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June 20, 2018

Tokens and religious diversity in Late Antiquity

In the two centuries following the tetrarchic reform of Diocletian (AD 293-305), tokens continued to be regularly produced in the Roman West for a variety of purposes. Given their religious and social-cultural value, the evidence of late antique tokens and coin-like objects helps us to understand the gradual religious transformation within the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, allowing us to trace wider patterns in the shift from a pagan to a Christian culture. Nevertheless, the connection between tokens and late Roman religious communities remains a relatively unexplored or inadequately understood phenomenon.

figure 1 asina token

Fig. 1: 1 Bronze token from Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF), Paris. 20 mm, 3.05 g

Remarkable is the bronze token shown above (Fig. 1), described in 1719 by B. de Montfaucon and held at the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (at the BnF) in Paris. It was part of the collection of the Roman antiquarian Marcantonio Sabatini and was purchased by Abbé Le Blond, who brought it to France. This token carries on the obverse the bust of Alexander the Great left, wearing lion’s skin, with the legend ALEXSΔ-DRI; on the reverse is a donkey suckling a foal with a scorpion above, accompanied by the Christian legend D N IHV XPS DEI FILI-VS (“Dominus Noster Jesus Christus Dei Filius”).

This specimen is one of the so-called “Asina coins”, perhaps struck in Rome during the reign of Honorius (AD 395-423). They are a small group of very rare bronze tokens, on whose obverses are portraits of Alexander the Great or the Roman emperor, while the reverses carry Graeco-Roman images, including Hercules-Minerva, a centaur fighting a hero and even an erotic scene.


Fig. 2a: Bronze token with Honorius (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 15 mm, 0.8 g

fig 2b

Fig. 2b: Bronze token with female bust/Providentia (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 14 mm, 2.04 g.

These Asina tokens named for the donkey suckling a foal, which appears depicted on 4 other pieces. On the two specimens shown above, both housed at the British Museum, the donkey type on the reverse is accompanied by the legend ASINA (Latin for a donkey) (Fig. 2a), or the legend ROMA in the exergue (Fig. 2b). On the obverse of Fig. 2a is the portrait of the Roman emperor Honorius with the Urbs Roma Felix style, while in Fig. 2b the obverse carries a female bust with a crown ending in a crescent shape (Isis?) right, with the legend PROVI–DENTIA and R M below the bust.

Although the donkey was generally considered in the ancient world to be a symbol of fertility, a sacred animal, and an attribute of deities (e.g. Seth, Dionysus, Silenus, Vesta, Priapus), the image of the donkey suckling a foal is an unicum (unique) and has no comparanda in the material and visual culture of the Greek and Roman periods. According to some scholars, the Asina type might be an indirect satirical allusion to Jesus, who was mocked by pagans as a god with a donkey’s head (H. Tanini 1791; A. Alföldi 1951) (Fig. 3). By this hypothesis the “Asina coins” might be considered anti-Christian medals, part of a covert pagan propaganda against the oppressive policy of the emperor Honorius towards polytheistic cults.

alexamenos graffiti

Fig. 3. Fig. 3 The Alexamenos graffito (3rd century AD?) from Palatine Hill Museum, Rome.

However, historical and numismatic considerations oppose this interpretation. Other late antique tokens, like the so-called “Festival of Isis coinage” and the “contorniates”, carry pagan iconography and were used in the late Roman world despite repressive measures by the Christian empire. Although they too were interpreted by the early twentieth century scholarship as instruments of pagan propaganda, more recent hermeneutical approaches suggest instead that these coin-like objects had to be multifunctional. They were produced by a complex religious world, in which the categories of ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ are neither as homogeneous nor as mutually exclusive as is often assumed. Moreover, the contorniates often show Christian symbols (the cross, the Chi Rho monogram), portraits of Christian Roman emperors (e.g. Honorius, Theodosius II, Valentinian III, Majorian, Anthemius), and even Christian graffiti engraved on the surface of the pieces after their manufacture (Fig. 4).

fig 4 obversefig 4 reverse

Fig. 4. Fig. 4 Contorniate with Trajan and an engraved Chi Rho monogram in l. field (obv.) and a charioteer driving quadriga right (rev.), from Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence. Photo: S. Bani-M. Benci-A. Vanni 2012).

In light of the above, should the “Asina coins” be considered as an expression of satire or religious koine? The combination of Graeco-Roman and Christian features on the Asina tokens suggests how complex the relations between pagans and Christians were in late antiquity. At this moment in history religious groups interacted along a variety of axes, which at times lead to conflict, and at times competition, but which, above all, was a form of coexistence.

This blog was written by Cristian Mondello, a British Academy Visiting Fellow at Warwick.

This research is supported by the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowships Programme under the UK Government's Rutherford Fund.

Select bibliography:

A. Alföldi, A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century (Budapest 1937).

A. Alföldi, ‘Asina. Eine dritte Gruppe heidnischer Neujahrsmünzen im spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (7), 1951, 57-66.

A. Alföldi, ‘Asina II. Weitere heidnische Neujahrsmünzen aus dem spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (8), 1951, 92-96.

A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 1: Katalog (Berlin 1976)

A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 2: Text (Berlin-New York 1990).

S. Bani, M. Benci, A. Vanni (eds), I medaglioni romani provinciali e contorniati nelle raccolte del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze. Vol. II (Massa Marittima-Follonica-Firenze, 2012).

C. Cavedoni, ‘Médailles du temps d’Honorius portant des signes chrétiens mêlés à des types païens’, RN 1857, pp. 309-314.

B. de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Paris 1719), II, 2, pp. 372-373, Pl. 168.

J.H. Echkel, Doctrina numorum veterum (Vindobonae 1798), t. VIII, p. 174; 289.

L. Lavan, M. Mulryan (eds), The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’ (Leiden-Boston 2011).

F. Lenzi, ‘Di alcune medaglie religiose del IV secolo’, Bilychnis 2, 1913, 113-131.

S. Mazzarino, ‘Contorniati’, in EAA, Roma 1959, pp. 784-791.

P.F. Mittag, Alte Köpfe in neuen Händen: Urheber und Funktion der Kontorniaten (Bonn 1999).

M.R. Salzman, M. Sághy, R. Lizzi Testa (eds), Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome (Cambridge 2015).

H. Tanini, Numismatum Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio ad Constantinum Draconem ab Anselmo Bandurio editorum Supplementum (Romae 1791), p. 352, Pl. VIII.

June 01, 2018

A Roman Token Mould in Harvard

token mold harvard
Roman Token Mould from Harvard Art Museums, 2008.118

Amongst the McDaniel bequest to Harvard Art Museums in Boston is one half of a mould made of palombino marble. Shown here, this piece is one of the numerous moulds of this type used to cast Roman lead tokens. This particular mould half is 10.8x7.6x2.9cm and weighs 389.2g. It would have been used in conjunction with another half to cast seven circular lead tokens of c. 14mm, all carrying an image of the goddess Fortuna holding a cornucopia and rudder (and presumably another image on the other side, engraved on the other half of the mould). It has previously been published in Hirschland and Hammond 1968.

This type of token mould is characteristic of Rome and Ostia, and was donated to Harvard along with McDaniel's collection of Roman lead tokens and other antiquities. We know from McDaniel himself that he purchased his lead tokens (and thus probably also this mould) from the city of Rome. In his memoir, Riding a Hobby in the Classical Lands (p. 71), McDaniel writes:

For the integrity of one dealer in Rome I can vouch unreservedly and so, as a contrast to some of the rest of my group, I name him here at the end of the chapter, honoris causa, Signore Scalco. His sunny face and smile alone used to lighten the tiny, gloomy shop not far from St. Peter’s in which he exposed for sale his modest stock of classical antiquities. A charming, well-informed Italian was he, who often had unusual things for sale. Thus, it was from him I bought a considerable number of papal medals…. From him, too, came my piombi, those coin-shapes of lead which have so much about them to pique the curiosity and to puzzle the best of scholars as they work on the problem of their various uses. While I almost never saw any customers in the shops of the other small dealers in Rome, Scalco was one who received calls from archaeologists, who liked to chat with him, and also from the proprietors of the more pretentious establishments, who would buy from him in order to sell again. There, too, one might chance at any time upon one of the rough dwellers of the Trastevere who had fished something out of the Tiber which he expected to have identified as modern, or, if good luck were his, to sell as an antiquity. He was just as sure as the most promising customer to receive all the attentions of courtesy and fair treatment; that was Scalco."

tokens cast
Cast lead tokens
from Ostia.

The mould carries the channels through which molten lead was poured into the token cavaties; the resulting tokens were then broken off to be used (see the picture left for an example of what the resulting cast would have looked like before the tokens were broken off). The mould still contains the iron nails used to fasten both halves of the mould together (in the top right and lower left corners) - this would ensure that both halves of the mould were correctly aligned. The top and bottom sides of the mould carry faint grooves (see image below); it has been suggested that these grooves were created for or by wire that was wrapped around the moulds during the casting process (Pardini et al 2016). The back of the mould is unworked, as many moulds of this type are.

The top right corner of the Harvard mould has an unusual feature: two concentric circles are etched into the material (see image below). The inner circle is 14mm, the precise diameter of the tokens produced by this mould. These two circles may have been an error made by the person producing the mould, or they may in fact provide a clue as to how these moulds were made: perhaps two concentric circles were sketched before a design was carved into the inner circle- here, perhaps, it was decided that this additional token design was not needed. When one looks closely at each of the circular designs, one sees a deep circular depression at the centre, on Fortuna's body. Jack Kroll, in his unpublished catalogue of these pieces, suggested that this depression was caused by the bit of an instrument used for cutting the circular depressions before the designs were engraved (much like the point of a compass). Many Roman lead tokens carry circular protuberances at their centre; the Harvard mould allows us to understand these protuberances were the result of the mould manufacturing process rather than an intentional part of the design.

Images below from left to right: the side of the mould with faint grooves; a close up of the top left corner of the mould showing two concentric circles and a central depression on the body of Fortuna; a Roman lead token from the Harvard Art Museums collection (2008.116.41) with a wreath and a central dot, now understood to be a result of the mould making process.

harvard side of mould top left of mould token from harvard

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

Select Bibliography:

Hirschland, N. L. and M. Hammond (1968). Stamped Potters' marks and other stamped pottery in the McDaniel Collection. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72: 369-382.

Kroll, J. H. (unpublished manuscript). Roman Lead Tokens in Harvard Art Museums.

McDaniel, W. B. (1971). Riding a Hobby in the Classical lands. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Printing Office.

Pardini, G., M. Piacentini, A. C. Felici, M. L. Santarelli and S. Santucci (2016). Matrici per tessere plumbee dalle pendici nord-orientali del Palatino. Nota preliminare. In: Le regole del gioco tracce archeologi racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella. ed. A. F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini, Edizioni Quasar: 649-667.

May 01, 2018

Tokens for the Eleusinian Mysteries

The intersection of imagery between tokens and coins in Hellenistic Athens remains an understudied phenomenon. It has previously been thought that tokens functioned as substitute for coinage or as an alternative currency according to a ‘functional’ approach. A more semiotic approach to these objects has underlined the obvious verisimilitude of Hellenistic tokens to the moneyer’s symbols of Athenian New Style coinage, identifying the common imagery used by a wide set of media, which included tokens, coins, weights and measures, as well as bronze allotment plates (pinakia).

goettingen token with wheart ears

Athenian lead token from Göttingen with a poppy head between two ears of wheat. (Göttingen, As-Pb-085, 13mm)

A token, shown above, struck only on one side with a poppy head between two ears of wheat and recently studied in the University Museum of Göttingen, returns to this question. The type follows closely coin types of the 70s BC. (J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26, Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993, 118; 133-134). It is very probable that two different but closely associated workshops prepared two distinct sets of dies. The fact that dies for tokens have to date never been found, in conjunction with the evidence that indicates a continuous circle of disposing of the old tokens and recycling them, points to the fact the polis carefully controlled the production of tokens.

Tokens gave access to a broad array of state pay: for example assembly pay, misthos ekklesiastikos, from the late 5th cent. BC, juror’s pay from the late 5th century BC onwards, theatre tickets paid out on an ad hoc basis from the late 5th century BC, and regularly from the theorikon fund from the middle of the 4th century BC. Fraudulent behaviour then is likely to have been quite common. In fact it is impossible to know how many, if any, of the tokens surviving today are ancient counterfeits.

Among the tokens with ‘coin imagery’ a particular group stands apart. These are the tokens that fully copy or closely follow the imagery of Eleusinian coinage, struck in the name of Eleusis and likely connected to festivals. The ‘poppy-ear wheat token’ is one of them. But the ‘kernos’ or ‘plemochoe’, a type of vessel, is a far more popular ‘Eleusinian’ device on tokens.

goettingen token with kernos another goettingen token with kernos
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, AS-Pb-090, 12mm
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, As-Pb-091, 11mm

Two such tokens showing a kernos are also found in the University Coin Collection of Göttingen, shown above. Remarkable also is a bronze token with a kernos on the reverse, accompanied by the legend ΔΗΜΟΣ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, ‘the demos of Athens’ (Svoronos 1898, 124). The vessel is also attested as a countermark on a lead token of the letter series (Crosby 1964, L5). The kernos appears for the first time on Athenian bronze coinage (hemiobols and chalkoi) of the period following the evacuation of the Macedonian garrisons from the forts of Attica in 229BC.

The last day of the Eleusinian Mysteries was called ‘Plemochoai’, named after these particular vases, which were used ceremonially. A. Dumont has suggested that tokens carrying these designs could have been used in the Eleusinian Festival. The circumstances could have been similar to the ones that prompted the ‘ΕΛΕΥΣΙ coinage’, the coins carrying a reference to Eleusis. Perhaps tokens were employed as credit when the appropriate money was not available. Or – more probably – tokens were issued by the Boule and the magistrates responsible for the Eleusinian Mysteries or the panegyriarch, who presided over the panegyris (assembly) related to the festival. Today ‘kernos-tokens’ have been found in and around the tholos of the Agora in Athens.

The connection of tokens to Athenian Festivals in the Hellenistic Period is also attested through another important find: all the ‘Panathenaic Amphora – tokens’ have been found very near the so-called Arsenal, on the North side of the Agora, the only building which contained sherds of Panathenaic Amphoras.

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


W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and Imitation in Ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 28, 2011, pp. 171-195.

Fr. De Callataÿ, ‘Les Plombes à type Monétaires en Grѐce Ancienne: Monnaies (officielles, votives ou contrefaites), jetons, sceax, poids, épreuves ou fantaisies?’ RN 167, 2010 pp. 219-255.

M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens. Part II’, in Lang, M. Crosby, M., Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1964).

L. Deubner, Attische Feste (Berlin 1932).

A. Dumont, De Plumbeis apud Graecos Tesseris (Paris 1870).

M. Gkikaki, 'The Collection of Athenian Lead Tokens at the University Museum of Göttingen' (SchwNumRu forthcoming)

J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993).

C. Mann, Spent or Saved? The Circulation of Festival Coins Struck for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Unpublished MA Essay (University of Warwick 2017, RNS Parkes Weber Prize)

G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton 1961).

M.P. Nilsson, Die Geschichte der Griechischen Religion (München 1941).

P.J. Rhodes, The Athenian Boule (Oxford 1972).

I.N. Svoronos, ‘Περί των Εισιτηρίων των Αρχαίων. Μέρος Α΄ Εισιτήρια του Λυκούργειου Διονυσιακού Θεάτρου και της Κλεισθενείου Εκκλησίας των Αθηναίων’. JIAN 1, 1898, pp. 37-84.

April 01, 2018

Tessera hospitalis: a gift for your guests

Drawing representing the concept of hospitality
Fig. 1: A drawing representing
the concept of hospitality.
(Tomasini 1670: 133).

“Hospitality” was worthy of high, valuable consideration in the Greek and Roman world. It is not a coincidence that Zeus Xenios was the powerful protector of guests. The Greek word for hospitality was xenia, while the Romans called it hospitalitas. This concept was strongly sincere and implied a true friendship between the host and the guest. The latter could be a friend or a relative, who came to his host’s house for a brief or long period of time (fig. 1). Moreover, hospitality was considered a sacred institution. It was therefore based on serious rules and rituals. First, the host had to accommodate the guest respectfully. Second, the guest had to esteem his host, being kind and gracious while he was staying at his house. Third, hospitality established a mutual exchange of favours, reciprocal esteem and a series of gifts. Among them, the host could donate a tessera hospitalis (token of hospitality) to his guest.

This ‘ad hoc’ gift was prepared and personalised every time to testify that the hospitality was successful and to strengthen the bond between the guest and the host. We even know that the tessera might be broken in two parts, one for the guest and one for the host. Considering how heart-felt and widespread the concept of hospitality was, it is quite surprising that these artefacts seem to be quite rare nowadays. Two such objects are currently preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Madrid (1st century BC) (Saquette 1997: 420, n. 238) and the Museum ‘B. Anselmi’ in Marsala (Trapani – Sicily), ancient Lilybaeum (Trapani – Sicily) (2nd-1st century BC) (Salinas 1873: 53).

A third tessera (fig. 2) found at Trasacco (Aquila) (fig. 3) in 1895, is now stored at the National Museum of Rome. Dated to the 2nd century BC, the artefact was published by Felice Barnabei (1842-1922), a well-known archaeologist and General Director of Antiquities and Fine Arts (1896-1900), who wrote a detailed paper in the Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità (Barnabei 1895: 85-93; Letta 2001: 152; Luschi 2008: 137-86). The tessera is curiously shaped as a ram’s head and carries the following Latin legend, testifying a mutual hospitality between T. Manlius and T. Staiodius:





Fig. 2: Tessera hospitalis found in Trasacco (Aquila) (Letta 2001: 152).


Fig. 3: Map showing Trasacco and Rome (Google Maps).

Antiquarians have been interested in tesserae hospitales since before the 19th century. For instance, Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (fig. 4), Catholic bishop and learned historian born in Padua, even wrote even an entire book on these artefacts. Published in Amsterdam in 1670 and written in Latin, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis (1670) (fig. 5) is a thorough 230-page essay that signifies Tomasini’s deep knowledge of Greek and Roman history and analyses the concept of hospitality through historical and antiquarian sources (fig. 6).

tomasini tomasinis book  
Fig. 4: Portrait of Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (Wikipedia). Fig. 5: De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis by J. P. Tomasini (1670) (online, GoogleBooks).


Fig. 6: Drawing of a tessera from a private collection (Tomasini 1670: 107)

Why did Tomasini write this work? He began to seriously think about his essay (serio mecum cogitare coepi) when he was in Rome admiring its ruins. Although the concept of hospitality was not ‘directly’ shown by Rome’s major antiquities, a targeted study was lacking and therefore it was essential to collect all the antiquarian and historical evidence (Tomasini 1670: 1-3).

nino crisa

This blog post was written by Nino Crisa as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project. Nino is an archaeologist, numismatist and historian. His research and published works mainly focus on numismatics and the history of Sicilian archaeology and excavations, particularly on archival records, antiquarian collecting, the history of museum collections, antiquities safeguarding and legislation on the cultural heritage between the Bourbon and post-Unification periods (1816-1918).


Barnabei, F. 1895, ‘Di una rarissima “tessera hospitalis” con iscrizione latina’, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità: 85-93.

Letta, C. 2001, ‘Tessera hospitalis dal territorio di Trasacco’, in A. Campanelli (ed.), Il tesoro del lago. L’archeologia del Fucino e la Collezione Torlonia. Catalogo della mostra, Avezzano, 22 aprile-31 ottobre 2001. Pescara: Soprintendenza Archeologica dell’Abruzzo: 152.

Luschi, L. 2008, ‘L’ariete dei “Manlii”: note su una “tessera hospitalis” dal Fucino’, Studi Classici e Orientali, 54: 137-86.

Salinas, A. 1873, Del Real Museo di Palermo: relazione. Palermo (reported in V. Tusa (ed.) 1976, Scritti scelti, Palermo: Regione Siciliana, I: 240-86).

Saquette, J. C. 1997, ‘Tessera di ospitalità a forma di mano’, in J. Arce, S. Ensoli and E. La Rocca (eds.), Hispania Romana: da terra di conquista a provincia dell’impero. Catalogo della mostra, Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 22 settembre-23 novembre. Milan: Electa: 420.

Tomasini, J. P. 1670, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis, in quo ius hospitii universum, apud veteres potissimum, expenditur. Amestlodami: Sumptibus Andreae Frisii.

March 01, 2018

The Athenian polis and its 'winged' symbola

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

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

token with cicada
Athenian token showing a cicada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The images were digitally remastered by Matthias Demel.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 01, 2018

The Animal Tokens of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rebecca rolfe

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2017

Charon's obol and the brass tokens of Lepcis Magna

token_cohen_kantharus token_cohen_modius

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

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

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


Google Map showing Lepcis Magna and Khoms.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

August 17, 2017

Gaius Mitreius, Magister Iuventutis, and the Materiality of Roman Tokens

Amongst the ancient tokens kept in the coin cabinet of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is this piece struck from brass (orichalchum). One one side is a male bust (perhaps of Mitreius or more generally a representation of "youth") surrounded by the legend C. MITREIVS L. F. MAG. IVVENT - Gaius Mitreius, son of Lucius, master of the youth (the iuventutes was a youth organisation). On the other side is a two-story building with columns that looks very much like a basilica. On the building is inscribed L. SEXTILI∙ S.P. = Lucius Sextilius, at his own expense.

mitreius token obverse mitreius token reverse

Token from the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford). (20mm, 3.58g, die axis 6).

In his analysis of Roman tokens Rostovtzeff discusses this type (p. 60), noting that the example in Paris has a countermark underneath the bust. This piece has the number X (10) etched into the exergue on the reverse, but other specimens carry the numbers VIIII and IIII. The structure on the reverse also varies on different examples (as is typical of numismatic representations of buildings) - other representations show a more circular structure that has been identified as an amphitheatre. The representation of the same or similar scenes with differing numbers is reminiscent of the famous spintriae, bronze tokens that carry sex scenes on one side and differing numbers on the other. The fact that the numbers appear to be incised into the token after it was struck is also similar to a practice known in late antiquity, where contorniates (late antique tokens whose purpose remains debated) where inscribed with Christian symbols, palm branches or other designs after striking. One example of this practice is shown below on a piece from the British Museum: a palm branch has been etched into a contorniate that shows Homer on one side and Bacchus on the other.

contorniate with palm branch etched into it

We don't know anything further about the Lucius Sextilius named on the token, nor about Mitreius beyond the fact that he held an office connected with the iuventutes, the youth organisations that existed in the western part of the Roman Empire (also known as collegia iuvenes). But we do possess inscriptional evidence for the Mitreius name at Rome and in Gubbio (CIL VI, 28976 and 38641, CIL XI, 5861, AE 1988, 347). A Mitreius token like that shown above was reportedly found on the island of Capri, although this specimen is now lost (Federico and Miranda 1998, 363).

This was not the only token struck by Mitreius in connection with his position as magister iuventutis. He also struck a type with the same obverse (a male bust and his name) with a facing lion's head within a wreath on the reverse. Other bronze types carried the same obverse with a number within a wreath on the reverse (IIII, XI and XII are known - Cohen VIII 12-15, and Triton IV, 449, the specimen pictured below) - this again is very similar to the design of spintriae. Another specimen, now in a private collection, carries Mitreius' name and a tripod on one side and two clasped hands with a poppy seed on the other - this token also appears to be countermarked in the image.

Mitreius was not the only official connected to Roman youth organisations to strike tokens; several types exist in lead that refer to youth groups or to festivals connected to these same groups. One example is shown below: on one side is a youthful male portrait with the legend PPETRI SABI (Publius Petronius Sabinus) and on the other side is the legend MAG VIIII IVV (Magister Iuvenum VIIII - Master of the Youth, Nine) (TURS 834).

mitreius_token_nnumber.jpg sabinus token
Mitreius bronze token. Sabinus lead token.

That officials associated with youth organisations struck tokens in orichalcum, bronze and lead suggests that different materials might be used for tokens that were ultimately used in the same context. In this sense we should study all Roman tokens together as one class of material, rather than, as has previously been the case, separating the bronze from the lead, or the "spintriae" from other types. Clay tokens are also known from Rome, and may also ultimately provide further illumination on what, and in what contexts, these objects were used for. But these types are further evidence that some tokens were used within Roman colleges or other organisations, and may ultimately have been connected to feasts, games, celebrations or festivals.

This blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities Project. Thanks are due to Denise Wilding for undertaking the photography and recording of this and other tokens from the Ashmolean collection.


Federico, E. and E. Miranda, eds. (1998). Capri Antica. Dalla preistoria alla fine dell'età romana. Capri, Edizioni La Conchiglia.

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

Rostowzew, M. (1905). Römische Bleitesserae. Ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit. Leipzig, Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

June 16, 2017

Token Characteristics: Some Preliminary Thoughts

photo of the conference.jpg  
Talking Tokens: The Warwick Conference  

Earlier this month, the Token Communities project played host to scholars from around the world for the conference Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities. As tokens from all periods and places werex presented, I was struck by the way that these objects acted in similar ways across time and space. English defines the word "token" as something representative of something else, "something that serves to indicate a fact, event, object, feeling, etc" (OED). Below are some preliminary thoughts about what might be characteristic of tokens, what they do in human society, and how they interact with hierarchy, human relationships, and human cognition. It is clear that tokens have played a multitude of roles across time, from the prehistoric to the modern day, but here are some characteristics of these objects that emerged from the papers presented at the conference. (And thank you to all who attended!)

Memory Devices

The earliest tokens were used in accounting, to represent, count and redistirbute goods. In this sense they acted as external memory devices to remember our relationships, transactions and obligations with others. But the memory aspect of tokens also manifests itself in other ways. Tokens might also act as souvenirs or mementoes or particular life events, relationships, festivals or other occasions. For example, pilgrim tokens like this pictured here from the shrine of St. Symeon, acted as objects that mementoes that could provoke or embody memories of a pilgrimage to a particular holy site, as Vicky Foskolou's work has shown. Similarly, love or convict tokens acted as an object that embodied the memory of a particular person or relationship. The relative frequency with which tokens from the ancient Mediterranean are found pierced suggests that these objects too may have functioned (in a secondary context) as a memento of a paricular event or person.

pilgrimage token convict ove token
Pilgrim Token from the Shrine of St. Symeon, The Walters Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by the S. & A.P. Fund, 1946

Convict love Token. Produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.


palmyrene banqueting tessera
Palmyrene Tessera from the Met.

By controlling access to particular events, societies or distributions, tokens contribute to the creation and maintenance of particular social hierarchies. The mere existence of tokens suggests a group of those "who have" tokens (and what they represent/provide) and those who "have not". The best known tokens from antiquity are the "banqueting tesserae" of Palmyra in Syria, objects that served as entrance tickets to particular religious banquets in the city. The distirbution of these objects to particular groups in the city would have reinforced particular communities and groups by excluding others, and likely meant that particular cultic spaces within the city became "members only" at particular moments in time. Similarly the use of jetons in early modern France created a dialogue of "inclusion" and "seclusion" that served to reinforce social norms and the hierarchy that existed within the monarchy, as Sabrina Valin has explored.


The relationship between "tokens" and "money" is complex, but there is clearly a relationship at work between the two. Some tokens, whether in antiquity or in the more modern age, acted as a form of money, whether this be small change issued by merchants, or the "company coinage" of groups in the Roman Republic. But in other cases tokens represent money or an amount of money (like the Roman token giving the names of Olympianus and Eucarapus and the sum of 1000 sestertii), mediating transactions in lieu of official money, or in a way that played with official currency. Tokens might act in ways similar to money by ensuring the distribution of goods and efficient account keeping without ever taking on the role of 'money' itself. In many ways tokens are "like money, but different", and perhaps this was intentionally the case in antiquity to ensure a clear delineation between "official money" and other objects that acted in monetary ways. One wonders whether tokens connected to festivals (like those connected to the festival of Isis in Rome) may have acted in this way - 'money but not quite money' used for particular cultic events.


One key way in which many tokens appear to have differed from money is that many of them appear to represent a single item (e.g. grain, wine) or are intended for a single use (and thanks to Bill Maurer for this observation!) This "single use" aspect applies to tokens from the prehistoric period (which were thrown away after use) as well as the "tokenisation" used in modern day societies (in credit card transactions for example, where each number released as a token is sequential and individual). By contrast, money circulates and is used again and again, to be exchanged for any number of goods and services.

There is a lot more digesting to do from the conference, and a lot more thinking to be done about what tokens are and what they do in society. Stay tuned! ;-)

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

June 01, 2017

Let's play with the portrait of Augustus! "Tesserae" and Roman Games

augustus gaming piece
Bone gaming piece showing and naming Augustus.
(From Rostovtzeff's 1904 publication of the find).

A variety of objects are given the Latin label “tesserae” by modern scholars: mosaic pieces, lead monetiform objects, spintriae, and small circular objects made out of bone or ivory, like the piece pictured above. On one side is a carved portrait of Augustus, while the other side gives his name in Greek (Σεβαστός) and the number one in both Latin and Greek numerals (I in Latin, A in Greek; the Greeks represented numerals through letters). Scholars originally thought that these bone objects, found all over the Roman world, served as tickets to the theatre, amphitheater or circus. But then this “tessera” and fourteen others were found in a child’s tomb in Kerch (Russia) in 1903, and our understanding of these objects changed completely.

Fifteen bone “tesserae” were found in the tomb placed in a wooden and bronze box, neatly stacked in twos. Each piece had an image engraved on one side and on the other a word accompanied by a number in both Latin and Greek. The numbers range from 1 to 15. The designs of the pieces are as follows, according to the publication of Rostovtzeff 1905 (the counters are now in the Hermitage):

  1. Head of Augustus / CΕΒΑCΤΟC (Augustus), I and A.
  2. Head of Zeus / ΖΕΥC (Zeus), II and B.
  3. An "athletic head" (probably Hermes) / [ΕΡΜ]ΗC (Hermes? The legend is partly obliterated), III and Γ.
  4. Entrance to an Egyptian building / ΕΛΕΥΣΕΙΝ(ΙΟΝ) (Eleuseinion), IIII and Δ
  5. Head of Herakles / ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ (Herakles), V and E
  6. The word ΗΡΑΙ(Α) (Heraia) in a wreath / YII and the letter vau
  7. Bust of a praetextatus (a young man wearing a toga) / ΛΟΥΚΙΟΥ (a referenece to a Lucius), VII and Z.
  8. Head of Kronos / ΧΡΟΝΟC (Kronos), VIII and H.
  9. The Greek letter Θ / ΠΑΦΟΥ in a wreath (shown below).
  10. Young female head with a hairstyle of the Augustan age / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), Χ and I
  11. Head of Pollux wearing an athletic headband / ΔΙΟCΚΟΡΟC (Dioscurus), XI and IA.
  12. Head of Castor wearing an athletic band / ΚΑCΤΩΡ (Castor), XII and IB.
  13. Head of Aphrodite / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), XIII and ΙΓ.
  14. Bust of Isis / ΙCIC (Isis). The inscription is damaged, but III and ΙΔ are visible.
  15. Head of Hera / [ΗΡ]Α (Hera, although the inscription is damaged), [X]V and IE.

gaming piece 9
Gaming piece no. 9, reproduced from
Rostovtzeff 1905.

Numerous other pieces similar to this have been found throughout the Roman world (e.g. Pompeii, Asia Minor, Athens, Syria, Crete, Vindonissa north of the Alps), but a complete set like this is rare, if not unique. Comparison with other pieces reveal that the numbers do not correlate with any particular image; so while Zeus is paired with number two here, on another set he may be number ten or fifteen, for example. Other pieces have the portraits and names of other emperors and empresses, though none later than Nero; some specimens represent Julius Caesar and one piece carries a portrait of a Ptolemy. This, in addition to the find spots (particularly in Pompeii, and in the abovementioned tomb) suggests a production date ranging from the second half of the first century BC to first century AD, although they may, of course, have been used later than this.

nikopolis gaming piece
"Token", Early 1st century, Ivory. 2.9 cm
(1 1/8 in.) Gift of Marshall and Ruth
Goldberg. J. Paul Getty Museum, CC-BY.

This complete set has led scholars to conclude that these are gaming pieces. Many of the surviving specimens carry Egyptian, or more specifically, Alexandrian designs. Our number four, for example, likely represents a sanctuary in Eleusis, which was a suburb in Alexandria. Other suburbs in the city, for example Nikopolis, are also shown and named. On the right is an image of one of these pieces: an obelisk stands next to an Egyptian-style building; the other side names Nikopolis and provides the Latin and Greek number four: IIII and Δ. Egyptian deities feature alongside the busts of gods, rulers and other well-known personalities (e.g. athletes, poets, philosophers, characters from comedies). The current theory, then, is that this was an Alexandrian game that then became popular across the Empire in the first century AD. We have no idea how the game was actually played, although it might have been a mixture of a local Egyptian game and the Greek game of petteia (πεττεία).

We might pause to think what it meant that one could play a game in Pompeii, for example, or in modern day Russia, that represented and played with the Alexandrian landscape, its suburbs, buildings and gods. Could the experience be similar to a modern monopoly board, where British streets and locations are experienced and named by people all over the world? I think we should also consider that people thus might also ‘play’ with the emperor’s portrait; how then did this affect people’s experience of the emperor and his family? But finally, since these bone and ivory objects are gaming counters, we should probably stop calling them “tesserae”!

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


Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1976). Alexandriaca. Studies on Roman Game Counters III. Chiron 6: 205-239.

Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1980). Ruler portraits on Roman game counters from Alexandria (Studies on Roman game counters III). Eikones. Studien zum griechischen und römischen Bildnis. ed. R. A. Stucky and I. Jucker. Bern, Francke Verlag Bern: 29-39.

Rostovtsew, M. (1905). Interprétation des tessères en os avec figures, chiffres et légendes. Revue Archéologique 5: 110-124.

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