The Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge boasts of being the “finest small museum in Europe.” Its history dates back to 1816, when Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam left his library and art collection to the university, along with funds to house and preserve them. Since 1848, it has stood on Trumpington Street in central Cambridge on the southern end of the university grounds. The museum is closed Mondays, but is open from 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday, and 12 pm to 5 pm on Sundays. Admission is free to the public.
The Fitzwilliam’s Department of Coins and Medals is one of the five main departments of the museum. It oversees a massive collection of almost 195,000 coins, tokens, bills, medals, and related items, ranging from ancient Greek coinage to modern credit cards. The department has also acquired an extensive library of works on numismatics over the years, including books and pamphlets, periodicals, auction catalogs, and the personal papers of prominent numismatists.
The collection includes over 25,000 Roman coins, covering every period of Rome’s history, some of which are discussed in greater depth below.
* One of the oldest coins in the Fitzwilliam’s Roman collection is a gold 60-asses coin dating circa 211 BC, showing the head of Mars on the obverse and an eagle grasping a thunderbolt on the reverse with the inscription ROMA. These coins were issued by the Roman Republic during an emergency caused by Hannibal’s siege of Rome. Cut off from the Spanish silver mines, the Republic was forced to issue new coins of gold to avoid a shortage of silver money.
* Another Republic coin from the Fitzwilliam’s collection is a 43 BC silver denarius by the moneyer Petillius Capitolinus. The obverse shows an eagle with a thunderbolt and Capitolinus’s name, while the reverse shows the front of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill — a play on Capitolinus’s name. The temple is flanked by the letters S F, indicating that Capitolinus was a member of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, a fraternity that guarded the Sibylline Books and regulated worship of foreign gods.
* The Fitzwilliam holds several coins from the reign of the short-lived Emperor Gordian III (225-244), including a provincial coin minted in Pisidian Antioch in Turkey. The coin depicts the emperor’s head with laurel wreath and the inscription “IMP CAES M ANT GORDIANVS AVG” on the obverse, while the reverse shows him driving a quadriga and wielding an eagle-tipped scepter, with the inscription “CAES ANTIOCH COL SR.”
* Another notable Imperial coin from the Fitzwilliam’s collection is a sestertius issued commemorating the consecration of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), struck under his successor, Commodus. The obverse shows the emperor, bare-headed as he would be for the consecration ceremony, with the inscription “DIVVS M ANTONIVS PIVS”, while the reverse shows him being borne off by an eagle, waving farewell while carrying an eagle-headed scepter, along with the inscription “CONSECRATIO S C.”