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The Beautiful Lady Who Started It All

The author's first Roman coin wasn't a choice piece, but it was enough to get him started on a lifelong learning adventure.

In putting together this series of articles on Roman coins and coin collecting, this author feels compelled to share one coin experience that was actually the basis for his whole interest in ancient Roman history.

When I was about eighteen years old, I was an avid collector of United States coins. I had already read quite a bit about the economic history of our country in my study of U. S. coinage, but I was not yet a real, dyed - in - the - wool "history nut". One day, while spending an enjoyable afternoon down at Louie's Coin Shop in Mountain View, California, I noticed a rather strange and unfamiliar item. "Roman Coin - $5" the label on the holder read. "Wow!" I thought. "A real Roman coin for only five dollars! I wonder how they know it is really Roman, it was so long ago. I bet nobody could never figure out who issued it. It would be nice to have a real Roman coin though, especially since it is so inexpensive." Maybe Louie would hold it for me. I was a good customer.

When I went back later with my five dollars, I found that to my great disappointment the coin was gone! "Oh geez, what a rip!" I felt like complaining loudly to Louie but I knew that wouldn't get the coin back for me. Instead, I asked him to save the next one he got for me, if he ever did get another one.

I didn't realize it yet, but I was hooked. One can imagine my surprise and pleasure when I discovered the little Roman denarius in my Christmas stocking. My mother realized that the little, worn coin had the potential to teach me more history than six years at any of the best universities in the country.

I immediately started to study the coin. It had a worn portrait of a woman on the obverse. Though the coin was heavily worn and scratched, I could see that she was a beautiful, elegant looking older woman, gentle and plump in the face with a string of pearls entwined in her hair. I could barely make out some of the inscription after spending hours studying it with a magnifying glass. The letters were very worn and were of an unusual shape, not to mention that they were in a foreign language. More importantly, though, they were there on the coin for me to decipher and I was able to actually read and pronounce the words! I was able to make out the words DIVA FAVSTINA on the front of the coin and AETERNITAS on the reverse. My excitement began to build. Could the V actually be a U? Who was Faustina and when did she live? Could AETERNITAS possibly mean "eternity" and was there an occult or religious theme to the inscription? I was hot on the trail of this mystery and a trip to the Cupertino Public Library helped me to identify this woman and bring some of her story to life. I later discovered that these coins are quite common and most Roman coins are very well documented and can sometimes be dated down to a two month period. They are easy to collect and popular amongst those who love to study and dig out the information but who must put their coin collecting on a budget. As I dug deeper into my research, a touching, poignant story eighteen hundred years old began to unfold.

Between the years of 138 and 161 A. D., the Roman Empire was a peaceful and prosperous place to live for almost all of its citizens. Life was better then than at any other time until quite recently, even into the middle of the last century. In fact, it was such an uneventful time that there was little for historians to write about. Antoninus Pius was Emperor and we know that he was a wise and good ruler, and quite popular amongst his subjects.

Faustina was the wife of Antoninus Pius and it was clear that he loved her very much. We know this mostly through evidence gleaned from the inscriptions found on coins like the one I was holding. Faustina had a daughter who was also named Faustina. Thus, there are coins of Faustina the Younger as well as Faustina the Elder. Faustina the Younger was later the wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. When Faustina the Elder died in A. D. 141, Emperor Antoninus Pius wanted to make sure that the whole world knew how much he missed his beloved Faustina and that her name and kind deeds would never be forgotten. He had her proclaimed a goddess (DIVA FAVSTINA) and had millions of coins with her likeness and inscription struck during the next twenty years. They circulated throughout the greatest empire the world had known up to that time and were lost or hidden away in places that would later become England, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Austria, and Algeria, to name just a few. Many of the coins' inscriptions state that there was harmony in the emperor's household and that Faustina used some of her wealth to set up a fund for the education of girls from poor Roman families. (PVELLAE FASTINIANAE or Faustina’s Girls). As this was a time of prosperity and the reign of Antoninus Pius was a long one, many of these coins have been saved or lost and rediscovered much later to come down to us as little bits of history telling this personal story of an ancient ruler and his family. They are readily available through ancient coin dealers in most major cities for a few dollars even in nice condition. My first little Roman denarius is too scratched and worn to have been photographed for an illustration in this work on Roman history, but I still have it after twenty-eight years and it still holds a prominent place in my collection as the spark that got this whole thing started.

And as for the accounts you might read by various sources concerning the Empress Faustina, most of these may be taken with a large grain of salt. The Romans loved a good scandal, possibly even more so than we do today. Political enemies and young impoverished aristocrats have written accounts condemning almost all prominent Roman women as dissolute adulteresses, soiled doves carrying on with men from all different stations in life. To some degree this was true, for the Roman senatorial class was a pleasure - loving group with few constraints on their almost unlimited personal power. But when one reads the inscriptions on the coins bearing Faustina’s image, it is quite clear that Antoninus Pius deeply loved his wife. There is no historical evidence that he was either stupid or naive, nor is there any real evidence that Faustina was unfaithful.

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