Category: Rome

Rome, Italy, 1964. Photographed by Bruno Barbey.


THE Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE was one of the greatest military catastrophes in all of Roman history when a hero of the Spartacus campaign, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BCE), initiated an unprovoked invasion of Parthian territory (modern Iran). Most of the information concerning the battle and its aftermath comes from two major sources: the 1st-century CE historian Plutarch’s biography of Crassus and Roman History by Cassius Dio (c. 155 – c. 235 CE).

Carrhae proved to be a complete disaster from its beginning. Not only were the Romans not used to fighting on the open terrain and in the unbearable heat of Syria but they also had never seen anything like the Parthian cavalry: the cataphracts or armored camels. Iain Dickie, in his article on the battle in Battles of the Ancient World states that Crassus attempted “to score one over his political rivals Pompey and Caesar. He hoped for glory and riches but got tragedy and death” (140). In the end, 20,000 Romans were killed, 10,000 were captured, and only about 5,000 escaped the carnage.

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Vatican City, Rome, 1967. Photographed by Eve Arnold.

Winter at the Vatican, Rome, Italy, 1958. Photographed by Leonard Freed.

Audrey Hepburn, Rome, 1961.

Lost in thought, Rome, Italy, 1962. Photographed by Bruno Barbey.


De Officiis is a treatise written by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE), Roman statesman and orator, in the form of a letter to his son just after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Strongly influenced by stoicism, De Officiis is divided into three books and reflects the author’s view on how to live a good life. The first two books are based on the teachings of stoic philosopher Panaetius of Rhodes, with Book I analysing honour and its roots and Book II delving into utility and what is to one’s advantage. Book III links honour with usefulness and explores which should prevail.

Cicero was a Roman statesman and politician, born in 106 BCE, a member of the lower aristocracy called the ordo equester or the equestrians. He studied in Athens and on the island of Rhodes where he probably got his stoic inspiration from. At the minimum age, he became quaestor in 75 BCE, aedile in 69 BCE, praetor in 66 BCE, and finally consul in 63 BCE.

The pinnacle of his political career was probably the Catiline Conspiracy when he was granted emergency powers by the Roman Senate and given the title pater patriae afterwards for saving the Roman Republic. Later on, Cicero, as the proconsul (governor) of Cilicia, was a major participant in Roman politics, supporting Pompey. After the Ides of March, Cicero returned to Rome to defend the Republic from Mark Antony. In 43 BCE Cicero was assassinated by the order of Mark Antony while fleeing Italy.

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Ingrid Bergman, Rome, Italy, 1952. Photographed by David Seymour.


UNLIKE the practice of professional numismatists, I prefer to see the “big picture”. So, my entire Roman coin collection, all 250 pieces, from Julius Caesar to Valentinian III is laid out on a single pane of glass in a cabinet, in chronological order. In an instant, in almost a single glance, I can take in hundreds of years of Roman history, and dozens upon dozens of rulers. One characteristic of the Roman Imperial coinage is easily seen when viewed this way; the relentless debasement of the silver denarius, the workhorse currency of the Empire, a coin about the size of an American dime.    

Augustus (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE) minted a relatively pure denarius, with a silver content of about 95-98% (a fineness of .95-.98). The silver content of the denarius remained roughly constant through the reign of his great-grandson Nero (r. 54-68 CE, coin 1), and into the reign of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE), of the Flavian Dynasty, in the late first century CE (coin 2). By the time of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 CE) and his son Commodus (r. 180-192 CE, coin 3), about a century later, the fineness of the denarius was about .8. During the reign of Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 CE), the fineness dropped to only .5. In other words, denarii that were supposed to be nearly 100% silver were now only about half that much. By then, coins contained about 50% tin or zinc, or any other white metal the mint had to hand. (Eventually, as the fineness dropped even further, the Imperial mint began to admix copper into the coins).

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Street market in Rome, Italy, 1952. Photograph by David Seymour.