August 17, 2017

Gaius Mitreius, Magister Iuventutis, and the Materiality of Roman Tokens

Amongst the ancient tokens kept in the coin cabinet of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is this piece struck from brass (orichalchum). One one side is a male bust (perhaps of Mitreius or more generally a representation of "youth") surrounded by the legend C. MITREIVS L. F. MAG. IVVENT - Gaius Mitreius, son of Lucius, master of the youth (the iuventutes was a youth organisation). On the other side is a two-story building with columns that looks very much like a basilica. On the building is inscribed L. SEXTILI∙ S.P. = Lucius Sextilius, at his own expense.

mitreius token obverse mitreius token reverse

Token from the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford). (20mm, 3.58g, die axis 6).

In his analysis of Roman tokens Rostovtzeff discusses this type (p. 60), noting that the example in Paris has a countermark underneath the bust. This piece has the number X (10) etched into the exergue on the reverse, but other specimens carry the numbers VIIII and IIII. The structure on the reverse also varies on different examples (as is typical of numismatic representations of buildings) - other representations show a more circular structure that has been identified as an amphitheatre. The representation of the same or similar scenes with differing numbers is reminiscent of the famous spintriae, bronze tokens that carry sex scenes on one side and differing numbers on the other. The fact that the numbers appear to be incised into the token after it was struck is also similar to a practice known in late antiquity, where contorniates (late antique tokens whose purpose remains debated) where inscribed with Christian symbols, palm branches or other designs after striking. One example of this practice is shown below on a piece from the British Museum: a palm branch has been etched into a contorniate that shows Homer on one side and Bacchus on the other.

contorniate with palm branch etched into it

We don't know anything further about the Lucius Sextilius named on the token, nor about Mitreius beyond the fact that he held an office connected with the iuventutes, the youth organisations that existed in the western part of the Roman Empire (also known as collegia iuvenes). But we do possess inscriptional evidence for the Mitreius name at Rome and in Gubbio (CIL VI, 28976 and 38641, CIL XI, 5861, AE 1988, 347). A Mitreius token like that shown above was reportedly found on the island of Capri, although this specimen is now lost (Federico and Miranda 1998, 363).

This was not the only token struck by Mitreius in connection with his position as magister iuventutis. He also struck a type with the same obverse (a male bust and his name) with a facing lion's head within a wreath on the reverse. Other bronze types carried the same obverse with a number within a wreath on the reverse (IIII, XI and XII are known - Cohen VIII 12-15, and Triton IV, 449, the specimen pictured below) - this again is very similar to the design of spintriae. Another specimen, now in a private collection, carries Mitreius' name and a tripod on one side and two clasped hands with a poppy seed on the other - this token also appears to be countermarked in the image.

Mitreius was not the only official connected to Roman youth organisations to strike tokens; several types exist in lead that refer to youth groups or to festivals connected to these same groups. One example is shown below: on one side is a youthful male portrait with the legend PPETRI SABI (Publius Petronius Sabinus) and on the other side is the legend MAG VIIII IVV (Magister Iuvenum VIIII - Master of the Youth, Nine) (TURS 834).

mitreius_token_nnumber.jpg sabinus token
Mitreius bronze token. Sabinus lead token.

That officials associated with youth organisations struck tokens in orichalcum, bronze and lead suggests that different materials might be used for tokens that were ultimately used in the same context. In this sense we should study all Roman tokens together as one class of material, rather than, as has previously been the case, separating the bronze from the lead, or the "spintriae" from other types. Clay tokens are also known from Rome, and may also ultimately provide further illumination on what, and in what contexts, these objects were used for. But these types are further evidence that some tokens were used within Roman colleges or other organisations, and may ultimately have been connected to feasts, games, celebrations or festivals.

This blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities Project. Thanks are due to Denise Wilding for undertaking the photography and recording of this and other tokens from the Ashmolean collection.


Federico, E. and E. Miranda, eds. (1998). Capri Antica. Dalla preistoria alla fine dell'età romana. Capri, Edizioni La Conchiglia.

TURS - Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.

Rostowzew, M. (1905). Römische Bleitesserae. Ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit. Leipzig, Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

August 01, 2017

The King and the Hybrid

tasciovanus coin

Tasciovanus silver coin, ABC 2619, c.25-10 BC.
Obverse: crossed wreath and two teardrop motifs, back to back crescents in centre, TASC in angles.
Reverse: winged capricorn right, VER below.

This Coin of the Month is one of the many silver coins of the British King Tasciovanus. He is believed to have ruled an area that approximately corresponds to modern day Hertfordshire towards the end of the 1st century BC. Little is known of his history or circumstances, but he is best known for being the grandfather of Caractacus and Togodumnus, the British kings who fought the Romans during their final invasion of Britain in AD 43.

Tasciovanus was one of the earliest of the British kings to present classical Roman imagery on his coins, with Pegasus, griffons and hippocamps making appearances. The imagery of this coin is part of this trend towards classical imagery, but with one exception: the Capricorn, a beast of the sea, is given the wings of a beast of the air.

Tasciovanus ruled during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Augustus used the Capricorn, his star sign, as one of his many symbols. Even without the wings, the Capricorn was already a strange creature, with its front comprised of half of a goat and its rear the back of a fish. Despite this imagery appearing across Rome during the time of Augustus, little is known about the creature’s origins, or its role in ancient myth.

Perhaps it was this mystery that attracted Tasciovanus’ die engravers to the image. Capricorn is never portrayed with wings in the Roman world, so these were a British addition. The inclusion of another element to an already elaborate hybrid was inspired by what is known as Celtic religion. The peoples who inhabited Gaul, modern-day France, and Britain at this time saw their deities not as men and woman, like the Greeks and Romans, but as something beyond the human and natural world, or rather something that stood between them. As a result, the horned god is a popular feature of their mythology, and may explain the prominent horns of the Capricorn on Tasciovanus’ coins. The Tarasque monster, a statue found in France of a terrifying dog like creature, and the elephants with spotted fur depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark are another part of this belief. The gods do not walk as men or animal, but as a mixture of the two, or of many beasts, and are nothing like what can be seen with human eyes.

Hybridised creatures of classical mythology, such as the Pegasus or griffon, were attractive images to a culture with such beliefs. The Capricorn was no exception, but perhaps it was not deemed alien enough. The use of wings on the Pegasi and griffons had apparently been pleasing to British audiences, so this might have inspired the addition to the Capricorn here. Adding wings to a sea creature that does not apparently need them makes the monster less natural, and thus more appropriate to the divine forms familiar to the British inhabitants.

The fascination with winged creatures can be witnessed on the many British coin types displaying Pegasus. Rarely used in Roman imagery, the original image may have been taken from the Pegasi shown on coins of Emporion, a Greek colony in Iberia, modern-day Spain. The horse was a powerful image in Celtic art, appearing on coinage and many other forms of material culture, a popularity due to its effectiveness in Celtic warfare, the prestige value of its ownership and possibly the religious rituals associated with the animal. Witnessing a Greek depicting of their venerated animal with the addition of wings would have inspired the Celtic imagination. From then on, the presence of wings on a creature was a popular theme, accounting for the many Celtic coin images of classical monstrosities as well as deities, like the Roman winged goddess Victory.


This month's coin was written by David Swan. David is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Warwick. His thesis examines coinage and hoarding trends along the trade routes of the eastern Atlantic, from the 5th century BC – 1st century AD. He specialises in Celtic coinage.


J. Creighton, Coins and power in late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000

M. Green, The Gods of the Celts, Alan Sutton, Gloucester 1986

M. Green, An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and cosmology in the Iron Age and Roman Empire, Routledge, London 2004

A. Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: studies in iconography and tradition, Routledge, London 1967

M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain, Amberley, Stroud 2010

P. Zanker, The power of images in the age of Augustus, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1988

July 01, 2017

Who gets the glory? Marius, Sulla, and the defeat of Jugurtha (RRC 426/1)


Roman Republican Denarius, 56 BC, RRC 426/1

Obverse: FAVSTVS. Bust of Diana right, draped and wearing diadem; above, crescent; behind, lituus. Border of dots.

Reverse: FELIX. Sulla seated left; on left, Bocchus kneeling and holding olive-branch in right hand; on right, Jugurtha kneeling with hands tied behind back. Border of dots.

This month’s coin is an issue of 56 BC, but the story which lies behind it, represented on its obverse, takes us back to the latter years of the second century BC and Rome’s war against the Numidian prince Jugurtha.

Following the death of King Micipsa in 118 BC, the kingdom of Numidia was divided between the brothers Hiempsal, Adherbal, and Jugurtha. Jugurtha had Hiempsal assassinated, and later, in 112 BC, besieged Adherbal in Cirta. Jugurtha managed to take the town and kill Adherbal, but there were also many casualties among the population of resident Italian businessmen. The Romans, who had been involved all along as mediators and interested observers, wanted vengeance for the deaths of the Italians. The war which then began proved difficult to win; politicians at Rome made accusations of incompetence and corruption against the aristocratic generals who were conducting the war.

In 107 BC, the new consul Gaius Marius took over the command. Marius was both an excellent soldier and an outsider in Roman politics with no consular ancestors. The young quaestor who accompanied him, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was just the opposite: a descendant of an old but impoverished noble family. The sources tell us that Sulla was ambitious and was looking for an opportunity to perform some memorable exploit which would help him in his political career at Rome (Plutarch, Sulla 3). His friendship with the king of Mauretania, Bocchus I, provided the opportunity. Bocchus was the father-in-law of Jugurtha, but was hesitant about which side to support in the war. When Jugurtha lost most of his army and fled to him, Bocchus gave him shelter, but considered handing him over to the Romans. Sulla travelled to the region and organised a meeting with Bocchus, during which he convinced him to betray Jugurtha to him in a planned ambush (Sallust, Jugurthine War 111). The ambush went ahead and Bocchus surrendered the bound Jugurtha to Sulla.

This is what is represented on our coin. On the left, Bocchus is kneeling and holding out an olive branch to the central figure of Sulla, who is seated. On the right, the bound Jugurtha kneels in submission. Why was this scene so important that it was represented on a coin more than fifty years later?

Jugurtha’s capture sparked a competition between Marius and Sulla for the glory of having brought the war to an end. Moreover, the ancient sources point to this incident as the beginning of the personal enmity which led eventually to the disastrous civil war between Marius and Sulla in the 80s BC (Plutarch, Marius 10).

Marius, as the overarching commander, was awarded a triumph for finishing the war against Jugurtha. The triumph was especially noteworthy and magnificent as Marius celebrated it on the first day of his new consulship in 104 BC. He had been elected with popular support and in contravention of the law forbidding successive consulships so that he could lead the war against the Germanic tribes who were migrating across northern Italy. Marius’ glory in this moment was matched by his arrogance; after finishing the triumph with the concluding sacrifices in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, he convened the senate still wearing the purple triumphal garb, rather than the senatorial toga. The senators were horrified at this authoritarian gesture, and Marius changed his clothing before continuing to preside over the session.

Marius memorialised his victory by setting up a trophy. Later, after his victory over the Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, he set up another commemorative trophy. The city of Rome itself became a witness to the victories and glory of Marius. This accorded with the usual republican practice of glorifying military successes, and especially the general under whose leadership they had been achieved.

But Sulla was not content with this. He made a rival claim to the glory of this campaign. He had the scene of Jugurtha’s submission depicted on his seal ring, so that in any correspondence with him the recipient would be reminded that this was the event which ended the war and defined his career (Plutarch, Sulla 3).

Bocchus himself also intensified the situation in 91 BC by setting up a statue group on the Capitol which depicted him handing over Jugurtha to Sulla (Plutarch, Sulla 6). The iconography of our coin likely reflects the design of this monument. Marius was greatly annoyed at both Bocchus and Sulla over the perceived challenge to his military reputation, but the Social War broke out around the same time, and the issue was left unresolved.

Marius died during the civil wars, and Sulla eventually captured Rome and instituted a bloody dictatorship, marked by proscription – the state-sanctioned murder of a set list of individuals. After his period of sole rule, Sulla resigned his power and retired to his villa, where he spent his time composing his memoirs. He died only a year later.

Despite the deaths of both Sulla and Marius, the issue of their respective reputations, including the debate over who was responsible for the end of the Jugurthine war, remained potent. During his aedileship in 65 BC, the young Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius, concocted a bold plan: overnight, he had all of the trophies and statues of Marius which had been removed in the civil wars restored to their former places (Plutarch, Caesar 6). Regardless of whether the trophies were the originals or replicas, they suddenly brought back into the city’s public space the memory of Marius’ great campaigns. Caesar had already begun rehabilitating Marius’ memory a few years earlier, when he had given a public funeral for his aunt Julia, Marius’ widow. During the funerary procession, the images of Marius were displayed for the first time since his death.

Twenty years later, Sulla’s son Faustus reiterated his family’s claim to the glory of Jugurtha’s capture by depicting it on this coin. The coin issue was part of a series of four which celebrated both the achievements of Faustus’ father Sulla and those of his soon-to-be father-in-law Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. On this coin, type 1 in the series, the victory over Jugurtha is paired with an image of Diana, one of Sulla’s patron deities. On the other types, Hercules and Venus also feature prominently, while the names Faustus and Felix (an honorific name for Sulla) are themselves a reminder of the special divine favour which Sulla claimed to enjoy. Types 3 and 4 refer to Pompey and bring him into this conversation about glory and divine favour. The reverse of type 3 (RRC 426/3, below) shows the three trophies which were the emblem on Pompey’s signet ring, while the reverse of type 4 (RRC 426/4, below) shows the globe, four wreaths, and an ear of corn; all are references to the magnificent achievements of Pompey in ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, celebrating three triumphs over three continents, and ensuring the Roman grain supply through his special commission. The joining of Sulla and Pompey in this multi-layered iconography of victory and divine favour is fitting, as it was Sulla who had essentially given Pompey his political start. Pompey’s first great action was raising an army of his father’s veteran soldiers to fight for Sulla in the civil war.

RRC 426 3 RRC 426 4
RRC 426/3 RRC 426/4

Why did the question of who was responsible for the capture of Jugurtha matter so much not only to Marius and Sulla, but also to the next generation? Roman politics was intensely competitive, with individuals striving against each other for opportunities to serve the state. If one could demonstrate that one’s ancestors had already served the state gloriously, this was one way to gain prestige and a better chance of election. The memories and monuments of past successes mattered so much to Roman politicians because their lives were defined by the competition for glory, praise, and honours. These had to be publicly bestowed and commemorated. Politicians would remind the Roman people of their ancestor’s achievements in the hopes that they too would be allowed to serve the state and achieve glory. It was a competition for symbolic capital which consistently, though not exclusively, returned the members of the same few families to the highest magistracies.


This month's entry was written by Dr. Hannah Mitchell. Hannah specialises in the political culture of the late republic and Augustan periods. She is writing a book on political careers and aristocratic self-presentation during the civil wars of the 40s and 30s BC.

Coin images reproduced courtesy of the British Museum (©The Trustees of the British Museum).


Flower, H. 2006. The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture, Chapel Hill.

Harlan, M. 2015 (2nd edn). Roman Republican Moneyers and their Coins, 63 BC – 49 BC, London.

Mackay, C.S. 2000. ‘Sulla and the Monuments: Studies in his Public Persona’, Historia 49.2, 161-210.

June 16, 2017

Token Characteristics: Some Preliminary Thoughts

photo of the conference.jpg  
Talking Tokens: The Warwick Conference  

Earlier this month, the Token Communities project played host to scholars from around the world for the conference Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities. As tokens from all periods and places werex presented, I was struck by the way that these objects acted in similar ways across time and space. English defines the word "token" as something representative of something else, "something that serves to indicate a fact, event, object, feeling, etc" (OED). Below are some preliminary thoughts about what might be characteristic of tokens, what they do in human society, and how they interact with hierarchy, human relationships, and human cognition. It is clear that tokens have played a multitude of roles across time, from the prehistoric to the modern day, but here are some characteristics of these objects that emerged from the papers presented at the conference. (And thank you to all who attended!)

Memory Devices

The earliest tokens were used in accounting, to represent, count and redistirbute goods. In this sense they acted as external memory devices to remember our relationships, transactions and obligations with others. But the memory aspect of tokens also manifests itself in other ways. Tokens might also act as souvenirs or mementoes or particular life events, relationships, festivals or other occasions. For example, pilgrim tokens like this pictured here from the shrine of St. Symeon, acted as objects that mementoes that could provoke or embody memories of a pilgrimage to a particular holy site, as Vicky Foskolou's work has shown. Similarly, love or convict tokens acted as an object that embodied the memory of a particular person or relationship. The relative frequency with which tokens from the ancient Mediterranean are found pierced suggests that these objects too may have functioned (in a secondary context) as a memento of a paricular event or person.

pilgrimage token convict ove token
Pilgrim Token from the Shrine of St. Symeon, The Walters Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by the S. & A.P. Fund, 1946

Convict love Token. Produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.


palmyrene banqueting tessera
Palmyrene Tessera from the Met.

By controlling access to particular events, societies or distributions, tokens contribute to the creation and maintenance of particular social hierarchies. The mere existence of tokens suggests a group of those "who have" tokens (and what they represent/provide) and those who "have not". The best known tokens from antiquity are the "banqueting tesserae" of Palmyra in Syria, objects that served as entrance tickets to particular religious banquets in the city. The distirbution of these objects to particular groups in the city would have reinforced particular communities and groups by excluding others, and likely meant that particular cultic spaces within the city became "members only" at particular moments in time. Similarly the use of jetons in early modern France created a dialogue of "inclusion" and "seclusion" that served to reinforce social norms and the hierarchy that existed within the monarchy, as Sabrina Valin has explored.


The relationship between "tokens" and "money" is complex, but there is clearly a relationship at work between the two. Some tokens, whether in antiquity or in the more modern age, acted as a form of money, whether this be small change issued by merchants, or the "company coinage" of groups in the Roman Republic. But in other cases tokens represent money or an amount of money (like the Roman token giving the names of Olympianus and Eucarapus and the sum of 1000 sestertii), mediating transactions in lieu of official money, or in a way that played with official currency. Tokens might act in ways similar to money by ensuring the distribution of goods and efficient account keeping without ever taking on the role of 'money' itself. In many ways tokens are "like money, but different", and perhaps this was intentionally the case in antiquity to ensure a clear delineation between "official money" and other objects that acted in monetary ways. One wonders whether tokens connected to festivals (like those connected to the festival of Isis in Rome) may have acted in this way - 'money but not quite money' used for particular cultic events.


One key way in which many tokens appear to have differed from money is that many of them appear to represent a single item (e.g. grain, wine) or are intended for a single use (and thanks to Bill Maurer for this observation!) This "single use" aspect applies to tokens from the prehistoric period (which were thrown away after use) as well as the "tokenisation" used in modern day societies (in credit card transactions for example, where each number released as a token is sequential and individual). By contrast, money circulates and is used again and again, to be exchanged for any number of goods and services.

There is a lot more digesting to do from the conference, and a lot more thinking to be done about what tokens are and what they do in society. Stay tuned! ;-)

This post was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean project.

June 01, 2017

Let's play with the portrait of Augustus! "Tesserae" and Roman Games

augustus gaming piece
Bone gaming piece showing and naming Augustus.
(From Rostovtzeff's 1904 publication of the find).

A variety of objects are given the Latin label “tesserae” by modern scholars: mosaic pieces, lead monetiform objects, spintriae, and small circular objects made out of bone or ivory, like the piece pictured above. On one side is a carved portrait of Augustus, while the other side gives his name in Greek (Σεβαστός) and the number one in both Latin and Greek numerals (I in Latin, A in Greek; the Greeks represented numerals through letters). Scholars originally thought that these bone objects, found all over the Roman world, served as tickets to the theatre, amphitheater or circus. But then this “tessera” and fourteen others were found in a child’s tomb in Kerch (Russia) in 1903, and our understanding of these objects changed completely.

Fifteen bone “tesserae” were found in the tomb placed in a wooden and bronze box, neatly stacked in twos. Each piece had an image engraved on one side and on the other a word accompanied by a number in both Latin and Greek. The numbers range from 1 to 15. The designs of the pieces are as follows, according to the publication of Rostovtzeff 1905 (the counters are now in the Hermitage):

  1. Head of Augustus / CΕΒΑCΤΟC (Augustus), I and A.
  2. Head of Zeus / ΖΕΥC (Zeus), II and B.
  3. An "athletic head" (probably Hermes) / [ΕΡΜ]ΗC (Hermes? The legend is partly obliterated), III and Γ.
  4. Entrance to an Egyptian building / ΕΛΕΥΣΕΙΝ(ΙΟΝ) (Eleuseinion), IIII and Δ
  5. Head of Herakles / ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ (Herakles), V and E
  6. The word ΗΡΑΙ(Α) (Heraia) in a wreath / YII and the letter vau
  7. Bust of a praetextatus (a young man wearing a toga) / ΛΟΥΚΙΟΥ (a referenece to a Lucius), VII and Z.
  8. Head of Kronos / ΧΡΟΝΟC (Kronos), VIII and H.
  9. The Greek letter Θ / ΠΑΦΟΥ in a wreath (shown below).
  10. Young female head with a hairstyle of the Augustan age / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), Χ and I
  11. Head of Pollux wearing an athletic headband / ΔΙΟCΚΟΡΟC (Dioscurus), XI and IA.
  12. Head of Castor wearing an athletic band / ΚΑCΤΩΡ (Castor), XII and IB.
  13. Head of Aphrodite / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), XIII and ΙΓ.
  14. Bust of Isis / ΙCIC (Isis). The inscription is damaged, but III and ΙΔ are visible.
  15. Head of Hera / [ΗΡ]Α (Hera, although the inscription is damaged), [X]V and IE.

gaming piece 9
Gaming piece no. 9, reproduced from
Rostovtzeff 1905.

Numerous other pieces similar to this have been found throughout the Roman world (e.g. Pompeii, Asia Minor, Athens, Syria, Crete, Vindonissa north of the Alps), but a complete set like this is rare, if not unique. Comparison with other pieces reveal that the numbers do not correlate with any particular image; so while Zeus is paired with number two here, on another set he may be number ten or fifteen, for example. Other pieces have the portraits and names of other emperors and empresses, though none later than Nero; some specimens represent Julius Caesar and one piece carries a portrait of a Ptolemy. This, in addition to the find spots (particularly in Pompeii, and in the abovementioned tomb) suggests a production date ranging from the second half of the first century BC to first century AD, although they may, of course, have been used later than this.

nikopolis gaming piece
"Token", Early 1st century, Ivory. 2.9 cm
(1 1/8 in.) Gift of Marshall and Ruth
Goldberg. J. Paul Getty Museum, CC-BY.

This complete set has led scholars to conclude that these are gaming pieces. Many of the surviving specimens carry Egyptian, or more specifically, Alexandrian designs. Our number four, for example, likely represents a sanctuary in Eleusis, which was a suburb in Alexandria. Other suburbs in the city, for example Nikopolis, are also shown and named. On the right is an image of one of these pieces: an obelisk stands next to an Egyptian-style building; the other side names Nikopolis and provides the Latin and Greek number four: IIII and Δ. Egyptian deities feature alongside the busts of gods, rulers and other well-known personalities (e.g. athletes, poets, philosophers, characters from comedies). The current theory, then, is that this was an Alexandrian game that then became popular across the Empire in the first century AD. We have no idea how the game was actually played, although it might have been a mixture of a local Egyptian game and the Greek game of petteia (πεττεία).

We might pause to think what it meant that one could play a game in Pompeii, for example, or in modern day Russia, that represented and played with the Alexandrian landscape, its suburbs, buildings and gods. Could the experience be similar to a modern monopoly board, where British streets and locations are experienced and named by people all over the world? I think we should also consider that people thus might also ‘play’ with the emperor’s portrait; how then did this affect people’s experience of the emperor and his family? But finally, since these bone and ivory objects are gaming counters, we should probably stop calling them “tesserae”!

This Coin of the Month entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.


Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1976). Alexandriaca. Studies on Roman Game Counters III. Chiron 6: 205-239.

Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1980). Ruler portraits on Roman game counters from Alexandria (Studies on Roman game counters III). Eikones. Studien zum griechischen und römischen Bildnis. ed. R. A. Stucky and I. Jucker. Bern, Francke Verlag Bern: 29-39.

Rostovtsew, M. (1905). Interprétation des tessères en os avec figures, chiffres et légendes. Revue Archéologique 5: 110-124.

May 09, 2017

The lead tokens of Roman Britain

Roman tokens found in Britain have previously received very little study. Discerning what form they take is key to understanding their purpose. To date the possibilities to be explored include a set of tokens bearing similarity to those from Rome, and leaden coin copies.

One form of token has been found primarily on the Thames foreshore by metal detectorists, as well as in East Anglia. They are not, however, particularly prevalent. In appearance they depict imagery similar to that found on coins. Deities feature heavily, while animals, busts and letters are also present. A variety of objects are also depicted, such as modii (a dry measure for products such as corn), palm fronds and boats. The imagery is, however, incredibly varied (plates of images from Rostovtzeff’s publication can be found here.

Face1: Corn modius flanked by stars

Face 2: Fides carrying plate of fruit and corn ears

It is evident that those found here in Britain have parallels elsewhere in the Roman Empire. For example, one token found on the Thames foreshore depicts a corn modius between two stars on one side (see above left) and a goddess on the other (probably Fides carrying a plate of fruits and corn ears, see above right). Parallels to this are housed in museums in France and Rome, as is the case with other tokens found in Britain. This therefore implies that these tokens are not native solely to Britain, and are more likely to have arrived here from elsewhere, or form a part of an object type recognised and used by Rome.

Another form the tokens may take is that of leaden coin copies (see below left). A few are recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, and it is possible that rather than trying to imitate coinage (lead after all is heavier than copper alloy and would have perhaps been obviously unauthentic when exchanging hands), they instead represent a token value. Some of the tokens on the PAS database are from Piercebridge (see below right), an assemblage which is believed to have had ritualistic significance due to its deposition over time in a river. This perhaps adds credence to the possibility that these copies had a function beyond merely being forgeries, especially as some have been folded or squeezed, thereby implying a votive significance. Tokens also form part of votive assemblages in Italy, for example in the river Garigliano.

A lead coin from Yorkshire, depicting Emperor with radiate crown, possibly also used as a token (PAS database YORYM-AF42B3)

Folded lead denarius from Piercebridge, possibly also used as a token (PAS database NCL-125BD7)

One reason for the paucity of tokens discovered in Britain could be that they are not recognised as such. When lead corrodes it often forms a protective and stable layer, but this obscures surface detail, thereby resulting in an undiagnostic lead disc. So far, the majority of the known tokens have been discovered by metal detectorists, rather than through excavation (the exception is a token found in the drains of the baths at Caerleon). If more tokens come to light perhaps their findspots and distribution will help to illuminate their purpose.


Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg. (YORYM-AF42B3) (NCL-125BD7)

Denise Wilding, PhD student on the Token Communities ProjectThis month's blog was written by Denise Wilding, a PhD student on the EU-funded project Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean.

April 01, 2017

Antony's retaliation to Augustan propaganda

Denarius of Mark Antony (RRC 545/1), 31 BC
Obverse: Bare head of Mark Antony, M·ANTONIVS·AVG·IMP·IIII·
Reverse: Victory standing left holding wreath tied with fillet in right hand
and palm-branch over left shoulder with left hand. Laurel-wreath as border. D·TVR

The battle of Actium in 31BC was the most important event in Augustus’ campaign of justification after assuming more power and influence than any other individual. This battle was the climactic clash between Augustus and Antony in 31 BC, in which the victor would gain control of the Roman world. We may be tempted to think of this battle as a symbol of the triumph of a military despotism, but Augustus used a multitude of methods to convince the Romans otherwise. But Augustus himself unwittingly confirmed his misdoings: the Res Gestae opens with brazen assertions of high treason and a cliché-ridden defamation of a consul of the republic. Augustus was therefore forced to cleverly exaggerate the extent of his victory by following a systematic denigration of Antony. The reason for Augustus’ campaign against his enemies was to debase their character and make their deposition seem as far from a power struggle as possible, hoping instead that he would appear as the bulwark against immoral and dangerous individuals for the Romans. This was a countermeasure to seeming as if he was declaring war on Antony for his own private interests. The Antony of Cicero, associated with prostitutes and corteges of actresses and often drunk is the foundation of Augustus’ Antony. This disparagement of Antony was important in denying monarchical claims to power, it characterised Antony as unsuitable for power and dangerous to the republic, which forced Augustus to champion the defence of the republic. This was similar to the character assassination of Sextus Pompey. Augustus branded Sextus as a pirate, rather than admit to engaging in civil war: ‘I pacified the sea from pirates ’ (Res Gestae 25), preferring to claim he acted out of compulsion and loyalty to the state.

Augustus confronted Rome with ‘the will which Antonius had left in Rome, naming his children by Cleopatra among his heirs, opened and read before the people ’ (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 17). It allowed Augustus to reassert this status as the champion of the Roman people, however it is exceptionally pertinent to remember that Augustus’ extortion of the vestal virgins in procuring this will was something wholly illegal. Augustus juxtaposed himself and Antony through his mausoleum. Though completed in 28BC, it was important in the propaganda war: Augustus’ monumental tomb offered a demonstrative and public contrast to Antony’s alleged desires to be buried in Alexandria. This may have encouraged the Romans, in their indignation, to believe that the other reports in circulation were also true: if Antony should succeed, he would bestow their city upon Cleopatra and transfer the seat of power to Egypt.

Despite Augustus’ best efforts to brand Antony as traitor, Antony’s denarius of 31 BC shows a different story. The coin depicts Antony with a full list of titles, advertising his role as augur (AVG), imperator for the fourth time (IMP IIII), consul for the third time (COS TERT) and triumvir (III·VIR·R·P·C). This was an undeniable assertion that he was far from a foreign enemy, suggesting instead that Augustus’ behaviour was exceptionally anti-republican (to openly share such enmity with a fellow Roman would be a source of revilement). Antony’s use of a denarius is wily; it reaffirmed his legitimacy as a member of the Roman elite while suggesting Augustus’ lust for power as a man willing to enter into civil war for supremacy. The reverse features Victory standing left, a blatant reminder that it would be Victory who supported Antony. The denarius openly deconstructed Augustus’ campaign of invective and propaganda; it was a poignant reminder to the people of Rome that Antony was not the Eastern enemy he was made out to be.


This month's coin entry was written by Alfred Wrigley. Alfred is a third year Ancient History and Classical Archaeology student with a great research interest in Julio - Claudian numismatics

Image copyright Trustees of the British Museum (1855, 1118.3)

March 01, 2017

Restless on the Rhine? Quinctilius Varus and Countermarked Coinage from Kalkriese

When we imagine an ancient battlefield we envisage a landscape strewn with discarded weaponry and bones. However, battle sites also yield a wealth of numismatic evidence, which allow historians to speculate about the size, administration and movement of imperial forces.

Approximately 1500 Roman coins have been excavated from the soil of Kalkriese, where the German tribesman Arminius defeated three Roman legions led by the general Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in AD 9 (Rost and Wilbers-Rost (2011) 119). This numismatic evidence has potential to shed light upon events at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, which is plagued by uncertainties ranging from the location that the battle itself to exactly how many men Varus had on the march and the administration of the imperial army in the early imperial period.

A wide range of imperial currency has been found. These coins include a small number of gold aurei and quinarii excavators believe fell from a single purse, and more than seven hundred silver coins, which played an important role as the ‘vehicle’ of military pay (Howgego (1985) 20). Alongside these precious metal coinages, large quantities of low-denomination bronze and copper coins have been uncovered. Legions used great quantities of bronze and copper coinage to make day-to-day transactions, and the important role of low-denomination coins to the military economy is demonstrated by the volume and unique character of copper issues found in Kalkriese. Most are imperial issues of the second 'Altar' series, which were produced by the mint at Lugdunum between AD 2-4. The proliferation of a particular series is striking, and invites speculation about the provision of currency to the legions in the early imperial period. Though the mechanisms through which imperial coins reached the army are uncertain, evidence of consignments of coinage being sent to legions can be found throughout the literary and material record and the prevalence of a single series suggests that similar processes have occurred here (Caesar BC 3, 103, 1; Robertson (1968) 61-6; Howgego (1985) 21).

This assemblage of copper coins is also distinguished by the high proportion countermarks, which appear upon 96% of issues (Berger 1996). During the imperial period, countermarks were not only applied to worn imperial coins or civic issues to make them acceptable to soldiers as pay or change, but were applied in order to systematically validate coins prior to their dissemination to the troops (Crawford (1985) 47). In the early years of Augustus' reign, the imperial titles IMP and AVG were used to identify legionary currency and to imbue them with clear allusions to imperial authority, as precursors to the legionary symbols or monograms that would come to be the customary countermarks applied to legionary currency. Three distinct countermarks appear upon the Lugdunum aes issues. Two, IMP (imperator) with the lituus symbol and AVC (Augustus) (shown below), are common imperial countermarks, which allude to Augustus and are quite ordinary symbols of imperial authority.

aug countermark
AVC countermark on an aes of Augustus from Lugdunum.
Varus' countermark as legate on the Rhine on an aes of
Augustus from Lugdunum.

The third countermark, however, appears to present an exception to this rule. It is the personal monogram of the general Publius Quinctilius Varus, who led forces on the Rhine as an imperial legate between AD 7-9. The countermark (shown above) contains the first three letters of the general’s name, VAR, in ligature, within a rectangular stamp, and was certainly applied to imperial bronzes at some point during Varus’ short tenure in Germany. This was not the first time Varus’ name had appeared on coinage. Varus had issued civic bronzes with his portrait while a proconsul of Africa and consular governor in Syria, an activity mirrored by consuls Volusius Saturninus and Fabius Africanus in Africa and Fabius Maximus, Cornelius Scipio and Asinius Gallus in Asia Minor (RPC 1 4535; Howgego (1982) 10) (shown below). He also led a coin reform in Antioch, issuing civic bronze in 7/6 BC and silver tetradrachms in 6/5 BC, during which his countermark- VAR in ligature- was applied to issues from Laodiceia (Syria), Gabala and Chalcis sub Libano circulating alongside new issues (Howgego Cmk 658-9; Howgego (1985) 3 and 7). The similarity between the countermark placed upon Syrian issues and the countermark that appeared upon the western bronze issued to legions stationed in the Rhine is striking (Howgego (1985) 3). However, while the economic function of the countermark placed on Syrian coins is evident, whether the monogram applied to legionary currency in the Rhine fulfilled the same function is worthy of debate.

Varus' proconsular issue (RPC 4535).

Can we attribute an ulterior motive to Varus’ use of his own name for the countermark? Although countermarks bearing the name and titulature of those in power were applied to bronze coins in legionary camps on the Rhine with regularity during the Julio-Claudian period, the events of the late Republic were evidence that the strong bonds of loyalty felt by soldiers for their commanding generals were encouraged and cemented through the distribution of pay and cash bonuses. Varus' monogram upon a piece of imperial coinage was a public statement of his role in the dissemination of payment and reward, and it is possible that it was used in place of IMP or AUG countermarks to encourage the personal loyalty of his legions.

Furthermore, the discovery of aes issues whose portraits of Augustus have been mysteriously disfigured by gouges and scratch-marks among the aes found at Kalkriese add a layer of uncertainty to the activities of Varus and the loyalty of his legions. Whether Roman legionaries or victorious Germans were the agents of this defacement is unknown. Though the first publication of these coins suggested that these slashes were administered by Roman troops dissatisfied with imperial authority (Berger (1996) 55), we should question whether soldiers would consider a silent act of disapproval worth the demonetisation of their coinage, and ask why they would carry defaced currency onto the battlefield, where a large portion has been found. Kemmers and Myberg suggest an alternative thesis- that the defacements were carried out by victorious Germans, who wished to destroy the image of the emperor on the obverse side and the image of the Altar at Lyon, where representatives from Gaul were required to pay annual obeisance to the cult of Roma and Augustus on the reverse (Kemmers and Myberg 98-99).

Though it is tempting to use the proliferation of Varus’ monogram and the defacement of the emperor’s image as evidence of shifting loyalties among Varus’ legions prior to the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, we must not be too quick to condemn Varus through such circumstantial evidence. There is no proof that these disfigurements were carried out by Roman legionaries, nor any suggestion that Varus was cultivating the loyalty of his men (despite accusations of embezzlement levelled by Velleius (II 117). Indeed, consular governors were permitted to authorise the production of coinage and to issue coinage that contained their name and image during Augustus’ reign. Varus, who already had proconsular coins and countermarked civic issues to his name when he assumed control of the legions on the Rhine, and had taken a strong interest in coinage and finance throughout his career, may have considered the act of countermarking his legionary coinage with a personal monogram a continuation of his early monetary activities. Without evidence to the contrary, we should consider his activities exemplary of the administrative freedom permitted to consuls and legates in the early years of the empire, rather than an attempt to court the loyalty of his legions. Though its seditious nature can be discarded, the precise character of Varus’ countermark remains one of the many mysteries of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest.


This month's coin entry was written by Charlotte Mann, a Masters student at the University of Warwick with a strong interest in numismatics. She is currently investigating the impact of imperial presences upon the provincial coinages.

Works Cited:

Amandry, M, Burnett, A and Ripolles, P (2005) Roman Provincial Coinage Volume 1 (London: British Museum Press).

Berger, F. (1996). Kalkriese 1: Die römische Fundmünzen. Mainz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern.

Berger, F. (2000). Die Münzen von Kalkriese. Neufunde und Ausblick. In Die Fundmünzen von Kalkriese und die frühkaiserzeitliche Münzprägung. Akten des wissenschaftlichen Symposions in Kalkriese, 15.-16. April 1999. ed. R. Wiegels. Möhnesee, Bibliopolis: 11-45.

Crawford, M. (1985). Coinage and Money under the Roman Republic. Berkley: University of California Press.

Howgego, C (1982) ‘Coinage and Military Finance: the Imperial Bronze Coinage of the Augustan East’ in The Numismatic Chronicle v142 (1963) 1-20.

Howgego, C (1985) Greek Imperial Countermarks: Studies in the Provincial Coinage of the Roman Empire (London: Royal Numismatic Society).

Kemmers, F. and N. Myrberg (2011). Rethinking numismatics. The Archaeology of Coins. Archaeological Dialogues 18: 87-108.

Image Information:

AVG countermark: © The Trustees of the British Museum (1925,1007.8)

VAR Countermark: Reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Electronic Auction 116, lot 194) (

Varus' proconsular issue: Reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Auction 93, lot 990) (

February 01, 2017

Rostovtzeff and the Tokens of Rome

In 1903 the Roman historian Michael Rostovtzeff published a catalogue of lead tokens entitled Tesserarum Urbis Romae et Suburbi Plumbearum Sylloge, "The Lead Tokens of the City of Rome and the Suburbs". Naturally, the presumption has been that this was a catalogue of tokens which were found (or known to be found) in Rome and its surrounds, but close examination of the tokens, and the catalogue itself reveals that this is not necessarily the case.

lead token with ANT and lighthouse
Lead token showing a lighthouse, with ANT on the other side.
22mm, Rostovtzeff 64. (Image from Coin Forums).

Rostovtzeff appears to have created the catalogue by consulting major museum holdings across Europe; many of the tokens illustrated in his plates, for example, are those held in the British Museum. And while some of these tokens may have come from Rome or its suburbs, we cannot presume this was the case, particularly when we know of other findspots. The lead token above, is known from several specimens listed by Rostovtzeff in museums in Rome. But one example was also found in Hadrumetum in North Africa. In fact, reading the Tesserarum Urbis Romae et Suburbi closely reveals the findpots of other tokens, some of which are very far from Rome indeed.

aquileia token
Rostovtzeff no. 509

no. 509: a token with Minerva or Roma on one side and the legend SAT on the other was found at Aquileia (an example is pictured right).

no. 863: a one sided token with what is probably Diana Lucifera and the legend SVB CVRA was found in what was likely a vill context in Frascati.

no. 1193: a token with the legend COR THAL on one side and the Three Graces on the other, was found at Lake Nemi.

no. 3119: a single sided token showing Venus was found at Smyrna.

Other references to Postolacca throughout the catalogue also suggest that some of the tokens included probably originate from Athens. Other tokens, which were found in the Tiber and published by Dressel in 1922, are noted by Rostovtzeff as "in Tiberi reperta" and can be securely associated with the city of Rome. We might then more properly see this catalogue as a list of tokens "from the Roman world".

clare rowan

This month's blog was written by Clare Rowan, an Assistant Professor in the department, and lead investigator of the EU-funded project Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean.


Dressel, H. (1922). Römische Bleimarken. Zeitschrift für Numismatik 33: 178-183.

Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.

December 01, 2016

King Archelaos’ wolf

obol archlaus

Silver Obol 8mm, 0.46 g, 7h
Obverse: Head of Heracles right wearing lion skin.
Reverse: Wolf’s head right, club below, ΑΡ-ΧΕ to upper right.

This minuscule silver coin was struck in Macedonia at all probability in Aigai, the ancient capital city of the Kingdom, late in the 5th century BC. It is an obol, a silver fraction, struck during Archelaus’ reign (413-399 BC). The types of the coin are worthy of careful examination since they shed light to the pursuits and exploits of the Macedonian kings as well as the ideology of their time.

During the 5th century BC the kingdom of Macedonia was slowly emerging from the periphery of the Classical world, gradually transforming into the dominant imperial state built by Alexander the Great. The circumstances that led to the beginnings of coinage in Macedonia and Thrace are hard to reconstruct. The tribes in the area of mount Pangaion and colonies of the city states of Southern Greece first produce coinage sometime late in the sixth century BC, the complex pattern of which presents many riddles to modern-day numismatists. Obviously the rich precious metal resources of the area, especially the mines of Mount Pangaion, played an important role. The tribute inflicted by the Persian king gave the impetus.

pangaion mountain
Mount Pangaion (Wikimedia)

After the retreat of the Persians the king of Macedon, Alexander I, the so-called Philhellene who had cleverly sided with the winners, established his position in the world of the Greek City States. According to Herodotus, Alexander simultaneously proclaimed his Greek and Macedonian connections. He also highlighted his (and his dynasty’s) glorious ancestry from the Temenids. As a result he was granted the right to participate in the Olympic Games (Herodotus 5.22.1-4 and 8.137-139). Thucydides confirms this (2.99.3). A dedicatory inscription to “Heracles of our fathers” (ΗΡΑΚΛΗΙ ΠΑΤΡΩΙΩΙ) found in the tholos of the Palace in Aigai also bears testimony to this legend. But it was only under Archelaus, Alexanders I’s grandson, that Heracles took his place on the obverse of the silver issues, a practice that it would become common for all his successors.

Alexander I’s regal coinage continued the preceding tribal coinages as far as weight, types and denominations were concerned. Major innovations were the use of two different coin standards for the octadrachms and the tetradrachms, and the use of heavy and light tetrobols that belonged to these two distinct weight systems. The obvious reason was the need to ensure interchangeability of the Macedonian regal coinage with the rest of the Greek currencies. The upheavals of Pediccas’ reign (451-413 BC), the son of Alexander I, had an impact on monetary policy. During his reign minting activity was restricted to the issue of heavy and light tetrobols.

It is under Archelaus (413-399 BC) that the Kingdom of Macedon was reorganised and its place in the Greek world consolidated. Roads and fortifications were built, the hoplite infantry was formed and the urban centres of an expanding middle class simultaneously exhibited civic identity, cohesion and loyalty. Artists from the rest of the Greek world, most prominent among them the architect Callimachus, the painter Zeuxis, and the Attic tragic poets Agathon and Euripides, moved to Macedonia and produced their works there, making Macedonia a flourishing centre of letters and the arts. Thucydides praised Archelaus as the king who had accomplished for Macedonia more than his eight predecessors taken together (2.100.2). Regarding his financial policy the weight standard was reduced, possibly due to a shortage from the mines. Bronze series were issued for the first time.

On the depicted obol struck under Archelaus Heracles is shown beardless and youthful. He wears the lion scalp and skin that refer to his first labour: The Nemean lion. Heracles, who is also to be found on the obverse of the staters, is here portrayed as the legendary ancestor of the dynasty. The dynasty of the Argeads claimed ancestry from the Temenids of Argos. Temenus was the great-great grandson of Heracles. Τhree brothers of his lineage moved from Argos to Macedonia and founded their kingdom there (Herodotus 8.137). The word Argeads derives from Argos and it should be remembered that in Homer ‘Argive Danaans’ is the collective designation for the Greeks.

The wolf of the reverse bears also connections to Argos. The wolf is closely related to the local cult of Apollo Lykeios and is deeply rooted in the mythological tradition of the city. A wolf as the badge of the city is carried on the obverse of all Argos’ coin series. A wolf was said to have attacked the herd of grazing oxes before the walls of Argos. The people of Argos thought it was an omen and gave power to Danaus because just like the wolf, Danaus had never before been with the Argeians but prevailed over the leader of the herd, who, just like the current king of Argos Gelanor, had to yield. Danaus erected a temple to Apollon Lykeios and dedicated a cult statue (Pausanias 2.19.3-4). Wolves were offered as sacrificial victims (schol. Soph. El. 6). The wolf though could refer also to the hunting as appropriate activity of the Macedonian king.


This month's coin was chosen and written by Mairi Gkikaki, a Greek archaeologist and a research fellow on the Project Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean. She is particularly interested in the financial and social aspects of Ancient Greek Coinage.


Hatzopoulos, M. B. (2011). Macedonians and other Greeks. In Lane Fox, R. J. (ed.) Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Macedon 650 BC to 300 AD. Leiden; Boston: Brill. 51-78.

Kraay, C. M. (1975) Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. London.

Coin image reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., Mail Bid Sale 84 Lot 217 (

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