Gladiators to Glasgow: Big games on small change

You have probably heard about the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games 50p by now. Maybe you have even seen one, or bought one from The Royal Mint. We think that this coin is very exciting, but it also has a special place in the history of coins, and of sport on coins.

glasgow 2014 50p

Many people know that sporting events have their origins in the ancient world, the most famous being the Olympic Games. You could be forgiven for thinking that the idea of commemorating these events on coins is relatively modern, but it isn’t. The Romans often struck coins to celebrate games and festivals, in much the same way as we do today. We thought it would be interesting to look at some of the parallels between these coins, and to see how much ancient Rome has in common with Glasgow in 2014.

Coin from 128 B.C. showing Victory in a chariot and a man fighting a wild animal. ©Jennifer Hilder. Coin from The Hunterian, Glasgow (catalogue number 21182).

The runner and the cyclist on the Glasgow 2014 50p don’t look unusual, and most of us will have been running and cycling at some point in our lives, but I bet you haven’t driven a chariot or seen a wild-animal fight. This Roman coin shows just that – Victory can be seen driving a chariot, and underneath a man fights a wild-beast, probably a lion. In ancient Rome chariot races would have frequently taken place in the Circus Maximus, and wild-beast fights (venationes) would have been a common sight in arenas such as the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum). So, while the sports might have changed quite drastically, the idea of showing sport on coins still takes place today.

If you have a closer look at the Glasgow 2014 50p you will notice there is a saltire on it. The saltire is a heraldic symbol in the form of a diagonal cross, it appears on the Scottish flag and is an important symbol of Scottish national identity. The font on the 50p is also in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the famous Glaswegian artist and architect.

Coin from 248 A.D. showing Romulus and Remus. © Jennifer Hilder. Coin from The Hunterian, Glasgow (catalogue number 29741).

This coin, with the image of two children being suckled by a wolf also tells an important story of national and civic identity. According to Roman legend, Romulus and his twin brother Remus were rescued by a wolf, who found them abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber and fed them. Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, which is named after him.

The image of the twins and the wolf was very common in ancient Rome, and became a symbol of Rome’s history and identity. Putting this picture on coins meant that people all over the Roman Empire would be reminded that the games were taking place in Rome, much like the Saltire and Mackintosh font on the Commonwealth Games 50p reminds us that the games will be taking place in Glasgow.

It isn’t just the reverse of today’s coins that bear similarities to ancient coins, the obverse of the Glasgow 50p, showing Her Majesty The Queen’s portrait, is also an ancient tradition. All coins minted in the UK have a portrait of the reigning monarch on one side, and the Glasgow 50p is no exception. Originally ancient Roman coins would have depicted divinities on the obverse, but in the late Republic mortals began to be shown on coins, and by the time of the Empire it was usual to put a portrait of the Emperor on all coins.

Coin minted to commemorate the ludi saeculares of 17 B.C. © Jennifer Hilder. Coin from The Hunterian, Glasgow (catalogue number 14241).

This coin shows Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, on a coin that was minted to commemorate the ludi saeculares (the secular games) held by the Emperor in 17 B.C. He is pictured facing to one side, just like the portrait of The Queen on UK coins, but he is wearing a laurel wreath on his head instead of a crown.

So, whilst the Glasgow 2014 50p is a modern and innovative design, it is also part of a long tradition, and has a lot in common with ancient Roman coins struck to celebrate games and festivals. The obverse features the ruler; the Glasgow 2014 50p coin has The Queen, Roman coins had the Emperor. The reverse of the Glasgow 2014 50p also draws on a lot of ancient traditions. The imagery of sport, as well as the symbols of civic and national identity can all be traced back over 2,000 years to ancient Rome. We think that makes the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games 50p pretty special, how about you?

Small Change Big Games works backwards from the Glasgow 2014 commemorative 50p coin to images of games and festivals on Roman coins. Visit the online exhibition at smallchange2014.tumblr.com for videos, photos and more information. For even more fun facts about coins and games follow the project on twitter @smallchange2014.

Small Change Big Games is a Hunterian Associates project run by Sarah Graham and Jennifer Hilder, two final-year PhD students in Classics at Glasgow University. Both are interested in deciphering coins and introducing different audiences to the classical world. Find out more about the Hunterian Associates Programme here.