is your panacea. Did I mention that it is free? (and also available on iTunes). 

Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Published in 1776–1789, Edward Gibbon's epic six volume account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, covering the period from the Antonine dynasty to the fall of Byzantium, is now itself considered a classic in it's own right. It provides not only an excellent historical overview, but also a stunning  example of early modern scholarship which set the tone for the discipline of ancient history for generations to come and is still relevant today. 

The Antonines

Michael Grant's work provides an easily digestible introduction to the Antonine Emperors - Antoninus Pius, Marcus Auerlius, Lucius Verus and Commodus. 

Jones, A.H.M., The Later Roman Empire

Although first published in the 1960's, and naturally somewhat outdated in both content and style, this weighty work is still one of the best secondary sources for the history of Rome from the accession of Diocletian in 284 AD to the fall of Maurice Tiberius in 602.AD, looking not just at grand military history, but getting down into the weeds of social, religious and cultural history of the later Roman Empire as well.

Scullard, H. H., From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68

First published in 1959, Scullard's work is another classic of Roman history covering the pivitol history of the chaotic civil conflicts that tore the Roman Republic apart, beginning with the destabalising attempts by the Gracchi to reform an increasingly plutocratic political system, which paved the way for decades of civil war under Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Octavian and Antony, culminating with the death of the Republic and imposition of the Pax Romana under the autocratic Principate of Augustus and his successors.