As the Roman Republic grew in size, due to conquests of the Italian peninsula, the government in Rome saw the need for an official currency. Prior to the establishment of currency, the major forms of value throughout the Republic were either cattle or non-standard bronze pieces that had to be weighed before they could be used in a transaction. The responsibility for the minting of these coins was given by the Republican government to a board of three men called the Tresviri aere argento auro flando feriundo, which literally meant “three men for casting/striking gold, silver and copper.” Established around 289 BC, though some historians place their official establishment closer to 200 BC, these men were also known as the Tresviri monetales.
This position was one of many in what would become the vigintisexviri, a college of twenty six men to whom basic governmental tasks were delegated. Somewhat, but not entirely like the executive branch of the U.S. government, these magistrates did not answer to a president, but to the quaestors, the lowest level of elected officials in the cursus honorum. New Tresviri were appointed every year. Typically, after their time in the Tresviri, young men would typically seek election to the cursus honorum themselves.
The Tresviri monetales were generally men over thirty years of age with aspirations to become senators. Because Roman culture valued coins as symbolic tools of power as well as currency for trade, the Tresviri monetales marked coins with images and words designed to advance their careers. These markings could be important family symbols, they could be the names or images of older senate patrons, or they could be glorifications of the State, depending on what the Tresviri monetales thought would be most beneficial for their advancement. The custom eventually became such that each of the Tresviri added his name to the coins that he, personally, was in charge of putting into circulation.
One notable example of this exists in the coins of Sextus Pompeius Fostulus, a member of the Tresviri in the late 2nd century BC. This moneyer sought to improve his family’s political standing by minting coins with the traditional image of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. He included his traditional ancestor, Fostulus, watching satisfactorily. Over time, images like this became more and more prevalent as the Roman Republic became increasingly bureaucratic and status-oriented.
These images were of little concern to the public, who were more concerned with whether a particular coin was of adequate weight and untainted by base metals than whose face was emblazoned on the obverse or what images decorated the reverse. Instead, the popular coins of the day provided gossip for the elite. One can imagine a senator of high standing making a purchase and, upon seeing that over half of the coins he received in change contained his rival’s marking, becoming concerned about his public influence.
It is important to note that the Tresviri monetales did not, themselves, strike or cast the gold, silver, bronze and copper coins used throughout the Roman Republic. They were merely in charge of the people who did the actual casting and striking, who would have been of lower class than the Tresviri. The men who became Tresviri monetales were more often the sons of senators or other men of high public standing, simply because they were appointed by the people in power rather than democratically elected. This was not always the case, as there was a degree of class mobility in the Roman Republic, but by and large, it was.
The Tresviri monetales existed until the end of the Roman Republic, though with the rise of the Empire, the images displayed on the coins were strictly regulated by imperial authorities. The coins could only contain images glorifying the particular emperor of the time. During the Empire, the position became less one of personal advancement and more one of strict adherence to the State.