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March 01, 2018

The Athenian polis and its 'winged' symbola

In the three centuries between the recovery of Athens after the Peloponnesian War in the 390s and Sullan Sack in 86 BC the polis (city) was regularly minting symbola – the Greek word for tokens – for a variety of purposes. The images these tokens carry shed light on the fabric of Athenian civic life. These devices, dissimilar to the usual repertoire of the small-scale works of art, are peculiar to the polis ideology. Since they are lacking clarifying inscriptions and because they were discontinued in the Imperial Period, their meaning today is even more cryptic.

The roles the Athenian symbola played were very much linked to aspects of polis institutions, and the messages of these tokens were shared by members of a ‘single community of interpretation’. Inspiration was derived from the world of nature and three creatures deserve our attention here: the cicada, the wasp and the locust.

token with cicada
Athenian token showing a cicada.

The cicada (Postolacca 1868, 415, which is pictured left) refers to the much celebrated ‘autochthony’: the Athenians were proud that they had always inhabited the same land, and were ‘born out of the land’ (gēgeneis), just like the cicada (Plato, Symposium, 191C). The myth behind the notion was derived from observations of the cicada’s life cycle: the nymphē remained underground until the fully-grown cicadas emerged from the earth. Cicadas were proudly worn by the famed generation of Marathon-fighters (Thucydides 1.6.3) and the cicada was considered a particular sign of patriotism, going as far as to function as a conscious tribute to past generations. Expressions of political conservatism cannot be not excluded if Aristophanes’ brief mentions of the insect are taken into consideration (Equites 1331; Nubes 984).

Beyond this the cicada is inseparable from music. Its song inspired the Greek spirit, who acknowledged that the cicadas had a divine substance. This charming singer was called the ‘nightingale of the muses’, ‘the soothsayer of the Muses’, and a ‘musician like Apollo’. Plato in Phaedrus narrates that cicadas were originally men, who were carried away by the music of the chorus and the flute: ‘they were so struck by the pleasure of it that they sang and sang, forgot to eat and drink and died before they knew it’ and were reborn as cicadas (259b-c). This passion for music makes the cicada the archetype of the polis; a particular lifestyle defined by openness to the word and deriving from trust to the native spirit of its citizens along with liberality and self-determination in private affairs, as it is exhorted in Pericles’ Epitaph (Thucydides 2.39). It cannot escape us that this very passion stands at the roots of the dual principle of ‘gymnastikē for the body, mousikē for the soul’ (Plato, Res Publica, 376C) with mousikē meaning not just education, but a particular form of socialization, indispensable for the formation and functioning of the polis. The cicada, then, becomes Athena’s companion (Anthologia Palatina 6.120.7-8).

as-pb-010.jpg token showing a locust
Athenian token showing a wasp. Athenian token showing a locust.

If the cicada embodies inherent values of Athenian citizenship, the wasp, also encountered on symbola (University Museum Göttingen AS-Pb-010, 10mm, previously unpublished and shown above), demands an even more challenging approach, especially when considering the apparently harmful nature of the creature. Again here consultation of written sources is indispensable. The wasp stands for anger in Athenian politics, anger resulting from fundamental conflicts in the public forums of debate, which included the Assembly, the Council, and the People’s Courts. Especially through the latter the rebellious anger of the citizen is carefully channelled and finds entrance into the public sphere. As a result the extravagances of elite struggles are tempered and democratic citizenship and the resulting qualification to rule is processed. The litigious wasps ‘have stingers extremely sharp, sticking out from their rumps, that they stab with, and they leap and attack, crackling like sparks’ (Aristophanes, Wasps, 223-27).

A radically different message is conveyed by the locust’s presence on Athenian symbola (shown above, University Museum Göttingen AS-Pb-107, 18 mm, previously unpublished). Given the polis’ constant preoccupation for the safety of the harvest at home on one hand and for ensuring adequate sources of grain from abroad on the other, the locust shouldn’t surprise us. In Hellenistic Athens the loss of the harvest and famine wouldn’t have been the outcome of locust swarms alone, but an event that could also result from long periods of warfare and the ensuing pillaging of the countryside. So it was in the mid-290s BC that the Hellenistic general Demetrius Poliorketes’ 150,000 bushels of grain provided much desired relief after lengthy siege (Plutarch, Demetrius, 34.4). The destructive agent on these symbola, which probably could have been exchanged for wheat, would have signified that the threat had passed and could even have had an apotropaic function.

Sincere thanks are due to Dr. Daniel Graepler, curator of the University Museum Göttingen.

The images were digitally remastered by Matthias Demel.


This month's coin of the month was written by Mairi Gkikaki as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.


Bodson, L. (1978). HIERA ZOIA. Contribution a la place de l’animal dans la religion grecque ancienne. Academie Royale de Belgique. Mémoires de la Classe des Lettres LXIII,2: 9-43.

Habicht, Chr. (1997). Athens from Alexander to Antony. Harvard University Press.

Hoffmann, H. (1997). Sotades. Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mabel, L. and Crosby, M. (1964). Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora results of the excavations conducted by the American School of Classical Studies, Volume X: 72-146, pls. 19-32.

Ober, J. (1989). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Rhetoric, Ideology and the power of the people. Princeton University Press: 141-148.

Ober, J. (1998), Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Princeton University Press: 46-47.

Oliver, J.G. (2007). War, Food and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens. Oxford University Press.

Postolacca, A. (1868). Piombi Inediti del Nazionale Museo Numismatico di Atene, Annali dell’ Instituto XL: 268-316 with pl. K; pl. Monumenti Inediti VIII, pl. LII.

Zumbrunnen, J. (2012). Aristophanic Comedy and the Challenge of Democratic Citizenship. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer: 60-80.

January 01, 2018

The Animal Tokens of Rome

Token are coin-like objects, often made of lead, and interestingly, many examples have been found depicting animals of various species, from lions and elephants, to domestic animals such as horses. Often these items pertain to events organised for entertainment, such as chariot races, hunting, and finally the games themselves, and from studying other depictions of these same animals in Roman art, it becomes clear they may have had a use in these environments.

oil lamp charioteer token
An oil lamp showing an image of a
A token from the Ashmolean museum
depicting a charioteer.

wax seal
A wax seal, from the British Museum,
depicting a horse and palm branch.

Chariot racing was perhaps the most popular sport in the Roman world, as can be seen when Lucian recounts that the “craze for horses is really great, you know, and men with a name for earnestness have caught it in great numbers” (Nigrinus, 29). In Rome, the event was held in the Circus Maximus, which could seat up to 150,000 people, and thus at any given time contain a sixth of the population. Horses feature commonly on tokens in many guises, such showing their domestic function of carrying heavy objects, but also, as seen above, in a more competitive atmosphere of the races. Since such imagery is seen elsewhere, such as an oil lamp, it clearly indicates tokens had a role within the stadia, possibly as entrance tickets for the races. Moreover, some tokens depict horses alongside palm branches. These branches are a symbol of victory, and the very same imagery can be seen on a wax seal from the 1-2nd century AD, also in relation to chariot racing. Thus it could also be suggested that tokens could commemorate a successful day at the races, or have a role in betting. Like today, the Romans would bet on horses, since chariot races involved four different teams, each with their own groups of supporters.

Furthermore, there is also a suggestion that tokens could have had a role in hunting. Hunting had been important in Roman society for centuries, starting as a way to catch food, but later developing into an elite hobby, intended to both train young men for military action, and improve their morality. Some aristocrats had game parks, and there are scenes of the hunt depicted in mosaics, to decorate the domestic space. This indicates how the sport was a popular pastime, and even a status symbol. Some images on tokens are very similar to this mosaic, showing a hunter closing in on a boar, holding his spear aloft. Perhaps therefore, tokens were invites to a hunt, or a commemorative item. This particular image however, could also have come from the games, as boars were hunted both privately, and as part of the entertainment provided in the amphitheatre.

mosaic 1 mosaic 2
Two scenes from a mosaic which depicts a wild hunt.

Additionally, the games are perhaps one of the most famous aspects of the Roman world for the modern reader, and their importance can be seen in the way Juvenal suggests all the Roman people wanted was “bread and circuses” (Satires, 10). Alongside the famous gladiators, animal shows, called venationes, were commonly held. During these events, great effort was made to make the colosseum appear like a hunting ground, including the use of scenery, and many animals are recorded as being used, such as big cats, elephants, bears, and herbivores such as boar, deer, and more exotically, zebras. These unfortunate creatures were transported from the conquered provinces, as symbols of Roman superiority over nature, and their empire. Importantly, all these animals can be seen on tokens. Although many tokens are unclear because of the damage they have incurred over the centuries, lions and elephants are instantly recognisable because of their manes and tusks respectively. Elephants were important symbols during the games, and were even depicted coinage. Their size and strength made them signs of the emperor’s might and generosity, thus they became a representation of the games as a whole. Furthermore, lions were commonly used both in the games and images across the Roman world, such as mosaics, where they are seen as vicious, and fearful creatures, who would have been impressive in the amphitheatre. Both these animals therefore hint at the role tokens could have had in the games, again perhaps as a commemorative item.

coin showing colosseum mosaic from pompeii
A Roman coin featuring an elephant fighting a big cat in the amphitheatre.
A mosaic from Pompeii depicting a lion.

Perhaps the most illuminating piece of information about the use of tokens in relation to the games comes from literature. Martial tells us “now a large number of tessera allots animals which were watched…now a bird rejoices to fall into a safe lap and is assigned owners by lottery in its absence, to save it from being ripped apart” (Epigrams, 8.78.7-12). This seems to suggest that the meat of the animals would have been distributed to the crowds after the shows, using the tessera, the Latin word for tokens, for ease. Indeed there is no evidence of storage space, or the burial of the dead animals in the colosseum, and while this is disgusting to the modern reader, this practice would have provided a way to both please the populous, and deal with waste. This therefore seems like their most likely use, especially since some tokens do depict birds, as mentioned in the extract.

There are certainly many different examples of animal tokens, and many different possible uses for them, including both practical and commemorative functions. They show how tokens could be closely connected to the world of entertainment, as well as the variety of animals in Roman society.

rebecca rolfe

This month's piece was written by Rebecca Rolfe, a Classical Civilisation with Study in Europe student currently on her year abroad in Italy. She is interested in the importance of iconography in Roman artwork, and the symbolism of images on Roman coins. Over the summer of 2017 Becky conducted research on the animal tokens of Rome with the support of Warwick's Undergraduate Research Support Scheme. As part of her research she translated a segment of Rostovtzeff's Latin catalogue of Roman tokens related to spectacles into English. If you want to learn more about these tokens, the translation is available here!


Anderson, John Kinloch (1985), Hunting in the Ancient World (Berkley, University of California Press).

Bell, Sinclair and Willekes, Carolyn (2014) ‘Horse Racing and Chariot Racing’, in The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, ed Gordon Lindsay Campbell (Oxford, Oxford University Press) 478-491.

Harrison, George (2001), ‘Martial on Sportula and the Saturnalia’, in Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada, Vol 1, No. 3, pages 295-312.

Jennison, George (1937), Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome (Manchester, University of Manchester Press).

Kyle, Donald (2007), Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Oxford, Blackwell).

MacKinnon, Michael (2014) ‘Hunting’, in The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, ed Gordon Lindsay Campbell (Oxford,Oxford University Press) 203-216.

Meijer, Fik (2010), Chariot Racing in the Roman Empire (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press).

Scullard, Howard Hayes (1974), The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (London, Thames and Hudson).

Shelton, Jo-Ann (2014) ‘Spectacles of Animal Abuse’, in The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, ed Gordon Lindsay Campbell (Oxford, Oxford University Press) 461-478.

Toynbee, Jocelyn (1973), Animals in Roman Life and Art (London, Thames and Hudson).

December 20, 2017

Charon's obol and the brass tokens of Lepcis Magna

token_cohen_kantharus token_cohen_modius

Brass token in the Ashmolean Museum. A kantharus is shown on one side and a modius with three grain-ears emerging out the top on the other. (Cohen VIII p. 272 no. 55)

Amongst the Roman tokens issued in brass (orichalcum) is a series that displays a kantharus (drinking cup) on one side and a modius (a container for wheat or corn) on the other (Cohen VIII p. 272 no. 55). Brass or orichalcum was a metal also used to make Roman imperial coinage, and the use of the metal here, alongside the high quality of the design, suggests that perhaps this series of tokens was made at the Roman mint at the request of an individual or group.

Although we don’t know the precise function this token was made for, we do possess some remarkable information about some of their later lives. During archaeological survey work by Roma Tre University around the North African city of Lepcis Magna FOUR of these tokens were found in tombs surrounding the city, between Lepcis and Khoms. Only this type of token, no other token types, were discovered.


Google Map showing Lepcis Magna and Khoms.

One token was found in a disturbed hypogeum tomb near Gasr Gelda; the other contents of the tomb suggest the structure was used from the Flavian period until the mid second century AD. A second token was found in another hypogeum west of Wadi er-Rsaf, again dated to the second century AD on the basis of other finds (mainly ceramics). The token in this tomb was found in a coffin-shaped urn with faint red letters that named the deceased as Tiberius Claudius Orfitus. The bones in the urn were those of an adult male; the Tiberii Claudii were a family of elevated social rank in the city of Lepcis Magna in the first and second centuries AD. Two additional tokens with the kantharus and modius design were found in hypogeum tombs in Khoms, also in use between the Flavian period and second century AD (mention is also made of a fifth token of this type).

It is extraordinary that so many brass tokens of the same type should be found around the city of Lepcis Magna; this type of object is a relatively rare archaeological find in the Mediterranean. It suggests that at some point in the second century AD a series of these particular tokens arrived in the city, perhaps brought back by merchants or contained in a shipment of small change. These tokens, being the same metal and the same size as Roman coins, may have come to circulate as small change after their initial use. Amongst the coin finds from the tombs were anonymous quadrantes (the smallest coin denomination) and here too there were multiple finds of the same type (e.g. four examples of RIC II 19, with the helmeted head of Mars on the obverse and a cuirass with the letters S C on the reverse). This suggests that there was a shipment of small change to the town, which may have included these brass tokens. Whatever their original use, these tokens, looking and feeling like coinage, were pressed into service to ensure the liquidity of the Roman economy.

In the Greek and Roman worlds one needed to be buried with a coin in order to pay the ferryman to cross into the underworld, and the coin buried with the deceased was called “Charon’s obol”. This is why many burials from the Greek and Roman worlds contain one coin (or coin like object); some even contain more than one! The tokens found in these tombs thus acquired a third use - to cross into the underworld. They were likely chosen because they were a small denomination; they may have also been selected for this use because they looked slightly different from other coins, but this is much more speculative.

These contexts are important in that they suggest a date for this type of token - they were likely created towards the end of the first century AD, or in the first half of the second century.

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


Di Vita-Evrard, G., L. Musso, F. Mallegni and S. Fontana (1996). L'ipogeo dei Flavi a Leptis Magna presso Gasr Gelda. Libya Antiqua 2: 85-134.

Di Vita-Evrard, G., S. Fontana and M. Munzi (1997). Le necropoli di Leptis Magna III. Une tombe hypogée de la nécropole occidentale: Laurentii ou Claudii? Libya Antiqua 3: 119-138.

Munzi, M. (1997). Quadranti anonimi e tessere monetali dalle tombe di Leptis Magna. Annotazione Numismatische 26: 589-593.

December 01, 2017

A stater of Stymphalos

stater stymphalos
A stater of Stymphalos, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obverse: Head of Artemis (?) with laurel wreath.

Reverse: Nude Herakles; ΣΤΥΜΦΑΛΙΩΝ upwards on left, ΣΟ beneath.

Dated mid fourth century BC, diameter 25mm, weight: 11.75g.

Stymphalos was located near the present-day town of Stymfalia, in a mountain valley in north-west Arcadia. In Greek literature, it is famous as the site of the sixth Labour of Herakles – in which he battled the carnivorous Stymphalian birds. The site was first excavated by Anastasios Orlandos during the 1920s. More recently, excavations by the University of British Columbia (led by Prof. Hector Williams) took place between 1994 and 2001. Amongst the finds were a large quantity of coins – 492 in total – yet of this figure, only five of the coins found were minted in Stymphalos itself.

This coin is a silver stater, minted in the mid fourth century BC. On the obverse, we see a bust of a female deity, crowned with a laurel wreath. This has previously been identified as Artemis, due to the archaeological material pertaining to a female goddess at the acropolis sanctuary at Stymphalos. Archaic figurines found in the excavation are seen holding a small animal in one hand – thought to be a hare – an animal often depicted with Artemis. In addition, references attesting the worship of the ‘Braurion Artemis’ at Stymphalos support the view of there being a sanctuary to the goddess. However, votive offerings found at the sanctuary allude to dedications to Eileithyia, and we know from Pausanias that she was worshipped in the region. Coins at Argos have also been found bearing the portrait of Eileithyia, and so it is not unreasonable to suggest that the deity depicted here could be either Eileithyia or Artemis.

The reverse displays a portrait of Herakles in action: with one hand raised, holding a club, and the other with bow and arrow, with the inscription ‘ΣΤΥΜΦΑΛΙΩΝ’ on the left-hand side. The lionskin that he is usually depicted wearing as a headpiece is instead flung around his left arm. This depiction of Herakles differs from other coins minted at Stymphalos (one is pictured below), where he is shown in portrait style, with an image of a Stymphalian bird in profile on the reverse. It would be safe to presume in this instance, that the two images: Herakles and the Stymphalian bird, have been combined in an active portrait showing Herakles in the midst of battle in his sixth labour.

obol of stymphalos
Silver obol of Stymphalos, c. 350 BC, 12mm, 0.95g.

From Xenophon, we know that citizens of Stymphalos were employed as mercenaries at the end of the fifth century and throughout the fourth century BC. This would account for the presence of foreign coinage at Stymphalos, and would perhaps indicate why so little of the city’s own coinage was in circulation – perhaps it was being carried and traded at other cities across Greece. Coins from neighbouring city mints such as Phlious were found at Stymphalos in larger quantities than the local mint, suggesting that Stymphalos only minted currency when necessary, such as in recovery after an attack. Xenophon dates the attack of Iphikrates to 391 BC, but Schaus gives reason for suggesting that if the attack took place, it more likely would have occurred in 370-369 BC. If we take Schaus’ suggestion, then the timing of the attack would seem a reasonable catalyst for the minting of this coin and other from the mid fourth century BC.

Stymphalos was neighboured by Argos, Corinth and Sikyon within a 30 mile radius, and their prominence overshadowed the city. This coin demonstrates a strong regional identity, with mythology interwoven as part of the historical fabric of the city. Distribution outside the city at the hands of mercenaries allows the iconography of this coin to re-establish Stymphalos’ significance in the mythological history of Greece.

alice clinch

This month's entry was written by Alice Clinch, a Masters student in the department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. She has worked on fieldwork projects in Greece and Sicily, and is particularly interested in constructed sacred space and ritual activity in cults.


Imhoof-Blumer, F. and Gardner, P. (1885). Numismatic Commentary on Pausanias. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 50-101.

Robinson, E. (1901). Report of the Curator of Classical Antiquities. Annual Report for the Year ... (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), 28-72.

Schaus, G. P. (2014). Stymphalos: Ancient Sources and Early Travellers. In G.-L. e. al., & G. P. Schaus (Ed.), Stymphalos, Volume One: The Acropolis Sanctuary (pp. 6-11). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sturgeon, M. (2014). Sculpture. In Garvie-Lok. et. al., & G. P. Schaus (Ed.), Stymphalos, Volume One: The Acropolis Sanctuary (pp. 36-55). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Weir, R. (2007). The Stymphalos Hoard of 1999 and the City's Defenses. American Journal of Numismatics, 9-32.

November 01, 2017

Two Sides of a Coin: Slavery and Religion in the First Servile War

eunus coin

Coin of Eunus (King Antiochus). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Obverse: Head of Demeter right, veiled with grain-wreath.

Reverse: Ear of grain; ΒΑΣΙ(λέως) upwards on left, ΑΝΤΙΟ(χου) downwards on right.

The late Republic was rocked by three major slave revolts which were unique in their size and extent. The first, and largest, was the First Servile War from c.135 to 132 BC. The extent was such that rebel slaves began to mint coinage and a large portion of eastern and central Sicily was under their control including Enna, Tauromenium, Agrigentum, and possibly Morgantina, Catana, and Syracuse. However, it was a doomed effort and the revolt was finally put down 132 BC as the last cities, Enna and Tauromenium were captured by the consul Publius Rupilius.

robinson 1920
Robinson 1920, 175

The revolt began when the slave Eunus led a band of slaves and captured the city of Enna. This city was famous and renowned in antiquity for its cult of Demeter. Cicero stated the people seemed, “not to be citizens of that city, but to be all priests, to be all ministers and officers of Ceres” and when going to the city’s temple one was “going not to a temple of Ceres, but to Ceres herself” (Cicero, Against Verres 2.4.108, 2.4.111). Eunus was then crowned King Antiochus at Enna and minted four issues of coins. These coins are exceptionally rare and only 18 specimens are known. The rarity combined with a poor state of conservation has left the imagery on three of the coins uncertain but local gods and religious imagery are among the possibilities. These coins also included the legend Basileus Antiochou ([coin] of King Antiochus) which advertised Eunus’ newly assumed name and title as well as his legitimacy as King. This month’s coin (with a drawing of the type reproduced here) is the only of these four issues to bear imagery which has been identified with certainty. It depicts Demeter, the goddess of Antiochus’ capital Enna on the obverse with an ear of grain, a symbol associated with the goddess, on the reverse.

The literary sources on Antiochus’ revolt are universally hostile and interpret the role of religion in the revolt differently than what is suggested through the coinage. Instead of Demeter or any of the other local gods which may have been depicted on his coinage, the literary sources emphasize Eunus’ status as a charlatan, a magician, and a follower of the foreign goddess Atargatis which manipulated and deceived his fellow rebels. This served to not only dissociate the revolt from Demeter, the goddess of Enna who was also revered and respected by the Romans, but also to support an account filled with negative slave stereotypes.

Gordon stated, “slave was synonymous with gullible in the Roman mind” [Gordon 1999, 194]. Roman slave owners were specifically warned against allowing slaves to consult fortune tellers, prophets, diviners, and astrologers “who incite ignorant minds through false superstition to spending and then to villanies (flagitia)” (Cato, On Agriculture 5.4).

Antiochus is depicted as exactly the type of fortune teller, prophet, and diviner that Roman slave owners had been warned about.

There was a certain Syrian slave (King Antiochus)… and [he] had an aptitude for magic and the working of wonders. He claimed to foretell the future, by divine command, through dreams, and because of his talent along these lines deceived many. Going on from there he not only gave oracles by means of dreams, but even made a pretense of having waking visions of the gods and of hearing the future from their own lips. Of his many improvisations some by chance turned out true, and since those which failed to do so were left unchallenged, while those that were fulfilled attracted attention, his reputation advanced apace. Finally, through some device, and while in a state of divine possession, he would produce fire and flame from his mouth, and thus rave oracularly about things to come. (Diodorus Siculus 34/35.2.5-9).

Coinage helps to provide a voice for those who do not have their own. The slaves of the revolt have only their coinage to provide their side of the story. This coinage directly contradicts the stereotyped accounts in the literary history and instead depicts a king who represented himself not with a foreign goddess Atargatis but instead with Demeter and traditional iconography.

james currie

This month's coin of the month was written by James Currie. James is a PhD candidate in the department, researching The Transformation of the Sacred Landscape of Republican and Early Imperial Sicily. His research aims to better understand the province of Sicily’s transition from the Republican to early Imperial period through the sacred landscape by investigating the transformation and continuity of “public” religion through the temples and sanctuaries. It also seeks to better understand the province’s political and social changes and how these were both impacted by and influenced the sacred landscape.


Bradley, K. 1989. Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World 140 BC-70 BC. London: Batsford.

Dickie, M. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge.

David, E. 2011, "Ein syrisches Sizilien? Seleukidische Aspekte des Ersten Sizilischen Sklavenkriegs und der Herrschaft des Eunus-Antiochos." Polifemo 11: 233–251.

Gordon, R. 1999. "Imagining Greek and Roman Magic". in Ankarloo, B. and Clark, S. (eds) Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. 159-275. London.

Hinz, V. 1998. Der Kult von Demeter und Kore auf Sizilien und der Magna Graecia. Wiesbaden.

Manganaro, G. 1982. “Monete e ghiande inscritte degli schiavi ribelli in Sicilia”. Chiron. 12: 237-244.

Manganaro, G. 1983. “Ancora sulle rivolte servili in Sicilia.” Chiron. 13: 405-409.

Manganaro, G. 1990. "Due studi di numismatica greca". Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia 20: 409-27.

McKeown, N. 2012. "Magic, Religion, and the Roman Slave: Resistance, Control and Community". in Hodkinson, S. and Geary, D. (eds) Slaves and Religions in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and Modern Brazil. 279-308. Cambridge.

Morton, P. 2013. “Eunus: The Cowardly King”. Classical Quarterly: 63: 237-252.

Robinson, E.S.G. 1920. “Antiochus, King of Slaves” Numismatic Chronicle 4.20: 175-6.

Sánchez León, M.L. “La amonedación del basileus Antíoco en Sicilia: (Siglo II AC.)” in Chaves Tristán, F and García Fernández, F.J. (eds) Moneta qua scripta: la moneda como soporte de escritura: actas del III Encuentro peninsular de numísmatica antigua, Osuna (Sevilla), Febrero-Marzo 2003. 223-8. Sevilla.

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. https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/383971 (YORYM-AF42B3) https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/100215 (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) (www.cngcoins.com)

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

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 (https://www.cngcoins.com)

November 01, 2016

Reunifying the empire: Aurelius and Sol Invictus.

Antoninianus. RIC V 64
Obverse: IMP AVRELIANVS AVG. Radiate and cuirassed bust of Aurelian facing right.
Reverse: ORIENS AVG. Sol Invictus holding laurel-branch and bow, treading on fallen enemy.
Γ (mintmark) behind Sol, XXIR in exergue.

This is an antoninianus (a denomination theoretically worth 2 denarii) of Aurelian, who was emperor of the Roman Empire AD 270-275. It is worthy of study because of the sheer amount of information we can draw, in terms of military, economic and religious history, from this one type of coin.

We see that Aurelian wishes to be seen as a military figure; this is conveyed through his depiction on the obverse in armour and on the reverse the depiction of Sol treading down on an enemy. To properly understand the meaning of this imagery we have to consider the state of the empire as Aurelian comes to power. The empire has fragmented with Queen Zenobia ruling in the east out of Palmyra and Tetricus declared emperor in the West as part of the Gallic Empire (see map below). In AD 272 Queen Zenobia, who was in control of Egypt, cut off the grain supply to Rome. Aurelian responded by taking his army east and defeating her, regaining control over the eastern portion of the empire. In AD 273 he gained the title Restitutor Orientis (Restorer of the East) which he placed on his coinage (RIC V 140). In 274 after returning to Rome, Aurelian marched West, defeating Tetricus at the Battle of Chalons, reunifying the empire and gaining the title Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World). This coin type has a date range of AD 270-275. At the beginning of his rule, imagery of victory might have been associated by the average Roman citizen with Aurelian’s victory against the barbarians at Alemanni in northern Italy. In AD 275 this type of imagery might have been interpreted as representative of the victories that had reunified the empire (Zosimus 1.25). In this case the legend on the coin, ORIENS AVG, refers to the east, and suggests that the intended message was Aurelian’s successes in this region.

Map of the Roman World in AD 271
8 August 2007 (UTC) -

The economic history this coin reveals is also interesting. The radiate crown on Aurelian’s head is there to indicate that this is an antoninianus rather than a denarius. This denomination was introduced in AD 215 to combat a lack of silver. Its introduction may have helped generate the rampant inflation that led to the silver purity of the antoninianus crashing to just 3.79% by AD 270. This specific coin is an example of what followed: Aurelian reformed the coinage, motivated by a desire to restore some confidence in the currency and to curb inflation. We know this because the legend in the exergue of this coin reads ‘XXI’. This was a guarantee that 20 of these coins could be exchanged for one argenteus of pure silver (20:1, XX:I). The coins were promised to have 5% silver, although if we actually drilled into the coin we would probably only find a purity of 4.1%, due to surface leeching of silver over the years. Another part of Aurelian’s coinage reform was increasing the physical weight of the coinage; before the reform between 86-98 coins were made from each pound of billion (debased silver), following the reform this was lowered to a range of 81-90, giving a theoretical weight to each coin of 4.03g.

The religious history we can gain from this coin is the changed role of Sol in this period. No longer is he merely pictured in his traditional form with the whip or globe standing emollient. Now he appears with a traditional whip but also a bow, treading down the enemy, invoking the new cult of Sol Invictus in action, even if the legend is limited to ORIENS AVG (Rising (Sun) of the emperor). Coins were also produced with the legend SOLI INVICTO (Sol the Unconquerable) (RIC V 154). This represents a change in this period in the Rome pantheon, with the rise of Sol Invictus to a position of prominence. Aurelian’s victories are associated with Sol rather than Jupiter. There is scholarly debate over the exact nature of this cult, with the traditional view being Aurelian imported an eastern deity, but recent scholarship has challenged this, suggesting that the cult may have developed out of the traditional Graeco-Roman god Sol. The additional evidence for Sol Invictus taking greater prominence is Aurelian’s new temple built to Sol Invictus in Rome and the setting up of a new priestly college, pontifices dei solis. A final thought on the influence of Sol Invictus on our world today is his holy day, dies Invictus Natalis. This was placed on the 25th December and while it was an important day anyway within the Roman calendar, being the winter solstice, one is left to wonder whether the particular rise in the importance of that date due to Sol Invictus influenced early Christians in their decision to adopt this date as the birth date of Christ.


This month's coin was written by William Tait, Third year undergraduate in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology with a particular interest in the 3rd century AD and how coinage can improve our understanding of this period.'


Drinkwater, J.F. (1987), The Gallic Empire: Separatism and continuity in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart.

Halsberghe, G. (1972), The cult of Sol Invictus, Leiden: Brill.

Hijmans, S. E. (1996), The Sun which did not rise in the East; the Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of Non-Literary Evidence. Babesch 71: 115-150.

Southern, P. (2015) The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, Routledge, London.

Watson, A. (1999), Aurelian and Third Century, Routledge, London and New York.

Zosimus, New History, trans. T. Chaplin & W. Green (London: Green and Chaplin 1814)

Coin image reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Auction 88, lot 1399) (www.cngcoins.com)

October 26, 2016

Anubis Tokens and the Festival of Isis in Late Antique Rome

As part of the Token Communities project I have been examining the Roman lead tokens housed in the British Museum. Amongst the tokens are several that show the Egyptian goddesses Isis and Anubis. One example of these type of tokens is shown below: one side of the token shows Isis with a sistrum (a type of musical instrument associated with the goddess) and what may be a situla (a type of bucket). The legend on the left reads ACICI. The other side of the token shows the dog-headed god Anubis with a branch and a rather stylised sistrum.

Lead token with Isis on one side and Anubus on the other.

The designs reminded me of the Isis coins of late antiquity, which are gathered together in Alföldi's 1937 book A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century. Alföldi observed that even as late as the fourth century AD coins were being struck in Rome with the imperial portrait on one side and the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapis on the other. Another series, which Alföldi called the 'anonymous' series, was also struck in the city. These had Isis or Sarapis on the obverse and various Egyptian motifs on the reverse: they did not name or show an emperor (an example is shown below). Alfödi suggested that this 'anonymous' series was created in the official mint after AD 378-9, the date at which coins showing the imperial portrait in association with Egyptian deities ceased. Alföldi believed that although the increasingly Christian emperors could no longer be associated with Isis or Sarapis, the (pagan) senatorial elite in Rome continued to produce coin-like objects for the festival of Isis, which could be given to their clients. Without the imperial portrait, these pieces weren't officially currency, Alföldi suggested, but instead were gifts given by select senators to their clients (and these pieces, in turn, may have later been used as playing pieces or small change).

anubis coin
'Anonymous' issue with the portrait of Isis and figure of Anubis.

On the anonymous series Anubis carries a sistrum and (stylised) caduceus, and is accompanied by the legend VOTA PVBLICA. This legend is also found on the coins struck with the imperial portrait, and probably references the fact that the festival of Isis in Rome was often connected with vows for the health and safety of the emperor. There are stylistic similarities, particularly with the sistrum held by Anubis, between the coins and the tokens. This, and the unusual appearance of Anubis at all, leaves me to wonder whether the lead tokens are not also from the same time period, and connected to the same, or a similar festival for Isis. If the elite were already creating 'anonymous' coin-like objects for use in the festival, perhaps the lead tokens with Anubis were a complementary or later development. While the Anubis British Museum tokens don't have any find data associated with them, they were catalogued by Rostovtzeff in his catalogue of tokens from Rome and the suburbs (Tesserarum Urbis Romae et Suburbi Plumbearum Sylloge no. 3190), and similar tokens were mentioned by Ficorini in his 1740 work. Specimens are also held in the Museo Nazionale in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome and in the Vatican, suggesting that maybe these are tokens that come from Rome, despite their Egyptian motifs. Other lead tokens also show strikingly similar imagery to the late antique coins associated with the festival.

Until further data is found this is just an idea, but perhaps we should add these tokens into the discussions of the yearly festival of Isis in late antique Rome.

This blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities project.

Anonymous series coin image reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 92 Part 1, lot 772.

October 04, 2016

A Controversial Coronation: Herod and Agrippa I ‘Crown’ the Emperor Claudius

Rulers whose legitimacy had been conferred upon them by the emperor, known as ‘client kings,’ occupied a unique position within the fractious constellation of warlords, high priests, dynasts and tribes that lay beyond the Roman Empire. For client kings, an association with the emperor to whom their title was owed formed an inalienable central tenant of their political identity. Many reflected this intersection between royal legitimacy and Roman imperialism through the production of coins that bore imperial portraits and iconography alongside images of local and dynastic significance.

rpc 679
24mm Bronze coin struck by Agrippa I (Judea), c. AD 42/43

One issue, a 24mm bronze piece (RPC 1 679) shown above, was struck by the Judean client king Agrippa I at the mint in Caesarea Maritima between AD 42/43, and countermarked by imperial forces during the Jewish revolt of AD 66 (GIC 156). It is an extraordinary coin, whose obverse side contains the unusual and seemingly seditious image of the client kings Agrippa I and Herod of Chalchis crowning the emperor Claudius with laurel wreaths, but whose reverse side received a countermark in the shape of an imperial head from the Roman administration marking it as currency for Roman legions during the first Judean Revolt. Together, obverse image and countermark present a twenty-year narrative of Judean client kingship, which illuminates how the Herodian client kings defined their power and position in the empire from AD 42 until AD 66 (Kropp 2013: 378).

Agrippa I had received the kingdoms of Judea and Samaria, and the confirmation of land granted by his childhood friend Caligula, during an audience with the emperor Claudius in AD 42 (AJ. 18.237; 19.274). The agreement was a great success for Agrippa, who returned to Caesarea as the king of territories that surpassed those of every other Herodian king (Kropp 2013: 378). The enormity of the grant was a testament to Agrippa’s personal relationship with members of the Julio-Claudian family, which had began when Agrippa was sent to live at the palace at the age of six and became a close friend of the emperor Gaius. Agrippa had also been present during Gaius’ assassination, and afterwards helped Claudius to overcome a hostile senate and secure his succession to the throne (BJ. 2.206-17; Dio. 60.8.2). This bronze piece was produced in the same year at Caesarea to commemorate the ratification of the foedus (treaty) that formally conferred Agrippa’s new kingdom. An excerpt from the agreement, ‘Sworn treaty of the great king Agrippa to Caesar Augustus, the Senate and the Roman people, his friendship and alliance,’ appeared in two concentric circles of Greek text upon the reverse side, which wrap around an image of two clasped hands. This was a very Roman coin type, which had been used to signify concord and agreement on Roman coins since the first century BC, and it was a particularly appropriate illustration for the treaty concluded between Rome and the Judean king who would place imperial imagery upon his royal coinage with frequency throughout his reign (Burnett 1987: 27-28; Kropp 2013: 386).

The obverse side depicts the emperor Claudius, standing with his toga drawn above his head and a sacrificial patera in hand, flanked by Agrippa I and his cousin Herod of Chalkis, who crown him with laurel wreaths. In isolation, this image might be interpreted as a conventional scene of imperial glorification, in which the client kings take the place of the winged victories who crowned the emperor in imperial iconography, or the slave who stood behind the emperor to hold a laurel wreath above his head during the triumphal parade. This interpretation of the coin type would render it a highly unusual, but largely flattering, image of two client-kings heaping honours upon the Roman emperor to whom they owed their power.

When placed alongside the wording of a treaty conferring territories upon a client king, however, the image takes on a controversial subtext. This image of one ruler crowning another was uncomfortably similar to the act of crowning a client king that occurred in the Roman forum upon the successful conclusion of negotiations with the emperor (Kropp 2013: 387). As such, the coin-type could be interpreted as two client kings presenting themselves as the political forces behind the emperor’s position, rather than subordinate supporters of Roman power. It might even be construed as an allusion to the circumstances of Claudius’ succession, which literary evidence tells us was secured by Agrippa’s act of persuading the Praetorian Guard to choose Claudius as the next emperor during the bloodbath of Gaius’ assassination.

Agrippa would have been exposed to imperial imagery from an early age as a guest of the emperor in Rome, and this makes it very likely that he had an awareness of numismatic iconography and its political subtexts. This is confirmed by the fact that Agrippa produced royal issues copying the imperial coin types struck under Gaius for use by his subjects in Judea (Burnett 2014: 178). Further, representations of the ceremonial coronation of client kings had already appeared upon silver didrachms produced in the provincial mint at Caesarea during Caligula’s reign, which showed the emperor’s father Germanicus placing a crown upon the head of the Armenian king Artaxias (RPC 1 3629, shown below; discussion in Kropp 2013: 387). This was a ‘model’ coronation image, which maintained the status quo between imperial representative and foreign monarch by ensuring that Germanicus was taller than the client king he was crowning, and by the fact that Germanicus was very clearly placing a crown upon the king’s head.

rpc 3629
Silver didrachm showing Germanicus crowning Artaxias

sebasteion relief claudius
Sebasteion relief

By contrast, the coin struck by Agrippa does not observe these conventions- he, Herod and Claudius are of an equal height and stand alongside, rather than behind, the emperor, who wears ceremonial clothing in contrast to the fillets and cuirasses worn by the Herodian kings. The distinction between these images is marked, and as an image in which ‘crowner’ and ‘crowned’ appear to be reversed it has more in common with another controversial crowning scene, the image of Agrippina the Younger crowning her son Nero upon a relief at the Sebasteion Complex in Aphrodisias (shown left), than the model provided by Artaxias and Germanicus (Kropp 2013: 381-2). Much like Agrippa’s bronze coin, there in an ambiguity in the political relationship between the figures in the Sebasteion relief that lead the viewer to question whether Agrippina is honouring or crowning her son; Agrippina, draped and crowned with a cornucopia in one hand, stands at the same height as Nero and has placed the laurel wreath directly down upon her son’s head rather than symbolically holding it above. The fact that Agrippina and Nero are of equal stature casts doubt upon whether she has been cast in the role of the small winged victories that usually crown an emperor in imperial art, while the fact Nero’s laurel wreath is being placed squarely atop his head renders Agrippina’s act more analogous to a coronation scene than an honorific gesture. Together, these factors might suggest that Agrippina was the engineer of her son’s imperial power. Though Herod and Agrippa are holding their laurel wreaths vertically aloft, high above the emperor’s head, both the emperor and client kings are of an equivalent height and proportion in this scene. If we extrapolate the ‘subversive’ interpretation of the Sebasteion relief to Agrippa’s coin, it is possible to read it as a seditious image, in which the client kings present themselves as king-makers, conferring power and legitimacy to the emperor in Rome.

Could a client king make such a subversive statement- insinuations of political clout superior to that of the Roman emperor- on a medium as public and official as a coin? Provincial bronze issues were a highly local form of political expression, which did not stray far enough from their place of circulation to attract the attention of the emperor, who was honoured by other means, such as through the imperial cult. It would be unlikely for this coin to reach the imperial administration unless brought to its attention by the Roman procurator who was assigned to the neighbouring province of Syria and occasionally intervened in Judean affairs, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was. The intended ‘audience’ of this coin were Agrippa’s diverse and politically volatile subjects, some of whom agreed with Roman authority and participated in Roman spectacles such as gladiatorial games, and some who did not, but would read within the image evidence of Roman support for Agrippa’s royal position nonetheless (Galinsky 2008: 40; Kropp 2013: 386). Indeed, Agrippa’s royal authority would benefit from a public statement of sovereignty with Roman support expressed by a highly public and mobile medium. This image of Herod and Agrippa beside the emperor Claudius suggests a political relationship between emperor and king and insinuates they had a place within the hierarchy of imperial power, regardless of whether we consider it as honorific or subversive. In fact, the image of Herod and Agrippa honouring the emperor would communicate ideas of connection and support from the imperial centre as effectively as the image of the client kings crowning him, without the seditious subtexts that might sour relations with the emperor.

If we consider Agrippa’s propensity for imperial coin-types, his personal relationship with the Julio-Claudian emperors and desire to promote Roman support for his royal power and position in the imperial hierarchy as the central tenants of his political identity to our interpretation of this image, we can reach a middle-ground which considers this coin-type a highly unconventional, but not seditious, image. It is possible that provincial die-makers aware of Agrippa’s predisposition for imperial imagery selected the common motif of Victory figures honouring the emperor with laurel wreaths as the imperial motif best able to reflect the gratitude he owed the emperor for the extraordinary honour of a vast kingdom, and then adapted to include the three parties to the treaty- emperor, Agrippa and Herod- into the scene. This reappropriation of imperial imagery to reflect Agrippa’s political situation is mirrored by the reverse side of this issue, which used the clasped hands motif struck upon the roman coins of the late republic to signify agreement.

Could the countermark aid our efforts to interpret the attitude to imperial authority articulated by this coin, and offer a degree of clarification for Agrippa’s imperial loyalties, which are otherwise thrown into doubt?

This countermark is catalogued by Greek Imperial Countermarks as a male head in left facing profile within an oval punch, and it was struck in Judea during the reign of Agrippa I’s son Agrippa II (RPC 1 1992: 684; GIC 156; Mershorer.pl. 9.5a-b). It was placed upon the reverse side, in the centre of the clasped hand motif, leaving the crowning scene on the obverse side unobscured. The countermark was struck upon the coin in AD 66, the year in which ongoing tensions between the High Priests, bandits, army, aristocrats and Roman administration in Judea erupted into the first Judean revolt (Curran 2005: 70). This conflict produced a wave of new and reappropriated money. The rebels produced a new ‘Jewish’ silver coinage bearing traditional imagery and legends in paleo-Hebrew for use as temple-taxes, while the mint at Caesarea systematically countermarked worn issues, to prolong their time in circulation (Hendlin 2012: 125; Kanael 1963: 57). The three Roman legions stationed in Judea also required a supply of currency to serve as legionary pay and acceptable small change for the imperial coins spent by Roman soldiers (Howgego 1985: 30). Many of Agrippa I and II’s bronze coins and the procuratorial bronzes struck by Roman governor of the province received legionary countermarks, which took the form of the legion’s name or emblem (Howgego 1985: 30). The Legio X Fratensis, who travelled to Judea with Vespasian in AD 66, countermarked coins with the letters L, XF or LXF, and the image of dolphins, pigs, galleys and thunderbolts, all of which were associated with the Roman army or tenth legion (Madden 1866: 228).

We can surmise that at least one of this controversial bronze coin type produced by Agrippa was still in circulation during the first year of the Judean revolt, because one of the seven copies of this coin still extant was countermarked with a left-facing male head. Imperial head countermarks were a rarity among the Jewish symbols and legionary emblems that comprised the majority of countermarks struck during the first Judean revolt, and its identity is a matter of uncertainty- Greek Imperial Countermarks lists it among ‘male heads,’ rather than miscellaneous imperial portraits or heads of emperors which were usually had recognisable facial features, or could be identified by an abbreviated name, title or context, such as a recent imperial visit. Conversely, the catalogues of Jewish coins produced by Frederic Madden identifies the countermark as an ‘imperial head,’ but do not speculate upon the identity of the portrait, which is now too small and worn to offer any identifying features (Madden 1866: 136).

Though this lack of identifying marks precludes a positive identification of the person represented by the countermark, we are still able to speculate upon its origin and purpose. Throughout the Judean revolt, both the rebels and imperial forces scrambled to amass enough change for their armies to be paid and, in the legion’s case, receive acceptable small change in return from among the local coinage already circulating in Judea. When drawing from a wide pool of provincial issues, that included coin-types of very local and religious significance, the distinctly Roman imagery that had been struck by Agrippa I and later, by his son Agrippa II, would have made their coins particularly appropriate provincial substitutes for imperial bronze issues. Was the imperial head countermark a ‘banal’ image of the emperor struck by the imperial administration to place an imperial portrait head on a provincial coin that did not contain the customary obverse portrait? Was an imperial portrait all that was required to mark a coin already the correct weight and metal for Roman transactions as acceptable currency for the Romans buying and spending in Judea during the first revolt? Or was a ‘generic’ imperial portrait considered expedient- the result of the high turnover of emperors who ruled the empire in short succession during the year of the four emperors in AD 65? (Howgego 1985: 6)

Though is difficult to shed light on such an enigmatic portrait, we can use the certainty of an imperial authority behind the countermark to offer a new interpretation of the controversial crowning scene that appears upon Agrippa’s bronze coin. It is significant that the countermark has been placed upon the reverse side, leaving the crowning scene on the obverse unobscured. The fact the coin received a countermark authorising it for imperial use implies that the image was not an impediment to the coin being countermarked as Roman coinage. Indeed, the fact that the countermark was not placed upon the obverse suggests the workers and officials who oversaw imperial countermarking during the Jewish Revolt did not think it necessary to attempt to obscure it. This suggests they did not consider it an image in need of concealment, and as such, did not interpret its political motivations seditious or subversive. If we eliminate the idea that the coin expressed political sentiments that undermined the emperor’s power, one alternative remains- that the image of the Kings Agrippa I and Herod crowning the emperor with a laurel wreath was an honorific gesture, heaping exaltation and adulation on the emperor, through unconventional, but not seditious, image.

charlotte mann

This month’s blog post was written by Charlotte Mann. Charlotte completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland, Australia, and has commenced her MA at Warwick. Her academic interests lie in the perception and representation of emperors within provincial coinage, imperial medallions and the Antonine emperors.


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

Burnett, A (1987) ‘The coinage of King Agrippa I of Judaea’ in Mélanges de numismatique offerts à Pierre Bastien ed. H. Huvelin, M. Christol, G. Gautier (Wetteren: Editions NR) 25-38

Curran, J (2005) 'The Long Hesitation: Some Reflections on the Romans in Judaea’ in Greece & Rome v52 (2005) 70-98

Galinsky, K (2008) ‘The Augustan Programme Of Cultural Renewal And Herod’ in Herod and Augustus- Papers Presented at the IJS Conference, 21st-23rd June 2005 ed. D. Jacobson and N. Kokkinos (Brill: Leiden) 29-42

Hendlin, D (2012) ‘Jewish Coins of the Two Wars Aims and Method’ in Judaea and Rome In Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE Papers Presented at the International Conference Hosted by Spink, 13th – 14th September 2010 ed. D. Jacobson, D and N. Kokkinos (London: Spink) 123-144

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

Kanael, B (1963) ‘Ancient Jewish Coins and Their Historical Importance’ in The Biblical Archaeologist v26 (1963) 37-62

Kropp, A (2013) ‘Crowning the Emperor an unorthodox image of Claudius, Agrippa I and Herod of Chalkis’ in Syria v90 (2013) 377-389)

Madden, F (1976) Coins of the Jews Vol 2 The International Numismata Orientalia (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag)

Coin images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Auction 103, Lot 592, and Numismatik Lanz München, Auction 94 lot 178.

September 01, 2016

Decius' Divi: Facebook for the Emperor

The Emperor Decius came to power in late AD 249 having killed his predecessor, Philip the Arab, in battle (Potter 1990, 40-45). This manner of succession was far from unusual for the period. By this time no Roman emperor had died of natural causes for a little over a hundred years. As such a Roman citizen could be forgiven for believing their new leader’s reign would be as short, and end as messily, as those that had filled the preceding century. Whilst said cynical citizen would have been entirely correct (Decius and his son were killed in a swamp fending off marauding Scythians a mere two years into his reign according to Zosimus) this was not an opinion the new emperor was keen to encourage. As such he commanded all citizens to make sacrifices to the gods for the health and stability of the empire and concurrently issued a series of coins, now known as the ‘Divi series’.

ric trajan decius 77 divus augustus

Antoninianus minted at Mediolanum (Milan), RIC IV Trajan Decius 77

Obverse: Head of Divus Augustus, legend 'DIVO AVGVSTO'
Reverse: Eagle, legend 'CONSECRATIO'.

This series of coins is remarkable because they do not, as we would expect, feature the image of the new emperor – a feature we know provincials regarded as distinctive in Roman (as opposed to local) coinage (Mark 12:17). Instead on the obverse they picture the faces of eleven of his predecessors, crowned with radiate crowns; Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Severus and Alexander (Ando 2000, 209). The image on the reverse of the coins varies, however most commonly they feature either an eagle (a representation of apotheosis, perhaps most notably seen on the Arch of Titus in Rome) or an altar – presumably to the divine emperor shown on the obverse. This is reinforced by the coins’ respective legends which, on the obverse, give the pictured emperor’s name with the prefix ‘Divo’, meaning divine, and on the reverse read ‘consecratio’, meaning consecrated. Notably we have examples of these coins from mints across the empire, not just from Rome, suggesting that Decius was keen for them to be viewed by as large a number of people as possible. They would seem to be the Roman equivalent of a public Facebook post, rather than a message meant for those immediately around the new ruler.

Imperial portraits also played a key role in the sacrifices Decius demanded for the empire’s continued stability. Whilst the deities sworn to varied from town to town across the empire’s provinces (Tertullian To the Nations 2.8.7), with Roman religion being flexible enough to incorporate local deities from far flung reaches of the empire, each ceremony was enacted before a series of imperial statues, perhaps even in some contexts the same emperors featured on the coinage (Ando 2000, 209). The message Decius hoped to deliver is clear. Here were a group of exceptional, and deified, emperors who moved the empire forward. He would be the next in the ‘canon’ of greats and a citizen of Rome was secure under his rule.

Moreover Decius was emphasising the power of the emperor. On his later coinage various Roman mainstays are depicted, but divine figures are almost entirely absent (Mattingly 1924). By presenting his predecessors as essential figures in Roman religion, to the detriment of the traditional pantheon, Decius promoted his office as something quasi-divine and by association raised himself above the concerns of petty mortals. If successful this public relations initiative could only have increased his authority and hold on an increasingly fractious state. It was also something of a change from the policy of his immediate predecessor who, as discussed in last month’s blog, was sympathetic to Christianity – a religious creed incompatible with the Imperial Cult.


Antoninianus minted at Mediolanum (Milan), RIC IV Trajan Decius 84b

Obverse: Head of Divus Nerva, legend 'DIVO NERVAE'
Reverse: Altar, legend 'CONSECRATIO'.

However for the viewer to understand the message that the Decius was sending they had to know who the men featured on the coins were. For some a degree of knowledge would be expected- Augustus as the first Roman Emperor would seem likely to be well known. But the same cannot be said for other members of the illustrious eleven. Why would ‘the man on the street’ in the farther reaches of the Empire know anything about the Emperor Nerva, who ruled for a mere 2 years and died 150 years before Decius struck his coins? I would suggest that Nerva’s presence in the series means that, at least in Decius’ eyes, he was a recognizable figure. Not every deified emperor appears on Decius’ coinage (Claudius is notably absent) and given the evident thought that went into this public relations initiative it is hard to imagine Decius deliberately weakening his message by using an unrecognisable figure. If we give Decius this benefit of the doubt then we can surmise that a not insignificant number of citizens in the Roman Empire had an impressive knowledge of the history of the Roman state; how many modern British citizens, with access to all the knowledge on the internet, could tell you about our Prime Minister 50 years ago, let alone recognise one from a century and a half previous?

So what kind of an impact did Decius’ Divi have? Whilst we cannot be sure we can be confident that his coinage was well known by later Romans. Gregory of Tours, a sixth century historian and bishop tells us that seven young Christians (and their dog) fled to a cave to escape persecution for refusing Decius’ edict to sacrifice to the pagan gods (Lane-Fox 1986, 450, 490). Naturally they then fell asleep for nigh on two centuries, awakening in the Christian empire of Theodosius II. When one of their number left cave to buy food the coinage he used was immediately recognised as from the time of Decius (Ando 2000, 227), which provoked wonder amongst the town’s folk – wonder presumably compounded when the sleepers all promptly fell dead (Gregory of Tours, Passio septem dormientium 7-8). Whilst the story itself isn’t terribly believable it likely grew in the telling from events that truly happened. It is not so hard to imagine Christians fleeing rather than submitting to the emperor’s edict, indeed reactions to said edict were a subject of much later controversy within the church (Lane-Fox 1986, 550). Moreover if those Christians were to have fled with any money it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that the emperor’s newest coinage would have featured prominently in their collections. If a cache of their belongings were later discovered and spent there would have been a sufficient framework for the myth to have grown. Whilst there’s a fair amount of conjecture there I like to think that Decius’ Divi were still being recognised two centuries after his death and were being talked about by even later historians.


This month’s coin entry was written by Ben Howarth. Ben is about to begin an MA in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick. He has an interest in the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire and his undergraduate dissertation was on the persecutions of ‘others’ by Christians in the late 4th and early 5th centuries – an interest he hopes to develop further during his MA.


• Ando, C (2000) Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (London: University of California Press)
• Gregory of Tours, Passio septem dormientium in Ando, C (2000)
• Lane Fox, R (1986) Pagans and Christians (St Ives: Penguins)
• Mattingly, H (1924) “The reign of Trajan Decius” in The Journal of Roman Studies v14 (1924) pgs 1-23
• Potter. D. S (1990) Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
• Tertullian, To the Nations, trans. Q. Howe (Tertullian.org)
The Holy Bible, New International Version (Edinburgh: Hodder & Staunton 1979)
• Zosimus, New History, trans. T. Chaplin & W. Green (London: Green and Chaplin 1814)

Coin images reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica (Auction 33, ot 404), and Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Mail Bid Sale 66, lot 1420) (www.cngcoins.com).

August 03, 2016

The generic Roman emperor?

Token of Palmyra (TM Pl.LXXIII no. 48)

The Roman author Fronto, writing to his former student, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, commented:

You know how in all money-changer's bureaus, booths, bookstalls, eaves, porches, windows, anywhere and everywhere there are likenesses of you exposed to view, badly enough painted most of them to be sure, and modelled or carved in a plain, not to say sorry, style of art, yet at the same time your likeness, however much a caricature, never when I go out meets my eyes without making me part my lips for a smile and dream of you.

(Loeb vol. 112 p. 206-7)

Fronto's comment on the 'badly painted' images of Marcus Aurelius has always reminded me of the 2012 restoration of a Spanish fresco by an older amateur, or the painting presented to Queen Elizabeth II in Germany that prompted her to ask "Is that supposed to be my father?" These 'rustic' images of Roman emperors are rarely studied, but they must have formed a large part of the everyday experience of people outside the city of Rome. Many of these images (e.g. weights in the form of an emperor's bust) may have originally been intended to show a specific emperor (e.g. Nero), but they bear only a superficial (if any) resemblance to the official portraiture of the emperor concerned. The same can be seen on many provincial coins, particularly in the transition from the Republic to the principate, where it is often hard to know whether the male bust on the obverse of coins is Augustus, or a deity or some other figure.

One token from Palmyra, shown right, supports Fronto's statement, with Side A (shown on the upper side) showing a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor hanging on a wall over a banquet scene. This type of representation suggests the ubiquitous nature of the Roman imperial portrait, though the finer details of the portraiture are harder to see, suggesting to the viewer, 'Roman emperor', with the particular name of the emperor supplied by the mind of the viewer. If this token was in use for a longer period of time (unlikely) the identity of the emperor 'seen' on the wall would likely change. To what extent, then, might we speak of a 'generic' Roman emperor, whose precise identity was supplied by the viewer? A portrait of Caracalla in Rusicade, Numidia, that was later converted into a monument honoring Constantine, suggests that Caracalla's quite recogniseable visage was, in late antiquity, re-interpreted (at by some viewers).

A similar 'generic' image can be seen on a token from Rome, perhaps issued for use in the celebration of games by a curator. One side of the token shows a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor (perhaps Tiberius?), while the other side names the person responsible for the token and organising the celebration. Again the viewer would supply need to the identity of the emperor themselves, an identification that might change according to context. As well as expensive marble busts and other portraits, there existed the 'everyday' portrait of the emperor, and these types of images are something worth more detailed investigation.


Token showing a laureate imperial portrait on one side, with the legend Q. CAECILIVS Q.F. OINOGENVS CVR on the other. (Numismatica Classica 12, 1983, 39, Rostowzew 514b).

This blog entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the ERC-funded Token Communities project.

Further Reading:

Dahmen, K. (2001). Untersuchungen zu Form und Funktion kleinformatiger Porträts der römischen Kaiserzeit. Münster, Scriptorium.

Du Mesnil du Buisson comte, R. (1944). Tessères et monnaies de Palmyre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale (France). Département des médailles et antiques.

Franke, P. R. (1984). Q. Caecilius Q.F. Oinogenus F. Curator. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 54: 125-126.

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