September 13, 2013

Athens and the Augustan Cultural Revolution


Coin of Athens with head of Gorgoneion

As Spawforth has demonstrated in his Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution, the transition of Rome from a Republic to a principate under Augustus meant that Greeks (and others) were forced to redefine themselves in view of this new power structure. In Greece, this period saw an emphasis on the glorious archaic past, epitomised in the glory and achievements of archaic Athens, and, to a lesser extent, Sparta. New 'old' temples were built, and new 'old' festivals revived. This was in part a reaction to how the Romans (and Augustus) saw Greece, a vision that emphasised the legacy and achivements of the Classical period.

This 'return to the glory days' can also be traced on coinage at the time. Towards the end of the Republic (42-39 BC), a bronze issue at Athens was struck showing the head of a gorgoneion on the obverse and Athena on the reverse. Kroll pointed out that the inspiration for this rather obscure obverse type must have been the original coins of Athens struck in the 6th century BC - today these coins are called Wappenmünzen, alluding to the scholarly idea that the types were familial shields, a theory that is now discounted. (Kroll, J. 1972. Two hoards of first-century B.C. Athenian bronze coins. ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΙΚΟΝ ΔΕΛΤΙΟΝ, 27, 86-120.)

Wappenmünze of the 6th century BC

It is remarkable that the type of the gorgoneion should be revived after a period of around 500 years - the inspiration may have been a text referring to the type; it is hard to believe that any of the original Wappenmünzen were available to be viewed at this time. The revival of old types and/or reference to the archaic history of Greece is also found on other coin types struck by cities in the region after they come under Roman dominion - Lycurgus, for example, appears on the coins of Sparta, and the Roman provincial issues of Cyrene reference earlier silver issues that carried images of the silphium plant.

The Athenian example is of great interest since it demonstrates not only a reaction to Roman 'visions' of Greece, but an interest in old coin types and their resuscitation. This brings to mind Suetonius' account of Augustus (75), which notes that Augustus had an interest in old and foreign coins. The Roman vision of the Greeks, and the particular Roman understanding of coinage as a memorial as well as a piece of money, meant that the gorgoneion once again graced Athenian coinage, if only for a brief period. Greece looked to their past in order to place themselves in a new future.

Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (

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