National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Nathan T. Elkins

Affiliation: American Numismatic Society

Nathan T. Elkins is the Deputy Director of the American Numismatic Society, and holds his degrees from the University of Missouri (Ph.D.), The University of Reading, and the University of Evansville.  Professor Elkins’ research areas include Roman art, coinage and coin iconography, topography and architecture, sport and spectacle, and the illicit antiquities trade. He is the author of three books: A Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome’s Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It (JHUP, 2019), The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96-98 (Oxford, 2017), and Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage (ANS, 2015). He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (New York) and of the Royal Numismatic Society (London).


The Colosseum is one of the most famous monuments of ancient Rome and one of the most intensively studied structures from antiquity. Archaeology and its architecture tell us much about the engineering that was necessary to complete this massive venue and to carry out its lavish spectacles. What we know about the games in the Colosseum largely derives from literary sources, such as Martial’s Book of Spectacles. A perhaps less obvious source of information about the Colosseum and its games is the Roman imperial coinage, as the amphitheater appeared on coins in the reigns of Titus, Domitian, and Severus Alexander, as well as on medallions of Gordian III. Its modern restorations were commemorated on papal medals and the iconic monument features on Italy’s five euro-cent coin. Recent studies of the representations on coins, in tandem with literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence, have shed light on how the Colosseum and its construction was a key component of political representation, and even offers compelling evidence for emperor worship in the Colosseum. Such work proves that there is still much to learn about even the most famous ancient monuments.

In the Roman world, libertas (freedom or liberty) was the condition opposite slavery. As with so many Roman ideals, the concept was also personified. Libertas carries the pilleus (freedman’s cap) and vindicta (rod used during manumission ceremonies) in visual representations. While the cult of Libertas can be traced back to the third century BCE, the best visual evidence for Libertas is the coinage of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. In the Republic, her image appeared to connote political protections and as ripostes to tyranny. Under the emperors, her image often appeared after the death of an emperor who was characterized as a tyrant, suggesting the new emperor would rule in a more inclusive way. Scholarly interpretations have typically asserted her appearance was a message for the Senate (libertas senatoria), but the great frequency of her imagery in the reigns of some emperors and her appearance on the coins of emperors who succeed deified emperors suggests a more popular message. Coins from the reigns of Caligula and Galba specifically connect Libertas with the remission of taxes and customs duties and the appearance of her image on coins in the second century CE tends to correlate with the forgiveness of public debt and activity related to the alimenta, an Italian program that provided resources to relieve the financial burden associated with the upbringing of children. Libertas thus had a broader meaning and appeal than has been recognized.

Roman imperial coinage, and state art more generally, is sometimes conceived of as a form of direct political propaganda, emanating from the central regime, to promote its legitimacy and agenda. The function of state art and imagery on the coinage was, however, much more complex. Through three case studies, this lecture explores the relationship between the ideological program deployed on the coinage of Trajan and its relationship with Pliny’s Panegyricus and contemporary monuments dedicated to Trajan in Rome by the SPQR. This study revitalizes the interpretation of the imperial coinage functioning, in large part, as a form of visual panegyric rather than simply top-down propaganda. While coin designs in the reign of Trajan functioned similarly to panegyric and honorary monuments, with the emperor as an audience, they too were meant for public consumption and the selection of imagery must have been a recursive process.


See Nathan T. Elkins's work in the American Journal of Archaeology.

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