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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 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.

April 01, 2017

Antony's retaliation to Augustan propaganda

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

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

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

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


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

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

March 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varus' proconsular issue (RPC 4535).

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

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

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


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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Information:

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

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

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

February 01, 2017

Rostovtzeff and the Tokens of Rome

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

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

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

aquileia token
Rostovtzeff no. 509

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

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

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

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

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

clare rowan

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


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

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

December 01, 2016

King Archelaos’ wolf

obol archlaus

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

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

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

pangaion mountain
Mount Pangaion (Wikimedia)

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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) (

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; 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 (
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) (

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