Coins of the Realm: Heads (And Tails) of the Roman Empire on Display at Israel Museum

Roman emperors shown as they really looked – while their slogans could be taken from today’s headlines

Coin from Israel Museum exhibit.
Coin from Israel Museum exhibit. Lior Mizrahi

In the ancient city of Emesus in Syria, known today as Homs and located in the middle of the bloody Syrian civil war, stood a large conical black meteorite in the 3rd century that was the symbol of the god Elagabalus, the Syrian god of the mountains. In 218 C.E., a new Roman emperor, who came from Emesus, took the throne and he took the royal name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. In his youth, he served as a priest of Elagabalus and only after his assassination in 222 was he named after the Syrian god.

Elagabalus is remembered as one of the most corrupt emperors in Roman history and did not shy from bloodshed. But he is also known for granting rights to women. Some sources say he was a man who wanted to be a woman and searched for a physician who could operate on him and equip him with female genitalia. The coins minted during his years on the throne clearly reflect his desire to shake up the accepted world order. On one side of the coins is the youthful face of the emperor and on the flip side are horses harnessed to a chariot carrying the holy meteorite with the Roman eagle above it. The coin was intended to make it clear that the Syrian god was on his way to join the pantheon of Roman gods.

This coin can now be viewed in a new exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, starting on Thursday. ”Faces of Power: Coins from the Victor Adda Collection” displays 75 gold coins of Roman emperors and their wives never shown to the public before. The collection of gold coins was donated to the Israel Museum by Johanna Adda Cohen, an 89-year-old resident of Rome. Her father, Victor Adda, was a Jewish businessman originally from Egypt and he collected the coins in the first half of the 20th century. When the family moved to Italy from Egypt, they smuggled the coins out in the pockets of relatives and friends.

Coin from Israel Museum exhibit.
Lior Mizrahi

The exhibition displays 75 coins, a small fraction of the original collection. The collection was divided up between Victor Adda’s four daughters, but because it was originally so enormous, each daughter received what was really an almost full collection in its own right representing all the periods of the Roman Empire. The curators of the temporary exhibition in the archeology wing of the museum are Haim Gitler and Yaniv Schauer.

The coins, all cast from pure gold, represent a period of about 350 years. The oldest coin is of Julius Caesar, who was the first living person to put his portrait on a Roman coin. His decision to use his portrait on coins was a major symbol of the change to one-man rule, and one of the causes of his assassination. On the reverse of a later coin (which is not part of the exhibit), minted by one of the most famous murderers in history, Brutus, can be seen the dagger, a symbol of the assassination.

The first Roman ruler to use the title Caesar was Augustus, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, whose thin visage is on a coin from 27 C.E. Another coin alongside it shows the filled-out face of Marc Anthony, the general and lover of Cleopatra who was defeated by Augustus in the fight for control of the empire.

Coin from Israel Museum exhibit.
Lior Mizrahi

Coins of losers who managed to rule for only a short time are of course quite rare, so they are also more expensive. For example, the collection has a coin from the reign of Emperor Didius Julianus, whose rule lasted barely three months before he was assassinated in 193. The coin features a portrait of his daughter with an inscription that means “happy times.”

The portraits are most likely accurate reflections of the way the emperors really looked, without any major attempt to beautify, or “Photoshop” reality. Vespasian, the emperor remembered in Israel mostly for his siege of Jerusalem, is shown as rather ugly and fat with an angry face.

The imperial gold coins were not originally intended for collectors or decoration, but were part of the foundation of the economy of the Roman Empire. “People held on to [the coins] because they knew they would keep their value,” says Gitler. Each gold coin was worth 25 silver coins, and every silver coin was worth 25 bronze coins. Mostly they were made from pure 24-karat gold. The entire exhibition has 518 grams of gold, worth about $22,000 just for the metal content. But the coin collection is worth an estimated $7.5 million.

Coins from Israel Museum exhibit.
Lior Mizrahi

If we try to compare the value of the coins in ancient times to their value today, we find that the annual wage for a Roman legionnaire was nine gold coins. One such coin could have bought three amphoras (large jugs) of olive oil, 12 pairs of shoes or a donkey. Today, the most valuable coin in the collection could buy a three-room apartment on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

Gitler says the emperor’s portrait was meant to deliver a message. “At first they are portrayed as eternally youthful, after that they are shown as senatorial figures, older with a fuller face. They thought it gave them more credibility. In the next stage the philosophical emperors appear, who are characterized by a beard and later the emperors show themselves as soldiers.”

No less important are the reverse sides of the coins. These usually show portraits of gods as well as slogans to increase morale, along with propaganda messages: “Peace and security,” “Eternal unity,” “Freedom restored,” etc. “These same slogans can be found in speeches by today’s politicians or on bumper stickers. Coins were the means to pass on the emperor’s messages,” notes Gitler.