A gold aureus of Augustus that depicts the start of the Roman empire
This gold aureus dates from 28 BCE and was minted by Octavian possibly in the province of Asia and is very rare with only two known examples. The iconography of this coin is useful for understanding the first constitutional settlement in 28 BCE for several reasons.
On the reverse of this coin, Octavian is depicted as a normal magistrate, sitting in the sella curulis (the magistrates’ chair), wearing a toga, with a scrinium (a magistrate’s document holder) on the floor next to him. Octavian is holding out a scroll presumably passing it to another person. The inscription tells us that this represents Octavian as a consul restoring the Republic and is a visual representation of the first settlement that occurred in 28 BCE and implies that the agreement was complete by the time this coin was minted.
This coin also simultaneously depicts the bust of Augustus on the obverse which shows that Octavian was still in a dominant position despite claiming to have restored the Republic on the reverse. He is shown wearing a laurel wreath which was awarded during his triple triumph in 29 BCE. He is also named as an imperator. Both of these elements depict Octavian as a successful general, who was now the only military power left in Rome. In the inscription, Octavian is also referred to as the son of a god, a reference to Julius Caesar (who named Octavian as his heir in his will) who was deified in 42 BCE. The use of this title was very novel and was a way to increase Octavian’s status above all other Roman citizens. Finally, the mere creation of a coin that depicted Octavian is evidence showing that he still had exceptional power despite claiming to have restored the Republic. These contrasting sides of the coin reflect the state that Octavian was trying to build, one part traditional and republican the other novel and revolutionary.
Interestingly, Octavian is not referred to by the name Augustus, a title that was given to him in 28 BCE. So, this must-have occurred after this coin was minted, or it was not yet well-known across the empire as later coins do refer to Octavian using the title Augustus.
This coin effectively shows that the settlement of 28 BCE was a façade. While Octavian claimed to have restored the Republic, he was still the dominant force, as shown by the fact that he continued to hold the consulship for years after this first settlement until another agreement was made in the second constitutional settlement in 23 BCE. This message of restoring the republic was sent across the empire via propaganda messages like this coin, even if it was not completely true.