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