All 15 entries tagged Augustus

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March 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varus' proconsular issue (RPC 4535).

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

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

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


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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Information:

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

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

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

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 (
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) (

April 01, 2016

Crocodilian influences on the denarius of 28 BC

aegypto capta denarius
Denarius of Augustus from 28 BC.

The first recorded time a crocodile appeared on a Roman coin was 37/36 BC, under the authority of M Licinius Crassus, an official who had authority over the Greek island Crete and the African region of Cyrenaica. Scholars have attempted to claim that this was the son of the triumvir Crassus who in 53 BC famously conducted the Parthian disaster. The historical content of the Crassus coinage is dubious and complicated but it would be fair to assume and accept scholarly debate that his crocodile represented renewed Egyptian authority over Cyrenaica, an honour that was ceded to the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII by the cunning Marc Antony.

However, when Augustus utilised the crocodile on his coinage it was as a focal point of celebration towards Rome’s acquisition of Egypt and revered his military triumph. The crocodile interestingly could serve as a sign of continued power and dynastical tenure or the polar opposite of capitulation. With the caption of ‘Aegypto capta’; ‘captured Egypt’ we are able to understand the multi-faceted potential of a crocodilian representation and how the crocodile signified power dependant on the way it was utilised .

To understand the sole purpose of the crocodile on the denarius of 28 BC would be enormously difficult. Commonly in Egyptian practice, crocodiles were to supposed to allude to, and be associated with, their relationship to the river god Nilus, from whom Egypt’s affluence and prosperity was supposedly derived. The crocodile was the epitome of Egyptian power and was typically indigenous to the Nile so it often acted like a glorified mascot. Augustus had left his use of the crocodile imagery purposefully open to interpretation so that it could represent the formidable animal in which the Romans were so curious about, and were so proud to have enslaved, because it embodied the fate of Egypt. Or did it signify and celebrate the prosperity of Egypt through the crocodile’s relation to Nilus?

The best insight into the truth is the coinage of the colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) struck under Augustus: here a crocodile is depicted chained to a palm tree and is undeniably the sign of Egypt subdued to the power of Rome and presumably is a continuation of attitude from the denarius of 28 BC. The obverse of the denarius of 28 BC, a bareheaded and heroically unadorned bust of Augustus, has a protuberant brow alongside a wry smile which is meant to reaffirm the legitimacy of his autocratic reign by reasserting his military success, ultimately bringing us back to the subject of power. The crocodilian imagery on these coins was a boast of power, eastern luxury, but more importantly, it was who wielded and subjugated the crocodile that decided who the ancient beast would transfer its power to.

alfred.jpgThis month's coin was written by Alfred Wrigley. Alfie is a second year ancient history and classical archealogy student who is hoping to specialise in and write his dissertation on Julio Claudian coinage.

Coin image reproducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

August 01, 2015

Ain't talkin' 'bout love. Roman "Spintriae" in context.

Roman token, found in the Thames, PAS LON-E98F21

In 2012 this token was found in the Thames in London, resulting in numerous news articles about this 'brothel token'. The obverse carries the Roman numeral XIIII (14), while the reverse carries a sex scene. The couple are laying on a decorated bed or a couch, the woman laying on her front while a male straddles her.

This token is part of a broader series that carry a Roman numeral between 1 and 16 on one side, and various sex acts on the other. Another series carry Roman numerals on one side and portraits of Augustus, Tiberius or Livia on the other (see below). Buttrey analysed the dies of both series and concluded they were connected; he suggested that these objects date to the Julio-Claudian period and were perhaps gaming tokens, envisaging a possible scenario where one side played 'the imperial portraits' and the other 'the sex scenes', making the game a form of salacious gossip on the sex lives of the Roman emperors.

Roman token showing Tiberius and XII within wreath.

In reality, we know very little about these objects; their sexual scenery has created numerous forgeries, and very few archaeological contexts are known. They are often called spintriae, a label created in the modern era from a reading of Suetonius' Life of Tiberius. As part of the portrayal of Tiberius' activities on Capri, Suetonius records the presence of numerous female and male prostitutes, called spintrias (Suet. Tib. XLIII, see also Tacitus, Ann. VI.1; sphinthria or spintria referred to a male prostitute in Latin, from the Greek σφιγκτήρ, and connected to the Latin/modern word sphincter). It is this tale that inspired early collectors and scholars to label these objects spintriae, and when a hoard of tokens was found on Capri it cemented the name, though they were not called this in antiquity.

Indeed, the known find contexts of these objects suggest they had little to do with sex. Although hundreds of these specimens exist (precise numbers are difficult given the quantity of fakes in existence), only a handful of closed archaeological contexts are known. We cannot know whether the Thames example was lost in antiquity, or more recently. But one example was recently found in a tomb in Mutina; associated ceramics and other coins dates the tomb to AD 22-57, suggesting Buttrey's dating of the Julio-Claudian period is correct. Another was found during an archaeological campaign on the island of Majsan; this was pierced, suggesting it had been transformed into a piece of jewellery. Scattered other examples are reported to have been found in Caesarea Maritima, in the Garigliano in Italy, on Skegness beach (likely a modern loss) and in Germany (Stockstadt am Main, Saalburg, Nendorp-Wischenborg; these are sporadic finds). Although the information on the find places of these objects leaves much to be desired, none of these find spots are brothels, and in each example there is only one 'spintria' found. What their purpose was remains a mystery. Like many Roman tokens, much more study is required before we can fully understand these objects.


This month's coin was chosen by Clare Rowan. Clare is a research fellow at Warwick, who has recently become interested in the role tokens had in Roman society.

Coin images above reproduced courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and © The Trustees of the British Museum

Select Bibliography:

Benassi, F., N. Giordani and C. Poggi (2003). Una tessera numerale con scena erotica da un contesto funerario di Mutina. Numismatica e Antichità classiche 32: 249-273.

Buttrey, T. (1973). The spintriae as a historical source. Numismatic Chronicle 13: 52-63.

Martini, R. (1997). Tessere numerali bronzee romane nelle civiche raccolte numismatiche del comune di Milano Parte I. Annotazione Numismatische Supplemento IX: 1-28.

Mirnik, I. (1985). Nalazi novca s Majsana. VAMZ 18: 87-96.

July 01, 2015

Augustus and the gods


RIC Augustus 367, BMC Augustus 98 = LACTOR, Age of Augustus L1. Silver Denarius, 16 BC

Obverse: Bust of Venus right. C ANTISTVS VETVS IIIVIR = ‘Gaius Antistius Vetus, tresvir (monetalis)’

Reverse: symbols of priestly offices – the ladle (simpulum) top left, augur’s wand (lituus) top right, tripod bottom left and sacrificial bowl (patera) bottom right. COS IMP CAESAR AVGV XI = ‘Imperator Caesar Augustus, consul for the 11th time’.

Gemma Augustea

Res Gestae divi Augusti 7.3 ‘I have been chief priest, augur, one of the Fifteen for conducting sacred rites, one of the Seven in charge of feasts, Arval brother, member of the fraternity of Titus, and fetial priest.’ Many passages of the Res Gestae find echoes in contemporary coinage. For Augustus, this list of his priesthoods was just as important as the magistracies which he had listed in the previous sentence. It was a common sentiment in Roman texts that the Romans’ divisive civil wars was a consequence of their neglect of the gods, who in turn then punished the Romans by provoking them to fight each other rather than the barbarian enemy who ought in the normal course of events to be the focus of any warfare. So the solemn opening of one of Horace’s so-called ‘Roman Odes’, 3.6, states ‘Ancestral crimes, though innocent, you’ll pay the gods for, Roman, till you restore their temples, their crumbling shrines, and images with black smoke besmirched’ (LACTOR G28). It is a commonplace to point out that, for Romans, their magistrates were their priests, and that religion and politics were regarded as inseparable. A Roman would not have understood the modern criticism made by some in contemporary Britain whenever a bishop or archbishop takes a stand on a point of politics.

via Labicana Augustus

But in Augustus’ case, this coin is an excellent example of his typical blend of tradition and radical innovation. The presence of Venus on the obverse reminds us of the claims made by the Julian family to be descended from the goddess herself, via Aeneas, whilst the images on the reverse allude to the four major priesthoods in Rome. The ladle alludes to the pontifices, who had overall control of state cults; the lituus is both the wand used by the augurs in taking the auspices by observing the flight and song of birds and also a visual pun upon Augustus’ own name (compare too its appearance in Augustus’ hand on the gemma Augustea); the tripod alludes to the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, the college who were in charge of foreign cults in Rome, including consultation of the Sibylline oracle and the celebration of the Centennial Games; and finally, the patera recalls the college of the septemviri epulones in charge of sacred feasting at Rome. Traditionally, an individual held only one priesthood for life. Augustus had first been made a pontifex as early as 47 BC, in place of Domitius Ahenobarbus who had been killed at the battle of Pharsalos: he owed this promotion to the influence of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, who himself had exceptionally been a member of three priestly colleges. But it was Augustus who ended up as the first Roman ever to be a member of all four major colleges (and several minor ones too), accumulating them gradually over time, being elected augur in c.42 BC, quindecimvir in c.37 BC, and septemvir by 16 BC. One of the statues of Augustus most famous today – the via Labicana statue from Rome – depicts him in his role as priest, with veiled head. He makes the multi-titled Pooh-Bah of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado – ‘First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Back Stairs, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, all rolled into one’ – look almost unambitious! Both of these characters – though one fictional and the other real – may be compared for the way in which they both managed to bundle together the functions of the state into their own person. As Tacitus claimed, in the opening of the Annales, ‘he gradually increased his power, arrogating to himself the functions of the senate, the magistrates, and the law’.

By the end of Augustus’ lifetime, the link between Rome’s prosperity, the goodwill of the gods, and Augustus himself as the crucial intermediary with the gods in securing their support for Rome, was a message that was clear from a variety of visual and textual media.


This month's coin was chosen by Alison Cooley. Alison usually devotes her energies to Latin inscriptions, but is always delighted to have an excuse to look at coins too. Her commentary on the Res Gestae (CUP 2009) discusses other ways in which coins overlap with the messages promoted by that fascinating inscription. She is currently working on a project re-editing Latin inscriptions in the Ashmolean Museum: see our blog, Reading, Writing Romans.

Coin image © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gemma Augustea CC-BY-SA 3.0 ("Gemma Augustea" by Dioscurides (?) - Self-photographed, October 2013 (James Steakley). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

via Labicana Augustus from Wikimedia Commons. ("CaesarAugustusPontiusMaximus" by RyanFreisling at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

March 04, 2015

Spocking Fives and a Mithraic token. Currency defacement ancient and modern.

A Canadian $5 note that has been 'Spocked'

The death of Leonard Nimoy last week has sparked an upsurge in the Canadian practice of 'spocking' their $5 notes, using a pen or other implement to transform the portrait of their former Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, into the famous Star Trek character. The particular style of the Prime Minister's portait, its large size, as well as the colour of the note (the same colour as Spock's uniform), serve to encourage this tradition (which has at least two active Facebook groups). While the alteration or defacement of currency is a crime in many societies, it is not strictly illegal in Canada, although the bank of Canada has stated that 'writing and markings on bank notes are inappropriate as they are a symbol of our country and a source of national pride'. Alterations to currencies often occur in the context of rebellion or dissatisfaction with the ruling power; defacement for fun or to honour someone is rarer.

Coin altered into a token

Ancient parallels for the practice do exist, however. During excavations of a Roman building in St. Albans in Britain (ancient Verulamium), an object (shown left) was found under Building IV (the floor dated to the second century AD). It was a silver coin (denarius) that had been altered, similar to the Canadian note above. The coin had originally been a denarius of the emperor Augustus dating from 19-4 BC, showing the portrait of the emperor on one side, and part of an ancient Roman legend on the other: Tarpeia being crushed to death by shields. What the coin originally would have looked like is shown below.

The writing on the coin (naming the moneyer responsible) has been erased, as has the obverse. The portrait of Augustus was removed, and instead a Greek legend was inscribed on the coin (RIB 2408.2): ΜΙΘΡΑC ΩΡΟΜΑCDHC ΦΡΗΝ (Mithras Oromoasdes (Ormuzd) Phren). The edge of the coin is inscribed D M (D(eo) M(ithrae)): 'To the God Mithras'. The coin was thus converted into an object in honour of the god Mithras, a god which came to Rome from the East (Ormuzd was the chief Persian god, and Phren was likely a sun god). The reason this coin in particular was chosen for conversion was again because of its imagery: myth told that Mithras was born from a rock, and so the image of Tarpeia being crushed by shields could easily be reappropriated into an image showing the deity's birth. The date of the find (well after the coin was struck) suggests that the coin may have been quite old when it was converted, though it still will have been legal currency. The process of conversion, however, would have meant that this silver coin could no longer function as money in the Roman world. The object thus represents a sacrifice of wealth: Mattingly suggests it was perhaps a token to gain admission to Mithraic worship, or to show membership of a particular level of the Mithraic cult.

original coin showing tarpeia

Coin of Augustus showing Tarpeia (RIC 1 Augustus 299)

Bibliography: H. Mattingly (1932). A Mithraic tessera from Verulam. Numismatic Chronicle 12: 54-7.


Canadian note: jordansawatzky via Compfight cc

Token: Wikimedia Commons.

Coin of Augustus: © Trustees of the British Museum.

October 01, 2014

The Power of Words?

Coin of Augustus with Latin on both sides (RIC 12 358)

It is a truism that we are increasingly becoming a more visual age and one that plays down the impact of the written word. Everything has to have visual impact to engage and interest the passive spectator. Is PowerPoint the problem or the solution?

But, as often with the classical world, we have been there before. Coins are a good example of communicating a message through visual means and this Coin of the Month series has shown what a huge variety there are. Augustus, in particular, has been studied for his use of iconography in forming and disseminating the image that he wanted throughout the empire (see Zanker’s seminal book The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus).

This coin interested me for its lack of visual stimulus. It seeks to get its message through the written word. It is a denarius, about 18 mm in diameter. At this period, a legionary soldier received 10 asses a day, which amounted to 225 denarii a year.

One side of the coin (the obverse) has text within an oak wreath decorative border, reading as follows: I O M S P Q R S PR S IMP CAE QVOD PER EV R P IN AMP AT Q TRAN S E Expanding the standard abbreviations, adding letters in brackets, we see:

I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) S P Q R V(ota) S(uscepta) PR(o) S(alute) IMP(eratoris) CAE(saris) QVOD PER EV(m) R(es) P(ublica) IN AMP(liore) AT Q(ue) TRAN(quilliore) S(tatu) E(st)

To Jupiter Greatest and Best, the Senate and the Roman people (give) their vows made for the health of their leader Caesar (i.e. Augustus) because through him the state is in a greater and more peaceful condition.

On the other side is a cippus, a small, low pillar which usually had an inscription on it. On this representation of a cippus there is inscribed:


In full this reads:

IMP(erator) CAES(ar) AVGV(stus) COMM(uni) CONS(ensu), S(enatus) C(onsulto)

Caesar Augustus leader with common consent, and with the agreement of the Senate.

In addition, around the inside edge of the coin is written: L. MESCINIVS RVFVS IIIVIR This is the name of the magistrate (Lucius Mescinius Rufus) and his position as a moneyer (triumviri monetales) which helps to date the coin to 16 B.C.E.

How successful was this design? Well, we can’t tell from this one coin, but we do notice that there are other coins from this period with their emphasis on text rather than image, but after this we see very few. We can deduce from this that the innovation was a failure. Why might this be? Estimates of the level of literacy in the Roman world vary. As well as the graffiti of Pompeii, from the opposite ends of the Roman Empire we have writing from the tablets of Vindolanda and the papyri from Oxyrhynchus which suggests that there was a reasonable level of literacy throughout society, but interpretation of the evidence is disputed (Ancient Literacy by W. V. Harris provides a good starting point).

Could this coin have got its message across? Could enough people have read to make it effective? Were the abbreviations too much of a barrier? Was the size of characters too small (the coin is only around 18mm in diameter)? Did coins get worn too quickly? Do people ignore writing on coins (can you remember the words on a £1 coin?) Was it a brave attempt at a new, more sophisticated form of communication that did not work well enough? Perhaps it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Mr Clive Letchford

Clive Letchford is a Teaching Fellow in the department, teaching Latin and Greek to those who have not had the opportunity to learn these wonderful languages before arriving at Warwick.

(Image © The Trustees of the British Museum)

August 13, 2014

Disobedient Objects, Roman Coins and the Battle of Teutoberg Forest

US $1 bill, defaced by an ink stamp. From

Included the Disobedient Objects exhibition currently at the V & A are a series of defaced monetary items, including the US dollar bill above. As material representations of a particular ruling authority that permeate our daily lives, currencies are often used to express dissatisfaction with governmental authorities, or even rebellion. A similar practice also occured in the Roman Empire, when the vast majority of circulating coinage carried the portrait of the emperor, an image that had strong power and charisma. In Roman culture it was vitally important to be remembered after one's death through one's actions and monuments; to destroy a monument or a portrait, then, was to attack the person's very being. (This Roman practice of destroying or defacing an image, whether material or literary, is called damnatio memoriae in modern scholarship).

We find numerous instances of coin mutilation and defacement in the Roman world: coins being slashed, stabbed, subject to graffiti, cut and pierced. If there is no archaeological context, it is difficult to know the motivations behind these actions. In some instances, a coin would be mutilated before being given as an offering to a deity (ensuring that the coin could never again be used for 'profane' commercial transactions, it would always belong to the god or goddess). We do not know the motivations behind the mutilation of the coin below, for example, recently found in Hertfordshire in Britain, and registered on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. But a well-known and clear example of politically motivated currency mutilation can be found at the archaeological site of Kalkriese.

Mutilated Roman Coin. (PAS BH-57-3B8).

The site of Kalkriese was the site of a battle between Roman and German forces in the early first century AD. Though not universally accepted, many identify the site as the location of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which the Roman general Varus was horribly defeated by the Germans in AD 9, losing several legions and cohorts. Amongst the finds on this ancient battlefield are numerous coins, with a large number of Augustan small bronze coins (called asses) from the mint at Lugdunum (Lyons). A significant proportion of these asses were defaced by stabbing, cuts or slashes. The original publication of these coins argued that these actions were performed by dissatisfied Roman troops (Berger). More recently, Kemmers and Myberg have suggested that the Germans may have been responsible: after defeating the Romans, the Germans then went on to deface one of the most potent symbols of Roman imperial power. Interpretation remains open, but the finds indicate that the coins must have been carried onto battlefield by the Romans. In this case it is perhaps unlikely that Roman troops were responsible for the mutilation - after the defacement the coins would no longer have been considered valid currency and there would be little reason for a Roman to be carrying them around, particularly into battle. The mutilation might thus have occured as part of the German post-battle victory celebrations.

For more on the defaced currrencies currently on display in London see this post. For the coins at Kalkriese see F. Berger, (1996). Kalkriese 1: Die römische Fundmünzen. Mainz; and F. Kemmers, F. and N. Myberg (2011). "Rethinking numismatics. The archaeology of coins." Archaeological Dialogues 18: 87-108.

August 01, 2014

The Emperor on a chain: Fashionable coins and questions of personal taste

Coin of Constantine used as a pendant

This coin of Constantine dates from AD 330-331. It is typical of its type. The obverse displays an image of Constantine whilst the reverse praises the might of the Roman army; two soldiers holding spears flank military standards with the legend ‘GLORIA EXERCITVS’. The modern transformation of this particular coin into a piece of jewellery is not without its ancient precedent, and this has prompted me to investigate the afterlife of coinage in the Roman world.

It is widely accepted that coins are not simply important for their monetary value. To historians studying numismatics their imagery and legends provide evidence for things as diverse as architectural styles to hairstyles. Similarly, at the time of minting, coins held a value which extended further than what they could buy. The way that coins were used outside of the context of financial transactions can teach us valuable lessons about Roman society.

In Petronius’ Satyricon, the character Trimalchio is described as playing a board game with gold and silver denarii instead of the standard black and white counters. Trimalchio is more of a caricature than a character, so we should take scenes like this with a pinch of salt, but the author is here making a point about how the attitude of an individual towards coinage projects a social statement about their personal wealth. Trimalchio’s self-display tells his guests that he can, quite frankly, afford to play with his money. This can be extended to help us to understand why incorporating coinage into jewellery was a way of displaying your wealth and social status.


Coin of Augustus used as a pendant

© The Trustees of the British Museum

But self-display was not the sole reason why an individual would choose to transform coins into jewellery. Nor can it simply be explained as a fashion, since fashions change and our evidence for coin pendants spans hundreds of years. A study of the iconography of the coins chosen for this purpose suggests that not just any coin would do. Generally our examples are drilled to allow a chain to pass through, or else a loop attached, and the location of this tells us which way the coin was intended to hang. In most cases the coin was orientated to display the obverse, most tellingly, the image of the emperor. For example, the coin pictured here is orientated to display the diademed profile of Augustus. This coin was minted in 2 BC and its use here celebrates the reign of Augustus. Thus one could argue that coin pendants projected a political as well as social message. The modern day transformation of the ‘Gloria Exercitvs’ coin follows this ancient precedent, but this time the choice was motivated by aesthetic value rather than a desire to make a political statement of allegiance to the emperor.

It is debatable whether the Roman jeweller was motivated by the aesthetic, political or social potential of coinage when they set about incorporating coins into jewellery. Clearly, these artefacts pose questions about the nature of Roman society and the nature of its value system; and since coin pendants remain popular today we could trick ourselves into believing that we are not so different from the Romans after all.

eve.jpgThis month's coin was chosen by Eve Bayram. Eve graduated from Warwick in 2014 with a degree in Classical Civilisation. While at Warwick Eve focused on the study of Latin literature, and her disseration was entitled 'Self-presentation in the Latin epistolary genre: Cicero, Seneca, Petrarch.' She is currently interning in the dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.

July 15, 2014

Augustus and Communicating the Succession


Augustus and Agrippa seated on a platform

As the first emperor or princeps of Rome, Augustus' power was based solely on the positions he held and his proven achievements. There was no established mechanism by which a successor could come to power; the idea of a hereditary monarchy did not exist. Therefore the question of who or what would follow Augustus was a problem indeed, particularly since Augustus himself had no living male heir when he became seriously ill in 23 BC. After the death of her first husband, Augustus married his daughter Julia to his chief general and advisor, Agrippa. The sons of this union, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, were then adopted by Augustus in 17 BC. In order to designate them as successors these brothers were granted a series of honours and positions in spite of their young ages.


Aureus with Augustus and Agrippa

The entire process of appointing a successor a delicate one, and one of our first indications of an official statement of dynastic ideology can be found in a series of coins issued at Rome in 13 BC. This was the year the tribunician power of Augustus and Agrippa was renewed, and Agrippa is shown on the coinage as Augustus' colleague (just as he is later named as a colleague in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti 8.2). Coins show Augustus and Agrippa side-by-side: on the coin above, the portrait of Augustus graces the obverse, while Augustus and Agrippa are seated in togas on the reverse (RIC 12 407). Other issues of this year display the head of Augustus on one side, and the head of Agrippa on the other. On the silver denarius issue of this type, both Augustus and Agrippa are bare-headed, while on the gold aureus issue shown here Augustus wears an oak-crown (an honour granted him by the Senate) and Agrippa a combined mural and rostral crown, which combined the walls of a city and the prow of a ship (RIC 12 409). Silver denarii were also struck showing Julia and her two sons: the obverse carries the portrait of Augustus accompanied by a lituus, and the reverse displays the bust of Julia with a wreath above it, flanked by the busts of her sons (RIC 12 404-5).


Denarius showing Julia between Gaius and Lucius

Alas, the following year Agrippa died, and Gaius and Lucius would both also die before Augustus. It was this series of unfortunate deaths that meant that Tiberius would marry Julia and as Augustus' adopted son, become the successor of his power and offices.

(Images are © The Trustees of the British Museum).

Good images of all of Augustus' coinage can also now be found on the Online Coins of the Roman Empire site.

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