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Imperial Virtus: Changing Attitudes in the Imperial Period

Andrea Pittard

University of Texas at Austin

Virtus, and the idealized masculinity that it represented, remained an important and frequently negotiated concept throughout the Roman Republic and Empire. However, its primacy and meaning did not remain static. As performance was a key aspect of virtus and masculinity in general, examining one method of displaying virtus provides an opportunity to track these changes and contextualize the conversation that they reflect (Gleason, xxii). In this paper, I examine the representation of virtus on Roman imperial coinage, which reveals the shifting and contested nature of this idea central to Roman masculinity. These coins connected the emperor with virtus and allowed him to display the characteristic to a wide audience. Although coins were minted by the imperial administration and tend to present the “official line,” this official message was not developed in a vacuum. In order to be effective, the advertised concepts and iconography had to be in line with popular attitudes and beliefs (Howgego, 40). Shifts in the iconographic display of virtus on coins, therefore, reflect similar shifts in widespread ideology. The coinage suggests that after the fall of the Republic, virtus underwent a crisis. As a fundamental characteristic of the military men responsible for the political upheaval, virtus is downplayed and renegotiated under the Julio-Claudians. The traditional meaning then returns under the Flavians and a growing importance is placed on the concept, which can be traced until the reign of Septimius Severus. 

Virtus coinage is relatively common under the Republic. However, under Augustus and the following Julio-Claudian emperors, virtus coinage disappears. In the aftermath of the civil wars, which were led by men who gained power through military exploits and virtus, advertising such a characteristic was not politically advantageous. Literary sources from this period, such as Seneca, display a similar discomfort with the traditional military concept and advocate an alternative definition for virtus based on philosophical precepts (Nat. 3). Rather than viewing this lack of virtus coinage and the literary debate as the result of the new political institution, I suggest that the emperor was taking part in the dialogue and adopting the consensus. Virtus reappears under Galba’s short reign and becomes prolific under the Flavians, Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. These emperors maintain the Republican model and rarely deviate from the conventional virtus coinage and iconography. These coins typically display the emperor’s bust on the obverse, with an image of personified Virtus on the reverse with the legend reading VIRTUS AUGUSTI (RIC 222, 423). These coins evolve under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, whose coinage presents far more elaborate scenes on the reverse. The legend continues to read VIRTUS AUG; however, the scenes depict Marcus Aurelius or Commodus engaging in an activity that demonstrates their virtus, such as combat or hunting (BMC 446, 295). Under Septimius Severus this tradition is continued. In addition, coins begin to make the connection between virtus and authority more explicit. Several coins issued under Severus depict personified Virtus crowning the emperor, thus locating the source of his power in the concept (RIC 693, BMC 562).

The changes that virtus coinage underwent between 27 BCE-212 CE suggests the intricacy of the concept, which is often viewed as a constant. Although it played an important role in Roman identity throughout Rome’s duration, the changes and shifts that the idea undergoes illustrates the plurality and malleability of such social identities it represents. 

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Imperial Fashioning in the Roman World

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