Ancient coins can shine a light on modern monetary traditions, according to Kenneth Harl, a New Orleans history professor who recently gave a lecture at the University of British Columbia.
Entitled “The Changing Face of Roman Coinage,” Harl’s Feb. 26 talk used ancient coins to highlight two distinct periods in Roman history (in 31 BC, when the Roman republic became a monarchy after the Battle of Actium, and 312 AD, when emperor Constantine began converting the Roman empire to Christianity). One example of the “enormous variety of information” shared on Roman coinage is the style of women’s hair, Harl said.
“The government is clearly trying to project something, and the medium is widely disseminated as you don’t have modern communications.”
Likened to tweets – “they’re abbreviated symbols,” Harl said – coins can contribute to a state’s myth-making.
“The U.S., as a republic, will not have a portrait of a living person because that implies a monarchy,” Harl said, adding emperor Julius Caesar made himself the face of a coin while he was living (and was assassinated less than a month later).
In Canada, members of the royal family are the only people to be featured on the country’s currency while they’re still alive – a symbol traced back to Rome, Harl added.