Trajan’s military conquests were the most publicized aspects of his rule, and are the root of his legacy. As such, it is unsurprising that those conquests were reflected in the coinage minted under the soldier-emperor.
Three Periods of Minting
Emperor Trajan had three distinct periods in which large-scale minting of coins occurred. The first was at the beginning of his reign, when the coins minted were largely focused on promoting the accomplishments and promise of the new emperor, with images such as Concordia and the below pictured Goddess Pax common.
Obverse: IMP CAES NERVA TRAIAN AVG GERM
Reverse: PONT MAX TR POT COS II
Obverse: IMP NERVA CAES TRAIAN AVG GERM P M
Reverse: TR P COS II P P PROVID
This image shows the transition of power from Nerva, who was unpopular with the military, to Trajan, who’s status as heir to the throne was due in large part to his popularity with the army. Trajan, at left, is being presented in military dress with spear in hand, alluding to his background as a successful general, but also hinting forward to the military conquests that would define much of his rule.
After the first stage of minting following the ascension of Trajan to the throne, there seems to have been a lull in minting from 100-102 A.D. Following the successful completion of Trajan’s first campaign against the Dacians in 102, however, new coins quickly emerged and featured a distinctly militaristic tone. Although images of Mars in armor and a conquered Germania had been present during the first stage of Trajan’s coinage, following the Dacian campaign the military content and political message of the coins became much more direct and explicit. In addition to adding the title Dacicus on the obverse of most coins, Trajan himself is often depicted on the reverse in military scenes.
Reverse: S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI
In this gold Aureus the emperor aims his spear at a fleeing and trampled Dacian, sending the message that not only was his army victorious, but that the emperor himself was an accomplished and deadly warrior. This coin’s legend is also shows the informal use of the title Optimus on the reverse of coins to describe Trajan. The title would not be officially added on the obverse of coins until 114 A.D.
Obverse: IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS V P P
Reverse: S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI
This second Aureus depicts Trajan standing with spear in hand, his right foot resting on the exposed head and shoulders of a Dacian. In addition to depictions of himself and his army, Trajan also relied on allegorical images to convey his conquest. The below Sestertius shows the personification of Tiber, the river that runs through Rome, pushing Dacia down into the ground, an easily understood message about the power of Rome.
Obverse: IMP CAES NERVAE TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS V P P
Reverse: S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI S C
Trajan completed his final conquest of the Dacians in 106 A.D. Following this, there was another lull in the minting of new patterned coins until roughly 112, when a flurry of new building projects saw new coins being made to commemorate them. At the very end of Trajan’s reign the subject matter of coins returned to military conquest, featuring scenes from Trajan’s invasion of Parthia.
Coins depicting the conquest of Parthia and including the title Parthicus for Trajan are rarer. Trajan died only one year after the completion of his eastern campaign and before he had a chance to return to Rome, limiting the number of new coins he could mint. The coins that do exist, however, reflect the same messages of military victory and conquest that are present in depictions of the Dacian War.
Reverse:ARMENIA ET MESOPOTAMIA IN POTESTATEM P R REDACTAE S C
This sestertius, which alludes back to the Aureus where Trajan was standing on a defeated Dacian, shows Trajan standing triumphant over the conquered forms of Armenia, Tigris, and Euphrates. Armenia was a buffer state between Rome and Parthia on the upper Euphrates that Trajan incorporated into the empire in 114 A.D. The Tigris and the Euphrates are the two rivers that form Mesopotamia, the Parthian heartland that Trajan conquered in 115-116. Also, in case the image was not clear, the legend reads: ARMENIA ET MESOPOTAMIA IN POTESTAM P R REDACTAE, literally that Armenia and Mesopotamia had been delivered into the power of the Roman people.
Reverse: SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS S C
This simple As shows two trophies, complete with spear, shield, and armor. The trophies could be representations of the conquest of Armenia and Mesopotamia, or perhaps of Dacia and Parthia (the obverse of this coin is an example of the use of the title Parthicus by Trajan.) Either way, the coins focus on trophies and treasure fits well with the narrative of Trajan’s conquests, which added great wealth and prestige to Rome.
Reverse: REX PARTHIS DATVS S C
In this Sestertius, Trajan, sitting in military dress and elevated above all other characters, is shown presenting to a kneeling Parthia her new King Parthamaspates, a Roman puppet. What is interesting is that this coin, with its clear propaganda, was not minted in the east to be seen by Rome’s new Parthian subjects, but in Rome itself. In this way, the coin serves two purposes: first, it shows that Trajan is powerful enough not only to conquer lands, but to force his will on them through the imposition of new rulers of his choice. After all, the only thing more powerful than the King is the Kingmaker. Second, it shows the Roman people that Trajan has finally imposed order on the Parthians who had been a threat to Roman interests in the east for over 150 years.