January 01, 2020

A Bronze Neapolitan Coin and its Relevance to Rome


RRC 1/1, Bronze Coin minted in Neapolis (Naples), now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 3.03g, 17.7 mm

Obverse: Laureate head of Apollo

Reverse: A man-headed bull, with the legend ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ (Romano).

This simple bronze coin is part of a collection of bronze and silver coinage discovered in the Naples area, dating to the late fourth century BC. It has often been described as one of the first true ‘Roman’ coins, and as such it is the first entry in Michael Crawford’s Roman Republican Coinage, the standard typology of Roman coins from this period. This is slightly misleading, given that Neapolis (modern day Naples) was not under direct Roman rule at this point and was a Greek speaking city, indeed, the legend on the coin itself is in Greek, despite making reference the Romans.

Neapolis was a fairly old city by this point, as there is evidence to suggest settlement in the Naples region as early as the first millennium BC, forming part of the great migration of Greeks from their heartlands in the east to southern Italy (Magna Graecia), Sicily and further afield in the western Mediterranean. Amongst other things, it is likely that it was the Greeks who first introduced true ‘coinage’ into Italy, in line with the discovery of coin hoards dating back to the sixth century in southern Italy. Therefore it is not surprising that the first example of coinage relating to Rome should have been discovered in a southern, Greek city. But why does the coin say ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ ((coin) of the Romans)?

By the late fourth century BC, Rome was expanding its political reach down towards the southern end of the Italian peninsula. It was engaged in a series of wars with another Italic people, the Samnites of the south-central spine of Italy, and in this conflict many of the Greek cities of southern Italy were effectively forced to pick a side. The region of Campania, in which Neapolis was located, fell between the Romans and the Samnites and thus turned into a battleground between them. According to Livy, after a power struggle between the pro and anti-Roman factions within Neapolis, the city opened its doors to the Romans and signed a pact of alliance, the Foedus Aequissimum, with them. This is dated to around 326 BC, as the second Samnite war was getting under way, and this has also been taken as the earliest likely date for the coin being struck. It is thus possible that the use of ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ on the coin was meant to publicise the Roman alliance to the general population, but that still does not explain the immediate reason for the coin being struck.

At this point it should be noted that the production of coinage in ancient states was generally not regularised to the same degree as in modern states. Whilst coins and notes are the predominant representation of physical wealth (and a key means of exchange) in the modern world, this was not the case in antiquity, where wealth might just as easily be represented by precious metals or even cattle; indeed it is interesting to note the similarity of the Latin term for money, pecunia, with the Indo-European root word for cattle, peku. Similarly, minted coinage was not necessarily needed for the purposes of exchange either. The Romans themselves appear to have gotten by without using minted coinage at all up until the third century BC, with small transactions seemingly conducted via the use of so called aes grave, literally rough bronze, nuggets of metal that were not shaped or minted in any fashion. Whilst in the modern world the intense quantity and velocity of financial transactions make it an imperative for central banks and mints to constantly replenish the physical money supply on a regularised basis in order to ensure liquidity, this was less the case in the ancient world where there were generally far fewer financial transactions and where the maintenance of ‘liquidity’ was not a concern of the issuers of money. Therefore, issues of ‘authorised’ coinage by cities tended to be made with a specific ‘goal’ in mind, such as to pay for public works or military campaigns, rather than to provide an easy means of conducting small scale private commerce.

The latter of these two examples provides a strong rationale for why this coin may have been minted. Given the new alliance with the Romans, Neapolis would have entered the war against the Samnites, which meant that the city would have had to pay to raise both troops and ships (for the treaty with Rome stipulated the provision of ships, naval warfare being a Roman weakness at this point) for the duration of the war. Coins represent an easy way of remunerating soldiers and sailors, as it relieves a state of the obligation to provide directly for them; if a soldier or sailor receives his dues in coins, he can use that new found wealth to pay for his own food, drink and other sundry expenses, as opposed to having that supplied by the state. Wars, in the ancient and modern eras, are often associated with large expansions of the money supply so as to pay for armies - the severe collapse of the value of Roman coinage during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century AD’ has been associated with large scale minting by various aspirants for the imperial throne in order to win and maintain the support of the soldiery. To return to Neapolis, minting this and other coins provided the city with a means to fund its obligation to the Roman alliance, which seems a sensible explanation for the profusion of Neapolitan coinage towards the end of the third century, a period of prolonged warfare in southern Italy.

This idea in turn provides an interesting link to the Roman ‘adoption’ of coinage in the third century. As Rome grew to be major power in the Italian peninsula and beyond, the amount of warfare that it engaged in inevitably increased; conflict with the Samnites in the fourth century would be followed by wars with Pyrrhus of Epirus and Carthage in the third century, wars that necessitated long military campaigns. Given that (even prior to the full professionalization of the military under Marius), the Roman state provided a stipendium to its troops, the amount paid out as part of this would likely have increased immeasurably during the long years of war in the third century, which perhaps explains why the Romans finally adopted coinage wholesale, as a utile means of providing the stipendium.

Returning to the coin itself, aside from the legend on it, the imagery is largely traditional and displays continuity with earlier Neapolitan coin issues. The bull-headed man on the reverse is a staple not just of Neapolitan coinage but of other coins of Magna Graecia, and has often been taken as a reference to the process of synoecism between Greek colonists and local Italic peoples, the bull being a traditionally Italic symbol (one later used on the coinage of Rome’s rebellious Italian allies during the Social War). On the obverse there is a depiction of the god Apollo, whom we are told by later poet Statius was among the patron gods of Neapolis, so again this is not a hugely surprising piece of imagery. It could thus be argued that the coin is representative of a fulcrum point in the history of Magna Graecia; Greek language and traditional Greek and Graeco-Italic symbolism remains on the coin, but the reference to the Romans is a clear sign of the region’s gradual absorption into the Roman sphere of influence and thus foreshadows the profound social changes that would affect both the Greek cities of the south and Rome itself in the coming century.


This month’s entry was written by Ieuan Luke. Ieuan graduated from Warwick in 2017 and is still interested in the ancient world, focusing primarily on ancient economies and the reception of antiquity in Europe and Russia.

December 01, 2019

The crocodile as a symbol of Egypt on a victory coin of Augustus


Gold Aureus from 27BC (RIC 12, P.86, no. 544) The obverse depicts head of Augustus with ‘CAESAR.DIVI.F.COS.VII’ inscribed. On the reverse is a crocodile facing right, representing Egypt. The reverse legend reads ‘AEGVPT CAPTA.’ Image produced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

After a tense period of civil war, Octavian’s decisive victory at the Battle of Actium in 31BC left Marc Antony with insufficient military support to win the war, and a year later Egypt was conquered and absorbed into the Roman Empire. Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian as the unrivalled, sole ruler of the Roman world, a victory he was keen to advertise. The above pictured coin is a gold aureus celebrating the acquisition of Egypt. It is typical of victory coinage, with the obverse depicting a portrait bust of the ruler (who was the victor), in this case Octavian, and the reverse depicting an image symbolic of the conquered nation, in this case a crocodile. The gold aureus is similar to a near identical issue of silver denarii struck in the previous year. Both coins hailed Octavian as son of the divine Julius Caesar, establishing his legitimacy on a political and religious level.

That Octavian chose the image of a crocodile to place on the reverse of his coins is of particular interest. First and foremost, it presents Octavian as the victor over a foreign enemy. Crocodiles were popular in Roman art as images representing foreign and exotic ideals, and their use here was no doubt intended to draw attention to the war in its international context, and thus overshadow the morally dubious truth of it being, in truth, a civil war. Octavian was now the sole ruler of Rome, having violently deposed of his co-consul. It was therefore crucial for him to deter any criticism and suggestions of tyranny. The crocodile was a particularly suitable image because of its associations with danger, and thus it had the added benefit of presenting Marc Antony as a threat to Rome. This helped to authorise Octavian’s war against his fellow Roman, and once-ally, and aligns with much of Octavian’s earlier propagandist campaign against him. The crocodile therefore helps to reinforce the idea that Octavian should be hailed, not as the violent murderer of his co-consul, but as the saviour of the Roman Empire.


Coin of Crassus showing a crocodile. Image produced courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.

This is not the first time a crocodile had been used in Roman coinage. Already in 37BC, the crocodile had appeared on the coinage of a figure largely identified as M. Licinius Crassus, son of the triumvir Crassus. It is believed that this coin celebrated Roman territory ceded to Cleopatra VII of Egypt by Marc Antony. It is interesting therefore, that this same symbol of Egypt should be used by Augustus only ten years later to celebrate the exact opposite: the conquering of Egyptian territory by Rome. On the coin of Crassus, it is likely that the crocodile was chosen because of its associations with the Nile, which itself was associated with the agricultural wealth of Egypt. We can therefore infer that this earlier use of the image of the crocodile was intended to celebrate Egypt in a gesture of diplomacy. Octavian, aware of this, may well have deliberately used this same image, already known for its associations with agricultural wealth, in order to boast of his achievement at having acquired such an important nation into the Roman Empire. Rome relied heavily on Egypt for its imports of grain, and hence Octavian’s victory was of crucial importance. It is likely the coin instilled pride in its Roman viewers, for belonging to such a large, powerful empire.

As we have seen therefore, the coin presents Octavian as a successful military leader, who not only saved, but also contributed to the Roman Empire. It also served to justify his recent war against Marc Antony by presenting it as a foreign conquest. We can see that the imagery was carefully chosen in order to secure and validate Octavian’s position as sole ruler of Rome.


This month's entry was written by Richa Snell. Richa is a final year classical civilization student with an interest in material culture and iconography, which she is hoping to pursue further by studying for a master’s degree next year. She is currently writing her undergraduate dissertation on imperial uses of Egyptian imagery.


R.A. Gurval (1995) Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

C.E. Barrett (2017) ‘Egypt in Roman Visual and Material Culture’ in Oxford Handbooks Online in Classics Studies, ed. G. Williams (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press).

M.Swetnam-Burland (2015) Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

D. Vagi, Crocodiles on Roman coins familiar as the emblem of Egypt – https://www.coinworld.com/news/precious-metals/crocodiles-on-roman-coins-familiar-as-the-emblem-of-egyptian-province.html (15 Feb 2015). Accessed 31 Oct 2019.

October 01, 2019

Hortensia Sperata, Token Issuer in Rome or Ostia

token obverse hortensia token reverse palm within wreath

Lead token from Rome or Ostia, now in the The Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (Rostowzew and Prou 422a). 12h, 20mm, 4.13g, TURS 1241.

Side A: HORTE SPER around in a circle.

Side B: Palm branch within a wreath.

Pictured above is a lead token, which, from the style of its design and its fabric, we can assign either to the city of Rome or to Ostia. What is remarkable about this piece is that the token carries the name of a Roman woman: Horte(nsia) Sper(ata). Her name circles around the edge of one side of the token in a way very similar to Roman coinage. The other side carries imagery commonly found on lead tokens in this region: a wreath and palm branch. These communicate to the user a festive, happy atmosphere.

This was not the only token that Hortensia issued. Another token carries her name in full: HORTENSIA SPERATA, with the same design (palm branch within wreath) on the other (TURS 1240). Two further tokens are smaller in diameter (13-15mm) and seem to carry an abbreviation of her name: HOR on one side and SPE or SP on the other (TURS 1242, 1243). Why would Hortensia have so many variant tokens? She might have wished to have two sizes of token (20mm and 13-15mm), with one perhaps worth more than the other, or with each representing different products or levels of access. An engraver could have created a mould for her tokens that cast both sizes at once, a practice known from other surviving examples.

mould from the esquiline

The palombino marble mould pictured here would have been utilised to make tokens during the Roman imperial period. It was found along with several others on the Esquiline Hill in Rome in 1882. Here we can find another individual responsible for tokens, whose name has been abbreviated to LVE (a practice also commonly found in graffiti). Like the tokens of Hortensia, we can see that LVE wanted two sizes of token: a larger and a smaller piece. On the smaller piece his initials have become ligate: i.e. they have been joined together ti fit into the reduced size. In a similar way Hortensia's name was abbreviated on her smaller tokens.

We do not know anything more about Hortensia Sperata, but one presumes she had a certain amount of wealth. From the men and women named on Roman lead tokens, some were magistrates in government or colleges; others appear to be linked to bath houses. Whatever the specific use of these tokens (and it is very hard to be certain), they were likely used in an act of patronage: the provision of necessary small change, for example, the sponsoring of a banquet or other event, or a distribution. The lead tokens of Rome and Ostia reveal a world otherwise unrecorded in our sources, where both men and women utilised these objects to cement personal relationships and consolidate local communities.

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

September 01, 2019

Achaean League Coinage and Collective Identity

On the Greek mainland in the Hellenistic Period, some of the city states united into federal leagues, the most successful of these being the Achaean League. In my undergraduate dissertation I wanted to show how the Achaean League developed its collective identity and how this affected the policy and the society of the League. Collective identity is how states and individuals can identify with both their home city and the overarching political body (i.e. a modern example is me saying I am both European and British). The coinage of the Achaean League acted as a means of spreading this message throughout the League. In this blogpost, I’m going to show how the coinage reflected the policy of collective identity. To examine this topic in depth I’m going to examine a coin from Megara and how the Megarians reconciled the ‘Dorian’ and ‘Achaean’ aspects of their identity.

Types of Achaean Coinage


Achaean Hemidrachm, minted at Sparta, with symbol of Dioscuri caps and abbreviation of LA on the reverse, and head of Zeus Homarius on the obverse.

Polybius proudly states that the Achaeans “formed the states into a community of allies and friends, but they have also adopted the same laws, weights and measures and coinage…” (Polybius, Histories, 2.37). This has been interpreted as a way of showing “the social and political solidarity of the second-century Peloponnese.” (Thonemann (2015) 72). These coins were silver hemidrachms, worth half a drachm, and were minted in nineteen different poleis of the Achaean League. Each of these cities produced the coins to a similar blueprint: a head of Zeus Homarius on the obverse, and a monogram of the word Achaean on the reverse. The different mints are indicated with either abbreviations or with symbols, such as the Pegasus of Corinth.

achaean tetrachalkon

Achaean tetrachalkon, minted at Corinth, Obverse: Zeus with sceptre and holding Nike in his hand. Reverse: Seated figure of the personified Achaea. Both motifs were common throughout the Hellenistic World.

These ethnics and symbols helped to bind the cities to the league by associating them with the federal Achaean body and making them as one and the same, whilst celebrating the individual characters of the cities themselves; it shows dedication to the federal ideal. This is further proved by the bronze coinage of the league, which was struck in over forty-five out of the seventy odd cities in the league. These small poleis were committed to the league and were willing to invest heavily in that relationship. Warren suggests that over 1600 dies were used in the minting of these bronze coins, which is an extremely heavy investment, especially compared to how other poleis minted coins in the Hellenistic Period (Warren (2007); Thonemann (2015) 74).

Maintaining local identity in a federal state

achaean league coin

Achaean Hemidrachm, minted at Megara. Obverse: Head of Zeus Homarius. Reverse: Achaean League monogram and abbreviation of word Dorian.

The collective identity of the Achaean League didn’t mean that various local identities were weakened. In fact, the network of poleis meant that they strengthened their local identities, and the environment of competition between the constituent members changed. Coinage was one media that expressed this.

This coin from Megara helps to show the nuance that went into how the ancient Greeks identified themselves. Across the Achaean monogram is the abbreviated ethnic, but rather than denoting the city of Megara, it draws attention to the Greek ethnic group of the Dorians. The Egyptologist Lynn Meskell has said that “identity is what is draped over a person by the groups of which he or she is part” ((1999) 32), indicating that identity is multi-faceted and complex, consisting of many layers. The complicated layers of this coin show that the people of Megara want to advertise their history as Dorians, and the political reality of their position as members of the Achaean League. One did not trump the other, and from the view of inter-polis competition, the historical baggage of the term will have had an effect on how Megara was received within the league.


This examination of Achaean coinage has shown how integrated the society of the Achaeans was, and that whilst Polybius’ assertion that the Peloponnese was a “single state” (2.37) is apt, the situation was a lot more complicated. Each member state had its own agenda and history, but worked under the umbrella of Achaean identity in order to be stronger and more efficient (Close (2018)). The coinage of the various states of the Peloponnese show how these states were able to reconcile the identities that both united them and showcased their uniqueness.



Polybius, Histories, trans. Waterfield, R. Oxford University Press: Oxford 2010.


Close, E. “Megalopolis and the Achaean Koinon: Local Identity and the Federal State.” Teiresias 48.1 2018: 2–8.

Meskell, L. 1999. Archaeologies of Social Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Thonemann, P. 2015. The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Warren, J. 2007. The Bronze Coinage of the Achaion Koinon: the Currency of a Federal Ideal. London: Royal Numismatic Society.


This month’s entry was written by Jameson Minto, who recently graduated from Warwick. His dissertation was titled ‘The Achaean League and Collective Identity’ and dealt with the evolution of both the institutions of the league and the creation of the Achaean identity. Jameson runs his own blog, Musings of Clio, which discusses the ancient world, and he is set to study an MA in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester.

August 01, 2019

From divinity to the Duce: the many meanings of the Julian Star

coin showing sidus iulium
Augustus, Caesaraugusta (possibly), Spain, denarius, 19-18 BC.
RIC 1 37b, pg.44 (British Museum, R.6067).
Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS; head of Augustus, wearing oak-wreath, left.
Reverse: DIVVS IVLIVS; comet with eight rays and tail upwards.

During Julius Caesar’s memorial games in 44 BC, a great comet allegedly appeared. Pliny the Elder writing in the 1st century AD quoted Augustus describing the comet:

On the very days of my games a comet was visible for seven days in the northern part of the sky. It was rising about an hour before sunset, and was a bright star, visible from all lands.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.94

Today this comet, mainly known as the Julian Star or Caesar’s Comet, is one of the most famous comets in classical antiquity, despite there being little contemporary evidence to support its existence (see Ramsey and Licht, 1997). The image of this comet and other solar imagery featured throughout Augustus’ rule during 27 BC- 14 AD. Indeed, by the time of the Flavians in the late 1st century AD, solar symbolism in general “had become part of the imperial cult”, such was its importance (Weinstock, 1971, 384). The comet was also so influential that the fascist Italian dictator (who ruled from 1919-1943) Benito Mussolini included this image on a stamp to commemorate Augustus. Why did this symbol become so important, and what made it so resonant that someone more than 2,000 years later would choose to use it?

Firstly, we should take into consideration the symbolism of the star in the years before Augustus. Julius Caesar, Augustus’ adoptive father, initially put stars on his coinage in the years before his death in 44 BC (e.g. RRC 480/5a). The symbol of a star or comet had both positive and negative connotations around this time, being able to symbolize amongst other things “the divine or deified ruler”, yet also portend evil (Weinstock 1971, 378, 371). Whilst still alive Caesar may have only wanted to signify his descent from Venus with the star on coinage, but after his death it took on a new meaning. The common people interpreted the comet of 44 BC as a sign that Caesar had been received in heaven, which then helped push the star symbol as confirmation of Caesar’s divinity (Pliny, Natural History 2.94). Augustus further built upon this symbolism when he added a star on top of a bust of Caesar in the forum to mark the comet, and dedicated a temple to the deified Caesar (Suetonius, the deified Julius 88).

By using this symbol in his own coinage, Augustus could also make subtle connections between his own reign, the comet, star imagery and the divinity of Caesar (Williams 2003, 7). The symbol is a prime example of Augustus’ technique of “carefully nuanced suggestiveness” which he so often used in his reign (Galinsky 1996, 312). By associating himself with a symbol that was tied to Caesar’s image, Augustus was asserting his familial connection, while allowing further associations with divinity to also exist.

sanquinius denarius
Augustus, M. Sanquinius, Rome, denarius, 17 BC,
RIC 1 340, p.66, (British Museum, 2002,0102.4960).
Obverse: AVGVST DIVI F LVDOS SAE, herald, in long robe
and feathered helmet, standing left, holding winged caduceus in
right hand and round shield with six-pointed star, in left hand.

Reverse: M SA[NQVI]NIVS III VIR, head of deified Julius Caesar,
laureate, right; above, comet with four rays and a tail.

Further symbolism was associated with the comet during the Saecular Games of 17 BC, which celebrated the start of a new age. To commemorate the games, the moneyer M. Sanquinius issued a coin series again featuring a comet, but within the context of these games, with the name of them inscribed on the coin obverse (LVDOS SAE). This coin may have been intended to highlight the prophecy made by the Haruspex Vulcanius, who proclaimed the 44 BC comet to herald a new age (Weinstock, 1971 195). Thus perhaps as well as power and ancestry, the comet came to resonate as a symbol of Augustus’ “Golden Age” as a whole.

sidus iulium stamp
quote from Augustus’
Res Gestae.

By the 20th century, Augustus and his regime seem to have become a figure of world-renown; a 1937 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Augustus “one of the few statesmen who belong not to one country or to one continent but to the whole world” (Richter, 1938 272-273). Mussolini seemed to realise Augustus’ potential as a figurehead for fascism, as during the 1930s Augustus featured frequently in Italian propaganda. The bimillenium of Augustus’ birth was celebrated during 1937-8 and a stamp series commissioned in 1937, one of which featured the comet. Unlike Augustus’ coinage, which circulated within the bounds of an empire, these stamps were a possible means by which Italy as a newly fascist nation could broadcast its symbolism, both nationally and internationally (Reid, 1984 226). On this stamp this comet had come to represent Augustus as a whole with its position beside both a statue of Augustus and excerpt from his Res Gestae. The comet had transformed from a single phenomenon to a symbol synonymous with imperial power.

Primary Sources:

Pliny the Elder, Natural History volume I book II trans. H. Rackham (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A. 1938)

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars volume I: The deified Julius 88 trans. J. C. Rolfe (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A. 1914).

Richter (1938) “The Exhibition of Augustan Art”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 33, No. 12, pg. 257,272-279.

daisy ashton

This month's coin of the month was written by Daisy Ashton. Daisy recently completed her BA in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Warwick. She is interested in the ancient world's impact on modern heritage, and is going on to do an MPhil in Heritage Studies at the University of Cambridge.

July 01, 2019

The 'man with the shovel' on the 'plomos monetiformes' of Baetica

plomos monetiformes showing man with a shoel

A lead token from the 'series de las minas'.

Obverse: a naked man walking left, a shovel marked PRVM on his shoulder, holding out a bell. P S to either side; wreath border.

Reverse: Naked man standing right pouring water from an askos onto a beribboned phallus; broom below on exergual line, Q. CO ILLI Q around and LVSO in a tablet in the exergue; wreath border.

Stannard PC 25. American Numismatic Society, New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG 31, 9 September 1994, lot 1857 Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 1, Carbone 2018 pl. 29 no. 3.

In Spain there exist large (45-50mm) struck lead monetiform pieces whose precise function remains elusive. Many of the pieces are decorated with the design shown on the specimen above: a naked man carrying a 'shovel'. Because of this image they were traditionally believed to be monetary pieces associated with mining in the region - the naked man was interpreted as a miner. But the figure looks very different to known representations of Roman miners, and Stannard has demonstrated that this figure (and other images) are actually shared between Baetica (Spain) and central Italy, appearing on monetiform objects in both regions. It is thus not a miner - but who is it? Stannard (1995) suggested the figure might be associated with agriculture (a farmer going off to work with a shovel, shown watering his plants on the other side) or with Italian theatre, since often the figure is shown with an overly large phallus.

close up picture of shovel
Close up of the 'man carrying a shovel' inscribed with PRVM
or PRVNA and carrying a bell. (Stannard et al. 2017 fig. 25).

Many other pieces connected to this series show imagery related to the baths or the palaestra, and it perhaps in this context that we should seek clues as to the identity of our individual. As briefly mentioned by Stannard et al. (2017), the figure should likely be understood as a fornacator, the individual responsible for stoking the fires in the bath house to get the water warm. These individuals can be shown as naked and ithyphallic, as seen in the mosaic shown below. Our 'naked man with shovel' also holds a bell in his right hand, a variation only found in Baetica and not in Italy. This is likely a reference to the bell or gong that was rung by bath houses to announce that the water had reached the optimum temperature - so come take your bath now! This practice is referenced by several ancient authors and a bell was found in 1548 in the baths of Diocletian in Rome bearing the inscription FIRMI BALNEATORIS. A gong, uncovered in the Palaestra of the Stabian baths of Pompeii, probably served a similar function; bells might also be rung to indicate that the baths were soon closing and now was the last opportunity for a bath (Nielsen 1990, 111). If the fornacator was responsible for making sure the water was at the right temperature, then it would make sense that he is depicted with the bell that was rung when the temperature for bathing was perfect. Having identified the individual as a stoker of fires, we might return to the legend inscribed on the man's shovel: PRVM. I wonder if the legend might actually be PRVNA, the Latin term for glowing charcoal, with the N and A ligate (joined together). The figure on the other side of this lead piece, puring water from a vessel, may be a slave attending a master in the bath complex or bath attendant.

screen_shot_2019-06-28_at_101314.png token showing man with shovel
Mosaic from Thamugadi showing a fornacator (stoker). (Nielson 1990) Plomo monetiforme showing an ithyphallic man with shovel. Stannard PC no. 29

Are these pieces then bathing tokens? Stannard et al. 2017 argue they are not, since images related to bathing in this series are connected with other imagery that is not connected to the baths at all; some specimens also carry value marks, which suggests they had a monetary function. Lead tokens found in bath complexes in Italy, however, (e.g. in Fregellae and in Ostia), do not necessarily carry 'bathing' imagery; a wide variety of images may have been used in this particular sphere (just as mosaics in Roman bath houses are not all necessarily related to the activity of bathing). Those in Fregellae also appear to carry value marks. The alternative is that an image of a low-ranking bath worker should be chosen as an image for a pseudo-coinage, or a monetary series commemorating an act of euergetism related to the baths (as suggested by Stannard et al. 2017). This possibility is an intriguing one; hopefully future work will offer us further information in this regard!

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


Carbone, L. (2018). The unpublished Iberian lead tokens in the Richard B. Witschonke collection at the American Numismatic Society. American Journal of Numismatics 30: 131-144.

Casariego, A., G. Cores and F. Pliego (1987). Catálogo de plomos monetiformes de la Hispania Antigua. Madrid.

García-Bellido, M. P. (1986). Nuevos documentos sobre minería y agricultura romanas en Hispania. Archivo español de arqueologia 59: 13-42.

Nielsen, I. (1990). Thermae et Balnea (2 vols). Aarhus, Aarhus University Press.

Spagnoli, E. (2017). Un nucleo di piombi 'monetiformi' da Ostia, Terme dei Cisiarii (II.II.3): problematiche interpretative e quadro di circolazione. Per un contributo di storia economica e di archeologia della produzione tra II e III secolo d.C. Annali dell'Instituto Italiano di Numismatica 63: 179-234.

Stannard, C. (1995). Iconographic parallels between the local coinages of central Italy and Baetica in the first century BC. Acta Numismàtica 25: 47-97.

Stannard, C., A. G. Sinner, N. Moncunill Martí and J. Ferrer i Jané (2017). A plomo monetiforme from the Iberian settlement of Cerro Lucena (Enguera, Valencia) with a north-eastern Iberian legend, and the Italo-baetican series. Journal of Archaeological Numismatics: 59-106.

June 01, 2019

Countermarks on Athenian Tokens

Athens is the city in the Classical world that minted tokens on a scale previously unparalleled, only to be superseded by Rome. Tokens in Athens had a continuous life of about seven centuries and facilitated numerous aspects of public life: the functioning of the Council, the Courts, the Assembly, participation in the Dionysia, the Panathenaea and the other festivals.

Researchers have commented on the relations between tokens and coins and have asked to what extent coins functioned as an archetype for tokens. The answer is clearly negative. Classical tokens do not resemble coins and functioned in an altogether different manner. They were probably used for the selection procedure of citizens who would fill offices and serve as public functionaries, and consecutively for the allotment of citizens to offices and even ‘workplaces’.

1.) Agora Museum IL1463.
Alpha with countermark of winged
caduceus, 31 mm.

Tokens with letters signify the allotment, the fact that citizens would be allotted randomly to offices (fig. 1). And here is a seeming similitude to coins: there exist letter tokens which are countermarked. But contrary to coins, where countermarking meant the revalidation of the item, so that issues were put afresh into circulation, the countermarking in this case signifies the particular sector of public life and complements the token design. Flans are particularly wide, probably because the placement of the countermark was conceived from the beginning. The designs of the countermarks – the winged caduceus (fig. 1), the kernos and the amphora in an ivy-wreath – are well attested in categories of official artefacts and they qualify as designs of the state seal (sphragis demosia). The exact offices they represent can only be conjectured but they can be seen as analogous to the stamps on the juror’s allotment plates; here the ‘owl in wreath’ stamp meant that the citizen was eligible for jury allotments and the ‘Gorgoneion’ stamp meant magisterial allotments.

It seems that the solution of the countermark was short-lived because only three out of the approximately three hundred Hellenistic tokens excavated in the Athenian Agora have a countermark placed next to a letter type.

Contrary to the rarity of countermarks on tokens dated to before Sulla’s sack of the city (86 BC), which practically marks the end of the city’s independence, countermarks are far more common in Athens of the Roman Imperial Period (fig. 2). In particular more than 200 specimens demonstrate at least one countermark out of the 620 tokens that can be securely dated to the period between the first century AD and AD 268, when the destruction inflicted on the city by the Herules marked the end of token use in Athens. It is worth noting that most of the tokens in strata and deposits containing Herulian debris carry countermarks. Our attention is particularly attracted by the countermarks of ‘snail and rabbit’ and ‘stork holding lizard by the tail’, which are the most abundantly attested. In the trench containing dumped fill as a result of clean-up operations after the Herulian sack, countermarked tokens co-exist with un-countermarked specimens, albeit they are found on the same types. These mainly celebrate the cults of Asklepios, Hygieia and Telesphoros (fig. 3) or Asklepios alone, Dionysos (fig. 4), Serapis, Zeus and Nike, Athena and Nike and also Themistocles, and the Minotaur, alone or with Theseus. The latter cases may be related to the claims of Athenian elite families for status and prestigious ancestry.

selection of tokens from agora
2.) Selection of tokens excavated in and around the Attalos Stoa,
Athenian Agora (Archives of the American School of Classical
Studies 2012.25.0091).

IL384 IL 1113

The same pattern is also encountered on the tokens found in piles on the floors of the Attalos Stoa and also in the immediate vicinity of the Attalos Stoa to the south.

IL 1116

Specimens are also quite often found to have been countermarked twice by the same stamp, such as the token with an Athena bust and two countermarks of the snail and rabbit type (fig. 5). More puzzling are the Herakles and tripod tokens, which on their reverse side bear three distinct countermarks: stork and lizard, snail and rabbit, and a third design not easily identifiable (fig. 6).

Both the designs of stork and lizard and of snail and rabbit relate to universal symbols and refer to narratives that could be easily adapted as badges and emblems. The stork in particular was very popular in medieval heraldry.

The meaning of the countermarks is not easy to decode. The countermarked tokens capture only a moment in the history of Athens, because they represent the types and specimens that were in circulation at the time of the Herulian Invasion and their preservation may be thought random. Even the hoarding of countermarked pieces together with un-countermarked specimens may have been occasioned by the circumstances that prevailed shortly after the destruction. The interpretation of the countermarks is all the more hindered by the scarcity of tokens in the centuries from the Augustan Period to the mid-third century AD, which could serve as a point of comparison.

Margaret Crosby suggested that the same countermark on varying types might help to identify the same authority behind the issuing of the tokens. The purpose of these tokens would have been admissions to games and festivals, such as those referred to in inscriptions of the third century AD. In fact the legend on two of the types reads ‘of the Gerusia’, the council formed by notable Athenians and instituted by the emperor Commodus in the year AD 178/9, which had the agonothesia of festivals. The Attalos Stoa was thought to provide an advantageous view of spectacles and processions going along the Panathenaic Way and in view of this function, tokens excavated there seem to come as no surprise.

It is well known that the holding of offices in the Hellenistic and increasingly in the Imperial period involved considerable private expense. The iconography of the countermarks and even some of the token types might then be related to wealthy gerusiastai and office-holders in general, who competed for the recognition of the people, an idea already advocated by Margaret Crosby.


Along these lines, the countermarking a second or even a third time of tickets is to be considered as a renewal of their otherwise short lifetime. Roman period tokens were literary ‘time stamped’ and given out for a second or a third use since all the festivals were naturally recurring events. The registration of singular events constitutes the very essence of tokens across time, not unlike the modern-day block chain and its digital database or ledger.

This month's entry was written by Mairi Gkikaki. This blog forms part of the Project 'Tokens and their Cultural Biography in Athens from the Classical Age to the End of Antiquity', a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action, which has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 794080-2.


W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and imitation in ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Wirtschafts-, und Sozialgeschichte 28 (2010), 171-195.

E. Curtius, Über Wappenstil und Wappengebrauch im klassischen Altertum (Berlin, 1874).

M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens’, in M. Lang and M. Crosby, Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton, 1964), 69-146.

D.J. Gaegan, The Athenian Constitution after Sulla, Hesperia Supplements 12 (Princeton, 1967).

M. Gkikaki, 'Tokens in the Athenian Agora in the Third Century AD: Adverstising Prestige and Civic Identity in Roman Athens', in A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming)

S. Killen, Parasema. Offizielle Symbole griechischer Poleis und Bundesstaaten (Wiesbaden, 2017).

J.H. Kroll, Athenian Bronze Allotment Plates (Cambridge, 1972).

J.H. Kroll, ‘The Athenian imperials: results of recent study’, in J. Nollé, B. Overbeck and P. Weiss (eds), Internationales Kolloquium zur Kaiserzeitlichen Münzprägung Kleinasiens. 27-30 April 1994 in der Staatlichen Münzsammlung (München, 1997). 61-9.

M. Lang, ‘Allotment by tokens’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 8, 1959, 80-9.

B. Maurer, ‘The Politics of Token Economics’, in. A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming).

K.D. Mylonas, ‘Αττικά Μολύβδινα Σύμβολα’, ArchEph 40, 1901, 119-22.

J.H. Oliver, The Sacred Gerusia. The American Excavations in the Athenian Agora. Hesperia Suppl. 6 (Princeton, 1941).

P.J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford, 1981).

G.C. Rothery, Concise Encyclopedia of Heraldry (London ,1994, reprint of the book first published in 1914).

H.A. Thompson and R.E. Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape and Uses of an Ancient City Centre, The Agora of Athens, volume 14 (Princeton, 1972).

P. Tselekas, ‘Countermarks on the Hellenistic Coinages of Lesbos’, in P. Tselekas (ed), Coins in the Aegean Islands. Proceedings of the Fifth Scientific Meeting 16-19 September 2010, (Athens, 2010), 127-153

O. Van Nijf and R. Alston (eds), Political Culture in the Greek City after the Classical Age (Leuven, 2011)

May 01, 2019

Greek by name, Indian by nature: Indo–Greek Coinage

agothockles square coin
Bactria: Agathocles. 180-165 BCE. Copper alloy. BMC 1844,0909.61
Obverse: Brahmi legend. Female deity.
Reverse: Greek legend. Maneless lion.

If I told you this was a Greek coin would you believe it? The writing on the obverse is decisively not Greek; the square shape is certainly not what we are used to in Greek coinage, and the female deity on the obverse doesn’t look like anybody in the Greek Pantheon. The only clue we get to this coin’s ‘Greek’ origin is the Greek legend on the reverse, which reads ‘BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΓAΘOKΛEOYΣ’, translated as ‘King Agathocles’. It is an Indo-Greek coin, minted in this way for a very specific political purpose: to try and assimilate the Greek king with his Indian subjects.

To understand how a coin like this can be produced, we must start by understanding its geo-political context. It was minted in Bactria (the area that comprises modern day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Northern Pakistan and Uzbekistan) in the 2nd century BCE by the Indo-Greek king Agathocles. Bactria, by the 2nd century, had already established itself as a real mixing pot of Greek, Afghan, and Indian culture. The region was first exposed to Greek culture after Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 320’s BCE. Then Seleucus I (a Greek successor to Alexander, one of the Diadochi) established himself as ruler in Asia and his dynasty retained power for another century, further reinforcing the Greek influence in the area. Bactria gained independence between 250-240 BCE, and the Greek Diodotus I became the first Greco-Bactrian king. In the 180’s Greco-Bactrian kings, notably Demetrius I and Menander, started to conquer parts of northern India. Consequently, scholars refer to the kings who ruled this new territory, comprising parts of India, as the Indo-Greek kings. It was in this context that Agathocles, the king who minted the coin in discussion, was operating.

Almost every aspect of this “unusual” coin serves Agathocles’ political purpose. “Unusual” is in inverted commas, as, in fact, Agathocles was following an extremely common trend. It just wasn’t a Greek trend. The kings of the Indian Mauryan dynasty who ruled from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BCE minted almost exclusively square coins. The script on the coin is called Brahmi, the script in which the local Indian language, Pakrit, was written. The legend reads ‘King Agathocles’ in Brahmi script (Rajane Agathuklayasa). Not only was Pakrit the language of the locals, it was also the language of Buddhism, and Agathocles put this script on his coinage to show a genuine attempt at assimilation of Greek and Indian culture.

The images on both sides of the coin also evoke Indian culture. The female deity on the obverse is believed to be Subhadra, the sister of Krishna. The animal on the reverse is agreed to be a ‘maneless lion’, and refers to the literal meaning of Agathocles’ brother’s name: Pantaleon. It was Mauryan custom to use symbols or images to refer to oneself, rather than simply put a portrait on the coins as the Greeks usually did, again, part of Agathocles’ agenda to blur the lines between Greek and Indian culture.

Coins such as these cause us to pause and think: what does ‘Greek’ mean? Does it mean the presence of the Greek language? Minted by a Greek? Because this coin certainly has those aspects. However, this coin would stick out like a sore thumb in a collection of ‘traditionally Greek’ coins. It reveals that in this part of the world, the definitions between Greek and Indian are not so clearly cut. Would an Indian local see this as a Greek imitation of something they had been used to, or would they see it and think there is nothing out of the ordinary, apart from a few (Greek) letters they didn’t understand? These are questions that I am unable to answer here, but that are important to consider when drawing the boundaries between ‘Greek’ and ‘non-Greek’.


This month’s entry was written by Tunrayo Olaoshun, a 4th year undergraduate of Ancient History. She developed a further interest in numismatics during her year abroad in Bologna. Her main interests lie in the later Roman Empire.

Select bibliography:

Avari, B. (2016). India: the ancient past: a history of the Indian subcontinent from c. 7000 BCE to CE 1200. (London, New York: Routledge)

Narain, A. (1989). The Greeks of Bactria and India. In A. Astin, F. Walbank, M. Frederiksen, & R. Ogilvie (Eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Tarn, W. W. (2010) The Greeks in Bactria and India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Library Collection - Classics).

April 01, 2019

The snake–god and the satirist

glykon obverse glykon reverse

RPC IV 5364 (temporary)

This bronze coin from Abonuteichos, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, depicts the snake-god Glycon on the reverse. The serpent is depicted curled up, but with its head raised, and with long hair. It is labelled as ‘ΓΛΥΚΩΝ ΙΩΝΟΠΟΛΕΙΤΩΝ’ (Glycon of the Ionopolitans).

It was minted during the dual reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (AD 161-69). The latter is depicted on the obverse wearing a laurel, along with the legend ‘AVT KAC (sic) Λ ΑΥΡΗ οΥΗΡοC’ (Imperator Caesar L. Aurelius Verus).

This coin is especially interesting as a result of a treatise penned by the second century AD satirist Lucian. Alexander the False Prophet details how the titular Alexander (born c. AD 105-115) managed to con locals and outsiders alike into handing over their money in return for prophecies from Glycon, whose cult he founded. The survival of Lucian’s treatise gives us a fantastic opportunity to tie together material and literary evidence on the cult.

The first thing to notice on this coin is the long, thick hair of the snake, which is somewhat anthropomorphic. Lucian explains that even though the snake was living, a new head was crafted out of linen by Alexander and a colleague before the cult began:

they had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.

Lucian, Alexander 12

Lucian explains how once this stage was complete, Alexander buried tablets prophesying that Asclepius would take up residence in Abonuteichos, which provoked people to build a temple (Lucian, Alexander 10). He then ran around in a frenzy, before ‘discovering’ a goose-egg, from which a baby snake emerged (Lucian, Alexander 13-14).

When the cult opened soon after, people apparently assumed that Glycon, the full-size snake-god shown on this coin, had grown out of this tiny snake within a few days (Lucian, Alexander 16). Lucian claims that when Glycon was being displayed at this grand opening, Alexander concealed its real head under his arm, showing only the linen head to the people (Lucian, Alexander 15). This is in contrast to the depiction on the coin, in which the anthropomorphic head is shown as a part of the snake’s body.

The cult then began offering predictions and oracles for anyone able to pay, and there were plenty of visitors, whom Lucian characterises as ‘thick-witted’ (Lucian, Alexander 17). Alexander would ask them to hand in their requests on scrolls, which he would unroll and secretly reseal, and pretend that the answer he gave them came from Glycon (Lucian, Alexander 19-20). He even purported to make Glycon’s (linen) head speak, thanks to an attendant using a horsehair mechanism and a tube (Lucian, Alexander 26).

Lucian’s account also broadly ties up with other evidence suggested by this coin. For example, the satirist writes that once Alexander gained fame, even in Rome, due to the rapid spread of the cult, he requested that a coin be produced with an image of himself on one side, and Glycon on the other (Lucian, Alexander 58). While we have never found any coins which depict Alexander himself (Jones (1986) 146), this coin shows that half of his desire was granted, at any rate.

According to Lucian, Alexander also requested that the Emperor change the name of his city from Abonuteichos to Ionopolis (Lucian, Alexander 58). Petsalis-Diomidis argues that this was a more prestigious name, relating to the mythical ancestor of the Ionians, Ion. This emphasis on Greek identity was perhaps enhanced by the success of the cult (Petsalis-Diomidis (2010) 31). Our coin does indeed display the name of Ionopolis. However, we need not assume that the rise of the cult and the name change came in parallel. This is because an earlier Glycon coin, minted under Antoninus Pius, uses the name Abonuteichos instead of Ionopolis, so the change must have been a gradual one (RPC IV 5359).

Some Epicureans, and even Lucian himself, attempted to expose the cult’s fraudulence. Alexander attempted to whip up the crowd to stone one such detractor (Lucian, Alexander 44-45), and Lucian himself claims to have been almost killed (Lucian, Alexander 56). Despite these efforts, however, the cult seemed to stay strong long after Lucian, because Glycon remained a popular image on Abonuteichos’s coinage from as late as the reign of Trebonianus Gallus in the mid-third century (RPC IX 1218).

Jones rightly suggests that we should take Lucian’s account with a pinch of salt. He argues that it is heavily biased, and contains many common tropes of invective literature, and that the question of fraudulence seems unanswerable or perhaps beside the point (Jones (1986) 134, 136, 146, 148). Nonetheless, literary and material evidence do provide a broadly unified picture for the fame, the influence and the imagery of the cult of Glycon.

matthew smith

This month's entry was writte by Matthew Smith. Matthew is an MA by Research student at the University of Warwick. He is especially interested in Greek authors of the second century AD. His research focuses on the role which divine dreams from Asclepius played in medicine during this period, looking in particular at Galen and Aelius Aristides


Petsalis-Diomidis, A. (2010) Truly Beyond Wonders: Aelius Aristides and the cult of Asklepios (Oxford University Press: Oxford)

Jones, C.P. (1986) Culture and Society in Lucian (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A.)

Lucian, ‘Alexander the False Prophet’, in Lucian Volume IV, trans. A.M. Harmon (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A. 1925)

March 26, 2019

What's in a Hoard?

The second Southwarwickshire hoard in a pot

What indeed? Those living in Leamington may well have seen in the local press a report of the Warwickshire Museum’s intention to fundraise an initial sum of £3,000 towards the acquisition of a hoard of Roman denarii found in 2015 at a site atop the Edge Hill escarpment in south Warwickshire. This is in addition to submissions for more substantial funding from national bodies.

This is not the first hoard, though, that has turned up in the area, nor indeed the largest. One summer evening in 2008 a metal detectorist was on the point of giving up his unproductive search for material in an area a mere couple of hundred yards from the latest hoard, when his equipment began to register a significant find. Helped to unearth this by members of a local archaeological group who happened to be in the vicinity, it was eventually surrendered to the Warwickshire Museum and began its passage through the obligatory processes of the Treasure Act , where its status was established, and thence to the British Museum for valuation. At this point delay set in, principally because of the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard of gold artefacts, but in time the hoard, valued at £52,000 (divided between the finder and landowner), became available for the Warwickshire Museum to acquire, something achieved thanks to grants by a number of national bodies. By this stage I had already had sight of the material and was able to begin cataloguing what turned out to be 1153 coins covering a range of dates from 194 BC to AD 63/4 in the reign of the emperor Nero. That denarii should remain in circulation for so long should come as no surprise since these coins were of high value (a basic soldier at the time earned 225 denarii a year), so were hardly small change. The catalogue was published as a British Archaeological Report (British Series) 585 in 2013 and is in the Warwick University Library (CJ 1101.I7). The hoard itself, and the pot in which it was found (originally sunk into the wall of a round structure) are well displayed in all their splendour within the Warwickshire Museum in the centre of Warwick.

Turning to the latest hoard there are important differences, which become only too clear when comparing the valuation placed upon them. To begin with, only 440 coins are involved, many of them heavily encrusted with soil or adhering together, having been buried beneath what might have been a threshold in an area where massive wall structures attest to a substantial Roman presence. As a result detailed identification of many awaits cleaning. As in the case of the first South Warwickshire hoard, though, there is a similarly significant proportion of coins dating from the Republican period beginning in the 140s BC, but importantly this second hoard extends its end-date into the reign of the emperor Vespasian, which began in AD 69. Significance? Well, it was preceded by a period of civil war following the suicide of Nero on June 9th AD 68 which saw a rapid turn-over of rulers – rapid measured in months: first Galba, then Otho and Vitellius before Vespasian won through. In addition to the coinages specifically issued in the name of these emperors, there are others anonymous in origin, together constituting a high proportion of the whole hoard, in fact. The resulting rarity of these coins with their short period of production, combined with the only slight wear they have suffered, means that the valuation given by the British Museum (even when the Warwickshire Museum has to find only half the total sum) outstrips that needed to purchase the whole of the earlier, much larger, hoard.

Help Warwickshire Museum 'Bring the Hoard Home!' Join Stan at the Warwickshire Museum for a fundraising gala evening on Friday 5th April! Other donations are also welcome!

Stanley Ireland

Emeritus Reader

Classics & Ancient History

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