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The William R. and Clarice V. Spurlock Museum at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Roman Didrachm

Commemorative Olympic Medallion Featured Artifact
Olympic medallion with face, name, and dates of life
1919.63.0826 (obverse)
Olympic medallion revers with flame and inscription
1919.63.0826 (reverse)
Roman Didrachm

First created around 300 BCE, the Roman didrachm is the earliest silver coin used by the Roman government. Although this is a Roman coin, the denomination (or value), didrachm (two drachmas), is actually Greek. The Greeks began producing silver coinage sometime in the middle of the sixth century BCE, about three hundred years before the didrachm. The Greek numismatic tradition greatly influenced Roman coin production in terms of style, technology, and design. In fact, this coin is so similar to its Greek contemporaries that were it not for the legend Romano (“of the Romans”) beneath the horse’s head it may not have been discernible from its Greek counterparts. The didrachm was used by Rome until 211 BCE when it was replaced by the denarius, a new Roman denomination. The denarius became the most popular and most widely produced coin in the Roman economy for the next four and half centuries.

The obverse (front side) of this coin features a bust of Mars, the Roman god of war and, in this early part of Roman history, guardian of agriculture. He is seen here wearing a Corinthian-style helmet with an oak spray behind his head. As the god of war, Mars came to be seen by Romans as a protector of the capital city, and over time his myth became entwined with other mythological characters and events important for Roman self-identity. For instance, in some versions of the story, Mars was identified as the father of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

The back of this coin features a three-quarter view of a horse with a grain stalk behind it and the inscription Romano below. The stalk of grain has led to the assumption that the coin may have been minted in the ancient city of Metapontum, whose own coinage features this symbol as its sole decoration. This city, located in an area of southern Italy that the Romans called Magna Graecia (“Greater Greece”), was a colony of the Greek city-state of Achaea. So, not only is the material and denomination of the coin influenced by Greece, so too are the iconography used to decorate it.

Written by Erica Hubbard 2014.


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