New College, University of Edinburgh

Propaganda On Every Corner


Obverse of Emperor Vespasian (RIC II, 782)



“‘Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’” [1]

In the quote above from Mark 12, the Pharisees’s and Herodians’s answer to Jesus’ question about the denarius explicitly confirms their belief concerning the emperor’s ownership of Roman coinage. Jesus further confirms this point in Mark 12:17 by insisting that they ‘give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.’” If a given coin of the Roman Empire is the property of the emperor, in what ways does he control the message written on that coin? In thinking beyond ownership, my studies have led me to consider issues of intention and coin production. Did the emperor purposely promote particular ideas, virtues, benefits, personifications, buildings, gods, or ideals on the coinage? Or were moneyers, intending to impress or acknowledge the emperor, choosing designs? Perhaps, it was a random selection of coin designs and mass production sought to keep up with economic needs.

Recently, while reviewing Robert Lewis’s Paul’s ‘Spirit of Adoption’ in its Roman Imperial Context, I was struck by the author’s insistence of an all-pervasive propagandistic agenda in Rome and provincial cities. Though, to be fair, he questions whether “propaganda” is the best term, and rightly so (6). Still, Lewis reckons that from roads to statues, Gentile cities were filled with an imperial agenda, inserted purposely by the state. However, the erection of buildings, statues, and objects of emperor dedication were often sponsored by local aristocrats with the sole intention of gaining the favour of the emperor or local community. [2] In these instances, for example, the language of imperial “propaganda” should be distanced from civic display. Particularly of coins, Lewis notes, “…Roman coins were a further testimony to the control and the intended message that the Empire wished to display” (emphasis mine, 11). However, “intention” remains a highly debated matter among numismatists.

Augustus’s Capricornus Type (RIC I, 125) and Nero’s Lyre-Player Type (RIC I, 416)

Interestingly, the monetary system and its inner workings attracted only minor literary attention, thus leaving the record nearly absent for historical reconstruction. Some literary evidence in Suetonius suggests that Augustus issued a silver coin with the “sign of the constellation Capricornus,” legitimating his trust in a horoscope,[3] as well as noting that Nero struck coins of himself in the likeness of a lyre-player.[4] The material evidence also displays patterns of decision-making on higher and lower denominations, showing an interest by somebody (moneyer, emperor, or…?) in targeting their audiences.[5] Therefore, at least on one level, it appears that some emperors were conscious of some coin types, whether his choice or others. However, consciousness and even choice does not necessarily establish a link to imperial “propaganda” as such. In the modern sense, “propaganda” not only needs a methodical and determined vehicle for its propagation, but it must also evoke harsh overtones.[6] From the available data, the historian simply cannot ascertain either condition in the Roman coinage, and so to avoid being anachronistic, or drawing too much from the unconscious imagination of modern readers, I have opted to use terms such as “publicity” or “widespread communication” in my thesis. It seems quite commonplace in biblical studies to assume that imperial communication is necessarily tinged with propaganda, but I wonder how this can be rethought to provide a more balanced view of the ancient Roman world and their process of communication through coinage, statues, and other media.


Written by Mark Lamas Jr.



[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Mk 12:15–16.


[2] For a helpful and balanced study of “official” (Imperial) versus “unofficial” communication, see Carlos F. Noreña, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 245-324. Noreña argues that the local honours offered to the emperor through dedicatory statues reinforced a system, which not only enhanced the power of the emperor, but the local aristocrats as well. He maintains that this collaboration of power perpetuated the practice of the local honour system in general, and imperial statue building in particular.


[3] Suet., Aug 94.12 (Tantam mox fiduciam fati Augustus habuit, ut thema suum vulgaverit nummumque argenteum nota sideris Capricorni, quo natus est, percusserit.).


[4] Suet., Nero 25.2 (item statuas suas citharoedico habitu, qua nota etiam nummum percussit ac post haec tantum afuit a remittendo laxandoque studio,). Importantly, scholars have questioned whether the image on the coinage depicts Nero or Apollo. For the correlation between the appearance of Nero and Apollo see Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4. 


[5] Olivier Hekster, “Coins and Messages: Audience Targeting on Coins of Different Denominations?” in The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power, ed. L. De Blois, P. Erdkamp, O. Hekster, G. De Kleijn, and S. Mols (Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 2003), 20-35.


[6] Barbara Levick, “Propaganda and the Imperial Coinage,” Antichthon 16 (1982): 104-116.


*Attribution to © Trustees of the British Museum for images.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 28th September 2016


  • Robert Lewis, 3rd November 2016 at 7:38 pm | Reply

    Mark, I completely agree with you (I think) about the ways that messages were developed about the Emperor and the Empire. I hope I have argued that the messages about the Emperor were promoted from the top down and also from the bottom up- especially in the provinces. All the best, Rob

  • Mark Lamas Jr., 3rd November 2016 at 8:28 pm | Reply

    Hi Robert, thanks for the response! I found your thoughts (in “Paul’s ‘Spirit of Adoption'”) on this topic helpful and quite thorough. As I mentioned in the blog, I only paused at the language of “intention,” and specifically in relation to coinage.

    On another note, I am really looking forward to hearing your paper on the “Omnipresence of Augustus in Rome” at SBL in a few weeks!

    Warm regards,

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