Cyclical Time and the Returning Golden Age on Roman Imperial Coinage

Vergil’s Eclogue 4 opens with the bold claim that the “Golden Race” (gens aurea) is returning with the advent of an unnamed child. At that moment, time will start again, and the cycle of decline — marked by “another Argo…and another Achilles” — will recur. Much ink has been spilt on situating this poem in its pre-Augustan context and on analyzing, moreover, whether the reference represents cynical subversion in a generally pessimistic collection or hopeful prophecy for a renewal of time.

Less work has been done, however, to interrogate how Vergil inaugurates in this poem a trope, which would be invoked at many threshold moments of shifts in power in the later Roman empire, particularly on imperial coinage. Aiōn, for instance, becomes personified on later Roman provincial coinage; and in the iconography, the god holds the globe, on which a phoenix is about to take flight. In a unique act of prophecy, moreover, Hadrian is the only emperor to proclaim his own returning Golden Age on a coin with the phrase SAECVLVM on it. In fact, as late as the Third Century, Carausius is stamping coins that are believed to be alluding to Vergil’s Eclogue: on his coins, we find acronyms such as RSR (=Redeunt Saturnia Regna, Ecl. 4.6-7).

By looking at imperial and provincial Roman coins as Vergilian “intertexts,” this paper will explore how cyclical conceptions of time, particularly amidst shifts in power, attempt to alleviate anxieties about deterioration over time, and to reimagine, through a process I call “restorative nostalgia,” a cycling back to the beginning of time. The returning Golden Age trope on Roman coinage thus becomes a way of allowing subjects in provincial Rome to cope with the invention and standardization of time under the spreading reach of imperial hegemony.