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The Roman Empire and Medallions

Medallions handed out during the Roman Empire were rarely intended as a form of currency, despite the assumption that any coin-shaped items of that time period were deemed as such. While it's true that certain gold coins of considerable weight could be utilized as a method of payment due to their size and volume, most medals or medallions were typically offered as gifts.

These gifts were commemorative in purpose, handed out to recipients whom the emperor wished to honor in some capacity. So while these medallions had a sentimental value as well as an inherent monetary value resulting from the materials used to craft the item, the medallion's role in the Roman Empire was not for payment but for admiration and acknowledgment.

However, with that being said, the empire knew how to issue its medallions for a variety of strategic purposes in a bid to "buy" favor and exploit the attitudes toward coinage that were popular at the time.

The Power of the Coin

The Romans weren't the first government to realize the value of coins as a commodity that could be leveraged into a method for obtaining and holding power over the citizenry. The role of the coin during that period of world history was significant as a means of status, it held sway in political arenas and social settings, coinage was even regarded an art form.

They were utilized as tools of propaganda, promoting the likeness and ideals of the emperor and distributed to a select group of individuals whom the power structure wanted to influence for whatever reason. These honorary gifts were shown off and displayed proudly by their owners and some would even elect to wear their medallion on an item of clothing.

This influence extended to surrounding factions in the region. In order for the Romans to expand their considerable reach for dominance, alliances and friendships had to be made with the leaders of these groups. In some cases, while these factions were considered less than civilized they still understood the fundamental power of the coin or medallion.

The Roman Empire understood this and used the enticement of gold coinage as a way to buy alliances with these leaders. Among the most notable of these medallions were the 18 solidii coins of the Constantine era. These weighed roughly 81 grams though 72 solidii versions were also created later with a much heavier weight of nearly 320 grams.

Although the gold medallions were more commonly offered as forms of tribute or a way of currying favor with a potential ally, there were other materials that became widely used in the design and manufacture of coins and medallions during the Roman Empire.

The Roman Contorniate

One of these such medallions is the Roman Contorniate, originally made in the fourth century AD, and fashioned from bronze. Their defining characteristic is that of a pronounced ridge all along the edge of the medallion, which is the origin behind the name for this type of medallion with the word "contorno", translating as "rim". This refers to the ridge at the side.

Contorniates were not used as currency, they were given out as rewards or gifts.

This type of medallion usually featured the image of an important individual on the front and some sort of motif on the back, a scene from ancient mythology for instance or some other reference that might have a relation to the person depicted on the other side.

The earliest versions of the Roman Contorniate featured portraits of the earliest Roman emperors but there were many that included portraits of other important individuals as a way of paying tribute to their successes or accomplishments. A few of them were Homer, Pythagoras, Euclid, Socrates, and a wide range of athletes and scholars, with imagery such as chariots, palms, and various symbols of that individual's contributions to the state and its people.

One example of a typical contorniate has the image of Alexander the Great, his portrait framed from the side, paired with a scene from Homer's The Odyssey, in which his ship is being assaulted by Scylla, the sea monster, as the great warrior is returning to his home.

This was just one of the many different motifs associated with Alexander the Great's image on a Roman Contorniate.

Coin vs. Medallion

The terms are closely associated with one another due to their similar appearance, yet they come with two distinct intents and purposes. This delineation comes into play when discussing coins and medallions that were manufactured from materials other than gold, such as silver and copper. The two most common utilized at the time.

During the time of the Roman Empire, coins came with a certain weight and appearance that made them better suited for use as a form of currency. While these coins were no less intricate and detailed in their design and appearance, they were immediately discernible from medallions that were given out as gifts.

Copper and bronze coins and medallions were very different in their weights and imagery so as to make it easy to identify one from the other.

But while medallions had special purposes as commemorative items, coin currency in the Roman Empire also fulfilled specific functions beyond merely operating in the practice of trade.

While medallions had the image of an important person on them, coins typically used an image of the goddess Juno. Her likeness and name were synonymous with money and its manufacture, dating as far back as the fourth century BC. But the coins were also utilized as a way to spread the word to the populace that a new emperor was installed as a ruler.

In fact, having one's image on coins was of paramount importance to Roman emperors no matter how long their reign lasted. Even those who were in power for short periods of time would command that new coins were struck and issued with their image upon them. This would set the precedent for the modern practice of having heads of state on a nation's currency.

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