All 10 entries tagged Augustus Bimillenium

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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.

June 01, 2014

Coin of the Month: Augustus, and How to Make Road Repairs Exciting

Denarius of Augustus, © The Trustees of the British Museum

This month's coin of the month is a silver denarius struck in Rome in 16 BC commemorating Augustus' improvement of the roads in Italy. These road repairs were evidently an important part of Augustus' building programme. In fact, he takes pains to mention them in his Res Gestae (20.5): "In my seventh consulship I constructed the Flaminian Way from Rome to Arminum and all the bridges on it except for two that were not in need of repair" (trans. Cooley). The completion of these works were marked by this coin and by others struck in mints in Spain.

The iconography of this coin is highly unusual, reflective of the experimental atmosphere that prevailed under Augustus as an imperial language of numismatic imagery was formulated. The odd nature of the imagery on this piece, however, may also have been due to the difficulties in visualising this particular act of imperial munificence. After all, how do you design a coin which communicates road repairs?? And in an eye catching and exciting way?? The designers of this coin chose to focus on objects which alluded to Augustus' activities without actually having to show a road. The obverse of the coin (left) shows a statue of Augustus on a horse before the walls of the city, likely an allusion to the beginning of the Flaminian Way. The reverse shows a column erected by the Senate for Augustus in Rome to thank him for his repairs. The column reads:S P Q R IMP CAE QVOD V(iae) M(unitae) S(unt) EX EA P(ecunia) Q(u)IS AD A(erarium) DE(dit) (The senate and people of Rome to Imperator Caesar because the roads have been paved out of the money which he gave to the treasury).

The mints in Spain that struck similar types (see examples here, and here) echo the same phrase (QVOD VIAE MUNITAE SVNT, because the roads have been paved), suggesting that these coins are co-ordinated in some way, or responding to the same edict. The Spanish coins also highlight statues of Augustus that graced the roads and bridges, rather than representing the roads themselves. Statues of Augustus in connection with the roads are mentioned by Dio (53.22.1), but what is most interesting about these issues is that the statues are shown all out of proportion to the bridges and the city wall (they are shown as larger than life). As Zanker points out, this is because coins reflect how the Romans viewed monuments, rather than provide us with a 'photo' or realistic representation. In the early imperial period, statues are often shown as larger than the buildings or monuments themselves on coins, a reflection of the fact that Romans were most interested in the political message of a particular building programme. Later on in the Empire, the statues become smaller and the buildings themselves dominate coin types, reflecting a change in the practice of Roman viewing.

clare_RowanThis month's coin was chosen by Clare Rowan, a Research Fellow in Numismatics. Amongst other projects she is currently working on a Cambridge University Press/American Numismatic Society Handbook to Coinage of the Ancient World, covering the period from 49 BC until AD 14.

May 01, 2014

Coin of the Month: A Denarius of Augustus, Presenting a Dynasty

Denarius of Augustus

This denarius of Augustus dates from 2-4 BC. The obverse features a laureate head of Augustus with the legend ‘CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATER PATRIAE’. The reverse depicts his two grandsons Gaius and Lucius stood facing each other, hands resting on a shield and spear, with a simpulum and lituus above. The legend around the edge reads ‘AVGVSTI F COS DESIG PRINC IVVENT’ and ‘C L CAESARES’ is written horizontally underneath the figures.

The coin is a useful example of the control that Augustus exercised over his personal image. The bust appears as that of a young man, however the emperor would have been in his 60s at this point. It is also illustrative of the problem of succession that faced an ageing Augustus. Having no sons of his own, the emperor had adopted his two grandsons and this coin is a clear message that they are the heirs to his title and powers. The beginning of their public careers is alluded to by the presentation of the title of “Leaders of the Youth”, as well as the appearance of both military and priestly images around them. Gaius’ and Lucius’ positions within the family are also emphasised by the fact that the two are explicitly called the sons of Augustus. Also, the prominent way in which ‘Caesares’ is placed upon the coin has clearly dynastic overtones, especially given that it was the name that Augustus himself took following his own “adoption” by Julius Caesar, which launched his political career. This theme is further continued on the obverse, where Augustus presents the title ‘Divi Filius’ (“Son of a God”) alongside that of ‘Pater Patriae’ (“Father of the Country”). By presenting himself as both son and father, Augustus is drawing the parallel to his own adoption as well as that of his grandsons and it is made clear that an imperial dynasty, with the successive handing down of powers, has been founded.

This particular denarius is contained within the South-Warwickshire Hoard of Roman denarii, which was discovered in 2008 by a local metal-detectorist. The hoard is comprised of 1153 silver denarii, with dates ranging from 190 BC to AD 64. It is one of the largest coin hoards from the Roman world and is made even more special by the fact that the pot in which the coins were buried has also survived. The South-Warwickshire Hoard was acquired by Warwickshire Museum, catalogued by Stanley Ireland and it is currently on display at the Market Hall Museum in Warwick.

warwickshirehoard_1.jpg warwickshirehoard_2.jpg

The South Warwickshire Hoard in the Warwickshire Museum

This month's coin was chosen by Abigael Flack, a museum assistant at the Warwickshire museum. Abigael is interested in the presentation and reception of the Roman imperial regime, particularly in literature. Her MA thesis examined this theme in the biographies of Suetonius.

(Images courtesy of Sara Wear and Heritage & Culture Warwickshire.)

March 18, 2014

The Many Faces of Augustus

Spanish coin showing Augustus and shield

During the period in which Augustus came to hold sole power in the Roman Empire, the minting of Roman coinage was decentralised. Instead of coinage only being struck at Rome, different generals and Roman officers struck Roman denarii at a series of different mints throughout the Empire. Indeed, coinage was probably only struck in Rome again from c. 19 BC. This means that in the period after Actium, the coinage of Augustus was struck in a variety of different mints, which meant that the image and associations of Augustus and his rule had regional differences, at least initially.

The decentralised nature of minting in this period also meant that there was the possibility for official images of Augustus to become 'entangled' with local iconographies - that is, for Roman officials and mints to take inspiration from local currency designs, either as a way of communicating Augustus' power to local populations, or as a strategy to make the currency more acceptable. Several interesting coin designs have resulted from this process, one of which is a series of coins struck in an uncertain mint in Spain (RPC 1 1-4). This coinage lacks the name of a city, and so is probably an imperial series of Augustus, although it is not listed as such in the catalogue of Roman Imperial Coinage. On this series Augustus is presented as the son of the divine Julius Caesar (IMP AVG DIVI F), and his portrait is accompanied by a palm branch and winged caduceus. These two attributes were commonly seen on the local coins struck in Spain (Iberia); the palm branch is often shown being held by a horse rider (see one example here), and the winged caduceus appears on the coinage of several cities (e.g. as a reverse type, or being held by the Tyche of a Spanish city on a coin series struck by Sextus Pompey).

Similar coin, but with dagger and Iberian sword

The image of Augustus presented here is thus one with a particular 'Iberian' flair. This is further suggested by the reverses of this coin series, which show an Iberian shield, sometimes accompanied by a dagger and Iberian sword. These coins are mostly found in NW Spain, meaning that the image and associations of Augustus in this region would likely have been different to that found in the East of the Empire, for example, or even in Gaul. Augustus presented many faces to different audiences, as he and his subordinates sought to communicate the new power structure to the broader Roman Empire.

(Coin images reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.,

February 13, 2014

Succession and the Aurei of Mark Antony

Aureus showing Antony and his son Antyllus

The problem of succession, and Augustus' means of communicating succession, form a key theme in the study of the Augustan principate. But the mechanisms for communicating succession and dynasty in the principate arose directly out of the Republic, in particular the strategies employed during the civil wars. We can see this in a gold aureus series struck for Mark Antony in 34 BC while he was triumvir in the East (RRC 541/1-2). The design of this series foreshadows how imperial dynasty and succession would later be communicated during the Roman Empire.

The coin issue consisted of two different types, but both of them carried the portrait of Mark Antony on the obverse and the portrait of his eldest son Marcus Antonius Antyllus on the reverse. Antyllus was the child of Antony and Fulvia, and was at one point engaged to Octavian's daughter Julia. His appearance on coinage here suggests that Antony may have been attempting to establish and advertise a successor, well before Augustus would later turn to the problem.

This is also suggested by the legends of these pieces. On the first type, the titles of Antony occupy both the obverse and reverse of the coin (M ANTONI M F M N AVG IMP TERT, COS ITER DESIG TERT III VIR R P C, Marcus Antonius, son of Marcus, grandson of Marcus, Augur, Imperator for the third time, consul for the second time, consul designate for the third time, triumvir for the establishment of the Republic). That Antony included the names of his father and grandfather must have been intentional: in contrast to Octavian's claims to be the son of the divine Caesar, Antony represents his descent in a traditional Roman manner, something which may have appealed to the Senate rather more than Octavian's claims. One the second type of this issue (shown above), Antony's titles are abbreviated and confined to the obverse of the coin, while the reverse carries the name of Marcus Antonius Antyllus, who is presented as the son of Antony (M ANTONIVS M F F). Thus over both types, Antony and his positions are communicated, as is Antony's ancestry and his successor, a presentation that is remarkably similar to what would occur later in the imperial period.

Coin image reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG (Auction 54, Lot 285)

December 13, 2013

Roman Numismatic Memory Part 2: Gaius and Lucius as principes iuventutis

Aureus showing Gaius and Lucius

The second in our Augustan bimillenium series continues the theme of Roman numismatic memory. One of the key themes of Augustus' principate was the problem of succession, and initially Gaius and Lucius Caesar were advertised on the imperial coinage as Augustus' heirs, as principes iuventutis. Between 2 BC and AD 4 (or perhaps later), the mint at Lugdunum (modern day Lyon) struck aurei and denarii showing the two brothers veiled and accompanied by shields, spears, and priestly symbols (Lactor J58, RIC Augustus 205ff).

That these coins, and the images on them, were viewed by the Romans as 'monuments in miniature' as well as currency, is demonstrated by the later use of this image. During the reign of Trajan a series of coins were struck that modern scholars call the 'restitution' coinage. This was a series of coins that bore the imagery of a much earlier coin type, either from the Republican or early imperial period. These coins celebrated the earlier coinage of the Romans, and Trajan himself is named and honoured as the 'restitutor' (just as an emperor may have been honoured for restoring a building or other monument in Rome). Why these coins were struck, and why particular coins were chosen to be celebrated over others, still remains a mystery to scholars. One of the current ideas is that these coins were struck as the older coinage in circulation was being recalled and melted down. Given the Roman conception of coinage this was a destruction of a monument in miniature, so the 'restitution' series was struck to counter this. Another idea is that the coins may have formed a gift for noble families at the time.

Restitution coin struck under Trajan (?)

In this context we should note a 'restitution' coin issue that honours the earlier coin of Augustus showing Gaius and Lucius. The coin in question reproduces Augustus' earlier issue exactly; unlike the other restitution coins of Trajan, he is not named on the coin as restitutor. But Augustus' portrait on the obverse of the coin is of Trajanic or Hadrianic style; this is not an Augustan period coin. Because of Trajan's restoration of other earlier coinages, most scholars place this piece in the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117). What this coin reveals is that Augustus' numismatic imagery was more than just decoration of the currency. The Romans observed, recorded and recalled Augustus' imagery at a later date. Why this particular type was restruck under Trajan remains a mystery, but this, along with the other restitution coinages, would have served to connect the emperor with Rome's past, and its first emperor.

(Coin images reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.,

November 12, 2013

Augustus, the Ludi Saeculares, and Roman Numismatic Memory

Augustan Aureus showing the suffimenta ceremony

Given that the bimillenium of Augustus' death falls on the 19th August 2014, we have decided to run a series of blogs highlighting the coins of the emperor. This weekend the JACT Inset Day will focus specifically on Augustus, with a special session examining Augustan coinage. Amongst the coins discussed will be an aureus struck in conjunction with the celebration of the saecular games in 17 BC (pictured right, LACTOR L 26).

The ludi saeculares were held at the beginning of each new 'age' or saeculum, a period defined as 110 years. The performance of these games was believed to ensure the continuity of Roman power. Although an old ritual, Augustus transformed the celebration so that it fit in with his new imperial ideology. The games were closely associated with the deified Julius Caesar, and Apollo, Augustus' divine supporter, received a special place in the carmen saeculare or hymn (composed by Horace). Several coins were struck to mark the games (several incorporating iconography associated with Julius Caesar), including the above aureus. The reverse of this coin shows the distribution of the suffimenta, the materials given to Roman citizens to purify their homes.

Domitianic sestertius showing the suffimenta ceremony

This type, and other Augustan numismatic saecular iconography, is referenced on the ludi saeculares coinage of the emperor Domitian in AD 88. The platform with the emperor, the basket of purification materials, as well as the legend SVF P D, all recall the aureus of Augustus. In fact, Domitian's saecular games coinage consciously references other Augustan types as well, although very few of the Augustan coins would have been in circulation at the time.

In AD 204 Septimius Severus would also celebrate the saecular games, and his coins would recall those of Augustus and Domitian. This suggests that these coins did not only serve as currency, but also probably formed an official 'record' of the event, preserved and archived in some way. This would explain how the iconography could be accessed and reused every 110 years, when the next saecular festival came around (after all, no one would have been alive to remember the previous games or their coins!) If this hypothesis is correct, and the designs, dies, or examples of coins were kept on record in Rome, these coin types not only served to decorate the currency, but also functioned as a visual record of the emperor's performance of his religious duty.

(Coin images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Triton V, lot 1857 and Mail Bid Sale 73, lot 875) (

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