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Historic Symbols

Some of the earliest metal coinage was developed by city-states for purposes of commerce. Initially made out of electrum, a naturally occurring ore of silver and gold, then later made from silver or gold, such coins frequently used the bust of a god or ruler on the obverse side, and a variety of symbols on the reverse.

The practice of using symbols to communicate messages became highly evolved on the reverse of Roman coins, where the emperor could display his message. Because of the limited space, such communications used symbols much as we use icons to communicate on our computer screen today. For example, today we readily understand the “home” symbol, a telephone handset, or an envelope icon for email. The Romans had icons for aspects of their lives as well. On coins, we use a statuesque female figure striking a heroic pose to symbolize the idea of “liberty” and by extension, the United States of America. The figure is derived from the figure (and symbolism) of Libertus, from Roman coin use where she is shown holding a liberty cap (PILEUS) and a scepter, both of which were symbolic images for the Romans. The Romans used many allegorical figures and symbols.

The female figure Annona holding a cornucopia, or horn of plenty and ears of grain with the legend ANNONA AVG on the reverse of a coin indicates abundant harvests.

The modius was a Roman dry measure used primarily to measure out flour and grain, and symbolizes an abundant grain supply. The word “corn” as used then by the Romans was a term for grain.

The radiate crown seen on some Roman coins is usually worn by Sol, the sun god, in portraits on coin reverses. The radiate crown was also used on the emperor’s portrait on the obverse to indicate that the coin was a double piece of two units.

The rudder that controled the Roman ship took the form of a large steering oar that was pivoted or even held by hand over one side of the ship. Consequently, a rudder sometimes depicted on a Roman coin will look like a large oar or paddle with a reinforcing rib down its middle (The rudder as we know it today, pivoted directly off the after part or stern of a ship in line with the keel did not appear until later). The rudder symbolized guidance and implied that the ruler was steering the course of the empire through the events of the world. The rudder was often included with other visual metaphors such as a ship (of state).

Aeternitas symbolizes eternity or stability. Her attributes typically include a globe, torch, scepter, or phoenix (mythical bird who rose from the ashes of its own funeral pyre). Sometimes she holds the heads of the sun and moon.

Even emperors who only lasted a few weeks or months before being murdered by the Praetorian Guard had coins struck, announcing on the reverse, “Loyalty of the army” (FIDES MILITVM) and showing the female figure of loyalty standing smartly at attention holding a military standard. Loyalty lasted only as long as the emperor could keep the troops well supplied with money from their own personal fortunes. When the cash ran out, the troops chose to put another rich emperor of their choosing on the throne.

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