Ancient coins and money are great ways to tie in curriculum goals and interests in broader themes of art, propaganda, history, and government. Even Latin 1 students can, after learning a short list of abbreviations, quickly learn to read the Latin on coins. These abbreviations (PP, TR POT, PM, IMP, COS, SC, etc) provide opportunities for students to examine how Roman government functioned and also to compare to modern coins.
Coins show monuments, buildings, religious rituals, and famous events in history, from Romulus and Remus, to the Ides of March, to the building of the Colosseum. Roman coins can even be the source of controversy, as in the recent discussion on whether Pliny’s date of the eruption of Vesuvius is accurate.
Coins are also one of the few ways that students can easily come into tangible contact with the ancient world. Some museums will allow school groups to handle ancient coins under proper supervision (Mt. Holyoke Art Museum, for one). Companies like Antiqua Nova and Medieval Collectibles make replicas of coins that you can use for games or other activities.
If you really want to dig deep into numismatics, there is an organization called ACE (Ancient Coins for Education) who, for a small fee per coin, will send your classroom a set of authentic, usually late-Roman empire era coins. Students can clean, study, and even keep them! ACE also has contests throughout the year that offer more valuable coins as prizes and require the students to research and examine coins in depth in order to win.
I had bought classroom sets of these coins for a few years. Students loved to hold antiquity in their hands and explore and share what was on their own coin with friends. I ultimately felt as though I wasn’t tying in larger curricular goals enough to justify the time it took to clean and work with the coins, so I stopped doing it.
It wasn’t until my last trip to Italy that I found something that rekindled my desire to do something with coins. In the gift shop at the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian I discovered an amazing series of books which describe individual Roman emperors in terms of the coins they produced. They weren’t cheap (25-30 Euro each!), but I bought one on Nero with the aim of one day using it in class. Not only is it a large volume with full color, high resolution images, but it also includes a good introductory look at Nero’s reign and a full list of coin terms and abbreviations.
Recently my Latin 5 students have been studying the Roman emperors, and as part of a tie-in to a larger theme of propaganda and presentation, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to use coins and the book I’d purchased. We looked at coins minted during the reign of the Emperor Nero and how they showed political developments, “current” events, and the emperor’s changing relationship with his mother Agrippina over time.
I asked each of my students to pick a coin from his reign and do research what it had to say about Nero and what propaganda purpose it might have served. Each student first created a giant replica of the coin he or she chose (they turned out as amazing visual aids, as you can see in the photos below), and then used it to to make a short (6-8 minute) Latin presentation in which they described their coin, explained the Latin abbreviations, and talked about its historical significance. As an example, one student chose a coin depicting the goddess Salus. This particular coin was minted just after the Pisonian conspiracy, and is part of a campaign to show how grateful Nero was that the conspiracy had been thwarted. It is also one of the few coins to show Nero smiling. Coincidence?
I hope this article has given you some ideas about using Roman coins in your classes. If you already do, we’d love to hear about it. Please add a comment to the blog below with your idea or send us a project write-up for us to share!