All entries for Thursday 01 January 2015

January 01, 2015

A countermarked denarius of Vespasian from Spain

Denarius of Vespasian from Spain (RIC II2 no. 1340).
Countermark: GIC no. 839.

During the civil wars of AD 68-69 a number of mints operated in the western Roman empire in Spain and Gaul. They issued a series of anonymous silver and gold coins without names or portraits of the various contenders for power, and silver, gold and base metal coins in the names of the rival emperors Galba (AD 68-9), Vitellius (AD 69), and Vespasian (AD 69-79).

This coin is a silver denarius of Vespasian from one of those western mints, dated to the beginning of Vespasian’s reign, AD 69-70. The obverse has a left facing bust of Vespasian, together with his name and titles (IMP. CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG.); the reverse has a figure of Victory on a globe, holding a wreath and palm branch, surrounded by the inscription VICTORIA IMP. VESPASIANI. In the recent second edition of the standard catalogue, RIC II, this coin type is assigned to an uncertain mint in Spain. Analyses confirm that the coins are made from Spanish silver, so an origin in the Iberian peninsula seems a reasonable assumption.

The real importance of this specimen lies not so much in its design or metallic composition, but in the fact that it was countermarked with a secondary stamp just in front of the emperor’s bust. The countermark consists of a rectangular incuse containing ligatured lettering that can be expanded to read IMP·VES. In other words, this is a countermark of Vespasian applied to a coin of Vespasian.

Close up of countermark

The IMP·VES countermark is found on other denarii ranging from Republican to imperial times. Most are found on Republican denarii. IMP·VES countermarks on coins of Vespasian himself are rare. Sometimes they have been found applied to denarii of Vespasian issued at Ephesus in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in AD 71-73 (for the examples, see Roman Coins and CNG coins). This gives us a terminus post quem of AD 73 for the episode of countermarking, which cannot have continued beyond the death of Vespasian in AD 79. A related countermark, with ligatured letters reading IMP. VES. AVG., is found on large silver coins called cistophori that seem to have circulated only in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It seems likely (but it has not yet been proved) that both the IMP·VES. and IMP. VES. AVG. countermarks were applied to coins in western Asia Minor, and perhaps at Ephesus itself, early in the reign of Vespasian. If so, it means that our specimen must have travelled from one end of the empire to the other not long after it was issued.

This is not the only western denarius with an IMP·VES. countermark. The web site has a western denarius of Galba (AD 68-69) that bears the same mark. There is some evidence for quite rapid movement of denarii around the empire in this period. Western coins of the civil war of 68-69 from mints in Gaul turn up in an Italian hoard found at the port of Ostia, deposited in about AD 70, as does a denarius of the African usurper Clodius Macer (AD 68). The present coin conforms to that pattern of rapid interchange or movement of silver coins in the civil war and early Flavian period.

kevin_butcherThis month's coin was selected by Professor Kevin Butcher.He is currently completing work on a three-year AHRC-funded project in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Ponting of the University of Liverpool, investigating the metallurgy of Roman imperial and provincial silver coinages from Nero to Commodus, and will shortly begin work on the Cambridge Handbook to Roman Coinage. He is also interested in the application of social theories in archaeology, particularly with regard to material culture and the ancient economy. He has worked on several excavation projects in the Mediterranean and published the coin finds from several major ancient sites, including Nicopolis ad Istrum in Bulgaria and Beirut in Lebanon.

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