It may sound surprising, but coins and games have a common origin in Rome. At the end of the third century BC, when Rome was struggling to win a war against Hannibal (218-201 BC), a new set of coins based on the silver denarius was minted to pay the soldiers. At the same time, new games and festivals began to be put on every year as popular entertainment.
In the late second century BC, when coin designs became more varied, they often represented family achievements. This is when games and coins really came together for the first time. People minting the coins used them to boast about the chariot racing and wild beast hunts that their ancestors had put on years before. This trend became very popular into the first century and beyond!
In these early years the gods also received a lot of attention on coins that commemorated games. In Rome, each festival celebrated a different god and was originally a religious ceremony. Most famous were the Roman Games (ludi Romani) for the chief god Jupiter himself, which were held from 5-19 September every year.
The first Emperor Augustus reinstated the Saecular Games, which were held once every ‘cycle’ (saeculum) of eighty years or so. In doing this, he also started a trend of announcing the Saecular Games on coins with a herald. You can see that his coin of 17 BC and the later emperor Domitian’s coin of AD 88 are strikingly similar.
Coin of Augustus (17BC; left) and Domitian (AD88; right) announcing the Saecular Games with a herald © Jennifer Hilder (Coins from The Hunterian, Glasgow. Catalogue Nos. 14225 and 25210)
The Roman Emperors encouraged ongoing competition to leave a mark on Rome by building new monuments and regenerating old ones. Emperor Trajan rebuilt the Circus Maximus, where chariot races were held, in the mid-second century and advertised this and the accompanying games on a coin. The Circus Maximus could hold 150,000 people – more than 10 times the number in The SSE Hydro in Glasgow!
Games kept appearing on coins right up until the late empire. In the third century Philip the Arab celebrated the 1000th anniversary of Rome with a beautiful gold coin that shows a phoenix. A phoenix doesn’t die but is continually reborn from ashes, so this is a reference to the undying ‘cycle’ of games and the immortality of Rome. Just like today, a sense of history was combined with stylish design to advertise the games.
But 1,800 years on, can these coins compare to the Glasgow 2014 50 pence with its saltire, athletes and Mackintosh font? Let us know your thoughts!
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.