This is the first in a series of Scholars Week preview articles by Caleb Barfield, a student worker in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Caleb is a freshman from Denton majoring in journalism, new media and public relations.
Click here to check out more previews of the great research Baylor students will present at Scholars Week 2014, March 31-April 4.
Looking back into Roman history, the reign of an emperor is often judged by the monuments he built, the battles he won or the impact he made on Roman society. While these contributions are important, many times the legacies emperors left in other areas are overlooked. One such example is the coinage produced by Emperor Nerva. Historically, Nerva is often considered merely a placeholder between better-known Domitian and Trajan. His brief reign lasted only from 96-98 CE.
The iconography and messaging displayed on Nerva’s coins is the subject of a research project by Dr. Nathan Elkins, assistant professor of art history in the College of Arts & Sciences, and two undergraduate students, Xander Gardere and Amy Welch.
“This started as Dr. Elkins’ project,” Welch said. “He wanted to see if Nerva’s coins had elements of propaganda; if he put images on the coins to convey a certain message to the populus. If so, then it could be attributed to the fact that in his 16 months of being in office he couldn’t accomplish many of the things emperors before him had, but he could leave a legacy through the release of money.”
The undergraduate research began after Xander Gardere became interested in the work Elkins did as a graduate student in Frankfurt, Germany. While studying in Germany, Elkins became fascinated with the library of ancient coins and the art located there. He found patterns of iconography on the coins that suggested the recurring icons were an intentional political medium used to supply an audience with a message from the emperor.
“I became intrigued with Dr. Elkins’ research while I was his teaching assistant,” Gardere said, “and I asked if I could join him in it.”
Soon after, Elkins and Gardere traveled to Germany to begin the research. Gardere’s travel was supported in part by a grant from the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement Small Grant Program.
“We went through the coin catalogs of the last century which had about 2,000 coins in total,” Gardere said. “We ended up trying to determine which coins would turn up in certain geographic locations. By doing that we were able to determine if the coins were directed at certain populations. We focused on the northern regions of the empire, studying coins from Austria to England because we wanted to assess the messages the general populus was receiving outside of Rome.”
The messages, iconography and ideals instilled on the coinage were often the only connection the northern provinces had to the empire.
“In those days the people were often unaware of the ideals of the empire due to either being illiterate or just distant,” Welch said. “So images on the coins that they would see on a day-to-day basis had significance.”
The team found that there were common ideals Nerva often represented in his coinage.
“Displayed on Nerva’s coins were the image of his profile and the common ideals of libertas (liberty), aequitas (equality) and fortuna (fortune),” Gardere said.
The team will be displaying their research in this year’s Scholars Week and they have high hopes for future publications. Elkins hopes the project will result in scholarly journal articles and possibly a book.
Even beyond publication opportunities, Welch and Gardere are seeing the fruits of their labor.
“There are many benefits to undergraduate research,” Welch said. “It is rewarding to be a part of the academic world and to be involved in substantial research outside of the classroom; also, it is nice to have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a professor here at Baylor and to experience the interaction that you do not normally have in the classroom.”
Although their research is far from over, the team has come to a preliminary conclusion on the messages and ideals Nerva was trying to convey to his people.
“The iconography was meant to reaffirm why Nerva should be ruler,” Dr. Elkins said. “By placing the most common theme of Liberty on his coins, Nerva was intending to spite Domitian, who was considered a tyrant by the populous. Nerva proclaimed himself as a liberator for the people of Rome and that he would rule for freedom and justice. So in studying Nerva’s coins we see the ideas of himself and his Rome that he wanted to portray to his people.”