Fortifications have been a fact of life since the majority of humans
transitioned from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled
existence in which food was raised and harvested rather than gathered
in transit. This great leap caused the foundation of permanent
settlements, which then had to be protected, often with perimeter walls.
With the passage of time, defensive walls became increasingly larger
and stronger to counter the increasing sophistication of siege
weaponry. The use of fortified walls peaked in the 12th century A.D.,
with their effectiveness soon being reduced by the destructive power
of gunpowder cannons.
Long before gunpowder, though, the Romans had put walled
fortifications to great use, building extraordinary fortresses that
gave them an advantage against their less enterprising enemies. During
the second and third centuries A.D. fortress use was greatly expanded,
to combat barbarian invasions across the Rhine and Danube rivers on
the continent, and along the “Saxon Shore” across the English Channel.
These fortifications made quite an impression on the selection of
coin designs from the third century onward.
Though these coins are useful to scholars for the insight they
provide into Roman fort and defensive wall design, they are perhaps
even more valuable as a commentary on the frame of mind of the Romans
who issued them in an era when border defense was a daily concern.
An early example of fortified walls on Roman coinage is an issue of
silver denarii struck in about 57 or 56 B.C. by the Roman moneyer C.
Considius Nonianus. The design shows a temple dedicated to Venus on
the summit of a rocky mountain in Eryx, Sicily. The temple’s base is
surrounded by a wall with a gate and two towers. We may presume the
wall did not surround the entire mountain, and it thus is a
representation of a wall that enclosed the city or the temple complex.
Bird’s eye view
One way the Romans showed city walls and fortresses was from a
bird’s eye view, in which the front of the wall is shown, as well as
its full circuit. Perhaps the most famous use of this design technique
on Roman coins was the portrayal of a civilian structure, the
Colosseum in Rome, as shown on brass sestertii of the Emperor Titus
(A.D. 79 to 81), gold aurei of Severus Alexander (A.D. 222 to 235),
and base metal medallions of Gordian III (A.D. 238 to 244).
This technique was also used on coins issued at the city of Emerita
in Spain. Silver denarii struck there by Rome’s first emperor,
Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14), show the full length of a turreted city
wall with a double-arch at the front; enclosed within is the city name
inscribed EMERITA. That same image was used on copper coins struck
there for local use by Augustus and his successor Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37).
A particularly fine city wall with turrets and a gate appears on a
gold aureus struck for the emperor Augustus in about 13 B.C. by the
moneyer C. Marius C.F. Tromentina. This city wall is symbolic rather
than specific, for it shows the emperor (or a priest?) with a yoke of
oxen plowing a field in the foreground. This celebrates the bringing
of Roman civilization to “barbarian” lands freshly annexed in the
Alpine provinces of Raetia and Noricum.
A classic depiction of defensive walls appears on gold aurei and
silver denarii issued upon the accession of the emperor Claudius (A.D.
41 to 54). This wall enclosed the infamous camp of the Praetorian
Guards in Rome. It is shown because the selection of Claudius as
emperor was forced upon the senate by the Praetorians, who safeguarded
him within their barracks until the Senate confirmed his appointment.
The bird’s eye view used on the issues of Emerita was seldom
repeated in later centuries. A fine representation of a defensive
circuit wall, however, appears on provincial coins issued at
Marcianopolis in Moesia, a city not far from the Black Sea coast and
the Danube River. On a copper pentassarion of Gordian III the wall has
13 fictitiously tall towers and a gate. It harbors many interesting
features within, including an arched colonnade and a temple precinct.
A similar engraving effort was made a generation later at the city
of Nicaea in Bithynia, in the northeastern corner of Asia Minor. Here
the artist was less successful, as the walls are crudely formed.
However, it features two gates to the city — one at the front, and one
opposite. Instead of containing structures, it encloses an inscription
that describes Nicaea as the best and most beautiful of cities.
‘Camp gate’ coins
A far more consistent portrayal of city walls and “camp gates” began
under the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284 to 305). Indeed, from about 294
to 329, city or camp gates became a standard reverse type for Roman
silver and base metal coins, and even appeared on some gold issues.
In about A.D. 293 or 294 Diocletian introduced a dime-sized silver
coin now usually called an argenteus. It had a variety of reverse
types, but the two most common depict city or camp gates (the debate
still rages about which it is).
One shows the four men who co-operatively ruled the empire under
Diocletian’s oversight conducting a sacrifice before a circuit wall as
seen from a bird’s eye view. Just as with Augustus’ aureus with the
plowing scene, the type is symbolic: it shows the unity of the four
rulers, their devotion to the gods, and the defensive security that
resulted from their efforts.
Equally abundant is the other main representation on argentei, which
shows the fortified gate of a city or an army camp.
A tremendous variety is found in the presentation of the classic
“camp gate” coins, including in the number of layers of brickwork, how
they are represented, and whether the gateway is open or has closed
doors. Furthermore, uncertain protrusions on the top of the wall are
variously described as turrets or light beacons.
The “camp gate” type was also introduced on billon coins of the
period, but was not used extensively on these low-value coins until
the era of Constantine I “the Great” (A.D. 307 to 337). They also
occur on bronze coins issued from 364 to 408, and on an issue of small
bronzes from later in the fifth century, though they are more crudely engraved.
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