The Other Coin: Ancient Rome New Year Numismatic Traditions


The Romans initially observed their New Year in March, a festival which they called
Calends or Kalends or cerebrate the new growing year of Spring. It was a time when
people decorated their homes with lights and greenery and gave each other gifts
carefully chosen for their luck-bringing properties, such as sweets or honey to ensure
peace; gold, silver or monetary presents to ensure prosperity; and lamps for a year
filled with light. The festival lasted for three days, during which time slaves and
masters dined together and normal rules of the society were put on hold while
everyone was permitted to do what they pleased. The practice of exchanging gifts
developed into exchanging coins with Janus (the god of new beginnings) stamped on
them. Janus the god of limits and boundaries, beginning and ends with heads facing
backward and forwards was on ideal image of the New Year. It is from him that name
January comes.
Roman lunar calendar of twelve months of 30 days was constantly out of phase with
the seasons. In order to set the calendar right, the Senate, in 153 B.C., proclaimed that
the first day of a New Year would be observed on January 1st. Nevertheless, the
calendar kept its 12 months of 30 days with occasional intercalculations until 46 B.C.,
when Julius Caesar established what was to later be known as the Julian Calendar.
Again, it designated January 1st as the New Year but, in order to synchronize the
calendar with the Sun, Caesar was obliged to allow the previous year to continue for
445 days and add days to various months. Julius Caesar minted several coins to
commemorate this achievement as Pontifex Maximus (the high priest of Rome ) with
his portrait on it, the first living Roman to put his portrait on coins. The coin to the left
bears his image, name and PM on obverse with Venus standing holding Cupid on the
reverse.
Coins have long been a traditional gift on many special occasions. It was customary in
ancient Rome , as it also had been in Greece , to present coins as gifts on festive
occasions, a tradition which Ovid recorded. The historian Suetonius (in Augustus 73)
records that Emperor Augustus would distribute on the occasion of the Saturnalia
festivities, among other precious gifts, various unknown foreign coins or coins with
portraits of ancient kings. Roman emperors from the time of Augustus minted extra
large coins in bronze, silver, and gold, called medallions for distribution in the New
Year. These oversized coins often have elaborate designs or extra fineness are both
rare and highly prized.

Happy New Years, Numismatically yours, David Elliott
An oversized medallion of Hadrian
Gold medallion of Constantius liberating London from Allectus
Athena & Poseidon contending for