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August 03, 2016

The generic Roman emperor?

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

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

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

(Loeb vol. 112 p. 206-7)

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

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

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

screen_shot_2016-08-03_at_151657.png

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


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


Further Reading:

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

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

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

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


June 01, 2016

"Coins against Humanity"?

spintria from Thames

'Spintria' found in the Thames in 2012. PAS LON-E98F21

An Ancient Roman may not have been able to bring “Cards Against Humanity” to a pub game night, but they were able to bring spintriae. This particular sexy spintria was made famous when it was discovered in the Thames in 2012. There are several theories about the function of spintriae. People have suggested that they could be brothel tokens. Maybe the original owner of this token picked it up at the games? Or is it, as the title suggests, a game piece? One thing is for sure, the obverse is something that the user would remember and maybe even laugh at.

Two out of three theories are wrong. Suetonius wrote that Tiberius outlawed the use of coins stamped with the imperial image in bordellos (Clarke 1998: 244-245). This has led scholars to believe that these were brothel tokens. The idea that brothel customers would use these to pay for the services they wanted has been quickly dismissed (to see a more detailed discussion of this see Clare Rowan’s blog on this spintria).

This leads to the second theory. These tokens would be given to the public at public games. The idea this comes from a passage in Martial: “Now come sportive tokens (lasciva nomismata) in sudden showers.” (Martial Epigrams 8.78) These “sportive tokens” may be spintriae. That may seem like an odd token to give to spectators at public games celebrating things like military triumphs, but when considering the tensions in a society that placed importance on the lusts of men and the chastity of married women then maybe men receiving tokens to spend at a brothel might not be so bad (Knapp 2013: 236). However, this is not the case. The tokens would then be redeemed for gifts, but not at the local brothel. They could also provide a bit of a tough spot for an emperor who did not have the best press coverage. For example, viewers could be reminded of Tiberius’ sexual acts with boys on Capri (Suetonius Life of Tiberius 43-44). It is unlikely that an emperor, would want his people to snigger behind his back for what he got up to in his private life; thus, this theory seem implausible.

This leaves us with the third theory: these are game pieces. Although we don’t know what game these pieces were used with, we can be pretty sure that it was plenty of inspiration for the scenes of the game makers. There are other spintriae that have numbers going from I to XVI (1-16), but the sex scenes are different. This has led some scholars to believe that there is a correlation between the numbered spintriae and the illustrations of the sex manuals (Clarke 1998: 244, Clarke 2007: 194-5). This is also similar to the Pompeiian wall paintings found in the Suburban Baths. These are believed to have been numbered in a way similar to the lockers in the men’s changing room. As an added memory device, a taboo sex scene was placed above the number. The person using that space may not be able to remember his number, but they would probably be able to remember that funny dirty picture above it! (Savenga 2009).

This humour and function as a mnemonic device carried over to the game containing the spintriae. This spintria is tame compared to some of the other spintriae, so it was probably not one that was laughed too much. The steamy scene between this man and woman would have made the game memorable and may have reminded the player of what he had seen, read, heard, or even done. The fact that spintriae have been found in a widespread area, indicates that it Ancient Romans tended to have similar humour, played similar games, or that people loved this game so much that they brought it with them when travelling. Unfortunately, it may have been a male-only game. There were complaints [in Ancient Rome] that naughty pictures were corrupting respectable girls (Langlands 2006: 53). So, while the same sense of humour as a game of “Cards Against Humanity”, it might not have been a game to bring along to a game night with mixed company. However, it is not unreasonable to think that some clever minxes did manage to play “Coins Against Humanity”.


coin_blog_image_ka.jpg

This month's blog was written by Katrina Anderson. Katrina is a Master’s student at Warwick University, who has recently become interested in the role of sex and gender in Ancient Roman art.


Bibliography

Clarke, J. (2007) Looking At Laughter. (London: University of California Press).

Clarke, J. (1998) Looking At Lovemaking. (London: University of California Press).

C. Rowan, Coins at Warwick: Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout love. Roman “Spintriae” in context.(1 Aug 2015). Accessed 10th May 2016.

Knapp, R. (2011) Invisible Romans. (London: Profile Books).

Langlands, R. (2006) Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Martial, Epigrams, trans. Shackleton Bailey, D.R. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press: 1993) 2 vols. from Loeb Classical Library.

Sayenga, K. Sex in the Ancient World: Prostitution in Pompeii, Documentary, directed by Kury Sayenga (2009; New York: History).

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. J.C. Rolfe (London: William Heinemann: 1913) 1 vol. from Loeb Classical Library.


August 01, 2015

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

brothel_token.jpg
Roman token, found in the Thames, PAS LON-E98F21

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

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

token_tiberius
Roman token showing Tiberius and XII within wreath.

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

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


clare_rowan_turkey


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


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



Select Bibliography:

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

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

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

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


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