10 September 2017
When the gates of the Temple of Janus in Rome were closed – an event that only happened when Rome’s armies weren’t at war, Emperor Nero issued a coin to mark the event. Paula Hammond describes the story behind this rare, commemorative sestertii
Emperor Nero was no saint. It’s likely that he murdered both his adoptive father (Claudius) and his own mother.
And while there’s no evidence that he really did ‘fiddle’ as Rome burnt, contemporary historians vilified him as a self-indulgent and arrogant ruler. Even modern-day revisionists have little good to say about his short-lived reign.
But Nero did leave posterity one notable legacy: his currency.
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What makes Nero’s currency so popular with collectors is that it’s both innovative and stylish.
Prior to the coinage reforms instituted by Augustus (63 BC - AD 14), sestertii were small and silver. From around 23 BC they were recast as large brass coins, weighing 25-28 grammes and measuring between 32-34 mm in diameter.
Sestertii were also made in bronze but brass was especially valued for its golden sheen. In fact, the Roman word for brass was aurichalcum, meaning golden-copper.
Nero himself seemed to be particularly enamoured by aurichalcum and during the later part of his reign all token coins were struck in brass. There’s some suggestion that Nero’s ultimate intention was a uniform coinage and, while we can’t say for certain if that was true, he had a keen artistic eye and would have enjoyed the look and texture of brass coinage.
The size of these coins also meant that engravers had much more space to work with and so were able to produce detailed and appealing imagery.
Many numismatists consider that the engravers employed by Nero were some of the most accomplished in history.
The image of Nero which appears on coins from the latter part of his reign is certainly one of the most striking – presenting the Emperor as a bull-necked athlete, with his long hair flowing down his neck, in a style favoured by charioteers. It’s from this late era that one of the most sought-after coins of Nero’s reign was made; the brass sestertii minted to celebrate the closing of the gates of the Temple of Janus in Rome.
Janus, who famously looks both forwards and backwards, served as the god of entrances and exits and Romans prayed to him at the beginning and end of any important activity, especially wars. The doors to Janus’ temple were only closed when there were no Roman armies in battle anywhere in the Empire.
Images of the Temple are a common feature on Nero’s coinage so we have a very good record of what this curious, rectangular building, with gates on either end, looked like. However, images showing the gates closed are rare and are said to date from around AD 66 following the Rome-Parthian War (AD 58-63).
Surprisingly, these coins were not minted to celebrate ‘peace’ but victory.
Nero’s coinage was all the more important because of the public statement it made about the man who commissioned it. Nero wasn’t promoting himself as a diplomat and peace-maker, but as a great military leader. For Romans, the fact that their armies weren’t at war simply meant that they’d defeated all their enemies, and if Nero could claim some of that glory for himself, then he certainly would!