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Ancient Rome Still Instructional
June 24, 2009

Every time the United States has a recession it seems, pundits start comparing it to ancient Rome and predicting decline. While my education included some Roman history, it wasn't my major focus.

I decided to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge by reading a book about Rome by Michael Grant.

Some of the history seems very instructive for American coin collectors today. The author notes that Julius Caesar was the first living person to be depicted on Roman coins and this was viewed negatively by those opposed to his power.

This issue echoes in American history when President George Washington declined to have his portrait placed on the first U.S. coins, insisting that it was a monarchical practice. He probably also thought that his political opponents could gain political advantage if the practice of Presidential portraits should begin.

His administration, which included Alexander Hamilton as Treasury secretary, was constantly accused of harboring monarchical ambitions, especially when Thomas Jefferson left the cabinet as Secretary of State and took up the lead of the opposition (though in secret).

It took roughly 117 years for Presidential portraits to appear on U.S. circulating coins and this was in the form of honoring the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who had died 44 years before.

Even today the portraits of living Presidents is a touchy issue. They are forbidden for the current series of Presidential $1 coins. A former President must have been dead for at least two years to be honored by the series.

This might be an overreaction because what harm can living ex-Presidents do, or what political message would be sent by having their portraits included in the Presidential dollar series?

Today's leaders aren't taking any chances, perhaps remembering George Washington and maybe even Julius Caesar.

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About the Author
David C. Harper has been a coin collector since 1963. He joined the Krause Publications editorial staff in 1978 and is currently editor of Numismatic News and World Coin News. He also edits two books annually, North American Coins & Prices and Coin Digest. He is the author of the Class of '63 column that runs each week in Numismatic News. His first bylined numismatic article appeared in the June 1971 issue of Coins Magazine and his various Krause Publications assignments included a stint as editor of the magazine 1980-1983. Harper received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1977. He had a double major of journalism and economics.

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