July 26, 2013

Roma or Perseus? The ambiguity of images

Coin of Roman Macedonia, c. 168 BC

This week I returned to thinking about Roman Macedonia, and the unusual series of bronze coins struck by Roman quaestors there (an earlier post on the topic can be found here).The first series of bronze coinage struck after the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 168 BC was issued by the quaestor Gaius Publilius, who struck the unusual type pictured right (MacKay 1). Catalogues identify the obverse of this type as Roma, with the reverse giving the name of the province (Macedonia) in Greek, as well as the name and title of the questor (ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ ΤΑΜΙΟΥ ΓΑΙΟΥ ΠΟΠΛΙΛΙΟΥ).

To a Roman audience, the type is Roma, similar to representations of the goddess shown on Roman denarii. But the image is also extremely similar to the iconography of the hero Perseus, who was shown on the bronze coins of the Macedonian kings during the Hellenistic period (shown below right. Philip V even presented himself as Perseus on silver coinage). This raises the question: would a Macedonian, glancing at the coin as they used it, have recognised 'Roma', or would they have seen Perseus, a continuation of the monetary tradition in the region?

philip v
Coin of Philip V, Macedonia, 221-179 BC

Images can have multiple associations, and this is particularly the case for numismatic imagery. Unlike other public monuments, which are erected within a particular landscape or context determing the way they are 'viewed', coinage is a medium in motion, being seen by different users in a wide variety of different contexts. This, in turn, results in a broad spectrum of possible associations and interpretations. The ambiguous nature of the image here may have been intentional - there is no obverse legend identifying the image for the viewer. Thus this image may have been intentionally chosen by the Romans for its ambiguity - it had meaning and significance for both Romans and Macedonians, but this meaning was not necessarily the same for both groups. One image, with mutually incompatable possible interpretations, may have served as a focal point in bringing together two different cultures. Indeed, the fact that the existing Macedonian currency carried portraits of Perseus may have actually inspired the Romans in adopting the 'Roma' type for their coinage in the region, explaining why Roma appears here and not in other areas under Roman control in this period.

So is the image Roma or Perseus? The answer all depends on one's perspective....

(Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (www.cngcoins.com)

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