Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.40

Erika Manders, Coining Images of Power: Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors on Imperial Coinage, A.D. 193-284. Impact of empire, 15.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xvii, 363.  ISBN 9789004189706.  $163.00.  

Reviewed by Marietta Horster, JGU Mainz (


Erika Manders addresses the specific patterns by which rulers represented their power on the reverses of the 8227 known imperial coin types in a period she characterizes as one of external threats and internal instability. The study consists of two parts, a macro and a micro level study of the major trends in imperial coinage in the period from 193 to 284.

The first chapter puts the “Coins in Context”: Manders gives a short overview of the political and economic history of the third century, and explains her use of terms like crisis, power, representation, communication, propaganda, and ideology. She follows C. Ando in his arguments about the importance of the imperial ideology as a binding agent in Roman society and C. F. Noreña’s arguments about coins and their potential for the dissemination and propagation of imperial profiles and representational messages.1 She excludes the examination of the messages’ reception, which would have presented nearly insurmountable methodological problems. She makes explicit her premises (e.g., the multiple audiences of coins, the responsibility for the choice of coin types, the exclusion of the Gallic and Palmyrene rulers from the study) and her methodology (e.g., using only coin types as the basis, and not taking into account the variation in (proportionally differing, but unknown absolute) numbers of coins of the coin types issued). Manders then presents the first results in a table with a list of common imagery and legends arranged in the following categories: dynastic representation, military presentation, divine association, prosperity, benefactions, virtuous deeds and virtues (including their personifications), and references pertaining to predecessors or underlining an emperor’s consciousness of tradition. In addition, a list of 26 unusual coin types, “unica” (p. 47f.), presents the images and legends of coin reverses that did not fit into one of the categories.

The two tables and 16 figures with statistics are based on the catalogue of coins in Roman Imperial Coinage volumes IV and V. The four dominant messages during the third century concern the military character of the emperor (22.5%), his divine associations (21.8%), the promotion of the golden age (19.2%), and the glorification of virtues (17.4%). Comparison of these results is made by reference (note 164) to Noreña’s results for the years AD 69 to 235 – which, however, are based on other categories. Statistics based on the same set of criteria, the same duration of time, or/and number of coin types would have been necessary to judge the value of her statistical results for the third century. Manders therefore makes clear that the analysis using RIC of the coin types on which her statistics are based are more or less comparable to the results of one sample study of the representation of divine associations and of the emperor as priest on coins in six representative third-century silver hoards (fig. 3 and 16).

The second chapter is devoted to the military images of the emperor, which is identified by visual and verbal references to the emperor’s role as imperator or the strength of the army. Manders lists nine images (e.g., victory, soldiers) and 24 legends. The corresponding graph (p. 65) presents the absolute numbers of coin types of all military-related issues of each emperor and the percentage of these types in relation to all coin types of one emperor.2 In this chapter Manders explains the variations in the proportion of military-related issues. With Maximinus Thrax it is 51.1%, which is explained by four years of fighting. This may have been Maximinus’s motivation, but there are no grounds to argue that heavy or long fighting leads to a dominance of military issues – the third-century imperial coins of other emperors who were not less engaged in fighting disprove this theory. Also too brief is the argumentation for Gallienus’s copies of Septimius Severus’s ‘legionary’ series (both emperors faced heavy internal fighting – Severus in a civil war, Gallienus in the Rhine area, p. 93-94). Another military type is the adlocutio, which addresses “the direct relationship between the emperor and his troops”; for all its ritual and political importance, the adlocutio is under-represented in coinage and was therefore probably presented in other media (p. 76). It is the victory type that is claimed to be the “prevailing standard” in military issues (p. 79). On p. 84 it is questioned whether all victories on coins correspond to reality. Manders’ answer is positive, because the coins “inform the subjects about imperial activities.” Even if not all details of Manders’ arguments are convincing, her comprehensible conclusion is that the “regionalized, and thus divided, armed forces” in the third century would have been thought to be more loyal to the reigning emperor if the coins they received as payment referred directly to the armies. Probably more important than the image was that the troops be paid on time and the debasement of the coins and the subsequent inflation stop.

In the third chapter, “Divine Propaganda,” Manders examines the display of the emperor as sacerdos, and the display of the five gods most often represented on coins (Jupiter, Hercules, Mars, Sol, Apollo). She also considers the specific representational forms and ideological basis of the assimilations to gods of Elagabal and Aurelian. 20 of 35 third- century emperors chose to connect themselves with Jupiter on the reverse, 12 with Hercules, 26 with Mars, 18 with Sol, and 14 with Apollo. The graph on p. 100 demonstrates the fluctuation in importance of the “divine” context for the emperors. The results are: Jupiter supposedly legitimizes a new ruler (p. 105-106), personal traditions can influence choices (the Severan Hercules symbolises the Libyan Melqaart, p. 105 and 112), the reign of Aemilian introduces a profound religious change (p. 110), and after Claudius Gothicus the emperor as sacerdos (with an image of cult symbols or a sacrifice, or with the pontifex maximus legend) is no longer present on coins (p. 133- 145). However, the display of legends of other parts of the imperial titulature on the reverse disappears too at that time, and, contrary to Manders’ text, the graph on page 144 still shows a few later ‘priestly’ images or legends.

Chapter 4, “Imperial Exempla,” deals with the imperial virtues of providentia, liberalitas, virtus, pietas, and aequitas. Here as in the other chapters, Manders relies on Noreña’s examination (p. 156) of the imperial period to compare her results and numbers with the third-century ones. Two main graphs present what is then analysed in the chapter: on p. 159 with the numbers of all coin types and percentages per emperor, and on p. 161 with a graph that shows the split between the virtues. Neither military qualities nor pietas (sense of duty, p. 182) but aequitas – related to the judicial sphere and the financial sector – was the most important of these virtues in the third century (only 9 emperors abstained from this legend, p. 182-185).

Chapter 5, “The Dawning of a Golden Age” analyses the propagated immaterial attainments of the reigns, namely felicitas, pax, securitas, and salus. With 24.9% these attainments are either the strongest (p. 189), or the third, of four important categories of propaganda behind the military and the divine. Manders follows M. Amit 3 in his finding that there is a direct “correlation between the increase of problems … and the number of saeculum aureum types”. The question of whether these messages lost value the longer an emperor was in office (p. 191) is not addressed in detail, e.g. there is no analysis of the saeculum aureum coin types’ distribution over the years. All of these four positive qualities are discussed in detail, and differences in numbers, images, or legends (e.g. salus Aug. and salus publica, p. 216) are explained as well as possible.

The second part of the book consists of three case studies on Caracalla (198-217 CE), Decius (249-251 CE), with special interest in his divi series, and Gallienus (253-268 CE). Decius’s coin type choices led to the domination of military subjects and “geographical messages” (37.5 and 35.6%) and a demonstrative lack of interest in religious policy. For Caracalla and Gallienus, Manders compares the coins issued during their respective joint reigns and as sole emperors, and finally compares the joint- and sole-reign coin types of both emperors. The posthumous literary image of Caracalla as ‘cruel tyrant’ and ‘soldier-emperor’ is contrasted to his choice of 815 coin types, in which divine associations and a self-portrayal as priest are dominant (almost 40%, p. 228), with a lesser amount of military representation (23%). Gallienus’ coin types have a focus in the military with 26.5% and divine representation with 20.3% (p. 271). Detailed studies follow, which demonstrate that a remarkable shift occurred after both Caracalla and Gallienus had become sole emperors, with different legends and images chosen before and after 212 and 259.

Manders’ cites the remarks of N.J. Cull et al.4 that ‘propaganda’ is the “deliberate attempt to influence public opinion through the transmission of ideas and values for a specific purpose” (p. 28) and claims that she prefers this term to the less powerful one of representation. She is convinced that the emperors had a “visual program” (p. 13). Despite these claims, the study has ‘representation’ in its title and, except for the third chapter, uses more or less exclusively the term and concept ‘representation’ and disregards ‘propaganda’.

This is a book in the good tradition of the Nijmegen school of third-century studies. It thus offers a lot of good observations and results, which will be used in the future. However, neither economic issues, which are been set apart in Manders’ introduction, nor the differences in details and sometimes even in types between the different mints in the reign of an emperor are considered in this volume. The limitation of this kind of study devoted to the development of large categories of reverses (military aspects, divine context, virtues of the emperor and his reign, immaterial welfare of the empire) is that it presents only one aspect of this field of study. It seems that, as regards the coins and their images of power in times of crisis, the grand ensemble is, not always, but often, less than the sum of its parts.

The book’s usefulness and manageability is underscored by an index, a selection of images (passim and App. 6), and appendices with lists of coin references to RIC numbers, concerning deities (App. 2 and 3), and the coin types of Caracalla (App. 4) and Gallienus (App. 5).


1.   C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley, 2000); C. F. Noreña “The communication of the emperor’s virtues”, JRS 91 (2001), 146-168.
2.   The “mean percentage” of the third century is given as 18.3% (p. 66) whereas on p. 49 the percentage of the category ‘military representation’ is 22.5% for that period. Cf. similar discrepancies in the percentages of representations of divine propaganda (p. 49 and p. 99), virtues (p. 49 and p. 160), and of immaterial attainments (p. 49 and p. 189).
3.   M. Amit, "Propagande de succès et d’euphorie dans l’empire romain", Iura 16.1 (1965), 52-75.
4.   N. J. Cull, D. Culbert, D. Welch, Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia 1500 to Present (Santa Barbara, 2003), p. 318.

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