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The Photoshop of the Romans

In the 1st Century AD, at the heart of the Roman Empire, PR would have been a very different thing than it is today. There are ways that Royals, celebrities, singers present themselves in our modern age that we have come to take for granted – the flashy and colour-rich centre pages of the morning newspaper; the rolling 24-hour news; the glossy magazines that owe more to the airbrush than the skill of the photographer. In short, there are a myriad of ways to present an image – to get the public to perceive you in a certain way.

But all of these publicity processes are very recent phenomena. If they didn’t exist, just how would we be made aware of some starlet’s new plastic surgery or smug fashion disaster?

Bring in the coins.

In 217AD, the reign of Macrinus began in Rome. It would have been extremely unlikely that the common Roman citizen of the time would have had the first idea who he was (especially as Macrinus was often lambasted for never actually visiting Rome during his tenure, a fact that would eventually play a significant part in his downfall). For the everyday man-in-the-street, the image of the Emperor upon the coin they kept in their pocket was perhaps the only way of knowing just what their leader actually looked like.

The image of Macrinus on this Medallic Sestertius highlights the fact that vanity and media image was as pertinent then as it is now – note the closely cropped beard and handsome profile, in contrast to many of the surviving busts and statues that show a much longer-faced and hirsute figure.

Macrinus’ reign, although short, was significant for a number of reasons – firstly, he led numerous attacks on the Parthian Empire before eventually suing for peace (a peace that would cost the Roman Empire an eye-watering 2 million sestertius); he was the first Emperor to come from the lower-ranked Equestrian rather than the prevailing Senatorial class; and probably most importantly for the numismatist, it was he who increased the amount of silver in the denarius from 51.5% to 58%, effectively completely revaluing the Roman currency.

A lasting legacy, and one that impacts all our collections of Roman coins today. An impact that will definitely last longer than those bright and photoshopped pages in the centre pages of the morning newspaper….


The Macrinus (AD 217-218) AE Medallic Sestertius (32.27g) is Lot 912 in our New York Auction XXXVII, on the 6th January 2016. Starting Price: $20,000.


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