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Rome’s Late Republican Empire: The View from the Danube

T. Corey Brennan

Associate Professor, Classics, Rutgers University

This paper examines later Roman Republican contacts with the Danube region, and treats especially the so-called Geto-Dacian copies and imitations in silver of Republican denarius coinage. There are several hundreds of these types, with new ones persistently surfacing on the art market. Most seem to have been struck in the years ca. 80-40 BCE, and served as a locally accepted currency that supplemented official Roman money. I examine iconographic attributes of the looser imitations (which indeed dominate the corpus), and suggest that it was the Latin legends in the prototypes that held a special fascination for the non-Roman engravers. Rome’s Republican empire clearly used the inscribed word to display power and assert control; here I seek to show the potency of Latin text even for a distant people who demonstrably could not read it.

In the later Republican era, contacts between Rome and the Geto-Dacians, a people whose lands were centered within the borders of modern Romania, mostly had to do with the slave trade. Massive finds of Republican denarii (principally in hoards) especially in Romania suggest that the Romans of this era had a significant economic stake in the area. Indeed, it would seem that they could not mint enough coins to meet market demands, for locally produced copies or imitations of denarii constitute up to 10% of the Republican-era material that has emerged in Romanian or Bulgarian coin hoards.

The sheer variety of derivative or imitative Geto-Dacian types is startling. The numismatist Phillip Davis provisionally has catalogued over 400 different coins based on Republican prototypes, reflecting the designs of over 150 individual Republican moneyers, with those minting in the period 91-63 BCE best represented. For the decade of the 70s, hardly any Roman moneyer did not find his denarii copied.

Communist-era scholars of Romania and Bulgaria discussed these issues extensively, but with distortion of the coins’ relevance to questions especially of national identity and of the rule of the Geto-Dacian king Burebista (reigned ca. 82-ca. 44). More recently, Davis has demonstrated—through energetic collection of new material and an emphasis on the scarcity of die-linked coins—that these monetary copies and imitations were minted in small runs, without much evident central coordination, and saw only local circulation. But cumulatively the coins can be pressed into service to illuminate, however shakily, the reception in central and southeastern Europe of Republican Rome’s expanding empire. They also further our understanding of the infrastructure of the slave trade and of the growing importance of slave traders in the machinery of Rome’s late Republican empire.

The Geto-Dacian engravers betray little understanding of Roman iconography, freely combine the obverse and reverse types of different Republican moneyers (sometimes those working decades apart), introduce intrusive stylistic elements or remove essential ones, and almost invariably garble whatever Latin legends they found. Howlers in the imagery are plentiful, even where we would not expect them (e.g., the number of a horse’s legs). There are exceptions. A small but significant percentage of the Geto-Dacian coins are careful copies of Roman denarii (there are no lesser denominations), with properly paired obverses and reverses that seem mechanically transferred from official issues. My focus is on the less faithful imitations, especially instances where the engravers supplement existing legends or create fresh ones to fill a perceived void. I trace development in the types, and seek to show e.g., that the engravers in time recognized the name Caesar (see Davis M211+, where it is gratuitously added to a reverse), and eventually understood that his title was dictator (Davis M224+).  

The Geto-Dacians remained outside Rome’s direct political control until subdued in two wars by Trajan, who finally in 106 CE annexed their territory as a Roman province. Geto-Dacian versions of Roman coinage continue in the Empire (albeit in an attenuated state), through the Julio-Claudians and Flavians right up into the reign of Trajan, when these local imitative issues understandably come to a complete halt.

Session/Panel Title

New Directions in the Late Republican Roman Empire

Session/Paper Number


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